Reaching a compromise between a biological and conventional farming system has resulted in increased stocking rates. Improved soil structure and reduced input costs for a Tasmanian producer. Rob Tole had been caught in a high input regime of fertilisers, fungicides and insecticides. In his cropping enterprise at Cressy when an issue with pugged soils had far reaching consequences. The waterlogged and compacted soils resulted in a yield penalty in the crops following and started Rob on a path to finding solutions.

He trialled TM Agricultural, an organic soil activation product produced by Best Environmental Technologies. On his worst paddocks with beneficial results and now uses the product across 100 per cent of his farm. Set in a 650mm rainfall zone, the 550ha property is at the foot of the Great Western Tiers with soil types comprising heavy black to lighter sandy loams.  Around 60 per cent of the farm is dedicated to irrigation with nine fixed pivots irrigation 320ha. Applications of up to 10 tonnes/ha of lime has resulted in a soil pH of 5.9-6.2 and Olsen P levels are high at 25mg/kg.

The crops

The property produces peas, poppies, seed potatoes, clover and grass seed crops. From 10,000 to 12,000 first and second cross lambs are sourced from preferred suppliers in Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia each year for finishing on white clover, brassica, lucerne, annual ryegrass or winter wheat. Life-time average daily weight gains are in the order of 200 grams with mid winter stocking rates reaching 17 DSE/ha.

“With the irrigation, we are guaranteed of feed coming into the autumn and reach a peak stocking rate of 35 DSE/ha in October/November,’’ Mr Tole said. The lambs are turned off at 22-23kg carcass weight over-the-hooks to processors. “Although the gross margins for the crops are higher, the livestock operation is complementary,’’ Mr Tole said. “We direct drill winter feed for the lambs the day after the poppies are harvested in mid January, and are grazing up to 35 lambs/ha within five weeks, so it’s easy to do the feed budgets.’’

Concentrating on Input Costs

The family began benchmarking their business with NSW consultants, Holmes & Sackett, in 2003. Back then, the business was nearly 100 per cent dryland cropping with a little flood irrigation. Centre pivots were installed and the business diversified into oats, barley, cabbage seed and canola seed crops. Benchmarking revealed a need to consolidate the number of enterprises. The decision was made to concentrate on the larger crops with a higher gross margin peas and poppies and remove an unprofitable cow-calf operation. “In two years, we put a line through several crops and the cow herd. And started concentrating on our input costs,’’ Mr Tole said.

“We looked at why some producers were growing crops on less inputs and achieving a similar or better return. “As we progressed, we decided to go into cattle trading to use the irrigated feed going into winter. “That was profitable until we hit a wet winter and had huge pugging issues. “The crop yields following where the cattle had been were greatly reduced. And that showed up in black and white on our benchmarking data. “We did our homework on what other enterprise could fit in so we started trading lambs about five years ago.’’ The family now runs a small self-replacing Primeline Maternal composite ewe flock. Which is treated  as part of the lamb trading operation.

Discovering TM Agricultural

A past advocate for More Beef from Pastures, Rob came across the organically certified TM Agricultural product while speaking at a forum on King Island. He was searching for answers to soil compaction problems. And wanted to improve soil structure and water infiltration. He has also been questioning the input regime of high rates of fertiliser, insecticides and fungicides on pasture and crops. “We had large areas of non-wetting soil – we were double cropping every year on this ground, and then putting irrigation over the top so a lot of the ground was never drying out,’’ Mr Tole said. “We could see these issues starting and the problem with the cattle pugging the ground showed us the importance of soil structure.

“Yields were absolutely crucified in that paddock. “We were so heavily committed with contracts for cattle, running 2.7 steers/ha, but in hindsight I should have cut my losses and sold them.“Then I saw the amount of diesel going through the tractor to bash that ground back into line and knew it wasn’t sustainable.’’ Rob evaluated the data recorded by his neighbours using TM Ag on their crops and pastures. He targeted non-wetting soils in paddocks giving uneven germinations of poppy and pea crops with the TM Ag applications at 250ml/ha. “The following year, the non-wetting areas were dramatically reducing and not repelling as much water,’’ he said.

“The earthworm activity just went through the roof.”

Our agronomist was making comments about it as we had never seen it before. “If you have a spade full of earthworms come up, the soil biology must be healthy. “Then we started picking up root development, especially of the poppies, in the TM treated and untreated areas. “Root development was twice as vigorous in the treated areas and our neighbours were making the same comments.

“We have been using TM for five years and when we walk across the paddocks now, it is like walking on a sponge. “To drive a spade into the ground now is effortless.’’ Mr Tole said redlegged earth mite had disappeared since introducing TM. Negating the need for insecticide applications on pastures for the past three years. Before TM, two to three insecticides would have been applied in the potato crops. The use of fungicides has also reduced. “I can’t say exactly it is TM but there is nothing else we have changed in our system other than applying two applications of TM every year over the whole farm,’’ Mr Tole said. “It is now standard practice to use TM.

Application

We tank mix it with herbicides and also a fungicide, only if necessary. Single applications were made on pasture or lucerne at 250mls/ha. “It is used in the first knockdown and first weed control in-crop in the poppies, peas and potatoes.’’ Mr Tole has continued to use the same fertiliser rates as a risk management tool. “To cut back our base rate of fertiliser by 50kg/ha is not really much for us when we are applying 300-350kg/ha of MAP,’’ he said. “For the high input crops, I believe the base fertiliser is needed. “My gut feel tells me the TM is working, we have seen the results in our soil, a reduction in insecticides and fungicides, and the soils are becoming easier to cultivate. “Plant health and root development has improved.

“Apart from last year, we haven’t had any diamondback moth issues. “There is less input, cost and risk – if we are using less insecticide, it has got to be good for humans and the environment. “We will always have to use those chemicals in our system when required and I don’t think we will ever be 100% organic but we do now select the chemicals that don’t target the beneficial species. “Five years ago, blanket nuking a crop for pests would have been the way I would’ve tackled it. But now the triple bottom line is much more important to our business.’’

Media Release By

Kim Woods | Director

Outcross Media | www.ogacreative.com.au
540 Young Street, Albury NSW 2640
P 02 6023 4266 | M 0499 772 860 | F 02 6023 1236