Minimum-till to stem terrible wind erosion in drought

Still pockets of resistance to minimum till despite drought hit

Cropping
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Century-old rain records at Euston shows 20-year drought cycle

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A minimum-till regime can save farmers against wind erosion with stubble retention through the summer fallow.

A minimum-till regime can save farmers against wind erosion with stubble retention through the summer fallow.

There are still clumps of the farming sector not keen to move into minimum tillage, but the ongoing drought with subsequent wind erosion is pushing them to different systems.

Western Region Land Services Officer at Balranald, Tanisha Shields, said: "We were looking at ways to stem wind erosion over the summer fallow period. It's all about stubble management in the cropping region, and stopping people from losing valuable topsoil, in some cases there had been serious loss of top soil (in dust storm events this year).

"There is a social barrier to minimum tillage, also the extra weed control need is a barrier, because it is more chemically focused."

She said that the initial cost and social barrier was overcome through the assistance of conservation incentive grants to convert machinery.

This allowed Euston's Luke and Teneille Follet to compare the two different types of management over a three year period.

Luke Follet said the system at Bennington, 16,000ha, was reaping benefits despite the extraordinary drought, the worst on record, and a "ground zero" year last year, harvesting just 500 tonnes. (Bennington has been in the family's hands since 1927.)

During the millenium drought moving to minimum tillage was not an option.

The Follet family line has kept rainfall records near Euston for nearly 100 years and Luke Follet reckons he's spotted a 20-year-cycle of drought and better rainfall periods.

He believes it shows that the first half of the century is nearly always drier. It's been agonising for him to see good rains just 50km away and little where he is. In 2018, they had just 67mm during the growing season. So far this year, they've had 80mm, with the average yearly rainfall at 320mm.

The Follets desperately want some spring rain to finish off their 7000ha of plantings of wheat and barley and vetch. Mr Follet uses Spraywise Decisions to plan his farm work. "We've found it quite accurate, quite good for us," he said. "We just don't want another 2018. That was ground zero."

After the last big drought the family investigated new ways of farming back in 2006, and they decided to use a NSW government conservation grant to turn two conventional seeders into minimum tillage seeders. They noticed from 2006 to 2009, employing the new minimum till method they achieved 0.3 per tonne better yield for their wheat and barley.

The system now at Bennington, where they annually sow about 7300 hectares, involving a rotation of year one with vetch, year two wheat, year three wheat, year four barley, then back to vetch.

Rain on the Hay Plain is no longer 'main', as in recent weather events rain finds it hard to move past the Victorian border. Photo by Stephen Burns

Rain on the Hay Plain is no longer 'main', as in recent weather events rain finds it hard to move past the Victorian border. Photo by Stephen Burns

They carry sheep as well. This year the Follets will plant 1300ha of vetch, 3000ha of wheat (Scepter mainly and Scout on fallow) and 3000ha of barley (Clearfield Spartacus).

A third of the Bennington income is now spent on chemicals and fertiliser.

"It is expensive to change over, but it helps your country, with the stubble kept on the ground and moisture in the soil. " With sheep run on the heavier country it has provided more stability on the ground with the stubble.

Farmers were changing and there were not too many conventional fallows left in the area. The tough season had made people look closely at their farming practices in a more riskier rainfall environment.

"For us we have seen a benefit. It's keeping the nutrients where they should be and not be blown away."

Many in the area are hanging out for spring rain with patchy rain around Balranald this year, but some crops are up and going well.

The Local Land Services Western region has been pushing summer fallow management.

"The purpose of using a minimum tillage system in cropping enterprises is to maintain groundcover over the summer fallow period. This reduces the risk of wind erosion occurring, protecting valuable topsoil and improving landscape condition," it says.

"Minimum tillage works by leaving stubble from the previous crop standing over the summer period. Weed control is conducted by mostly chemical means or grazing. Minimum tillage will also reduce the evapotranspiration of soil water."

Dust storms like this one in northern NSW can be devastating to soil structure.

Dust storms like this one in northern NSW can be devastating to soil structure.

Tanisha wrote in the case study: "At Bennington there has been a noticeable increase in subsoil moisture retained through the summer period. This increases the chance of a successful germination early in the growing season.

"Increasing the variety in the rotation has allowed for a wider sowing window, which assists in managing the risk of frost.

"By retaining stubble and ground cover over the summer fallow period, valuable topsoil nutrients are retained which reduces the input costs in subsequent seasons. In addition, it maintains the soil structure, which is particularly vital in this variable climate. It allows Luke to plan his sowing period ahead of time which means rather than waiting for a rain event, they can sow according to the date on the calendar."

She said: "Luke and Teneille are always looking to improve their variety selection and trial new options, for example using long season wheat to manage the autumn feed gap in their sheep enterprise."

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