Controlled Traffic Farming

Controlled Traffic Farming, or CTF, workshop

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Pictured:  Downward view of RH side of a seeder box, rear axle extension out to approx. 3m wheel centers.  I understand the cost saving in choosing a small box with the pivoting center dolly wheel, but having owned on before, I am not a fan.

Disclaimer:  I blog on this because it fits with a plan to use precision methods to sow cover crops and cash crops after each other, and in the overall goal of improving soil productivity.

Last week I attended a Controlled Traffic Workshop hosted by Vic No Till Farming Association and SPAA (Precision Agriculture Association) at Rupanyup, in the interests of planning machinery mods.  There was much time spent on justifying the concept, which surprised me a bit:  as a convert to the principle, I was expecting a few more practical ideas.  The discussions though proved worthwhile and exposed the following food for thought:

– 14% wheel-over-ground coverage is a fair ballpark figure expected on a 30′ / 9m system, 11% for 40′.

– the imperial / metric  debate is alive and well eg 9m or 30′ (9.14m).  IF the manufacturers went to a harvester front CUT width of a metric 9.00m then the debate would be simpler.  We always want the harvester to be 1. the starting point for both cut and wheel spacing 2. = or > sowing width.  They nearly had me on metric till I was reminded that for the purposes of spray jet spacings, an evenly spaced 12″ or 15″ row system fits spraying systems best, or at least spraying on and inter row should fit somehow.  There is also a case for 132″ wheel spacing (exact centers) over 120″.

– that managing permanent wheel tracks is one of the biggest issues.  There seems to be a paradox with wanting firm wheel tracks to carry wheel loads, and not having them sink to make gutters.

– that the best way to help sowing depth near sunken tracks is to not have them – either avoid making deep tracks if possible, (eg avoiding wet conditions, using ‘tracks’ on headers) or maintaining tracks before sowing.

– that there is damage / compaction to soil on either side of permanent tracks, but it is a secondary issue.

– permanent tracks in reliably wet areas, creating gutters, can warrant the use of concrete or gravelled tracks.

– Normal treaded tyres contribute to guttering.  Because we don’t need the mud-shedding so much on the harder established tracks, we get away with tyres more like Alliance 550 style tyres.  (just google it).

-tracked machines seem to offer a smoother ride on permanent tracks.

– Not all RTKs are the same.  It sounds as though they are all different – JD, Trimble, GPS Ag, but some offer compatibility options.  This has implications for using a contractor with the same RTK system as that on your farm.  The problem sounds to be the slight differences in direction readings: over long runs (eg over 2km) the spacings become significant.

– residue spread remains a big issue on harvesters, especially if carried against the uncut crop.  Chaff is carried best if chopped with the straw.

– if residue is deliberately concentrated on wheel tracks (for weed control) then dust control on the tracks is a benefit.

– interrow sowing – it seems to be easier offsetting the bar and box than offsetting or nudging the tractor.

– for the sake of precision, there is an argument for using the axle from a matching wrecked harvester on the chaser bin.  I think manufacturers are increasingly getting on board with custom widths

– Lastly, the increasing weight of machinery seems to have an impact on compaction and the success of the system.  Therefore minimising machinery weight seems to be one of the goals.  From other ‘life experiences and conversations’ I think that is a fair call, also in terms of capitalisation and productivity.  And if we want to continue increasing farm size, it has implications for using ‘multiple units of machinery and labour’ which is a whole other discussion.

Postscript:  It was touched on at the workshop that one of the many benefits of controlled traffic farming is in trials and tests.  Even if it has nothing to do with not compacting crop soil, it makes it easy to uniquely sow or spray a strip, record the place, and record results as we like, especially to the row at harvest, for grain quality and yield, with yield mapping, sat. imagery etc.  And it is relevant to covercropping because, as I’d like to reiterate, I don’t know much and need to do trials to see what will grow and what the anecdotal and measurable results are.

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David Brandt, Ohio. Covercropper, No Tiller, champion of soils.

