A focus on soil health and grid sampling has led to higher yields, from lower inputs, on the Darling enterprise, at Timaru, in South Canterbury.
Andrew Darling farms 500 hectares of arable land on the coast, growing wheat, barley, ryegrass, spring onions, sunflowers, and oilseed rape through a four-to-five-year rotation.
“Soil health has definitely been a big focus on this farm, and from my Dad, Warren, beforehand. We start from the soil and work upwards. We don’t burn any residue and don’t invert the soil.”
“We're trying to do the minimum amount of tillage possible every year and we want to have the soil work with us instead of working against it."
The property had previously been an intensive stock farm and so the Darlings implemented a hectare grid sampling program to look at a range of elements including pH, P and K and organic matter.
Variable rate applications are then used to manage the land going forward.
“We're benchmarking ourselves every four years and retesting in a rotation,” Mr Darling said. “We're seeing great improvements, especially with addressing our pH that we wouldn't if we just took normal soil tests across the ground.”
The program has led to increased organic matter and carbon levels.
“With organic matter we’ve gone from high threes into high fours. Our plan going forward is to test more often and keep an eye on it a bit more, but we know we are going in the right direction."
The pH levels are also now stabilising at 6 to 6.2 and Mr Darling said this helped unlock nutrients and microbes.
“With our magnesium levels, for instance, we are understanding more of how it works in our wheat crops and also the rape.”
He said the next step in the evolution of the farm was to address the nitrogen management using a range of technologies.
“Satellite imagery and a nitrogen mounted sensor on top of the cab is allowing us to variably change the nitrogen input to the crop growth.”
“We’re in the second full season of running that now. We’re recording data so we can overlay it with our yield maps from our combine, and our soil data.
He said some areas may not provide a return from additional nitrogen because of the aspect or slope.
“Anything we put on, we want to be taking off again, not only for profitability, but also for the environmental impact. We want to be 100 per cent efficient in what we're applying. We are very close to the ocean, and we want to be very aware of what we are doing and keep everything we are doing on the farm and in the soil.”
The program has seen a reduction in nitrogen application and other elements, such as P and K are being placed in the areas that need them.
“It's getting the right equipment and the right GPS gear to be able to then go and apply how we needed to,” Mr Darling said.
“It's been incremental steps, but I think we've tried to adopt anything we can at the right time.”
“The main game is profitability and then the environmental impact,” he said.
“My wife Amy, and I have been lucky. Mum and Dad, Joy and Warren, have given us a crack to have a go in our own right. We’ve got three young boys, and we want them to have a crack too. If we can leave the soil and things in a better position than what it is now and leave it in a better position for them, that's pretty cool. I think that's our job done."
“Going forward, I think there's still the ability to increase yields, but with reduced input. That's what I'd really like to see, and I think there's an ability to do that.
Feed wheat yields have been at around 12 tonnes per hectare dryland and, in the past, the property grew a world record barley crop at 13.8 tonnes per hectare.
Over the last four years Integrated Pest Management practices have also been adopted to encourage beneficial insects to help control pests.
“Aphids are a big problem we have in our cereal crops and oilseed rape and so we can naturally reduce those numbers without having to use so much chemical,” Mr Darling said.
“In rape crops, we can go most of the season now and we're using products that are softer for a tidy-up in peak flowering to help us through to the end of pod fill.”
Mr Darling recently won the Regional Award for New Zealand in the Corteva Climate Positive Leaders program, and said it was good to see companies embrace sustainable agriculture.
“It's great to have companies like Corteva working in that biological space and lighter touch chemistry so that we can have less of an environmental impact but still have a profitable crop."
“It's huge and so for them to take a front foot on it - it's great."
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