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Compost cuts it for Ballards

Kate MatthewsCountryman

Declining yields and little return from increased fertiliser inputs prompted Narrogin farmers Geoff and Rosemary Ballard and sons Kendal and Roger to make a serious change to their farming system three years ago.

"We were pouring on more fertiliser every year and our results weren't improving and were possibly decreasing," Roger said.

The Ballards researched compost systems and selected the Midwest Bio-systems' humified composting system used extensively in the United States and by a few Australian farmers.

It allows the export hay producers to use straw that had no commercial value, as well as manure from a nearby feedlot.

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The compost, which is 70 per cent straw and 15 per cent each of manure and clay, includes two main phases - the breakdown of organic matter and build up of humus.

The carbon and nitrogen sources, the straw and manure, are windrowed and turned during an eight to 10-week period.

At the same time, temperature, carbon dioxide and moisture levels are monitored as the compost starts to produce a stabilised product.

The Ballards believe the value of humified compost comes from its ability to restore and enhance biological activity in the soil.

By allowing oxygen into the soil, it supports aerobic microlife and has increased efficiency in managing water, storing soil nutrients and using nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon cycles. This helps to increase plant health and productivity.

In the paddock, the Ballards have reduced fertiliser use from 80kg/ha of MAP to 35kg/ha this year and spread the compost at a rate of 1.5t/ha with the multispreader.

"From the research we did and the experience from over east, the third year is the telling year - the one where you start to see results and we are in the third year now," Roger said.

In the first year, the family found that soil activity improved with the return of earthworms.

Last year's crops were able hang on through retained moisture from the system and this season's are on track for above average yields.

Besides comparing yields, the Ballards are also recording organic soil carbon levels every second year as an indicator of what is happening below the surface.

They are also going to start producing compost tea next year, simply by adding water and filtering, which will be applied using the airseeder and as a foliar application at germination.

"It will mean we can apply a lower rate of compost per hectare but still get the benefits of the microbes and soil improvements," Roger said.

The Ballards efforts to improve their soils recently secured them the inaugural Plasback Sustainability Award during the Australian Fodder Industry Association national conference on the Sunshine Coast recently.

The award recognises excellence in sustainable farming practices with an emphasis on innovations benefiting the fodder industry.

The Ballards grow Brusher and Carrolup oats for hay as well as Jenabilup lupins and Kaspa peas.

Usually they grow genetically modified canola, which along with compost supports the reduction in need for chemical use, but because of the late start to the season, it was replaced with peas.

Fast facts *

_WHO: _ Geoff and Rosemary, Kendal, Roger and Lerina Ballard

_WHERE: _ Ashton Park, Narrogin

_WHAT: _ 90 per cent cropping, 10 per cent sheep

_AVERAGE RAINFALL: _ 350mm

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