Hayfever, missing luggage and questions answered

Having left Western Australia (WA) in 35 degrees, it was off to Tasmania, where the sun was still intense but the mornings were a lot cooler by contrast. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be suffering from hayfever as I had gone from harvest in WA to mid-flowering wheat crops near Launceston, hence a rush to the pharmacy was required.

The climate is completely different in Tasmania, with rainfall in some areas up to 800 mm – albeit not exactly when it is always required, so irrigation also plays a vital part in a lot of areas where some soils struggle to retain moisture later in the season.

Poppies are an important crop across Tasmania. However, having spoken to a number of growers, the crop didn’t appear to suit direct seeding, for some reason.

Below: Top, poppies in cultivated ground and below, under no tillage

Poppies In Cultivated Ground

Poppies Under No Tillage

Narrow tine direct drills were popular with a number of farmers I met. A lot were finding the benefits in yield performance from fewer dips and hollows with no till, and the ability to place fertiliser was seen as fairly important for most of them. There was a crop of wheat with a tine vs. disc comparison and little to choose between them, although the grower I met had changed to a narrow knife, having previously owned a disc machine, as he felt he had more flexibility and could use a disc contractor if needed. There was also a growing sentiment among some of the value of livestock integration within a no-tillage system and one had even grazed some canola to good effect, with increased branching evident in some of these crops.

After Tasmania I headed to New Zealand via Melbourne. Watching an airport luggage conveyor emptying and realising that yours isn’t on it at 12.30 a.m. is not a nice feeling! My luggage went missing somewhere between Hobart and Melbourne. Fortunately it appeared the next day, especially as I had a lot of notes from my visit to WA in it, and I was very grateful for the service from the airline in locating my luggage.

Relieved to be able to put on some clean clothes the next day, it was a busy schedule that lay ahead of me in New Zealand – a quite stunning country with some wonderful soils and farmers. There was an extensive irrigation scheme going in to the central plains while I was there and irrigation features quite heavily for some growers. The pipe factory (French) was working seven days a week, 24 hours a day producing pipes – an impressive example of engineering.


New Zealand was a defining visit for me: it clarified a lot of questions I had about no-tillage and what can be achieved. I was fortunate to be able to look at and compare three different types of disc systems and this addressed a lot of concerns I had about optimising performance.

I spent a great morning in Wendonside down near Invercargill with growers at an agronomy meeting looking at no-till crops planted using a John Deere drill: another country and yet again another example of more stability in crop performance from no-tillage. The host farmer, Morgan Horrell, was a good example of someone who embraced no-tillage and was adapting his rotation to make it work. It can get pretty wet in this region, up to 1000 mm and in the locality they had 110 mm more rain than average in October. But his direct drilled barley, wheat and peas looked fantastic. Morgan was slightly worried about high trash levels and would be prepared to selectively stubble burn or bale to alleviate the problem.

He was also placing DAP (granular) with the seed for all crops, including peas an overlap in one crop showed how vital fertiliser placement can be with no-till.

Below: Direct drilled barley and peas at Morgan Horrell’s farm.

Direct Drilled Barley At Morgan Horrell ’s Farm.

Direct Drilled Peas At Morgan Horrell ’s Farm.

I also met Jason Thompson, who added a new definition to the extreme part of my subject – some of the gradients that he was planting (either combinable crops or kale for grazing) were so steep in places that they could only be planted going downhill! Jason was using a cross slot and had made the change from conventional tillage with good performances; the ability to plant into heavy residue was a big asset for him. They have some wet, difficult soils and the close proximity to the mountain ranges means they can get a serious flow of water through their fields during high rainfall periods. Under tillage their fields would become untravelable and create gullies, but through no-tillage and retaining residue they are able to establish good crops in both wet and dry conditions. The improvement in soil condition was easy to see and walked just as well. Another benefit of placed fertiliser at seeding was that a missed strip was clearly evident in one field.

Cross Slot drills are a real favourite among some excellent contractors. Their ability to penetrate ground in the toughest conditions and not bring stones up to the surface was key – and I saw some big stones in some fields! To observe direct drilled peas after grass and seeing how these growers adjusted the balance of rotation struck a chord with me.

I spent a couple of days in the North Island and went to the Cross Slot factory to meet John Baker and Bill Ritchie, the pioneers of this brilliant system. Ironically, they used to lecture on ploughing at Massey University. It was pivotal to understand the thought process behind the concept and now I understand why it is such a unique product, not just in price, but providing a system that has the ability to direct drill in any situation. Bill and John gave me an insight in to their theories, the importance of placing seed in a clean zone and why hair pinning is less of an issue with their system. The ability to work with high amounts of surface residue, place seed accurately, to side band fertiliser and then leave the surface virtually undisturbed make it stand out, and the establishment percentages Bill quoted were very high (90%) compared to a conventional tillage system (60–70%).

Bill spoke about the importance of retaining residue but he also claimed with the Cross Slot system crop establishment percentage could still be maintained even when drying soils are close to wilting point. In his view, under no-till, reliable establishment could be obtained through trapping what moisture was available within the pore spaces of undisturbed soil.

Below: With Bill Ritchie and John Baker and the Cross Slot opener and, below: One of Douglas’s drills planting kale

With Bill Ritchie And John Baker And The Cross Slot OpenerOne Of Douglas’s Drills Planting Kale

Douglas Giles was another top-level contractor who had a whole range of excellent looking crops and was establishing peas into grain maize trash with the cross slot and was also achieving some staggering results with spring barley. As a contractor he was prepared to walk away from a job if the conditions weren’t right. For him, seeding conditions and job quality were paramount, coupled with a balanced rotation and patience – these were some of the factors in making this system work for some of the best practitioners I met. Douglas summed it up perfectly by saying that there was no requirement to no-till in his location as climatic conditions were so favourable, but the sheer fact that so many were and are achieving the same or better results than conventional tillage spoke volumes.


Next time: Brazil beckons in January as I head towards the final leg of my travels.



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.