Stepping towards fully functioning soils: BRENT ROTHACKERSeptember 24, 2019
VicNoTill president Brent Rothacker first appeared in From the Ground Up in 2017, soon after he joined the board. At the time he sent out an open invitation to farmers to visit his north-central Victorian property at Bridgewater to see the zero-till, regenerative system he and his father have been building since VicNoTill started in 2002. Little did he imagine he’d end up getting a visit from world-renowned soil biologist Jill Clapperton as well! When Brent became VicNoTill president in 2019 we revisited his farm to ask him how his system has evolved since becoming a board member. This article appeared in the Spring 2019 edition.
- Bridgewater, Victoria
- Irrigation, cropping, sheep, cattle, stockfeed business and multi-species covers
- Twitter @BrentRothacker
By Melissa Pouliot
When Brent Rothacker hosted world-renowned soil biologist Jill Clapperton from the US as part of her 2018 VicNoTill tour to share the latest insights about the complicated relationships between soil and plants, he had to pinch himself.
He never imagined he’d have an expert of her calibre analyse the paddocks he and his father Peter have been working to improve for nearly two decades through reduced tillage and more recently multi-species cover cropping and cattle.
“Dad joined VicNoTill when it first started and our family has been a member since then. Dad took me to my first conference 10 years ago, and I haven’t missed one yet.”
While Peter has always looked to VicNoTill for the latest on stubble retention and zero till techniques, it’s Brent’s interest in learning how to improve the natural functions of his soil that the farmer-led organisations has nurtured.
Fully functioning soils
“The full understanding of soil biology is still in its infancy and farming has to start to respect the role it plays a lot more. The bottom line is that growing healthy food is difficult without fully functioning biology in our soil,” he says.
Brent describes their system as a zero-till, biological and working towards regenerative. It’s a mouthful but everything connects to the ultimate goal of improved soil health.
They are making a range of changes including cutting out fungicides and insecticides where they can. For the past three years they’ve used liquid-inject biological fertiliser and small amounts of UAN (Urea Ammonium Nitrate) at sowing.
Regular tissue testing for imbalances helps determine their foliar nutrition applications which aim to maximise plant growth efficiency and health. For eight years they haven’t used fungicide on the seed or in crop, and this year they are using compost extracts to outcompete the pathogens on their plants.
“The compost extract is helping against prevention of disease. It’s very cost effective at about $1 an acre. I have been using vermicast in conjunction with the compost.”
Diversity the key
Reintroducing the missing biology to paddocks, with diversity being the key, is an exciting step forward in his system.
“What we’re seeing is that by having healthier, more efficient plants we’re reducing the need for fungicides and insectides.”
A turning point for their system was when private agronomist Col Bowie came on board. Col has extensive experience in rebuilding soil biology through conventional and biological systems working together.
“He’s the first agronomist who actually investigated my soil with a shovel,” Brent says. “That appeals to me because my shovel is always in the back of the ute. I’m always checking the soil to check for worms and structure.
“With a cover crop you can see the changes straight away with the vigourous roots building soil aggregates and increasing worm activity. It doesn’t take long to visually notice changes.”
Learning from others
He has also learnt a lot from VicNoTill conference, paddock event and workshop speakers such as Joel Williams, Nicole Masters and more recently Graeme Sait.
“We are fortunate to be able to bring people like these out into our paddocks and to conferences and events – you’ll always learn something you didn’t know but just as important is getting a reminder or a different perspective on what you do know.”
He says spending time in other farmers’ paddocks also provides a terrific opportunity to learn.
“Farmers like Grant Sims and others throughout the VicNoTill network love showing people around their farms. We’ve also got a big group of farmers from the Wagga area who are getting great results with their stripper fronts and discs – they’ve had some really tough years and their crops are still standing up to the dry times. When it does rain, their dams don’t fill because the water just infiltrates into the soil.”
Healthy functioning soils
Brent says he’s found what he’s looking for through VicNoTill due to its ‘farmers helping farmers’ approach towards finding new ways to create healthy, functioning soils.
