Making sustainable decisions

Making sustainable decisions on Queensland cropping property


Grow Queensland
Dave Woods in a paddock of Lancer wheat at his Toobeah district property 'Coorangy' earlier in the year.

Dave Woods in a paddock of Lancer wheat at his Toobeah district property 'Coorangy' earlier in the year.

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The Woods family 'Coorangy' seek to make sustainable choices with their cropping enterprise.

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THE WOODS family, ‘Coorangy’, north-west of Goondiwindi have had a strong focus sustainability in their cropping program over the years.

From Geoff Woods’ decision, when the family first converted the Toobeah property to cropping in the 1960s to leave in large tracts of native scrub as shelter belts, to innovations implemented by his son Dave to incorporate cover cropping in the rotation, the Woods’ have never been afraid to do things differently.

Speaking at the Queensland Country Life Food Heroes event at their property earlier this month Dave said the family had a focus on ensuring any changes could be sustained for the long-term.

“The sustainability factor obviously applies to keeping soils healthy, things like that, but economic sustainability is also important,” Dave, who farms together with parents Geoff and Mary and wife Alice, said.

“Changes need to stand on their own two feet financially if they are to become a long-term part of the operation.”

Dave Woods chats with Fairfax Agricultural Media's Gregor Heard.

Dave Woods chats with Fairfax Agricultural Media's Gregor Heard.

One alteration to the system Mr Woods said had been a pleasant surprise has been cover cropping, which the farm has been using since around 2005 and has pleasantly surprised in terms of its benefits.

Cover cropping 

“With our summer cropping involving double-skip planted sorghum and an increase in plantings of chickpeas, which don’t leave much soil cover after harvest, we had started to see some erosion, especially in the wheel tracks.

Mr Woods said at the time there had been work into how cover crops helped minimise erosion.

“We were thinking maybe of going back to single skip sorghum, instead, with a fair degree of scepticism, we put in a crop of French millet in to help keep the erosion in check, but as it turned out the major benefits were elsewhere.”

There was certainly some scepticism when we planted the millet for the first time. - - Dave Woods.

“The obvious problem was how much would this crop cost to grow seeing as you were only going to spray it out, but what we found was an unexpected reward the following year.”

Mr Woods said the cover of the millet made for reduced evaporation rates and better water infiltration into the soil, allowing the following winter crop greater access to moisture.

“What we’ve found, over time, is that the following wheat crop had averaged 0.3 to 0.5 tonnes a hectare better when there has been a cover crop.

“Based on our average yields that figure equates to about a 15 per cent yield boost.”

He said working off current wheat prices it equated to additional income of around $90/ha, compared to the cost of sowing the millet of around $40/ha.

The Woods’ are strict about spraying out the millet crop, generally after around 60 days, rather than attempting to generate an income from it, either by baling, grazing or taking through to grain.

“There have been neighbours asking what we are doing, spraying out a beautiful green crop, but we are after the long-term benefits,” Dave said.

He said the extent of the boost to the following crop varied.

“Some dry years, the moisture used getting the millet up exceed that it can help store and we have a negative yield impact.

“On the other hand if you can get the crop in nice and early and have it sprayed out by November and soaking in more moisture over summer that is where we see the more pronounced improvements, around that 0.5t/ha, in the following wheat crop.”

He said there was a yield benefit in 85pc of years.

“It is where having this long-term data is great, you can see the trend line clearly rather than getting fooled by outlier results.”

There are years the seasonal conditions mean it could not be planted, but Dave said it was a feature of the rotation whenever possible.

This year the Woods’ will plant chickpeas, rather than wheat behind the millet crop for the first time.

Dave Woods speaks at the Queensland Country Life Food Heroes event at his property last week.

Dave Woods speaks at the Queensland Country Life Food Heroes event at his property last week.

“We’re interested to see how it goes, another benefit of the millet is the boost in soil mycorrhizial fungi, so we’re keen to see what that does for chickpeas.”

Double skip sorghum 

The sustainability theme is also evident in the sorghum planting program.

Dave said the decision to go with double-skip planting, where two adjacent rows are planted and two rows are skipped, for the family’s sorghum was driven by a respect for the hard summers the region had experienced of late.

“I definitely wouldn’t recommend double-skip for areas with a bit more rainfall or better soil types as you are sacrificing potential top-end yield, but here it is a good risk management tool.

“Again, people were sceptical when we took the plunge, but when you see the series of tough summers we’ve had, it makes sense in our environment.”

Dave said four of the last five summers had been poor summer cropping seasons, culminating in last year, which saw a record summer heat wave smash crops.

Double skip planting makes the sorghum more resillient, which is critical in our tough summers - Dave Woods.

“There’s no doubt the double skip system has made the sorghum more resilient, which has been critical in getting a crop.

“I wouldn’t look at it in the areas to the east of the Newell Highway or south of Goondiwindi in areas with better rainfall or soils capable of holding 200mm of moisture or more, but it has been a fit that has worked well at Coorangy.”

The enterprise is constantly evolving and Dave said the changes threw up new challenges.

Machinery challenges

The crop has been planted on controlled traffic for some time, but the Woods’ have recently moved out to three metre centres for their machinery.

“Getting the planter to flex over the contour banks and undulations has been a challenge, as has been using the 36 metre spray rig.”

“We do tend to get melon holes and have a lot of contour banks, but we’ve been pleased with how the seeder, which has been custom designed for the undulations, has coped.”

Dave said an issue this year, following the heavy winter crop, had been sowing through wheat stubble.

“There have been issues getting through it, we really didn’t want to burn and ruin soil structure we’d built up, but it was a difficult process, especially planting chickpeas, where we got hair pinning from last year’s stubble.”

He said the family would continue to investigate options to minimise the problem.

“It might be taking the crop off lower at harvest, but generally we are rushing to get it off as quick as possible so we might have to think outside the square.

“Mulching is one option but it can be expensive, while we can also look at our seeding configuration.”

He stubble load was only a problem in wheat residue.

“Interestingly, although the millet throws up a lot of biomass it does seem to break down a lot quicker.”

“Interestingly, although the millet throws up a lot of biomass it does seem to break down a lot quicker.” - Dave Woods

This year the family has planted Lancer wheat on 33.8cm spacings.

The crop is currently in good condition following early July rainfall after a dry spell through autumn, with just 50mm in April, May and June combined.

However, Dave said a lack of cold weather meant the crop is further advanced than is normal for the time of year, which may mean an increased risk of frost damage.

He also said further rainfall throughout the growing season would be needed to shore up yield prospects.

It is a similar story for the chickpea crop, made up of the Hat Trick variety, sown on 67.6cm spacings.

“They’ve come up nicely in spite of the heavy stubble load, but now we need some more moisture to get them over the line.”

Dave Woods surveys Hat Trick chickpeas on his property during a crop walk as part of the Food Heroes day.

Dave Woods surveys Hat Trick chickpeas on his property during a crop walk as part of the Food Heroes day.

Weed management 

In terms of potential problems for the crop, Dave said weed management was another constant battle.

He said the problem weeds of most concern were fleabane and feathertop Rhodes grass, which has continued to push south into his region in recent years.

“It is something we really need to keep right, rotating our herbicides and keeping a good solid crop rotation in place,” he said.

The Woods family have been in the Toobeah area since the 1930s, settling at ‘Coorangy’ in 1936, before purchasing the nearby ‘Venture Downs’ property in 1977.

Initially, livestock was the focus before cropping took hold in the 1960s.

Most of the family’s arable ground is at ‘Coorangy’, however some cropping is also done at ‘Venture Downs’.

The story Making sustainable decisions first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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