Soil health focus drives cover cropping success

Soil health focus drives cover cropping success


Cropping
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FOCUSING on soil health, groundcover and diversity in crop rotations, as well as minimising tillage and chemical use has helped Grant Sims' Echuca, Vic, enterprise flourish in dry years and also perform well in wet years.

FOCUSING on soil health, ground cover and diversity in crop rotations, as well as minimising tillage and chemical use has helped Grant Sims’ Echuca, Vic, enterprise flourish in dry years and also perform well in wet years.

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TRANSITION: Tillage, fertilisers and fungicides have fallen by the wayside at Grant Sims' Echuca, Vic, property. He has a major focus on soil health and diversity with companion cropping and livestock part of the mix.

TRANSITION: Tillage, fertilisers and fungicides have fallen by the wayside at Grant Sims' Echuca, Vic, property. He has a major focus on soil health and diversity with companion cropping and livestock part of the mix.

The family have been farming in the northern Vic region for 140 years and Mr Sims – a guest speaker at the recent SA No-Till Farmers Association conference in Tanunda – has implemented new principles since coming back on the farm in 2006 to ensure it remains productive for future generations.

“Some principles we follow are to eliminate or minimise tillage, keep soil covered, maximise diversity in rotation, minimise synthetic and chemical inputs, stop compaction, and a new one is livestock,” he said.

The Sims have dived into cover and companion cropping, while moving away from fertilisers, insecticides and fungicides.

Mr Sims said he stumbled across the benefits of ground cover when feeding sheep during drought.

“I was feeding bits of hay and came out the next year to see square patches across the paddock,” he said. 

“It was stubble from where the hay had fallen and the crop was a foot higher (in those parts).”

The Sims stopped cutting for hay and removing straw.

To preserve soil moisture, Mr Sims experimented with cover crops and was surprised by the benefits.

“It’s amazing when you put all these species together how things just grow,” he said. “We’re planting these crops with no fertiliser – just some liquid calcium to help push roots around in our clays. Whether it be a dry or wet year we grow the most biomass on the covers versus any of the other crops.”

Diversity has been a major focus, with the Sims growing grain crops including wheat, barley, oats, cereal rye, canola, beans, chickpeas, buckwheat, sunflowers and millet. They’ve also dabbled in companion and inter-cropping with vetch/canola, faba beans/canola and faba beans/wheat some of their cover mixes.

“With companions and inter-cropping, you can either spray one out, harvest one – as long as the seed size is a different size and different weight they’re easy to harvest and separate.”

Trials on the Sims’ property have compared crops with seed dressings, full rates of fertiliser and two applications of fungicide, with cereal crops grown off the back of a cover crop but with no chemical inputs.

Mr Sims said the trial paddocks – despite the extra input costs – had only outperformed the cover crop paddocks by 100kg/ha.

Livestock back into farming mix

ECHUCA, Vic, farmer Grant Sims said he had a good base to work with when he came back to the family farm, with the family no-tilling since the 1980s, spreading gypsum on heavy clays and implementing a good soil fertility program.

There was still room for improvement, according to Mr Sims, who started to learn about soil biology in an effort to combat the variables farming presents. 

“We decided to make it work we needed to do away with some detrimental things. At that time we pulled the fertiliser tank off the front of our seeder, put a liquid tank on and started using a biological liquid fertiliser. We’ve since dropped insecticides, fungicides and haven’t used urea in the last few years.”

Mr Sims said they recently decided to reincorporate cattle into their operation for the soil health benefits they provide.

“We used to grow covers and spread chicken manure, which meant more cost,” he said.

Mr Sims said he thought this was a task which livestock could fulfill so brokered a deal with his neighbour to run Angus cattle on agistment during times of low feed. He said there was a huge explosion in worm numbers caused by the cow manure, meaning organic content was increasing and there was more turnover of topsoil.

Mr Sims says they harvest winter crops, plant covers, and bring in cattle when the cover crops are six weeks old, rotationally grazing them on several paddocks.

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