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Promoted by Gabe Brown on his ranch facebook page today is an article by  Tom Philpott in MotherJones.com .  (open that motherjones.com link for the full article).  To quote: “One government agency website called Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.” “.

Brandt is one of those Yanks to watch, who hosts field days and promotes the cause of cover cropping.  Sure, he is a summer cash cropper (corn, soybeans) who cover crops in his winters, but the principle remains.  Sure it touches on the “Why?” but also the how, the yield results, the existence of the seed industry over there, and the visits by Australian farmers already to see what is possible.  I think it is one of the best articles written about him I have seen yet, even without him mentioning tillage radishes (one of his seemingly favourite spp.  Google “Tillage/radish Brandt” images.)

This also shows how even though Brown has a dig at Brandt sometimes over differing opinions and practices re stock and intensive cropping, they share a cause, passion and stage for promoting the benefits of cover cropping.

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Summer cover crop trial Dec 2012

Well ,this has been a long time coming.  By request, this is a recent update on the latest trial.

Summer cover crop plan Dec 2012

Summer cover crop plan Dec 2012.

 

These spp and cv were chosen based on what was available, recommended, and out of  plain curiosity.  They were sown in 1m long paired rows between short wheat stubble rows around Dec. 15 2012 after a 40 point rainfall event.  Half the rows were hand watered for a few weeks after that to simulate wetter conditions.  The soil is alkaline shallow loam over clay, sprayed with “Ally” last year.

What I did right:  Fenced it off – for sheep anyway.  Rabbits were not going to be a problem, unlike the previous year (a story for another day).

– had seed organised and treated (guar was innoculated), and the plot planned.

– watered it properly, in March, with a fire truck.

-had the plot close enough to home for easy observations.

What I could do better – site the trial somewhere it could easily be watered, by irrigation/ sprinkler at the turn of a tap.

– watered it earlier than I did.  After a near record dry summer period (6 months), March 15 was way too late, I think, to simulate summer rainfall.  The plants grew like an early autumn break.

– leave a little more space between the ends of the rows – at least a boot width.

– use the freshest seed possible.  I wonder if the cowpea, lab lab from the previous year were too old.

Initial results:  Since it was so dry everywhere, not even weeds grew.  The initial 40 points grew nearly nothing in the first fortnight, even where I watered the rows.  Some plants grew, but if not the first 40C heatwave nuked them, the 2nd an 3rd heatwaves did.  After the March watering, the most notable germination was from weeds, responding like an autumn break.  They included self sown wheat, ryegrass, canola, marshmallows, bindii, paddy melons, mustard.  The wheat is already headed and in flower.Austcovercrop.wordpress.com trial

A close up of the niger in flower today, then shots from 2 weeks ago:  the most pleasing results for me.

Austcovercrop.wordpress.com trial niger


Austcovercrop.wordpress.com trial Niger 8 JuneAustcovercrop.wordpress.com trial niger June 8

The millets grew slowly and got lost amongst the ryegrass, so I add them to show they did germinate. In order:  panorama fox millet, red panicum, shirohie, French white millet.

Austcovercrop.wordpress.com trial Panorama FoxAustcovercrop.wordpress.com trial red panicumAustcovercrop.wordpress.com trial shirohieAustcovercrop.wordpress.com trial Fr Wh Millet

The other results are for later update or comment.

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Soil Conservation and Bean Stubble – the need for Ground Cover, of any sort – maybe a cover crop?

Bare bean stubble, in need of a cover crop?

Bare faba bean stubble, in need of a cover crop?

The Soil Conservation potential of Legume stubbles.
When I started farming, for some odd reason we were bare fallowing field pea stubbles, with full cultivation, after running a bunch of sheep. What a crazy idea that was – clods and stubble alone were not enough to stop the wind erosion on the best ground. And look at the first photo – locals still trying to fatten some fat lambs on beans. Ok, good for lambs, but you can see with a gust of wind what is getting lifted (maybe the finest soil particles, humus and with it, valuable nutrients?).  No doubt it will get ripped up on the next rain to ‘clod it up’. It was sown into cereal stubble, but with full cultivation there is little of that left.  The trouble is, our summer rains are unpredictable.  The alternative is to dry cultivate.