“What VicNoTill strives to do is help farmers grow healthier plants, become more profitable, and improve their greatest asset – which is their soil.”
Another turning point was an understanding of how to make a farming system more diverse through the diversity of plants.
“The machinery side of things isn’t a big focus for me; I’ve already got the machinery I want which seems to be doing the job okay. What I’m mostly trying to do is use plants to regenerate the soil.”
He says the way they farm in their district is against the norm, making it important to find a network of farmers singing from the same song sheet.
“Changing your farming system can be a slow journey and through VicNoTill I’ve been able to talk to others about these processes taking a lot longer than expected. The steps you take to improving your soil takes time – there are no quick fixes to problems that have built up over a long period of time through more conventional methods. It requires time and patience.”
He says 2018 was extremely dry, but they’ve been fortunate this year after May 10 rainfall got crops off to a good start, followed by showers all through winter.
“This year the crops look very healthy. We’ve been getting rain from the west which hasn’t happened for a while. There hasn’t been a large amount but it’s been well timed. We’ve only had a couple of light frosts, nothing major so far.”
Brent says they haven’t got much subsoil moisture so are relying on the rainfall as they head into the warmer months.
He says drought is never far from their minds, and what’s happening in other parts of the country is a continual reminder of how little control they have over climate.
Yet it is also a reminder that the changes they’re making can help them through the tough years.
“Drought years highlight the importance of groundcover, fertiliser choice and application, reduced tillage – zero till if you can, and controlled traffic farming.
“We’ve also learnt to be more efficient with fertiliser and not to force plants to grow through the colder months. We’ve been focussing on not loading them up in winter which forces them to bulk up. This is okay if you’re going to get the spring rainfall but we’re lucky to get one good spring every five years.”
Brent says if they feed their crops too much at the start of the year they also get too large and have lazy, weak root systems.
“We’ve learnt that too much synthetic fertiliser can cut the link with soil biology. It’s important not to cut that link because this soil biology, including fungi, provides nutrition throughout the network later in the season when the plant needs it most.”
He suggest to buffer your fertiliser with carbon at the start or try and use a biological seed treatment, so the biology sticks around through the year to provide nutrient to plants later in the season, when the fertiliser applied at start of year might be running out.
Brent says they’ve also found that more nutrient-dense plants (higher sugar levels) could be less prone to frost.
“It’s not a silver bullet against frost but it’s one tactic you can have in your toolbox. In my environment I’m using legume companions with most of my cereal crops which exude amino acids through their roots, feeding the cereals while the legumes are also feeding the fungi.
“Along with more balanced nutrition I’m seeing the results for myself with consistently higher brix levels between 12 – 18. Most of the crops are handling the dry years okay which gives me confidence in what I’m doing.”
Strip ‘n’ disc
Their 800-hectare farm has 200 hectares of bore irrigation and they grow grain, legumes, canola, lucerne, hay and multi-species covers. They also have 1000 cross-bred ewes, are starting to get back into cattle and they value-add with a stockfeed business.
He says some of the mechanical tools that play a role are a stripper front, which they purchased last year, and disc seeder.
“The stripper stubble is for keeping my soil shaded through summer and reducing evaporation along with providing easier planting conditions due to less chaff being on the ground.”
He’s yet to experience the full benefits, with 2018 being such a dry year and yielding a lot less stubble, plus needing to graze some of the stubbles over summer.
“It wasn’t really a year to see the maximum benefits of the stripper front, but it’s very easy to use, made harvest quicker and we also got a cleaner sample. We’re really happy with it going forward.”
He says people also underestimated the importance of groundcover to soften the rainfall impact on the soil. As seen with the rainfall simulator that VicNoTill demonstrates at its conference and events, heavy rain can seal the surface of bare soil and cause run off.
For the past seven years they’ve been rotating 80-120 hectares (200-300 acres) with cool and warm season covers to reduce compaction and improve soil structure. Another benefit of providing more fibrous roots to the soil is more feed for the winter, for the stock both above and below ground.
