Soil farming – a balancing actJuly 16, 2020
• Toby Caithness, 340ha Bengworden
• Trevor and Carryn Caithness, 1400ha Forge Creek
• East Gippsland VIC
• Cattle, sheep and cropping
• Summer forage crops for cattle
• Also own a fertiliser supply and spreading business
• Using nutrients to balance soils for past two decades
This story first appeared in From the Ground Up, Summer 2020, Vic No-Till’s member magazine. The magazine also includes an extra Q&A with Toby on Liquids vs Granules. To become a VicNoTill member and access the latest in regenerative no-till farming systems in Australia join the Vic NoTill farmer network HERE.
The balance of farming
By Melissa Pouliot
It’s no secret that farming is a continual balancing act. Farmers steering away from conventional towards biological and regenerative systems, with no-till concepts such as increased groundcover and minimal soil disturbance in the mix, are challenging that balance even further. So how does a farmer who also owns a fertiliser business balance his biological farming system?
Toby Caithness farms at Bengworden and his family’s main block is at Forge Creek in East Gippsland, Victoria. The family’s cattle operation involves 500 breeding cows of which they trade 300 head a year. Most go to the ‘Coles Graze’ label which is guaranteed grass fattened. As well as the cattle they crop 30% of the farm, including summer forage covers. Toby’s block at Bengworden is 100% cropping (wheat/canola/faba bean rotation) and he finishes lambs over summer.
Their district is referred to as the ‘droughtier’ side of Gippsland compared to the lush coastal landscapes of South Gippsland. Their properties, redgum plain soils ranging from sand to sandy loam, start five kilometres from the coast and get around 620 millimetres of rainfall a year. Most farmers in the district run livestock and some grow grain for dairies. This is stored on-farm due to the closest grain receival being over three hours away.
Trevor, a 2002 Nuffield scholar, and Carryn moved Toby and his two sisters Teaghan and Telina from a family farming partnership at Leongatha to Bairnsdale in 2003. This newly acquired property was around 400 hectares of undeveloped land.
Toby’s main interest was machinery and growing up he was always out on a machine. He couldn’t wait to leave school and get back onto the farm. In 2010, while still working on the family farm, he started fertiliser spreading as a side business.
A small amount of contracting around the district with one spreader truck and seed drill gradually became busier and in 2013 he took on a fertiliser dealership. The business now has three spreader trucks and a seed drill which work from Bairnsdale to the border, including the Victorian ‘high country’. In the high country the spreaders work alongside planes in steep and occasionally dangerous terrain.
The Caithness family started on the path of applying nutrients to balance soils two decades ago, using a combination of lime and chicken manure. At around the same time Trevor embarked on his Nuffield Scholarship to study how chicken manure could be used as a cost-effective source of nutrient for pasture and cropping. He took things further in 2005 with a Albrecht-Kinsey system of soil fertility course. Toby, in secondary school at the time, took an active interest in the direction his Dad was taking their soils.
The ‘Albrecht System of Soil Fertility’ refers to the principals used to develop a system of testing that Dr. William A. Albrecht (1888-1974) worked to perfect during decades of work with soils. These principals focus on measuring the ‘Total Exchange Capacity’ (TEC), which in basic terms is the size of the ‘bucket’ or the capacity of a soil to hold nutrients.
A balancing act
Toby says they are not doing anything new or groundbreaking – the Albrecht system has been around since the 1930s. But it hasn’t always been widely publicised.
“If you are trying to balance the calcium levels in your soils so that nutrients are highly exchangeable, you reduce your long-term reliance on synthetics and the chemical companies aren’t going to make as much money,” he says.
This is when the conversation gets interesting. What challenges does a more biological way of thinking present for the long-term sustainability of his fertiliser business?
Toby takes an honest and measured approach.
“The Albrecht system does not fit well into a typical ‘high NPK recommendation type’ fertiliser business but a big part of what we do is help farmers be more profitable in the long-term.
“Even though the supply and spreading of superphosphate part of the business is the most profitable, we are pushing more limes and manures through and take a more long-term approach for our clients.
“Yes, you’ll get a big short-term response from your synthetics, such as urea and superphosphate, but what is the quality and nutrient density of what you are growing?”
Toby says a lot of synthetic fertilisers do have their place but at the same time the benefits are not positive for the soils in the long-run.
“Farmers tread a fine line to balance between farming profitably and farming biologically. It’s a tough one because if we go 100% biological we won’t make any money, so for us it’s about getting the basics right.”
