NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Throw away the textbooks

Posted on 25/03/2012 by Jim Orson

Indulge me. Just one more reflective blog on Australian farming.

Tree ferns recovering from bush fireThe picture of the tree fern recovering from a wildfire is a metaphor for the resilience of the Australian countryside and agriculture. Perhaps the area of the least resilience is the small rural communities and towns. These are obviously suffering and there are many local initiatives to try and keep them in business, including promoting tourism and as a place to do business.

The problem is rural depopulation. Not only has agriculture become dramatically more labour efficient, but many farmer families, particularly those with children, have now moved to relatively large towns with good schools. So it is the farmer who commutes to work during the growing season, staying in the farmhouse when the long hours are required.

The more meetings I attended, and the more farmers I met, made me review my understanding of the management of risk in determining input levels. The risk of getting it wrong is fairly low in areas where the rainfall is typically either relatively high or relatively low.

In low rainfall areas, farmers are still reluctant to throw much at the crops, even when soils are moist at the time when inputs may theoretically increase yields. This is because of the high chance of a ‘dry finish’. In this situation, additional inputs can reduce yields if they have encouraged larger crop canopies leading to more moisture loss earlier in the season.

Risk management is at a premium in those areas where it is more likely that there may be sufficient moisture to keep the crop actively growing until ripening. Getting it right is crucial, because exploiting the good years and minimising losses in the bad years is critical to the long-term economic viability of these farms.

Since my first blog from Australia there has been too much rain in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in particular; between 240 and 400 mm of rain in a week. We only just got out of a small town in Northern Victoria in time; having to drive through shallow water on perhaps the only route still open.

In one way, this is good news as the soils will have high moisture reserves when sowing starts in late April. But, it is also bad news because waterlogging will result in nitrate leaching and denitrification. Soil mineral nitrogen is the major source of nitrogen for most Australian cereal crops and too much rain will have diminished this valuable resource. This only goes to prove the old adage that the weather is never perfect for farming.

The Australians have studied the availability of soil mineral nitrogen in detail, because of its importance. They reckon that between 40-50% of it in the rooting zone is taken up by the crop. Our RB209 and some other UK recommendation systems assume that there is 100% take-up of soil mineral nitrogen. I regretfully have to admit that a review of around 60 NIAB TAG trials in wheat suggests that the Australians have got it right (this once!!!).

Finally, I’ve previously listed the potential threats to Australian crops. Not only is it the weather (drought, heat and frosts) but an array of pests. One morning, we actually drove through a small flight of locusts, and find out that they can easily block car radiators.

There are a couple of pests I’ve previously not mentioned. Earwigs and millipedes are severely damaging seedling crops in some areas. The textbooks say that they should not but since when have Australian pests read the textbooks.

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Europe rules - OK?

Posted on 16/03/2012 by Jim Orson

The wheat belt in Western Australia is vast and not what I envisaged at all, expecting large, flat and square fields. The fields were large...but they were certainly not flat or square.

In fact the landscape was very similar to the rolling English countryside, except nearly all the trees were eucalyptus and the fields were white, either because they were stubble or droughted grassland. Many of the fields contained trees that can’t be removed without permission; if it was permissible to remove them part of a deal includes planting other trees elsewhere.

The same rules on tree removal seem to apply in other states. I stood in a 1,000-acre field in South Australia that must have contained at least 50 individual trees. This must reduce the intended efficiencies of scale, but Google Earth has resulted in greater vigilance by pressure groups. Yes, Australia also has pressure groups, in this case literally tree-huggers.

Drought in Australia

In one of my meeting’s with local farmers an unexpected issue was raised. In Western Australia there is the prospect of selling non-GM canola (oilseed rape) to Europe at a very attractive premium. However, to achieve the premium the crop has to be grown to some ‘European’ guidelines. This includes a ban on straw-burning on the farm. As I mentioned in a previous blog, burning straw is part of a strategy to control herbicide resistant rye-grass. And where the previous crop has been good, the whole stubble is burnt to enable the passage of the knife point drills.

[By the way, Australians can sell GM-free canola because, unlike the Canadians, they segregate it.]

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across European buyers expecting inappropriate crop management in Australia. A few years ago I spoke at a meeting in the Wimmera, a farming area in Victoria, and was asked a question by an incredulous farmer.

