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Future Farmers Network member Matt Champness was the recipient of our Conservation in Agriculture 2030 Conference bursary, kindly supported by Charles Sturt University. Hailing from Griffith, Matt is currently undertaking his PhD in Automated Irrigation in Rice. He was keen to be involved in this conference because it "will provide me the opportunity to engage with other agricultural professionals who are working to increase agricultural productivity whilst simultaneously improving environmental outcomes". Matt attended the conference webinar this week, and will head to Sydney for the second portion in the coming months. Read his thoughts about the webinar here! 

The webinar kicked off with David Jochinke - Western Vic farmer and VFF president discussing the requirements for Australian farmers to focus on minimum soil disturbance, preventing erosion and the need for diversity of crop rotations continue to improve so health and provide maximum farm productivity. For this to occur technology has to be affordable and adaptable - to make it suitable for Australian conditions as most machinery is manufactured overseas for different environments. The impact the Australian Dollar has on farm profitability was said to be equality important as the weather. Professor Stephen Powles commended Australian farmers for the way in which they have adopted No Till and Strategic Tillage to conserve and improve soil health, but acknowledge the difficulty in controlling weeds, disease and pests. Professor Powles described glyphosate as a ‘once in a century herbicide’, however, there was no doubt he is concerned about the future efficacy of the technology with increasing resistance and regulatory pressures a real threat to its continued use in Australia and globally. Worryingly, 58% of farmers believe we’ll have a replacement for glyphosate in 10 years, however, Professor Powles and the wider scientific community believe it is possible, but it’s by no means assured. Professor Powles lives by the motto “when you’re on a good thing, don’t stick to it” which was echoed by Bayer’s Richard Dickmann urging us to all preserve its efficacy by using all the tools available; patch spraying, spot spraying, robots, drones, non-chemical weed control technology and the use of digital technology to improve weed management. Michael Walsh of University of Sydney discussed some of the challenged faced with shifting weather patterns form winter to summer dominate. Farmers need to restrict run off, reduce evaporation and maximise ever drop of rain that hits the ground. We have significantly increased rates of herbicide resistance and therefore Michael encourages the use of non-herbicide technology to control weeds, whilst less effective in the short term, they are essential in the long term.

Lindsay Bell busted myths in regards to integrating livestock into the cropping system. CSIRO research has shown the impacts from livestock on no till stubble retention crop systems as minimal and can be managed (cattle are after all lighter than tractors!), allowing producers to maximise farm profitability through diversified operations.

Angela Pattison showed some pretty promising results from trials at Narrabri of chickpeas sown in Feb and harvested in May/June. Yields are looking good for this to be incorporated into farming systems, however weeds, pests and disease risk is high due to attack from both summer and winter types. Angela also presented her research into native grains – whilst there are many environmental, social and community benefits, producing them economically is a challenge with low yields and milling issues. How much is the consumers willing to pay?

The afternoon highlighted where we are going with conservation agriculture in the future with presentations from David McKeon from Grain Growers, Coonamble based farmer Tony Single and Birchip Cropping Group’s Fiona Best. Key themes were the need for coordinated research into weed and pest control in minimum tillage systems with accurate measuring and valuing associated costs. Tony described the benefits of using drones to map weeds before targeted spraying – allowing better decisions to be made e.g. to spot, area or blanket spray, how much chemical to pre-mix and defining the shortest route possible to save time, fuel and R&M costs.

It was clear from the webinar that we have come a long way in retaining ground cover and reducing soil degradation; but to overcome the challenges of controlling weeds and diseases in no till practices with decreasing herbicide efficacy and improbable chances of new chemistry, coupled with increasing social, economic, geopolitical and climatic pressures we must look long term and use all tools available in the toolbox, using technology to assist in decision making. Remember, if you’re onto a good thing, don’t stick to it.

I’d like to thank FFN and CSU for their support to attend the conference in Sydney and look forward to providing insights afterwards.

Matt Pic
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