Toby uses one example of a livestock farm that installed centre pivot irrigators six years ago and used a fertility program based on urea and potassium chloride (MOP).
“This is a good way to get quick vegetative growth, and it’s okay to use occasionally, but we advise that you don’t get hooked on it.”
Toby says the client started seeing things going backwards about three years ago but put it down to a change to drought conditions.
“This client notes, ‘we’re starting to see our soils physically tighten up and it’s not as productive as when we started irrigating, not matter how much water is applied’. They are only just now starting to appreciate that it’s more than just the seasons. It’s a bit of a worry about how long it’s going to take to reverse that.”
From what Toby’s learnt in the last 12 months in his own farming system, he believes biology will definitely be a key in this situation.
“A lot of people have a strong desire to develop an irrigation system within their operation before analysing and addressing basic soil constraints. Therefore, they don’t fully understand the damage that can be done over a relatively short period of time, sometimes less than five years, until they experience it on their own soil.
“I’m the same. As most farmers are visual learners it doesn’t properly sink in until we suffer the pain ourselves !”
Start with a soil test
Toby says the first thing they do on any land, whether it be theirs or one of his business clients, is to soil test.
“If we are going to be farming ground long-term, we need to have the soil balanced, or at least on the way to being balanced.”
In their area the first major nutrient they look at is calcium. As the ‘trucker of nutrients’ it’s the only cation of the four major ones (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium) that increases pore space and ‘loosens’ the soil. Toby says with a ‘perfect’ soil having 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals and 5% humus, soils in their area are always short on air.
“We’re always short on air, or pore space, because there’s too much magnesium and sodium in our soils. Calcium is the only nutrient that adds pore space which helps with infiltration.
“Fortunately, in Gippsland we have a lot of lime pits so it’s quite affordable for us to get calcium onto our country. When using limestone, it takes two to three years, depending on the lime source, to release that calcium into the soil.”
The optimum base saturation is 68%, but in East Gippsland most levels start off much lower, between 25 and 40%.
“Once the TEC is known we can balance a soil to the correct base saturations. By balancing the major nutrients (cations and anions) we keep plant nutrients in an available and exchangeable form, so what the current crop doesn’t use can be used by future crops,” Toby says.
“Also, by balancing the major cations, namely calcium and magnesium, we create an ideal environment for increasing the biological side in our soils.”
After considering the major cations they then look at phosphate (P205), sulphur and the trace element levels. They use chicken manure to address any major nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium deficiencies.
The next step is to stimulate the biology.
“There is no point stimulating the biology before we’ve got the calcium and magnesium sorted – they’re what affects the physical structure of the soil which is ‘the house for the biology’, so we need to get those things right first .”
Toby says most of the local soils are unable to be 100% balanced in the short-term due to the associated cost.
“Our aim is to simply get some available nutrient mobile and exchangeable in the soil through the trace elements of copper, zinc, manganese and boron.”
The high country they service through their fertiliser business has extra challenges in getting the balance right due to its remote and difficult terrain.
“The high country isn’t somewhere I can send any operator, you need a little bit of crazy in you! We haven’t tipped a spreader over yet but we’ve had front axles torn out of JCB Fastracs, occasionally slide down a hill and through a fence, and the cost of keeping air in tyres can be depressing some weeks.”
But back to the high country soils.
“These farmers are running large acres with an annual budget of $50-100 per hectare being fairly common, so we really have to prioritise where the funds are best spent. I can see these farmers who are growing lucerne, hay and silage being able to balance the soil on small cropping areas, but on any large grazing stations they probably won’t ever be able to balance the way we’d like to see because they have such big areas to cover and it’s impossible to do without going broke. This is a hard one for our business – we know what needs to be done to the soil for it to grow nutrient-dense crops, but it’s a challenge to provide cost-effective recommendations.”
VicNoTill cements ideas
Toby has travelled overseas several times and regularly attends training courses to build his knowledge and understanding of a more biologically-focused farming system.
With a lot of time in vehicles, he also gleans information from podcasts such as ‘Tractor Time’ by Acres and ‘Ag PdD Radio’ – a daily podcast with US farming and agronomy brothers Brian and Darren Hefty, an offshoot of America’s most watched agronomy television show. Although they’re in a different season, Brian and Darren give an up to the minute snapshot of soil and agronomy innovations coming out of the US.
Twitter is another resource, and Toby says it’s a great way of seeing what other people are doing on their farms and what’s working for them.
