Back to university

My third week in Australia was spent in the Clare Valley region with Allan Mayfield, a truly inspirational person who was one of the first agronomists to become independent back in the early nineties.  Allan has a fantastic knowledge base of all aspects of agronomy and had been instrumental in setting up the Hart trial site, where they have a long term trial on 16 hectares comparing varieties and other agronomic details.   With regard to no-till they were comparing stripper headers for no-till against conventional headers.  I was fascinated to see in their long term trial there was no yield difference between using either a tine or disc.

They also pioneered a forecasting system based on soil profile moisture sampling and nutrient status pre planting that continues throughout the season relating to weather and moisture, to help growers determine input spend and projected yield.  Historically the Yield Prophet model has given predictions correct to within 10% of final yields each year.

Hart Yield Project

Above:  The Hart Trial Site Yield Prophet model

I was also very fortunate to visit Dr Jack Desbiolles at the University of South Australia who has been undertaking research on no till systems for the past 19 years.

This was an absorbing morning looking at their trial track area where not only did they test every conceivable disc and press wheel and tine and press wheel combination, they also looked into the emergence percentage from the systems.  On-farm trials are also carried out to assess the systems and even the trials tractors are equipped up to RTK specification and on 3 metre track widths.

Jack was able to share some fascinating information with me on their research over the years, notably the importance of the consistency of drilling depth and when this varied, how it could have quite a marked effect upon yield: up to 30% decline in yield when seed depth was up to 60mms deeper than the optimum 35mms depth.

I also saw how adding firming wheels to tine systems had considerably improved performance. They had also developed a firming coil to work with tines in wet conditions without plugging.   But there was no getting away from the fact that forward speed is the main constraint with tines due to soil throw.  There were so many systems Jack has looked at. He showed me what I can only describe as an Aladdin’s cave of trial machines with every possible disc and tine set up in place – just brilliant!

Below: Just one of the many units used for assessing no-till openers

Unit For Assessing No -till Openers

I also met Greg Butler, the R&D Manager for SANTFA (South Australia No Till Farmers Association) who gave me a real insight into their research projects. Highlights included data on making phosphate work better and also using high pressure water jets to cut through residue ahead of disc openers at seeding.

I met a whole host of growers who were making a success from no-till and it was again the attention to detail which made some people stand out. One of many was Steve Wicks, who had taken on a farm several years ago with no organic matter, terrible erosion and managed to turn things round.

On his farm, Steve had stopped cultivations in favour of no-till and using contour banks to reduce the damage from erosion. He was farming over areas of rock and although not originally from a farming background, Steve was prepared to ask anyone he could the questions he needed the answers to.  Steve is a very proud man who had transformed the most difficult land imaginable in to a solid performing unit.

Contour Banks Help Reduce Erosion

Above: Contour banks to help reduce erosion

It was meeting people like Steve who illustrated that anything is possible if you can face your challenges head on and be prepared to seek solutions even in the most trying of circumstances.

Allan Mayfield , Russ And Steve Wicks

Above with Allan Mayfield (L) and Steve Wicks (R)

There are so many amazing people I met during my time in Australia it is a shame I can’t mention them all, but that will come in my report, it was the most valuable experience that has left me with some treasured memories, great ideas and being mindful not to complain about our climate!

Next time:  Meeting Michael Horsch and a visit to a UK Direct Driller.



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.