He had been contracted to grow peas by a European company and the crop management guidelines detailed that he should leave some weeds to mature in the crop. The audience fell about laughing, which grew louder when I tried to explain that in the UK it is accepted that arable weeds can contribute to biodiversity. In Australia there is so much land not in production that the pressure to encourage biodiversity on cropped land is far less than in Europe.

Mind you, there are some issues about movement of agricultural produce between Australian states. Western Australia and Victoria, and I think New South Wales, can grow GM Roundup Resistant canola. In between them is South Australia which has declared itself a ‘GM-free’ zone. This means that no GM canola seed or produce can be freighted across South Australia, even by air! I didn’t know it was that dangerous!

British farmers are not the only ones with restrictive rules and regulations. Australia is thinking of introducing downwind pesticide buffer zones for neighbouring crops and native vegetation. It’s proposed that these may be up to around 300 metres! But, surely those trees in the fields must classify as native vegetation? Let’s hope that sense will prevail.

Finally, a little tip...Australian red wines have a great reputation but the 2011 vintage is reputed to be ‘disappointing’. You heard it first here.

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Weeds are a priority

Posted on 09/03/2012 by Jim Orson

I’ve been speaking at series of meetings in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, organised by the GRDC, HGCA’s Australian equivalent. However, the GRDC budget is a little higher at A$110 million (about £75 million). The Government provides GRDC with another A$55 million, so the total budget is A$165 million, which represents about half of the total research spend in grains. This means that researchers are very close to practical issues.

The top research priority is weeds. Annual rye-grass (a different species to UK rye-grasses) has developed resistance to nearly all herbicides, including trifluralin and glyphosate. Hence, their arable systems are near to the edge because of this weed.

This year there is a new pre-emergence herbicide from Bayer called Sakura (ai pyroxasulfone) that currently offers reasonable control; unless seedbeds are dry. Weed scientists say that it’s probably only time before resistance develops to its mode of action. One said that Sakura means cherry blossom and you know how long cherry blossom lasts.

Sakura has a new mode of action to Australian grower. It is being tested in Europe, but not by Bayer; the chance of registration in Europe has to be questioned because of its persistence in the soil. Long persistence also provides a greater opportunity for it to move into water.

In many ways, the rye-grass situation in Australia is very similar to black-grass in the UK. There are no longer any real post-emergence options and it is now all about stacking or sequencing pre-emergence or early post-emergence options. Even then control may be incomplete, so cultural control is being adopted.

One option is to grow more competitive crops, but of course too much crop green matter may put yield at risk if there is a ‘dry finish’. The weed is vulnerable in one respect; about 50% of the seed is still on the plant at harvest. Hence, farmers have adapted combines to collect the seed in a towed trolley or put it through a towed seed crusher. Alternatively,  they have adapted combines to leave a narrow swath called a windrow. These are burnt when the fire risk is low, usually in March or April, three to five months after harvest. The narrow swath creates a higher temperature burn to kill the rye-grass seed harvested with the straw.

Post Office - Australian style

Other problem weeds include the wild radish, the same species as our runch, and fleabanes. Herbicide-resistant wild radish is a major issue in Western Australia and fleabane seems to be increasingly an issue in most arable areas in Southern Australia. Again cultural control measures are being adopted. Some wild radish seed can be collected by the combine and it is vulnerable to burning. However...and keep this to yourselves...some farmers are going back to ploughing to control problem weeds after many years of little or no tillage.

Some of the GRDC meetings I spoke at were held in small country towns. These are in crisis, as witnessed by the number of closed shops. The increased productivity of farming has resulted in a dramatic reduction in employed labour and many farmers have given up sheep because of the poor returns from wool. Frequent droughts over the past ten years have cut down the spend in local shops by farmers, with many smaller settlements now down to a couple of inhabited houses, despite the number of post boxes at the local ‘post office’.

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Solar bliss

Posted on 29/02/2012 by Jim Orson

You can have enough of kookabarras. To be fair, when this iconic bird 'laughs' at 30 minutes after sunset it’s great. But, it can be wearing after several mornings of being woken up 30 minutes before sunrise by the same cry.

I’ve visited a few farms and given a few talks during my visit to Australia so far. When it seems appropriate, I’ve asked ‘what’s the one major introduction that has influenced farming systems in Southern Australia?’.

Initially it was wire fencing to keep in the sheep, and then over time it was corrugated iron, treated fence posts (against termites), hydraulics, bulk handling of grain and the plastic water pipe.

