A quest for knowledge has set a Rangitikei couple on the path to unlocking their arable and stock finishing farm’s full potential. Victoria O’Sullivan reports.
For Brendon and Rachel Williams, soil conservation on their 174-hectare mixed-farming operation is top priority.
“The most important thing is definitely our soils and the way we look after them,” Brendon says.
“It’s taken time to get them to where they are, and we have to value them.”
The gross farm income on a three-year average is $2300/ha and farm working expenses, $850.
The third-generation Marton farmers are carrying on a legacy implemented by Brendon’s father and grandfather, potato producers who bought the original block for its class I and II soil types.
Brendon and Rachel returned to the farm in 1999 and spent five years in partnership with Brendon’s parents, Ian and Kate Williams. They then bought the neighbouring block on their own behalf, forming Pencoed Trust. Over time, Brendon and Rachel have added more blocks, while Brendon’s parents have slowly pulled back.
Of the 174ha, 58ha is made up of a lease from Brendon’s parents. They work to a five-year cropping programme, consisting of two years permanent pasture, 23ha of maize for grain production, 24ha of peas for seed production, 25ha of winter wheat, then back to pasture. Rotation differs slightly on the heavier soils.
“We’ve got to make sure our cropping rotation has longevity for our soils and allows the next generation to carry on if that’s what they want to do,” says Brendon.
When it comes to returns, Brendon prefers to focus on the big picture.
They try to make each part of the operation as profitable as possible but a do not concentrate on the return per hectare of each crop. Maize may be the highest returning crop in recent years, but their focus is on maintaining the rotation.
Paddocks are in the best condition for maize. If they chased the highest return Brendon believes the rotation would lose shape.
Maize grain yields on average 12-13 tonnes/ha, winter wheat 10t/ha, spring wheat 7.5-8t/ha and, depending on the variety they are assigned to grow, 3.5-4t/ha of peas. Their recent harvest was aboveaverage for wheat (11t/ha winter and 9t/ha spring) and peas (4.5t/ha), while the maize yields were back on account of the dry season.
During the grass cycle they bring in 100 beef-bred weaner heifers during autumn and take them through to summer, aiming to finish at 15 months 240kg carcaseweight (CW) for ANZCO. Heifers are sourced from the same farms annually, with a winter weight gain target of 900g/day. Up to 2500 ewe lambs are finished on the farm with a target weight gain of 250g/day. They are brought in at 30-34kg LW and taken through the winter on annual grasses to be killed out at 21.5kg CW. If the season is favourable, they have the option to finish more lambs over summer. Lambs are supplied to Crusader Meats.
The couple have two children – Hannah (19) who is studying at Massey University, and Macca (15) who is at secondary school and helps out on the farm during the holidays. Rachel does the books and supports at busy times, while also working off-farm. The operation is managed entirely in-house.
Brendon say he is lucky to have his parents farming on their back boundary.
“Dad is always there to lend a hand if we need a spare tractor driver.”
Farming with precision
The implementation of precision agriculture on the farm plays a large part in ensuring the couple’s farming objectives are met.
“My wife probably thinks I’m obsessed,” Brendon says with a laugh.
The couple were finalists in the 2020 Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA), taking out the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award and the Massey University Innovation Award.
The BFEA judges described Brendon’s understanding of ‘how spatially accurate GPS-based sensing (electromagnetic (EM) soil mapping; soil moisture; NVDI satellite imaging), cultivation, fertiliser application, seed density sowing and yield mapping can work together to improve yields and environmental outcomes’ as ‘impressive’, and praised their commitment to embracing technology to improve crop and environmental outcomes.
They have used auto-steer for a number of years but have levelled up recently, working with Methven-based company Vantage (formally AgriOptics) to gather as much information about their soils as possible.
Some of the more variable soils they’ve had EM soil mapped, allowing them to put soil type data into the GPS, which is controlling the planter.
Brendon says with variable rate maize planting, where they have two distinct soil types in the paddock they can write a prescription map. This allows the two soil types to be planted at different rates, targeting less plants on heavier soils that are more likely to dry out in summer.
They are also trialling precision planting at higher-density levels along sloping field margins, to see whether the plants will uptake nutrients that would have otherwise been lost to shallow drainage.
The chance to be involved as a trial farm for the Horizons District Council One Plan was a pivotal point for the couple.
They had their first full farm plan done back in 2009.
“From that we got an inkling of what Horizons were looking to do, and the impact the One Plan regulations could have,” Brendon says.
Nitrate leaching was one of the first areas they targeted.
After the initial plan was done and [Horizons] set out where the limits were likely to be, they were only just outside them.
The first plan gave them good direction of where they could make changes.
They brought maize forward in the cropping rotation and addressed stock classes to reduce impact on the soil types.
They used to winter dairy cows because it fitted in with the cropping rotation quite well. They worked with their farm consultant John Stantiall to see what other opportunities there were with stock.
