A FOCUS on improving soil health has led to significant changes during the past two years for the Byron family at Kellalac, south of Warracknabeal in Vic's Wimmera region.
Shannon Byron farms with his wife Emma and parents Kim and Lynette Byron on Kelvin Downs, growing wheat, canola, lentils, chickpeas, barley, vetch and the occasional bean, lupin or pea crop, as well as running some sheep and cattle.
Throughout the past couple of years, the family has changed the way they farm to address long-term soil degradation and make the operation more manageable, including taking a more sustainable approach to the cropping rotation.
The Byrons have reduced their cropping area from 3000 hectares to 2300ha, invested in new machinery and switched to liquid fertilisers as part of a dedicated push to improve soil health.
Mr Byron said the family were focusing more than ever on timely and effective crop management, in particular the nutrition program.
The Byrons have gone from a system of broadcasting urea in front of the seeder and applying seed and starter fertiliser together, to a much more carefully planned and placed nutrition program.
Much of that improvement is thanks to their purchase of a new Liquid Systems series pump and control module last year, set up with a 5400-litre trail-behind tank to put out liquid fertiliser.
Mr Byron said it had been a massive help in terms of getting the nutrients where the plants could get at them.
"Having the liquid kit enabled us to better place our inputs down the tube, which is improving crop growth from the start, as well as improving our soil health," he said.
Mr Byron said the family apply 30-40L/ha of liquid nitrogen, using Incitec Pivot's Easy N product, which also contains humates, fulvates, trace elements and carbon.
The 42.5 per cent N fertiliser is applied in-furrow at sowing and can be boosted with inoculants critical to legume plant growth in pulse crops.
Mr Byron said operationally, the switch to liquid N had paid dividends.
"One of the best parts of Easy N is that nearly everything's compatible with it," he said.
"It's also very efficient, with the N readily available and right next to the crop."
The Byrons have also converted to a new 18-metre tyne seeder with adjustable depth control, so seed can be placed more accurately.
The liquid N is placed on top of 50 kilogram/ha of MAP (phosphorus fertiliser) in the fertiliser row, which sits 2.5 centimetres to the side and below the seed line.
"This puts the nutrients right in the root zone where the plant needs them and gives us some breathing space to assess crop emergence before we consider applying more N after Z14," Mr Byron said.
A KEY advantage of the new sowing system at the Byron farm has been improved efficiency.
"When we changed to 18 metres with our airseeder, we came back to one tractor, one airseeder bar and bin and one liquid cart, instead of running two units with two operators," Shannon Byron said.
"This frees up labour for other jobs, halves the chance of mechanical breakdowns and means all the crops are sown to the right depth with the right nutrition."
Post-sowing there is a greater focus on tailoring nutrient programs with plant needs. The Byrons are doing more soil and plant tissue testing than ever before, with the results meaning they are able to use less nitrogen - a critical saving with rising N prices globally.
They have gone from applying up to 350 kilograms a hectare of urea across a season to more like 120 litres/ha of liquid N.
"What would happen in the past is we would put out 100kg/ha of urea ahead of a rain forecast and only end up getting one or two millimetres, which is not enough to do anything, so we'd lose it," Mr Byron said.
"When it did rain, the crop would green up like anything, but it was all above ground - it didn't have the root system to support it - so that if it was a dry finish, we'd be cutting hay."
With a 380mm growing season rainfall, Mr Byron said taking a more moderate approach to N rates, with a more efficient N product was working well for them so far.
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