Replacing fungicides with nutrition sets new direction

June 24, 2019

The full article appears in the Vic No-Till Members Magazine From the Ground Up, Autumn 2019 edition. We print three magazines a year and post to our members, with the focus on innovative Australian farmers such as the Stanich family: more membership details. 

Nutrition not fungicides

By Melissa Pouliot

Great Southern Western Australian grower Ben Stanich has always worked to a strict farm business model with a clear outcome of maximising crop yield. And a decision in 2013 to replace fungicides with nutrition has set a new direction with unexpected and pleasing results.

Ben and his wife Mardi took over the running of the 9700-hectare property from Ben’s parents Anthony and Leanne in 2012. While Ben focuses on the what’s happening in the paddock, Mardi concentrates on the financial and office management aspects of the business. A model that Ben says is essential in order to achieve success.

“Mardi and I are a great team- the way we have structured the business operation and execution works perfectly. We share everything. Mardi knows what I’m working on and achieving out in the paddock, and I know financially how everything is tracking”.

Anthony and Leanne are still financially involved and when they are home they help out whenever they can.

Ben’s interest in plant nutrition meant they shifted away from a more conventional farming system into regenerative, zero-till territory.

Ben says there was never any doubt he would return to the farm he grew up on. He went away to boarding school and when he finished he moved straight back home.

“When I was younger I followed Dad around like a shadow, and was always asking him ‘why and how’. When I was older, I loved coming home in school holidays and helping out. The farm has always been in my blood and farming is always what I wanted to do. I’ve been here forever, and this is where I’m going to stay.”

No more sheep

Sheep traditionally accounted for most the farm income from when the family first purchased land in the area in 1963, but in 2010, with a dip in sheep prices and with wool being worth ‘bugger all’, they moved to 100% cropping.

They knew if they were relying solely on cropping income, they needed to get it right and started trying new methods.

“The big things we really look at are weed control, soil health, groundcover, picking the right rotation and plant nutrition. We aim to get all these things right to maximise yield and make our system more sustainable.”

Ben says they aren’t in drought conditions, but the current trend is definitely moving towards being warmer and drier.  They’ve had zero rainfall in January and February, which is unusual.

“When you look at the records of our neighbour which go back more than 90 years, I believe it’s more of a cycle, rather than climate change, that we’re going through.

“Our winters are definitely getting drier. You wouldn’t call it drought in comparison to what’s happening in the east, as we’re still getting grain, and can still operate. But we are definitely operating on less rain at the moment and that’s partly why we’re doing what we’re doing now; trying new things to conserve our moisture the best we can.”

Windrow burning

Going into 100% cropping meant having to control one of their biggest risks, weeds. Initially, to get the weed numbers down, they burnt narrow windrows.

“We knew it was the wrong thing to do as far as our cover went but we did it to get ahead with weeds. We were aware of the importance of cover but compromised this in favour of weeds.”

After burning for six years the negative effects were becoming more obvious. They were exposing their soils to heat which was damaging their biology, and any rain would evaporate quickly because there was very little mulch on the ground to retain moisture.

“Burning worked with the weeds but by getting rid of our cover, we could see it would start to cost us majorly, and impact on our bottom line. We wanted to get out of it before we reached that stage.”

No more burning

For several years they’d been trying to balance out subsoil constraints by focussing on plant health and nutrition.

“We soon learnt that foliar applications on the crop had been a critical part of buffering the negative impacts of burning, and this got my mind ticking that we were onto a really good thing with nutrition.

“We were still working to the same business plan, but went down a different path to get there.”

They replaced fungicides with nutrition, and then started liquid injecting at seeding.

“We were already applying foliars, and that was working really well. When we dropped out the fungicides, that was a real game changer.

“Then we started with the liquid inject and felt ready to move to the next chapter of full cover. It’s worth noting that removing fungicides from the system was essential before we could move to full cover.”

