Tom Dunstan.THE start of March normally sees the only activity in the paddock application of soil toners such as gypsum or lime or a spot of late summer spraying, should farmers be lucky enough to get some February rain.
Nanjing Night Net

However, this year passers-by right through Victoria will see an unusual sight, with Wimmera farmer Tom Dunstan sowing a series of cover crops across the state as part of a Victorian No-Till Farmers Association (VNTFA) project.

Mr Dunstan said the concept behind the trials was to improve soil health through retaining a cover over the summer fallow period.

The VNTFA, together with five Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) and the Victorian Department of Resources, came up with the idea for the trials following presentations from American soil health experts regarding benefits of cover cropping in the US.

“We have spoken to people like Jay Fuhrer, who spoke at the VNTFA annual conference last year and Steve Groff, who will be touring Australia in February,” Mr Dunstan said.

He said he would sow a mixture of grass and broadleaf species as part of the trial right across the State.

“We’re expecting we might find the trial will suit some areas better than others, according to the seasonal conditions.

“In the warmer parts of the region, we think it could be an opportunity-driven exercise, rather than a year in, year out part of the rotation, perhaps it will be a different story in the cooler climate areas and on irrigation.”

Mr Dunstan said he would begin sowing the trials on March 1.

“We talked about when to plant them and we decided that with the hot summer weather, it could be difficult to get trials to survive if it was planted mid-summer.

Mr Dunstan said the trials would be made up of a range of summer and winter active species, include cereal crops and popular winter pulses as winter active plants, along with sorghum and maize as summer grasses and cow peas, tillage radish, a long rooted plant similar to the Japanese vegetable daikon, and sorghum.

VNTFA executive officer Kerry Grigg said she was excited about the opportunities the state-wide trial presented to members and the broader cropping industry.

“This project takes the key messages from an international expert about soil health, and demonstrates in a practical way how farmers can achieve outcomes to improve their farm business here in Australia,” Ms Grigg said.

“With 2015 being the international year of soils, it couldn’t be a better time for Vic No-Till and our investors to highlight some of the latest innovations in farming that improve soil health.”

Mr Dunstan said he hoped the soil health benefits of the crops will include varied rooting depths to penetrate compaction layers, possible disease suppression, summer weed management, improved soil ecosystem function, increased soil biology diversity and improved water holding capacity through better soil structure.

The crops will also demonstrate increased soil aeration and utilising nitrogen fixation from legumes.

Ms Grigg said the decision to go away from traditional summer cover crops consisting of a single species and investigate the benefits of planting multiple species came after Mr Fuhrer’s presentations, where he talked about the importance of plant diversity to enhance soil biota and soil structure.

He also said monocultures of winter crops, which make up nearly all the plantings in southern Australia, could be detrimental to long term soil health.

“The farmers who attended our conference week could relate to what Jay was saying, and we had a groundswell of interest in taking cover cropping further in our part of the world. As such, we are delighted to have brought this farmer-driven project to fruition.”

A series of workshops with Mr Groff will be held across south-eastern South Australia, Victoria and the Riverina this month looking at the practicalities of cover cropping in a Mediterranean climate.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.