Brendon says they tried several things over the years with weaner bulls and that sort of thing but settled on the weaner heifers.
Combined with regular soil testing and nutrient budgeting to reduce their application rates of N fertiliser, they reduced their N leaching from 31 to 17kgN/ha.
BFEA judges described Brendon’s overall management of soil fertility, including his estimation of crop demand and soil supply before prescribing fertiliser use as ‘exemplary’.
Soil pH is targeted at 6-6.2 and Olsen P 28-30. Regular soil testing is conducted across the farm, including soil mineral N prior to planting. Crop residues are also tested prior to incorporation to capture their nutrient contribution.
They soil test before the crop and the programme is worked around their target yield.
“What’s already in the soil and what we think the plant is going to need.”
They have used satellite imagery a little with cereal crops to give an indication of any weak parts of the paddock. Then they are able to do a soil test to see if it’s a water issue – a wet part of the paddock, or a fertility issue.
Versatile Kiwitea silt loam soils (melanic soils) make up most of the rolling land on the farm, with the balance winter-wet Beaconsfield and Marton silt loams (pallic soils with a perched water table). The latter are managed with mole and pipe drainage.
The soils are well-drained, mostly with Novaflo polythene pipe drainage. They have dams around the farm, so all drainage water goes through them. The idea with the dams is it’s a holding point for the water and the chance for it to get some sunlight and take a bit of nutrient out.
The dams are planted in natives and include sediment traps. Waterways have been fenced off from livestock and the couple have worked with Horizons to plant natives along the Tutaenui stream.
Sediment loss is another area they have focused on.
“We wanted to reduce our cultivation as much as possible to keep our soil on the farm instead of seeing it disappear down the drains and creeks, so we moved our maize planting to strip tillage.”
Permanent pasture is sprayed out and the strip till machine makes a pass to cultivate rows, then maize is planted directly into the rows during the second pass.
There’s been multiple benefits from this method – crop residue provides cover for the soils, while fewer passes mean a saving on fossil fuel. Crucially, it has facilitated the growth of a clover cover crop.
“It almost started by accident.”
“We sprayed a permanent pasture out with roundup and just after the maize germinated, we noticed that the clover was still there.”
They spoke to a Pioneer representative David McDonald about whether they should be spraying this out, and decided to leave it and see how it went.”
A cover crop works in well with the couple’s nutrient management objectives, soaking up excess nutrients over the winter on the maize ground, which had typically been left fallow. They have also had a couple of grazing’s off the clover for their lambs following the maize harvest.
The past couple of years they carried out their own trials on leaving the clover to grow under the maize crop.
“We’ve been playing and critiquing, and sometimes learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t.”
Brendon is working on the timing and the chemicals used to allow the maize crop to establish without the competition of the clover. Targeting fertiliser placement and timing to support the maize rather than clover is another critical piece of the puzzle.
Brendon says there are people with knowledge about cover cropping who are happy to share.
“We always think we are a jack of all trades and master of none, so it’s a matter of finding people who are in a position to help when you have a problem.”
They are in the process of harvesting their second-year crops of maize and awaiting yield data.
“Then we‘ll sit down and hatch a plan from there.”
The next step in the precision ag implementation is targeted fertiliser application. He’s also keen to transition into some value-added crops.
They have done some in the past – squash, sweetcorn and bok choi for seed production.
Brendon says they’re interesting crops, but they need to find regular markets for them.
One of the biggest challenges has been getting their heads around Overseer. To combat this, they’ve turned to the experts for guidance – in this case environmental consultant Pete Taylor of Catalyst Group.
With a bigger focus on the environmental impact of farming consultants are an important source of knowledge. Nutrient budgets and farm plans are a valuable tool for making informed decisions onfarm.
Brendon says nobody expects every farmer to be an expert in everything so it’s important to gain their input.
On the right track
Brendon says it was the quest for more knowledge that set them on the path to entering the Ballance Farm Environment Awards. After implementing most of the recommendations from their 2009 and 2013 farm plans, they felt ready to put themselves under scrutiny.
“We decided it was probably a good time to bring in some outside people to look over the farm and give us some feedback.
The awards were an opportunity to access leaders and experts in their different fields, so for us entering was more about the feedback.
Brendon and Rachel were thrilled with the outcome.
“We didn’t enter looking for accolades, but we did want to get a benchmark of where we sit, and where are we going.”
It gave them clarity that they were heading in the right direction.
“Now it’s more about us getting into the finer detail and implementing to push for further gains. “
He says the competition was a good experience and recommends other farmers should put themselves through the process.
He found it good to have them to come and critique the farming operation.
“And to suck as much knowledge out of them as we could.”
• 174ha (includes 58ha leased)
• Arable and finishing weaner heifers, ewe lambs
• GFI $2300/ha, FWE $850
• Using precision agriculture
• Farm environment award winners