In 2018 Toby attended his first VicNoTill conference in Moama where one of his long-time mentors Peter Norwood from Full Circle Nutrition was a guest speaker. Also at this conference were: Wagga Wagga farmer Ben Beck whose strip ‘n’ disc system has taken their cropping to the next level in terms of resilience, soil structure and available moisture; Jay Fuhrer from the US who spoke about connecting cropping and grazing systems to achieve better soil health; and WA farmers Ian and Di Haggerty whose natural intelligence farming methods take away the reliance on chemicals for fertility in their sheep and soils, allowing natural systems to use their own intelligence to optimise functions.
“To be honest, up to that point I thought VicNoTill was all about strippers, discs, never cultivating and not having any stock so with us being mostly livestock and trying to bring cropping in I didn’t think I would get a lot out of it. It was refreshing to see that they are very focused on biology and trying to grow the life in their soils. VicNoTill are at the forefront compared to any other farming organisation that I deal with when it comes to farming biologically and happily sharing knowledge.
“We were already on this track but VicNoTill has cemented a few more things in our minds to try. ”
Last year a group of members from Gippsland Agricultural Group (GAgG) visited Mooroopna farmer Fraser Pogue on their way to Toby’s second VicNoTill conference. Fraser is a long-time VicNoTill member and soil health advocate with a passion for soils and microbes. He also creates his own biological liquid stimulants in special dissolving tanks.
Three from the visiting group, including the Caithness’s, set up their own liquid fertiliser tanks and applied homemade liquid urea, chelated with fulvic acid, at the first available opportunity.
“The conversations at Fraser’s opened up discussions on the bus trip home and seeing that he could do it made us feel like we could do it too. When you read about these things, they seem a bit complicated but seeing it applied by someone else it gives you confidence to have a go as well,” Toby says.
Not everything went to plan though. Toby believes their rate of 20kg/ha of urea (foliar) was too high. On top of using a coarse droplet this burnt some crops, especially anywhere that was doubled up. In future they plan to use a lighter rate but apply more often.
“We know we’re on the right track and just needs to fine tune our methods and seek out a bit more information about how to improve what we’re doing.”
They’ve been sowing summer covers for many years – both to keep living roots in the ground all year round and as part of managing their livestock. The family has traditionally grown a millet/rape type mix to utilise summer moisture.
Four years ago, after seeing it done in the US, they flew their seed on instead of using a seed drill. This was to address stubble issues and to take their covers to the next level, both above and below ground.
“We can usually bet on an end-of-November rainfall of two to three inches, so Dad came up with the idea to fly the seed on before so the rain could germinate it, then it would come up under the unharvested winter crop. This would mean we had valuable feed once the harvester was finished stripping the winter crop, rather than having to wait until after harvest to sow, then wait another four to eight weeks for the crop to be ready to graze. It was a way to increase our grazing window of our summer crops.”
Summer cover crops
The first time they flew seed on in mid-November but by the end of harvest the summer crops were coming up and creating harvest issues. To prevent this the following year, they went to a split application. The first plane flew over in the third week of October, and the second at the end of November.
“The split application was spot on. It worked a treat.”
But then drought kicked in and two seasons ago germination failed with only 10-15% of the summer crop seed germinating. With the 2019/20 summer shaping up with similar conditions they decided not to broadcast the summer crops with the plane, and instead sowed with their Vaderstad SeedHawk, a twin tined machine. They planted a mix of corn, millet, safflower, sunflowers, oats, peas, lentils, radish and buckwheat.
Toby says having a planting window of eight weeks helped spread the risk and allowed planting to be done inbetween contracting work.
Rainfall and timing of sowing
They’ve learnt that rainfall is the main dictator when it comes to the success of a diverse seed mix, followed by timing of sowing.
“We started sowing these covers early November and finished mid-December, following the header in our grain paddocks with the seeder. While the soil was still slightly too cold, the early sown crops germinated quickly. However, hot and windy days in December killed the majority of the broadleaf plants.”
Toby says by early January they’d given up on the broadleaf plants and were staring right down the barrel at a second season of failed covers.
Then it rained.
“We thought it was all over but we had 27mm in early January, followed by 80mm in mid and late January which got the corn, millet, and radish growing and thriving again.”
However, their later-sown covers had poor establishment and never recovered due to the season being too tough for the first three to four weeks post-germination.
“Whereas the earlier sown didn’t look very impressive on top of the ground I suspect they had time to get a root system developed, setting themselves up if the season did eventuate which thankfully it has.”