Faba Bean Stubble in old cereal stubble

Faba Bean Stubble in old cereal stubble

Surface Residue Retention

Now of the second photo, see what remains (in the same district) – faba bean stubble left left in last year’s cereal. Even with the cereal falling over now, it adds to the ground cover, and the upright anchoring of anything tempted to move with a wind. And from his practices, I doubt the farmer will put sheep on it anyway. THAT is what I like. With a little bare ground showing, he may not preserve much moisture yet ready for autumn sowing, but it will be more than the bone bare bean stubble. It might also establish a cover crop better (if it conserved moisture).

Having said all that, the air temperature today, mid January,  is 42C, not too different from some other days since mid December when we had our last  rainfall event over 40 points.  (2012 on this farm was the 3rd driest on our records.)  That means that any cover crops sown into the already dry soil would still be there (and in my Dec 2012 trial, still are).  Not even the weeds are germinating.  These are the conditions we face when considering how or when to sow summer cover crops in the Wimmera.

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Update.

This, from Sep 2013,  is a pic from the same position of the paddock with a blowing bean stubble early this  year.  There is every confidence this year (a bumper year in some nearby areas, still below average rainfall here).  Crops are good, stubbles will be thick, and much grazing and burning will be done, I suspect (hmmm….) Recency bias and short memories are the bane of soil – it is easy to take the risk of leaving ground bare for a while and hope it doesn’t blow, knowing / hoping that the coming crop will cover the ground again.

Wheat crop after bean stubble

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On Being Prepared to Sow Cover Crop Cocktails.

Be Ye Prepared.

best lightning show 30 Nov 2012  Good for cover cropping

The essentialenergy.com.au Stormtracker snapshot on 30 Nov 2012 evening, showing the intense lightning rate (white +).   A cover cropping opportunity.

I constantly get the impression and message that if we are to successfully sow a summer cover crop cocktail mix in our Mediterranean summers, we need to make the most of the various rainfall events.  The reasons include (but are not limited to): 1. making the most of moisture before it evaporates, for both germination, and simply growing biomass.

2. Beating the weeds.

3. Making the most of Time before the next cash crop.

This means dry sowing straight after the crop is harvested, ASAP.  Pay for labour if you need to.  Do it dry if you have to.  It also benefits to have SRR (surface residue retained) to keep the soil moist, for the above reasons (success breeds success).

MAKING the most of RAIN

So, what does the picture have to do with cover cropping?  Well, that is the map snapshot (one of my favourite weather websites)  of the most continuous lightning storms in my memory.  (Green = rain, white = individual lightning strikes).  I was harvesting until it reached me, and luckily I finished a patch and went home as it started to rain.  2mm of rain didn’t stop me starting again the next day.  3 miles south of me, however, had 10mm rain, and further still had 50mm.  SUCH is the nature of thunderstorms – when forecasted for here, it can mean from no rain to 5 inches.  (Which also touches on the benefits of SRR re rainfall damage, and rapid water infiltration via good soil structure, but enough about that…)  And such is the nature of our summer rainfall averages – perfect hot dry summers interrupted by occasional freak thunderstorms.

SOW or REAP?

The point is, while I went harvesting yesterday, neighbours could have polished their boats while waiting for the ground to dry up.  IF I was going to wait for harvest to finish before going sowing again, I would potentially be missing out on the parts of the farm which could be germinating a cover crop mix now.  And I would be torn with the dilemma of continuing harvest, or sowing.  And even to sow a cover crop mix, I need to plan it well before hand – the mix per paddock/last crop, plan seed collation (or seed supplier), have innoculants ready, have the seeder ready, have labour ready, have ‘other sprays in one pass’ ready, have a mixer ready, be able to handle the cash costs.  Allow for an early harvest (this year is 2 weeks ahead of the ‘usual’).  Allow for the preperation time, as well as preparing for harvest.   It is all management, all on top of the silly season of harvest – the tiredness, the headspin of logistics of harvesting and grain marketing/saving/delivering.

