Farming land is an investment, invariably an expensive one, so it fits that improving land, or more specifically soil, adds value long-term and increases the potential for improved productivity and in turn profitability.
This philosophy is the driving force behind Darling Downs grain grower Ross Krinke's involvement in soil amelioration research happening across Queensland and northern New South Wales.
The grower, who with his family farms around 1500 hectares in the St Helen's and Millmerran districts, is one of more than 30 landholders from the two states hosting trials as part of a five-year research project looking at soil health and the cost-benefits of soil ameliorations.
The 'Economics of ameliorating soil constraints in the northern region' project is a Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) investment with the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), the University of Queensland (UQ), the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), the University of New England (UNE) and New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI).
A key part of the project has been the development of six action learning groups - in the Millmerran, Meandarra, Talwood regions of Queensland and in Parkes, Armatree and Spring Ridge in NSW - to help researchers understand what growers know and what strategies are currently in practice to manage soil constraints.
For Mr Krinke, being involved in the trials has meant being prepared to host an on-farm trial site for three years and share paddock yield data. In return, he has had specialist researchers conduct comprehensive soil tests and start trialling a variety of ameliorants to combat primarily sodicity issues.
"We got involved because we thought it could help us identify what we needed to do to rectify constraints in our soil," Mr Krinke said.
"My aim is to reduce the yield variation across individual paddocks on a new block we purchased, and I firmly believe this can be done with the right inputs, in the right place, at the right time."
The sixth-generation grower purchased the 400ha block at Gray's Gate east of Millmerran three years ago, in partnership with his brother David, a Brisbane-based engineer. Until the Krinke brothers took over the land, which has slightly sodic, brigalow soils, it had been farmed using conventional tillage.
"The previous owner had been here for 70 years which is testament to the way he did things. Older farmers used tillage and worked the country around the weather patterns. They were good farmers. We are doing things differently now, but it is not to say it's better."
Mr Krinke said his motivation for change was primarily economic.
"This block was half the price of other farming country, but it is not half the quality. Yet there are significant variations across paddocks with our yield in places going from 5 tonnes/ha to 1.2t/ha," Mr Krinke said.
"Realistically, if we can increase the low yielding areas of our paddocks by 50 per cent and improve the good patches by 10pc over the next five years I will consider it a win."
Mr Krinke said the first step in this process was identifying soil types and what, how and where amelioration treatments could be applied to improve soil health.
We got involved because we thought it could help us identify what we needed to do to rectify constraints in our soil.
Although costly, he said comprehensive soil testing was critical to guide strategic improvement and deliver longer term gains in productivity and then profitability.
"We have been getting deep soil tests done commercially and then doing the top 50 centimetre soil tests ourselves at about $100/test," he said.
"Our aim is to identify where the soil changes and then overlay it with our yield mapping data so we can prioritise areas.
"An important motivator for us being involved in this trial was to get additional soil testing done and then have researchers help guide our decisions around amelioration options."
When it comes to treatments to improve soil quality, Mr Krinke has started applying gypsum at a rate of 3t/ha, but freight costs remain an inhibiting factor, given distances required to transport the product from sites at Winton in north west Queensland or Bourke in western NSW.
He has also applied 500t of chicken manure this year, sourced locally and spread at a rate of 2.5t/ha.
"We wait 12 months to see full benefits, but our plan is to do this annually, which is solely a cost decision. We have easy access to an abundance of manure and where we have applied it we are seeing worms come back and improved soil composition," Mr Krinke said.
He also applies urea-based nitrogen (N) to his country annually.
"We apply 16 units of N per tonne of grain we take off. We use yield monitors and do soil tests every three years so we can adjust against it," he said.
"We are not set up yet to do deep placement of fertiliser. It all hinges on our budget and crop yields, but we hope to build a 50cm ripper ourselves - the design is on the drawing board - because you can't buy deep placement gear off the shelf yet. I have a couple of ideas for machinery that ideally will be able to handle a variety of materials at depth, including manures."
- Ground-breaking funding underpins soil research in the northern region
- A Decision Tool To Estimate The Economic Benefits From Soil Amelioration At A Paddock And Industry Scale
- Understanding The Amelioration Processes Of The Subsoil Application Of Amendments
Mr Krinke has also spent time and money deep ripping plough pans to improve water infiltration.
"There is a long history of cultivation on this country. What we have done now is deep rip plough pans before going back to zero till. We have ripped about a third of the country and we will do more if this pays off.
"We sow in the rip line as that is where the moisture has gone down and where we have also put potassium and that is where we are finding the moisture is when it's planting time."
Early experience has proved timing is critical on his newest block.
"It is all about timing; you need to time what you are doing on the paddock with moisture. This country works up in smaller clods and will wet through on 25 millimetres of rain. When it rains, you have to be ready to plant and then you have a week to get crop in the ground.
"I joke you have to have the tractor idling in the shed when it's raining so you don't miss your chance."
In summary, he said rain and a run of good seasons would make it easier to justify the spend on soil amelioration.
"It is frustrating when it comes to soil amelioration because I feel like we are restrained by input costs so often we are putting a teaspoon on when we need a bucket," Mr Krinke said.
"But we will continue to experiment and look at what we can do, at what cost to ultimately improve soil health and therefore crop yields and that's where ultimately we hope being part of this GRDC trial will prove really beneficial."
For more information on the GRDC's investment into the 'Economics of ameliorating soil constraints in the northern region' with research partners go to https://bit.ly/2kiLjMG. For GRDC resources to assist with economic decisions around soil amelioration go to https://bit.ly/2lRrzQU, or to find out more about amelioration processes go to https://bit.ly/2K3Sjbv.
GRDC Project Code: USQ1803-002RTX