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South Australian grower to use deep ripping to counter dry conditions

Northern Mallee-based grower Adam Flavel hopes deep ripping will increase yields in the face of increasingly dry seasons.
Photo: GRDC

Giving crops access to previously unreachable soil moisture paying-off for grain grower.

Deep ripping is a key tactic this year in the Flavel family's farm plans as they attempt to give their crops access to previously unreachable subsoil moisture.

Based at Browns Well in South Australia's northern Mallee, the Flavels hope deep ripping can increase yields in the face of increasingly dry growing seasons.

They recorded just 100 millimetres of rain for 2018 until the end of October - a worrying trend they have been monitoring for several years.

Despite this low rainfall, crops performed above expectations, with wheat and barley yielding about 0.8 tonnes per hectare.

However, vetch planted for sheep feed failed to produce seed needed for replanting and 200ha of lupins were blown away in 90 kilometres per hour winds during July.

"In the past five years, reduced winter rainfall has been more and more noticeable and while 100mm of rain for the whole growing season is not much, we still managed to grow viable crops," Adam says.

"Weather events like the wind we experienced in July last year are heartbreaking to watch, but we know they're uncontrollable.

"Instead of dwelling on this we are working on what we can control in the paddock and with our crop choices."

The drier seasons have forced the Flavels to lift their efforts to replace soil nutrients, preserve precious summer moisture and trial new practices.

They work closely with their agronomist to make decisions, particularly around their fertiliser and other inputs.

In the past five years, reduced winter rainfall has been more and more noticeable and while 100mm of rain for the whole growing season is not much, we still managed to grow viable crops - SA grower Adam Flavel

"We recognise how important it is to give, what we can, back to our soil to counteract what is lacking and increase nutrient availability at key times during the season," Adam says.

In 2018, Adam, his brother Patrick and father John, who farm with their wives Alison, Emma and Karen, tested strips of deep ripping to reach below an impenetrable hard pan 30 centimetres below the sandy upper layer.

"Our red sand has a hard pan layer that the cereal roots can't get through," Adam says.

"I didn't really believe it until our agronomist showed me in 2017. He says the plants looked root-bound when examined.

Wheat yields in the test strips jumped from 0.6 tonnes per hectare to 2t/ha. Adam says this response was beyond expectations and he subsequently ordered his own machinery to make deep ripping a part of their program.

"This was a massive response, particularly in a year like 2018, but even if it only increases 0.2t/ha where I've ripped it will pay for the machine every year," he says.

"I think we'll see a lot more farmers in our area experimenting with deep ripping, and ideas like this, as we try to get more out of our paddocks and our crops.

"If we can get the returns and we're able to continue to produce quality crops against the odds then we will keep looking for ways to improve what we do."

We recognise how important it is to give what we can back to our soil to counteract what is lacking and increase nutrient availability at key times during the season - SA grower Adam Flavel

The Flavels farm 5000 hectares and run 1000 self-replacing Merinos. In 2018 they cropped 4000ha of lupins, wheat, barley and vetch with about 800ha of the planting dedicated to sheep feed.

The cropping plan for 2019 remains similar to last year but will include efforts to begin progressively deep ripping the entire property over the next few years, while maintaining a stringent weed management program.

Adam says the deep ripping program adds to their summer workload, which also includes shearing, but maintains the importance of adapting.

He expects moisture to remain scarce and increasingly skewed to out of growing season rainfall which makes summer moisture preservation and innovation a priority.

"We plan a full coverage of spraying usually sometime after Christmas once we have some rain and then we continue spot spraying until seeding," he says.

"Sheep will graze summer weeds and remaining stubble to reduce subsoil moisture being drawn on, but where we are, we also need to maintain some ground cover to prevent erosion."

Adam says a mixture of soil test results and yield mapping from 2018 will guide their nutrient decisions, which will focus on applying phosphorous at replacement levels and increasing barley plantings in an effort to avoid repeat losses to frost.

"We're expecting to run into some frost issues again as we seem to get a lot of stem frost here," he says.

"I always test around 300ha of pulse crop depending on what seed is on hand to try and snag a good outcome, particularly if prices are good that year, and there will also be some sheep feed.

"While my rotations and summer spraying plans are set in advance, my variety choices may change depending on when the season break occurs."

More information: Adam Flavel, aaflavel@hotmail.com, 0427 971 400

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