Ben reached this turning point three years ago where he took the steps not to compromise cover any longer. He threw out the matches and invested in a stripper, disc and destructor.

“With the stripper front we’re leaving everything behind and just taking the heads; the role of this tool in our system is purely and simply to keep as much cover as we can.”

But they still weren’t sure how to deal with weeds.

“Addressing the weed side of things is critical to us. If you’ve got a weedy crop, you’re not going to make a lot of money, and this will affect your rotation the following year; so we got onto a Harrington Weed Destructor. What goes through the combine goes through a mill, turns it, and beats the crap out of it and destroys weed seeds and any volunteer seed that would normally get spread out the back of the combine.

“These two tools have been a game changer as far as the stripper straw goes. It allows us to pick up weeds and get rid of them while still maintaining full cover.”

They had some minor breakdowns on their destructor in the first year, but Ben says any dramas are definitely worth putting up with.

“This year the destructor has been fantastic as far as reliability goes, which is great because the destructor works hand in hand with the stripper front; it’s such a great combo.”

Disc seeder

They considered all options carefully and decided a disc seeder was the other tool essential to this system.

“There are a few benefits with the disc, the reasons these tools go so well together. With the discs you’ve got zero disturbance to your soils, and you can easily get through the stripper straw at sowing with a disc.”

Before investing in a disc seeder, Ben visited other farmers, some who were running a strip ‘n’ disc system really well, and others who weren’t going so well. He also spoke extensively with Colin Bowey from CB Farming Systems.

“We had to fully understand how we were going to attack our problems, decide on what changes to make, then do it properly. Everyone we talked to going down this strip ‘n’ disc path had said if we were going to do it, we had to do it properly or not at all.”

Ben says the transition wasn’t easy but learning from others had helped with the transition.

“It was a massive change, there’s no doubt about it. Talking to other people is fantastic, you learn a lot from what they’re doing and you can pick the eyes out of it, which makes it a lot easier when you have a go.”

“Col has been a great help, and it was good to see both sides of what other farmers were doing. It’s taken us quite a few years to get to this stage, and although we’re happy where we’ve gotten to, we know we still have so much to learn. We are learning all of the time.”

Another adaptation for this system was to change their row spacings from 10-inch to 7.5-inch, which Ben says is another important change to make.

“Narrower rows help with weed competition and, is also important to maximise your cover.”

Disc vs tyne

Ben says the most stress is caused by going into the unknown, and last year they lined up their new disc system with their old tyne system to make some comparisons.

“There’s more room for error with a disc and so last year we still did one third of our program with the tyne. We’d start the tyne on one side of the paddock, the disc on the other. It was an opportunity for us to see the differences.”

The results were starkly obvious.

“Where the disc was we had a lot less weeds, it was very clean. Generally, people say you’ll have a dirtier crop with a disc, but for us it was the complete opposite.”

Germination with the disc was also a lot better.

“Everything went in dry-seeded and we definitely got a better yield with the disc. It wasn’t much – we’re probably only talking a 200-kilogram yield response – but if you’ve got a clean crop versus a weedier one, that’s a massive benefit.”

Lighter load

After so many years of time, effort and energy going into weed control, Ben is going into this year with a much lighter load.

“The disc has been very successful and has set us up so well for the following year. Coming into this year the weed side of things doesn’t worry me at all. Weeds have been a massive thing to manage for us. Weeds will always be at the back of our mind and you’ll always do absolutely everything to keep your weeds down. But with all these changes, the extra cover, as well as having more mulch on the ground to suppress weeds – we are going to be getting a better result all the time.”

Plant nutrition

This frees Ben up to concentrate on his nutrition, and he’s excited at what he’s seeing.

He tissue and soil tests so that he can tailor-make trace element brews to each specific paddock. It’s also easy to spot deficiencies just by looking at the plant.

“I’m getting right into the nuts and bolts of what the plant needs as far as nutrition goes, and getting that right.

