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Mat Freeman, Walkaway WA

Addressing soil constraints and burying weed seeds

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Mat Freeman farms an aggregation of cropping properties at Mullewa and Walkaway in the Geraldton Port Zone of WA. Across the aggregation he has been systematically mouldboard ploughing since 2011 to tackle the non-wetting sands, and deep ripping has been practiced for around 30 years to alleviate compaction.

While fixing the constraints associated with non-wetting sands is the primary reason for mouldboard ploughing, there is also a weed control benefit.

Mat Freeman, Walkaway WA has used mouldboard ploughing to fix non-wetting sands and bury weed seeds.

“Having effectively buried the weed seed bank with the mouldboard ploughing, the plan is to leave the subsoil undisturbed for as long as possible,” he says. “Hard-seeded weeds such as wild radish can remain viable in the soil for several years and can germinate if they are brought back up to near the soil surface.”

Inverting the profile buries weed seed and brings some clay up from depth. Annual ryegrass and wild radish are the main weed species on the farm and Mat is making the most of the re-set value of mouldboard ploughing to keep weed numbers low going forward.

Effective amelioration operation

To achieve full inversion of the soil profile, the soil needs to be moist. The amelioration program also involves the removal of obstacles, applying limesand and then ploughing to a depth of about 35 cm.

This is usually done after a lupin crop where there is the least amount of crop residue on the soil surface. The following year Mat spreads more limesand to treat the acidic subsoil that is brought to the surface.

“Starting with a pH of around 5 on the surface and 4 in the subsoil, we are aiming for a pH around 5.5 on the surface and 5 at depth,” he says. “To achieve this requires about 4 t/ha limesand applied over the two years to treat both the topsoil and subsoil.”

“Mouldboard ploughing needs to be done well, in wet soil and with not too much crop residue on surface,” he says. “We are close to completing the ploughing program across the whole farm and expect a long-term productivity benefit from the liming and mouldboard ploughing operation as a result of improved pH.”

After using contractors for the first few years Mat now has his own mouldboard plough, and has committed to a program of ploughing 500 ha each year ever since 2011, along with regular deep ripping. When he first started deep ripping, Mat used a ripper that worked to a depth of about 35 cm but he now has a ripper that works to a depth of around 70 cm. To avoid bringing the weed seed back near the surface he uses straight, rather than C-shaped, shanks to shatter the compaction at depth without bringing weeds or clay to the surface.

Harvest weed seed control decisions

“The weed program here is about attacking them from all angles,” says Mat. “We do what we can to avoid letting weeds set seed. We have been running a Seed Terminator impact mill for a couple of harvests, having previously used narrow windrow burning for harvest weed seed control.”

Mat has replaced narrow windrow burning with an impact mill for harvest weed seed control.

Although narrow windrow burning worked well, Mat found there was a big risk of burning everything after a big cereal crop followed by lupins or canola, and it was hard to get the right weather conditions for burning. He was also concerned about the cost and long-term impact of lost nutrients.

The farm is full CTF for harvest so Mat considered chaff lining as a possibility using RTK to ensure the chaff lines went on top of each other to then be burnt. With the soils being generally low in moisture Mat thought it was unlikely that the chaff would rot and was concerned that he might ‘have the chaff lines forever’. He also considered a chaff deck but decided it was not the best option for the farm and chose instead to invest in impact mill technology.

Crop-topping in lupins has been part of Mat’s weed control program for a long time and he sees value in continuing with this tactic even though he now has the impact mill on the header.

Rotation weed control tools

“There is often 20 per cent of the farm sown to lupins and crop-topping is a good way to control any lodged or fallen grass weeds,” he says. “The outside laps in each paddock often have more weeds because it is harder to plough and the weed seeds are not always buried as well as they are in the main paddock area. Crop-topping is an effective way to help minimise weed seed set in these areas, in addition to the destruction of the weed seeds that go through the impact mill.”

Crop topping in lupins is particularly useful for stopping seed set in lodged ryegrass that might not be picked up by the harvester.

In canola Mat has previously used swathing and spraying under the cutter bar but is finding that direct heading works just as well.

Crop rotation varies slightly on different farm units but generally follows a wheat, lupin, wheat, canola sequence. Some of the very light and fragile sands have not previously been suitable for canola but Mat has been able to introduce canola on these soils following liming and mouldboard ploughing. Pre-emergent herbicides are used for all crops – except straight after ploughing where the low organic matter levels can lead to more severe crop damage.

After mouldboard ploughing and liming Mat follows a crop rotation of wheat, lupins, wheat, canola. He is planning to reduce the row spacing from 12 inch to 10 inch with his next planter to increase crop competition.

Mat uses a tyned seeder with 12 inch row spacing but plans to change to a 10 inch row spacing with the next seeder to go the next step in crop competition for weed control. Cereals are sown on the CTF lines but Mat prefers to sow canola and lupins at 30 degrees to achieve better establishment in these sandy soils. This angle gives him the option to change direction back and forth each year and is not as rough as sowing on a 45 degree angle.

Factors other than crop competition tend to influence variety choice but Mat looks to maximise crop competition through improved establishment, better soil fertility, better access to moisture and is looking to narrow the row spacing in the future.

Deep ripping for yield

In addition to the mouldboard ploughing to ameliorate non-wetting, Mat also uses deep ripping to improve crop production. Deep ripping is done every second year after lupin and canola crops and has made marginal soils profitable, which has led to a significant increase in overall farm profitability. Deep ripping trials in 2015 confirmed that there were significant benefits in addressing soil compaction and improving water penetration into the profile, particularly in wheat where ripping to a depth of 600 mm generated a yield benefit of almost 1 t/ha.

* Grain price wheat = $270/t and cost shallow ripping = $45/ha and deeper ripping = $75/ha.

At Walkaway deeper ripping and topsoil slotting (inclusion plates) was the highest yielding treatment. Visual observations showed more plant roots deeper in the slots than un-ripped and NDVI measurements indicated a higher biomass in the deeper ripping treatments during the season.

Source: Deeper deep ripping and water use efficiency, GRDC RCSN Geraldton GER9, by Craig Topham, Agrarian Management and Bindi Isbister, Precision Agriculture

“Deep ripping has really boosted yield and we find the crops persist better between rain events and finish better at the end of the season. The crop develops a deeper root system that can access more water at depth and the result is better yield and grain quality,” he says.

Although the mouldboard ploughing effect persists for several years, the sandy soils quickly settle and develop a hardpan at depth, even without machinery traffic. Mat aims to rip every second year if there is sufficient soil moisture in autumn, preceding sowing, taking care not to bring weed seeds to the surface.

The CTF system is based on 12.2 m centres for the sprayer, planter and harvester and was installed in each paddock after the initial mouldboard ploughing to preserve the benefit of this operation.

Using this soil amelioration program, Mat is now bringing land into crop production that was previously only used for grazing.

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