Precision push earns big gong

HARNESSING the latest technology to improve productivity has earned one Tasmanian farm a national Landcare Award.

The Nichols family’s Redbank Farm at Sisters Creek has picked up its second national Landcare award, and the first one for Tasmania in six years Redbank won the Innovation in Agriculture award, which recognises the work done by Michael Nichols to improve fertiliser usage across the 380ha property.

In the past few years, Mr Nichols has moved to a grid-sampling method to track soil fertility across the property.

Two soil samples per hectare are now taken across the cropping area to provide information about the soil pH, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium levels.

Mr Nichols said they started looking at more specific soil testing after noticing significant variations in production across the paddocks through yield mapping data.

“We started because of the inaccuracies with the normal soil tests,” he said.

“When you walk across a paddock in a W shape and take 10 samples out of a 20ha paddock and combine them all into one bag to get an average, it gives you a baseline.

“But I knew we had good areas in the paddocks and not so good from our yield maps.”

Mr Nichols said with one soil type across the property, he identified that varying nutrient levels in different parts of the paddock was the most likely cause of the yield discrepancies.

“It was mainly our topography with the hills and the gullies where the nutrients were flowing,” he said. “The banks were getting less fertile than the gullies and they were getting too fertile.”

After creating soil-nutrient maps and using precision spreading equipment, Mr Nichols said overall fertiliser usage has decreased, but yields have also increased.

“We’re getting a direct saving in fertiliser and we’re also getting a yield increase because we’re not getting the disease and the lushness that was happening where nutrient levels were high,” he said.

As part of the program Mr Nichols said they also used cover crops and biofumigants to improve soil structure and tackle diseases.

“We’ve been using them for about seven years now,” he said.

“The main reasons are to reduce soil erosion and also to reduce nutrient losses.”

Since introducing cover crops Mr Nichols said organic matter in the soil jumped from about 2 per cent up to about 5 per cent.

Across the farm they grow a wide variety of crops including potatoes, onions, wheat, corn, barley, poppies, pyrethrum, peas, buckwheat and some mustard.

Mr Nichols said they used yield mapping to track the performance on their crops as much as possible.

After seeing as much as a 40 per cent yield variation in some crops, by using the precision fertiliser spreading, Mr Nichols said they managed to reduce this to a 20 per cent variation.

“It’s a win win especially at the moment because fertiliser prices are going through the roof,” he said.

“Even though there’s an initial cost with the mapping, every time we’ve done one, I’ve saved money by not having to put as much on.”

Landcare has been a big part of the property for decades and in 2004 Redbank also won the national agricultural producer award.

Mr Nichols said the farm had about 170ha of cropping area along with grassed areas that run beef cattle, some on-farm plantations and remnant native vegetation.

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