Flexible Farming Systems
A six-year Farming Systems trial, supported by the Grain Growers Association between 2000 & 2006, entered a new era in 2006.
To read the latest article on Flexible Farming Systems click here.
The new phase is known as the 'Flexible Farming Systems' trial and was supported by the GRDC as part of a project managed by Ben Jones. Vic No Till began work with BCG in February 2006 on this three-year project.
New treatments were selected for the BCG Farming Systems trial, together with management/measurement protocols. The Farming Systems trial has been maintained, treatments implemented and measurements made, with some initial analysis of results. Besides no-till adoption treatments in 'hungry sheep' and 'fuel burner' systems, occasional tillage and high biomass input (5t/ha cereal straw at harvest) treatments have been added in 'reduced-till' and 'no-till' systems.
The target area for the project is the southern Mallee and northern Wimmera. This is one of the more challenging cropping areas in Victoria if rainfall decreases or evaporation increases. The clay textured soils of the area evaporate more water and make less use of rainfall than the sandy soils further north. Further south, the soil is also clay but rainfall generally higher.
Why 'flexible farming systems'? The best farming system for a given farm and farmer will depend on what the seasons and prices are like after the choice is made. These are hard to predict, so farmers ought to be 'flexible' - skilled up and ready to change practices to suit the seasons and prices, as they develop. The project aims to support farmers in understanding the benefits/limitations of newer options, and acquiring the skills required to do them well.
These options are:
- opportunity (flexible) management, and
- continuous cereals.
Flexible Farming Systems project data and results are presented on this external site.
No-till is being practiced in the target area, but there are parts where no-till adoption has been poor. Whatever the reasons for lack of adoption in the past, no-till is likely to be an important technique in the future. The project aimed to reduce uncertainty about no-till in the target area, and also to improve farmer understanding and skill levels. Vic No Till led this part of the project.
To improve farmer understanding and skill levels, the project worked on a no-till extension program. This used six pairs of focus paddocks around the target area. Each pair has a no-till paddock (for at least three years) run by a Vic No Till member, and a comparable, well-managed 'district practice' paddock run by a neighbour. The aim was to contrast the issues that arise with similar crops under the two different management styles. The paddocks were monitored and provided an important source of back-up data to understand what is happening in the different systems.
In 2006, the paddocks were established and measured, and some were the venue for crop walks and farmer discussion sessions. A workshop was also run with local agronomists, and BCG were involved with Vic No Till’s 'Get into no-till' days early in 2007. These activities have highlighted some of the areas where farmers are having difficulty with no-till, and where people's perceptions (correct or otherwise) are preventing them from adopting no-till. Some priority areas were:
- Row spacing
The other area of uncertainty is no-till on clay-textured soils with subsoil limitations and low rainfall. This soil/rainfall combination is relatively unique to Victoria, and seems to coincide with an area of poor no-till adoption. In theory, these soils should benefit most from no-till, so it is important to evaluate whether farmer perceptions is correct.
The project used the BCG Farming Systems trial to study performance of no-till systems on these soils. The original 'zero till' system (championed by Allen and Neale Postlethwaite) evolved to become an intensive cereals rotation with occasional fallows. To evaluate no-till in other rotations, all plots at the trial were split and the 'fuel burner' and 'hungry sheep' systems adopted no-till, side-by-side with the 'conventional' versions of each system.
On the split plots of the no-till and reduced-till system (effectively a no-till over the last few years), some additional ideas were tested. The first is that performance of no-till systems is being limited by low organic matter inputs. Organic matter (5t/ha cereal straw) was added to half-plots after harvest. The second idea is that occasional tillage (eg. to control woody weeds) is possible without great detriment in an otherwise no-till system. This was tested by strategic tillage of half-plots. The results of the new treatments were closely monitored.
