Long-term trial to assess farm systems
THE first crop has been harvested from a new, long-term Future Farming Systems project at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development's (DPIRD) Merredin Research Facility.
The project is assessing long-term productivity, profitability and sustainability of lower input regenerative and intensive ag-tech systems against current district practice and benchmarks of continuous cereal and continuous pasture over a decade.
DPIRD farming systems innovation director David Ferris said the project would generate scientific evidence on the performance of various farming systems and practices over time, while providing a forum to exchange ideas.
"Ongoing farming systems innovation is vital to the long-term profitability of farm businesses in the eastern Wheatbelt in the face of climate change and changing consumer preferences," Dr Ferris said.
"As the years go by, we will be able to monitor changes in the productive capacity of the site, soil carbon, grain yields and quality and sheep performance.
"This scientific, objective information will assist growers make more informed, data-driven decisions on what farming systems and technologies best suit their business now and in the future."
The large farming systems trial will be complemented by adjacent small plot trials to examine system components and inform options to include in the long-term trial, such as specific bio-stimulants or cover crop species.
The trial will test a range of regenerative agriculture principles, including integrating sheep, reduced used of synthetic inputs and diverse crop and pasture species, which may include tillage radish, sorghum and millet.
The intensive agricultural technology system will involve soil re-engineering, alongside the use of digital decision tools and diverse crops to optimise either grain or biomass production for sheep feed.
"Overall, the regenerative systems are based on a lower input cost strategy with a focus on lifting soil microbial diversity and activity to boost crop performance and build soil carbon," Dr Ferris said.
"By contrast, the intensive ag-tech systems are focused on building production capacity through re-engineering the soil and the use of new digital, genetic and mechanical technologies to boost water and nutrient use efficiency.
"One of the most important parts of the project will be getting the transition phase right for adopting new farming systems and how that can be achieved economically."
Earlier this year a crop of Magenta wheat was sown to characterise yield variability across the 5.4 hectare sandy loam over gravel focus site.
The trial site recently underwent intensive soil sampling, where 840 soil cores were collected from a grid of 280 positions to provide a baseline of soil properties.
Weed and disease pressure, soil nutrient level, soil carbon and soil biology was also measured to establish a firm baseline to monitor any change to soil properties and weed or disease pressure over time.
"Comprehensive soil measurements will be undertaken throughout the life of the trial, including pH, bulk density, weed seed and insect pest and predator populations, plant pathogen inoculum loads, water storage and infiltration," Dr Ferris said.
"Soil biology will be a key monitoring component of the trial, which will measure changes to carbon and macro and micronutrients, including bacterial, fungi and other microbes, as well as the mesofauna, such as earthworms and nematodes."
Input costs will be measured, as will crop yield and grain quality, crop and pasture biomass and grazing days.
After harvest, a summer cover crop will be dry sown in specific treatments or wet sown if there is sufficient rainfall.
The project will be guided by a reference group comprised of farmers and agricultural consultants from the eastern Wheatbelt, university and DPIRD scientists from a range of disciplines.
"It is all about looking at current constraints, emerging opportunities and threats to design farming systems able to address and capture these, supported by scientific data over time," Dr Ferris said.
"We expect there will be different pathways to future-proofing profitable and sustainable farming systems in the eastern Wheatbelt, based on a deeper understanding of key soil health principles and advanced crop and livestock management skills.
"This 10-year initiative should play an important part in identifying and demonstrating these principles and management options."
The trial progress and results will be documented on the DPIRD website, where more information about regenerative agriculture activities can be found at agric.wa.gov.au/future-farming-systems-eastern-wheatbelt.