They try to sow covers after harvest onto both their irrigated and dryland paddocks. He has learnt that timing and resources are critical with covers.
“We do have some irrigation water available that we can use at the start of the growing period for summer covers but we don’t have a high amount available as we also irrigate lucerne over summer. There’s only so much you can do around harvest, sometimes you just don’t have the time to get the covers in.”
They grow most of their crops for the stockfeed business, with 75% of their grain sold in bags and most of the hay processed into steam-cut chaff for the equine industry.
“The reason we started farming this way originally was because we were striving to grow higher quality produce for this market. We’ve always taken a long-term approach. We didn’t know about the links between the soil and healthy plants right at the start, that’s something we’ve learnt along the way.”
Links to mental health
He says they feel better about farming in a way that is more health conscious – by looking after their soils they are growing a healthier product and are gradually improving the soil.
“You hear about it all the time, how changing your diet and eating healthy food can improve your mental wellness. Researchers are starting to discover stronger links between the health of your gut microbiota and your mental health and making the link between the microbiota in the soils that grows the food we eat.
“If we have healthy soils growing healthy plants on our farms, that’s going to lead to better human health too – physical and mental. We are hearing more and more that we have to find a better way to farm and it all comes from our soils.”
Brent says they never stop learning and they regularly make mistakes. The important thing is to not make the same mistake twice.
“Last summer we sowed cover crops and got 40 millimetres of rain on them in December which got them up and going well. We got excited and put our sheep on but we grazed a bit too hard and lost too much groundcover. This year those paddocks aren’t doing quite as well because we didn’t have the soil cover to help trap the moisture and the soils became a bit hard.”
Brent is feeling a groundswell of interest from both within and outside the agricultural industry in farming more regeneratively and with a higher awareness of soil health.
“Research and interest in regenerative systems is increasing all the time, as people realise our most important asset is our soil. We’re also seeing an increase in mainstream media coverage of agriculture being a solution to putting carbon back into the soil.
“From the perspective of VicNoTill, we’re seeing a growth in interest in what we are up to, with a record number of people at our conference in July and a lot more younger farmers getting involved.”
Brent encourages farmers to look over the fence and attend events that focus on farming to improve your soil function.
“Australia has some great farmers reducing their inputs through disc seeding and stripper fronts and foliar fertilising. They are maintaining increasing yields and quality and withstanding drought.
“I’ve seen this system work on my farm and on other farms who are farming this way. Soil structures definitely improving – they have more aggregration and hardpans are disappearing. There are less requirements for rescue measures on plants, and plants are definitely more resilient in tough years.”
Brent says another constraint for changing to a more regenerative system is the lack of premium on the commodity market for growing nutrient dense grains or hay.
“You do get paid for higher protein or certain levels in hay for example, but there’s certainly no great premium for growing a nutrient dense product unless you can access a niche market. However, I think with mixed farmers feeding hay and grain they’ve grown to their own livestock is a great reason to strive to grow the healthiest crops they can, which is directly related to the health and function of their soil.”
Change is happening
Brent says the shift is happening now towards a demand for higher quality food.
“There is a growing awareness in the community and people are wanting more nutrient dense food. They want to know where and how their food is grown, and they want less chemical residue. This demand is happening now and will continue to grow.”
He says being part of VicNoTill has been a great way to stay connected in his pursuit for healthy soils, healthy plants and human health – both physical and mental.
“Farming can be a stressful job and quite often you are on your own with not a lot of people to talk to and a lot of tough decisions to make. And if you’re not in the right mental space makes it a lot more difficult.
“Change is definitely not without its risks; with farms getting bigger and larger with increased debt it can be hard to make a change due to risk of failure.
“Being connected to a group like VicNoTill means you always have someone to talk to who might be experiencing the same challenges with the changes they’re making. Things might not be working as planned, or something might have failed completely.
“You’ve always got plenty of people who have been there and done that, and are willing to share their experiences – both good and bad.”