A series of factsheets has been put together as part of the Flexible Farming Systems project. The factsheets have been designed to support farmers’ decision-making when getting into no-till and management of specific elements in no-till systems:
Row spacing in a no-till system
Moving into No-Till
Triflurin Use in No-Till Farming Systems
No-Till Seeder Set-up & Modification
Nitrogen in no-till
Phosphorus in Victorian no-till systems
Micronutrients in no-till
Also in the series will be factsheets on header set up for no-till and managing slugs and mice in no-till systems.
Two of the factsheets, No-Till Seeder Set-up & Modification and Row Spacing in a No-Till System, were distributed at the machinery modification morning held in Culgoa in February 2008.
With many farmers currently changing sowing gear and making last minute modifications, the No-Till Seeder Set-up & Modification factsheet is a valuable resource. Seeder set up is important for ensuring no-till success and the choice of implement will be influenced by soil type, crop type, stubble management, acreage, available horsepower, rotations, fertiliser forms and budget. There are plenty of options and combinations to choose from and although disc seeders are increasing in popularity, the majority of no-till seeders are tined implements. For first time no-tillers, tined seeders are recommended as there is more room for error with respect to establishment, Rhizoctonia, pre-emergent herbicide damage and grass weed control.
The No-Till Seeder Set-up & Modification factsheet focuses on setting up a tined implement for no-till seeding and covers the performance of a no-till seeder and influences break out pressures; point types; seeding boot design; clearance; and machine configuration. The air cart requirements to compliment the seeding bar are also considered discussing capacity, metering and delivery systems, compartment number, and variable rate capability. The adoption of precision guidance to enable inter-row sowing will enhance stubble flow and reduce or eliminate stubble clumping are also covered.
Opportunity (flexible) management is about making good decisions about what to grow, outside a fixed rotation.
Fixed rotations (if chosen correctly) enforce some risk minimisation when the future is random, because controls to risks (eg. weed, disease build-up, lack of water) are built into the rotation. Fixed rotations, however, also restrict ability to respond to opportunities, and may over-manage certain risks.
Opportunity management is about accumulating certainty, then acting on it. In areas with uniformly distributed, but unreliable rainfall, and soils that can store water (eg. N. NSW, S. Qld), crops are grown on an 'opportunity' basis. Water is accumulated in the soil, and a sowing decision made when enough is stored that a break-even crop will be harvested even if there is no in-season rain. This has proved more profitable than a fixed rotation.
The challenge for farmers here is working out what the reliable indicators of certainty in the target area are, and how planting decisions can best be made. When a crop is planted an opportunity (to harvest a crop) is created, but the opportunity to crop the following year (which may have a better season) may be reduced. The worst-case scenarios are the optimist that crops the whole farm every year, anticipating a bumper season, and the pessimist that crops very little each year, anticipating a drought. Both will be wrong some of the time.
Already agronomists in the target area have approaches to opportunity management. The project examined management in other industries where future uncertainty is a problem (finance, insurance), and apply these concepts to the target area. The project aimed to combine the results of farming systems trials in the area, to derive data about some of the commonly used 'options' that may be useful with opportunity management approaches.
Continuous cereal management is a lesser, but still important focus of the extension part of the project. No-till is also often confounded with continuous cereals in the minds of farmers and advisers, and there is a need to emphasise the distinctions. As with no-till, farmers in the target area have not traditionally grown continuous cereals. The project investigated the issues and provided relevant information.
For more information
At the 2006 BCG Grains Research Expo, a coloured publication called 'Six Seasons of the BCG Farming Systems Trial' was launched. This publication was sent free of charge to BCG members and to 15,000 GGA members.
You can download that report in two parts (due to its large size). Please note these PDF files may take some time to download.
Work on the Flexible Farming Systems project is well underway. Expect to see initial results appearing in Vic No Till newsletter, BCG News and other local publications in the near future.
Read the final report (PDF - 931KB) of "Southern Mallee and Northern Wimmera Farming Systems (BWD17)", which reports on GRDC-funded research with a focus on the soil and nitrogen balance and simulation of short- and long-term crop yields using the results of the four farming system champions rotation and crop management practices.
For more information, please contact Ben Jones, Consultant 'Flexible Farming Systems' project, on 0427 636 287 or email.