Scholar on track for dry times
Despite above-average rainfall affecting many grain growers in the eastern states last year, thoughts of planning for dry conditions are never far from 2010 Nuffield scholar Alan Redfern's mind.
Alan, who farms cotton and grains near Wee Waa, New South Wales, is using his Nuffield scholarship travels to bring the best aspects of robust farming systems from around the world back to Australia.
With a strong belief that integrating dryland and irrigated farming would result in more resilient businesses, Alan's first focus is on overcoming the wheel-track incompatibility between the systems.
Irrigated cotton is traditionally grown as a row crop with one metre spacing, largely to accommodate harvesting machinery, with wheel track spacing at two metres.
In contrast, dryland grains are increasingly grown using controlled traffic on three-metre wheel track spacing.
Alan says achieving a standardised three-metre wheel track spacing for both irrigated and dryland farming systems and altering summer row crop spacing out to 1.5 metres would allow growers to move between the two systems with greater ease.
"We've had droughts and dry periods before, and we're going to have them again, so I think merging our irrigated and dryland farming systems into one would really help us handle increasingly erratic weather conditions," he said.
Alan says once logistics such as wheel tracks have been standardised, techniques such as intercropping, whereby a summer crop could be planted beneath a soon-to-mature winter crop, can be fully utilised.
He envisages that intercropping would improve fallow water use efficiency by increasing the time that a crop is growing in irrigated fields, so that regardless of when rain falls, it can more effectively be converted into grain or fibre rather than be lost as evaporation until the next crop is planted.
"In years like 2008 and 2010, when winter cereal crop harvests were so severely affected by weather-induced quality issues, I think we could instead grow a crop, and have a second crop growing underneath," he said.
"Then if the first crop's written off, we can still use those big dollops of rain we get and grow a second crop rather than just having to suffer the price and quality discounts and lose the majority of the rainfall received as evaporation - it's just a more flexible farming system."
Alan said he was looking at more than just improving how any given farm operates within its current system, with the aim being to overhaul the way farming systems interact.
"It's an overhaul of existing techniques and just trying to combine and bring it all together. We're just not going to have the irrigation water we've had in the past, so when we have water we need to be able to use it and when we haven't, we need to revert to more of a dryland strategy."
Alan is still completing his Nuffield scholarship, and so full results are yet to be released, but he already has some good ideas about where he'd like to travel, particularly the world famous International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico to see the conservation agriculture research program, as well as visiting the US, Canada and Israel.
Alan, who is sponsored by GrainGrowers, says he'd also like to visit China, where he is keen to see how they intercrop cotton and wheat.
"Approximately 40 per cent of the cotton grown there is grown as an intercrop, whereby cotton is planted and grown for the first couple of months underneath the maturing wheat crop," he said. "The wheat crop's taken off and then the cotton's crop's grown through to fruition."
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