Worm juice works
Ideally their focus is on balancing the soil, so it can then feed the plant. But they’ve turned their attention more to the plant in the past four years after introducing sap tests and foliar fertiliser treatments on all winter cereals. Sap tests tell them which way they need to fine tune the crop so it can grow to its full potential.
“We’d been chasing all these nutrients and not quite hitting the mark with balancing things out so one season we tried to cut out all the fungicide and insecticide seed treatment and used worm juice as a seed dressing instead,” Toby says.
Going through the sap test results with Peter Norwood, they noticed that certain crops were 90% within being balanced on all nutrients, while others were chasing deficiencies and excesses of up to 200%.
“We realised the crops coated with worm juice were the crops where the sap levels had been bought into equilibrium. The only thing we’d changed was coating our seed with worm juice.”
Toby says they’ve found it to be a simple, cost-effective way of inoculating a seed with biology, so when it germinates the first thing it comes into contact with is concentrated biology. Results are steering them towards a full biological system.
“What we’re finding is we’re not putting nutrients out but the root exudates are stimulating nutrients via the biology – so it’s the biology that’s releasing our nutrients. The liquid system is lower cost and by stimulating the biology we’re feeding the plant what it needs when it needs it.”
They’ve had to adjust their approach even further in light of the past two dry seasons, which have limited progress with their soil balancing.
“If you go back 24 months we were probably a bit more optimistic of what our crops could achieve through a soil balancing program because we hadn’t had a dry year. But now we definitely don’t have that same potential with the way the seasons are. So we’ve had to adjust.
“When you can see that your crop is not growing to its full potential, there’s only so much foliar feeding you can do. You’ve got to know the limitations of whether it’s lacking nutrients or moisture – you need to be able to read your situation and work the best you can to it.”
Go with gut feel
It can be frustrating, but that is part of the challenge of farming. He says ‘gut feel’ is important when making changes.
“We definitely know we’ve got to have live roots in the soil all year round.
“This means that in our cropping system we’ve got to keep sowing even if the season doesn’t quite look right. The perspective we’ve come to is that we still have to sow to keep that living root going, to keep the biology going, to keep the nutrients cycling. But we are continually looking for ways to fine tune along the way to make sure we can remain viable.”
They’re sourcing fish waste from a local company and looking into how it can become part of their nutrient balancing programs, and are also keen to expand as long as they feel they can manage more land. Toby says that as well as immediate family and casual staff, they are fortunate to have three full-time, highly-skilled employees all looking after and interested in different aspects of the two businesses.
“These employees have been with us for 20-plus years and they are a huge factor to the family’s growth and success,” Toby says.
Groundcover is also a long-term goal, something they’ve found challenging to manage with the number of livestock in their system and consecutive years of drought.
“We’ve bared the country out a lot more than what we’d like to, especially these past few years, and would definitely like to have more groundcover. To address this we’re trying to sow two crops a year and keep living roots in the soil all year round.”
They use both disc and tine seeders, but going to a full strip ‘n’ disc system doesn’t fit into their program with current dry seasons.
“At the moment we’re only use our disc seeder to sow beans; we’re finding we’re getting better germination with our tine machine when it’s drier. But in standard seasons, with heavy stubble loads we use the disc to sow summer crops.”
Caution with new technology
Toby says he still loves machinery and the advances in technology that come with it. However, he approaches new technology carefully.
“I think we need to be very careful in investing in new technology – you can spend a whole lot of money without a whole lot of return. There’s a lot of data that new technology can bring into our farm business but the question is whether we can use and interpret that data to provide long-term benefits.”
The enjoyment of farming is what keeps him motivated and inspired to try new things, with an end goal of being financially stable for the long-term without mining the nutrients out of his soils.
As we were working on this article the Daily Nation interviewed Stuart Barden, an Australian farmer who moved to Kenya 10 years ago to establish a dryland farm. Toby has been following Stuart’s story, and Toby’s approach to farming resonates strongly.
Stuart says: “We try and do what works best. We do use chemicals and we have very healthy soils, although can always do better. The bottom line is that you take care of the soil. You cannot constantly take from the soil without giving back something. If you don’t give back to the soil, you are a miner, not a farmer and cannot expect that the soil (your farm) will continue giving something to you.”
“This sums things up perfectly for how we approach our farming. Our long-term aim is to farm with the whole family, profitably, whilst continually improving our soils, livestock and lifestyle. The outcome we’re striving for is to naturally produce nutrient-dense food. And this all starts with a balanced soil.”