AND you might have to be prepared to be the local subject of discussion when you have an air seeder chasing around the header, in the same paddock, on the same day.  (There is an online pic of a header and seeder in the same paddock somewhere…. can someone find it?)

“Fortune favours the brave” they say.  If we are passionate about our work, crops, soil etc, we will cope with the extra management, and love it, and hopefully be rewarded.

The last picture is the rainfall map following the aforementioned thunderstorms (1 day).  You never know where rain will fall.

Be prepared.

rain 1 dec 2012 Cover cropping opportunity

The BOM rainfall map resulting from the previous night’s thunderstorms. A cover cropping opportunity for those prepared.

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GUAR in a Cover Crop Cocktail Mix

Guar gum plant.  Pic courtesy http://www.guargum.biz

Cyamopsis tetragonoloba  AKA Cluster Bean

Guar seems to be definitely worth trying as a cover crop.  The few past growers I can contact in Australia seem to think so.  For cover cropping or otherwise, it can grow good biomass, as suggested by this 2009 article in Crop Science Society of America, which compares biomass, nitrogen accumulation and digestible dry matter of guar, cowpea, pigeonpea, mungbean and soy.

Suitability

Apparently drought tolerant, it supposedly thrives in semi arid regions, and has been grown in Australia. (Best yields with monsoon rains – that certainly isn’t us).  It is usually grown for green manuring, and guar gum.  The international crop is so big/significant that in India it has its own futures market, but the Wiki guar page has little to say about it.

It apparently has good root growth, then takes off upwards, growing to 70 – 200cm.  It is a poor competitor.  Likes sand, & alkaline soils, but not waterlogging.

It must be well and individually inoculated, is a long season grower, Oct to May in Qld.  The cvs can be bushy or erect.

So, will it suit us here?  It will suit our alkaline soils and droughty ‘semi arid’ summers, and very probably won’t go to seed because of the amount of daylight hours needed, which suits our needs.  If it is truly a poor competitor, then it may suffer like many legumes grown in a mix.  That will be a topic for future density trials.

Seed.

Because of the nature of the guar gum market, not only is (Australian grown) seed dear relative to other legumes, but scarce at the moment and grown under licence.  IF it grows, and IF it is suitable as a cover, seed availability may be quite an issue.  The upside is that if the local cc seed market grew (remember, the USA has had a cover crop seed industry for a decade already), it may be positive and encouraging for the industry as a whole, creating another market for the seed.  Thanks goes to Tony Matchett, from the Australian Guar Co (and also here, which further explains how they are in partnership with West Texas Guar) for supplying me with some seed to trial.  I think the timing has been right to achieve this:  12 months ago I was on a trail of contacts in Qld (& thanks to all of them:  Bruce Proud, Peter Mailler [now chairman of Grain Producers Australia,] Peter Thompson), and having seed right now is a good outcome:  as much as guar has been tried in Australia, no one sells it commercially, not even by a gardeners packet (but I could be wrong…)

Guar seed. Pic courtesy indianagrofarming.blogspot.com.au

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Future blog topics re Summer Cover Cropping – just ask.

Guar plant

Guar, a potential cover crop legume.

I know I am ‘dragging the chain’ with my posts (but am otherwise occupied, a Good Thing).  It came to my attention that others in Australia are seeking info on cover crops (via this blog), and maybe I could help, but haven’t said so.

SO, this is a list of what I intend to trial, and blog about.  Some species are not on the usual lists, but I have ideas on sources and whom to contact about seed.  If anyone wants a contact, feel free to email me via following address (pictured – I’m aware it is not on my blog homepage) and I may be able to help.

African marigold, brassicas, burgundy beans, black gram, butterfly pea, chia, corn,cowpea, guar, hollyhock, kenaf, lab lab, millets, moth bean, mungbean, niger / noog, pigeon pea, rice bean, safflower, soybean, sunflower, sudan and sorghams, sunn hemp, velvet bean.  NB these are generally warm season species.

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