“This has made a big difference in getting optimum yield, and it also addresses subsoil issues by putting certain products into a root zone barrier to push plant root systems through that zone. We’re getting great results.”

Three years ago he also started injecting liquids at seeding.

“We’re covering both bases by injecting into the furrow as well as spraying the foliar. The reason is that our soils aren’t perfect, we’re still improving them, and you do get trace elements that get locked up.

“My idea behind this program is that we can top up from the top what’s not available from the roots. Plus we’re not spending all our money in one hit, we’re spreading it out. What the plant misses out on in the roots, you can fix with a foliar. I think that’s really important.”

In Ben’s eyes, foliar feeding crops is a win-win situation, especially if you have problem soils.

“It gives you the best opportunity to grow a higher yielding crop, in comparison to if you were to leave it, and do nothing. Often when you address problem soils, it compromises yield. In this situation, it gives you a chance to fix problem soils without negatively impacting yield.”

One thing they have learnt about foliar feeding crops is the timing of application is critical to get optimal yield.

“Getting to know what paddocks are lacking, and what is important, is a necessity. This allows you to be able to plan what and when foliars need to be applied before the crop loses too much potential, and before the deficiency fully kicks in.”

They apply two foliar applications over the growing season, one at early tillering and the second at the second/third node stage.

“The idea of this is the first application will sort out any deficiency from tillering onwards and the second application will balance out any imbalance that may not have been fixed from the first spray. The other big one is having a more resilient plant against frost and heat when the crop is making grain.”

Resilient plants

Having more nutritionally-balance plants makes them more resilient to extremes and although it’s still early days, Ben says one sign he’s headed in the right direction is that their crops have stood up to harsh environmental stresses such as significant frosts.

“I believe that where we’re at now is a big driver for frosts. What we’re doing through injecting liquid wise and our foliar program, this is helping our plants stand up to frost, as well as heat stress. A balanced plant is going to stand up to those conditions a lot better than something that’s deficient.”

All his liquids are organic. He still uses a granular P source which he’s moving towards changing to liquids.

“Liquids just give you more options. As far as getting soil biology and soil health right, liquids are balancing that out. By putting a lot of elements down to help the issues that are there, you’re using the root systems of plants to push through that problem zone, which helps convert any issues that you do have.”

Open minded

Ben says they’re learning all the time from their trials, by listening to other growers and by being open minded to different things.

“Mum and Dad always taught me to look outside the square. Yes, you need a plan and a goal, but being open minded to new ideas is important. You also need to believe in what you’re doing and have confidence in those beliefs.”

Ben says surrounding yourself with the right people is also important.

“We have two full-time employees, Danny Harris and Josh Curtis, and they’re a significant part of the team in our business. They’re part of the furniture, they understand what we’re trying to do and are on the same page in the direction we’re trying to head. This is really important. The people working for you have got to understand what you’re trying to achieve, and we’re really lucky in that way.”

Change is coming

Ben says change is inevitable and it won’t be long before farmers are forced to change their chemical use.

“We need to prepare ourselves for a world where we won’t be allowed to use some of the chemicals we’re using today. We had some French farmers tour this area not too long ago. They were horrified by the use of fungicides in Australia and were shocked driving around and seeing farms where fungicides are applied two to three times a year. They told us fungicides were a thing of the past in the France if you want to go forward.”

Improving soils

While still working to their business plan, the main objective has become improving soils.

“In return, you should grow a better crop, which is our original goal. That’s what we are all trying to do – grow better crops. My parents were very successful farmers. They always taught me to find a business model that works and stick with it – of course you make changes to improve, but you need to have a plan that you’re working towards.

“Where this path is leading is that, as time goes on and the soils improve more, our input costs come down because our soils are working how they should. We’ve got a long way to go but I do believe we are improving things and that’s the best way for our business to go forward.

“We are making sure that our kids are able to farm this land if that’s what they want to do, to provide a future for many years to come.”

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