REMEMBER the survey result published in this column in the middle of the past drought, August 30, 2018: "81 per cent of farmers indicated they intended to expand their area sown to long-term pastures, 32pc intend to increase area of dual purpose crops, and 26pc were going to increase use of stored forage".
These findings, were compiled from a survey conducted by Dr Belinda Hackney, NSW Department of Primary Industries research officer, soils, Wagga Wagga, with a group of 35 farmers at Tooraweenah. While not a big survey, it captures the typical positive approach and planning for farm upgrading. Farming businesses for all my life have been constantly upgrading and I think that approach will almost certainly continue.
Australian farmers often are criticised, yet history shows we are largely progressive and, with caution (commonsense) readily adopt new technology. Who would have envisaged 30 years ago that zero tillage with stubble retention would be the norm, and now regarded as conventional practise. Widespread adoption of diverse rotations using various crops in rotation with cereals is also now more the norm. In pastures increasing adoption of tropical perennial grasses, alternative legumes to sub clover and more attention to grazing management and soil fertility are measures of progress.
Dr Hackney's survey reported an increased focus on greater areas of improved pasture, principally tropical perennial grass with winter legumes, to improve feed supply and improve ability to sell or maintain livestock at weight or condition score they aimed for. Producing more quality feed, especially at strategic periods like post weaning for growth and fattening, were seen as critical. Farmers said the capacity to produce enough feed (total herbage production) was their highest ranking (81pc).
Improved soil fertility for improved feed supply and quality was rated as the second highest issue (72pc) and soil acidity was third highest area for attention (69pc). Belinda Hackney reported that with upgraded pasture a considerable number intended to expand wool and meat sheep numbers and/or beef cattle enterprises. These intentions were on pre drought stock levels.
Fertiliser use to correct deficiencies like sulphur, phosphorus and nitrogen were noted as critical for productivity expansion. Currently 58pc of the group used superphosphate on sown long-term mixed pasture, on average every 2.5 years. On lucerne pastures 50pc used single super on average every 1.6 years. While 42pc used no fertiliser on pastures, especially native ones, intentions to upgrade these rated highly.
Other farm surveys conducted by Belinda Hackney across NSW indicated similar trends with many mixed farmers focusing on pasture upgrades as well as dual purpose crops. One area of research was on newer hard seeded annual legumes, either to grow as a legume phase in cropping rotations or as part of tropical, temperate or native perennial grasses. If well managed these offer advantages of greater productivity, long persistence and ability to grow longer into the spring.
Species include yellow and pink (French) serradella, biserrula, arrow-leaf clover, and gland clover. Several farmers in southern as well as central NSW, and into drier western environments, that Belinda Hackney has been working with, are achieving excellent results with these species. One unique advantage, also widely acknowledged in WA, is the use of them as a legume in a cropping rotation. Persistence even after three or four crops, provided a reasonable soil seed base establishment, has commonly been good. The legume phase provides nitrogen for following crops, sometimes measured valuable even in the third or fourth crop, as well as opportunities for improved grass weed control options.
One aspect of grazing management upgrading, emphasised as critical through the drought, was the importance of retaining crop and pasture cover to prevent erosion and improve water capture when droughts break. Many farmers are upgrading strategies like grazing management, fodder storage, temporary feed lots and planned stock down trigger points for future droughts. I think its fair to say no one is perfect, but a great deal of effort is occurring to upgrade land management.
Next week: Minimising impacts of long dry periods.
- Bob Freebairn is an agricultural consultant at Coonabarabran. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or 0428 752 149.