The current generation of arable farmers mostly say ‘Roundup’; it enables summer weed control to help ensure that as much soil moisture as possible is retained for the crops sown in the autumn and avoids the need for cultivations over the summer that could lead to horrific wind and sometimes water erosion.Corrugated Iron

It also enabled the current one-pass establishment techniques. Typically this is a knife point system, but some have adopted direct drilling with disc drills. The most recent farm I visited sows 10,000 acres in 15 days with a 60 foot wide 'drill'.

Perhaps this reliance on glyphosate has resulted in farmers not being totally enthusiastic about the adoption of GM glyphosate tolerant canola (rape). There was already glyphosate resistance in two weeds before the introduction of GM rape a couple of years ago. This made the farmers more aware of the risks of relying further on this herbicide.

So the only situation where this technology is being adopted is where there tends to be a weed species that cannot be controlled by conventional selective herbicides, and the farmer feels that there is the probability of a reasonable crop. The cost of the hybrid seed is deemed to be too high for the more droughty areas so in these areas, triazine tolerant rape in conventionally bred varieties is often the preferred option.

So the rate of uptake of GM herbicide tolerant rape over the last couple of years has been slower in Australia than in other countries where it’s been introduced. In my opinion, this sensible adoption of the technology has to be applauded. GM provides options, but often not the only solution and over-reliance on any pesticide can lead to resistance issues.

I did ask the wife of a sheep station owner what introduction has influenced her life the most over the past 30 years. They farm 50,000 acres on the edge of the outback and communications are not easy. I expected her to say a satellite phone or email. She said battery-stored solar power. It meant that the family could get a good night's sleep without the fridge switching on the generator. They obviously don’t have kookaburras on the farm!

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Sweet smelling stubble

Posted on 23/02/2012 by Jim Orson

Travels across Australia - cont

Farming in South Australia

I visited a farm today near Clare in South Australia.  It’s in a relatively high yielding area; achieving over 6 tonnes/ha of wheat last year.  This year the soil is still dry throughout the profile, so yields are predicted to be lower for 2012, and the grain price has dropped due to the strength of the Australian dollar.  So the financial shutters are coming down and every growing cost is being reviewed.

In neighbouring Victoria grain farmers have seen a doubling of total costs over the past 15 years.  Profit levels have remained roughly the same, but with enormous variations between years linked to rainfall levels.  Overall, growers have made money in around half the years since the early 1990s, but this hasn’t prevented an increase in debt.  Some have suffered a 5-11-year drought that they thought would never end.

Back to this morning’s farm visit.  The farmer was using soil probes to monitor water availability in the soil rather than using computer models.  Neither method appeared to be perfect, but they have a role to play in arriving at a decision where the skill and the intuition of the farmer is paramount.  A researcher recently reviewed the crop models and found them all pretty inaccurate in predicting yield, although some were OK in estimating water use.

The farmer has used ‘controlled traffic’ of sorts for the past seven years.  I say ‘of sorts’ because his combine header isn’t fitted to the system and he makes hay from oats, and many of those operations don’t fit in with the concept.

Despite the ‘of sorts’, the farmer says that water infiltration has improved to such an extent that his dams, which are ponds constructed at the bottom of slopes to catch run-off,  are no longer filling with water.  Obviously, Australian grain growers prefer the rain to be in the soil rather than running off it.

Talking to his consultant, it seems that adopting direct drilling using the knife coulters in the mid-1990s increased water infiltration rates due to soil residues being left on the surface, which reduced run-off, and an improved soil structure.  Controlled traffic may have further increased infiltration rates.

The other advantage he claimed from controlled traffic is a reduction in power required to pull the 11-metre direct drill.  He suggests that there has been a reduction of around one-third since its initial adoption.

Despite these figures, many of his neighbours have not adopted any system of controlled traffic.  This prompted a discussion on soil care.  This farmer, and another one I met later in the day, re-iterated comments I often hear from UK growers; when they take over new land the horsepower needed to establish crops is high, but adoption of measures to improve soil health result in a gradual reduction in power requirement and an improvement in yield.  These measures include working the soil only at appropriate times and using as much organic manure or amendments as possible.

This led me to ask one final question as I got into the Ute: why did the stubble smell so great?  Apparently it had recently received a locally sourced organic amendment - 2 t/ha of grape waste.  We tasted the non-waste portion at lunchtime.

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