Central West NSW growers Gary and Tom Weston have taken more of the guesswork out of their winter cropping operation, increasing the efficiency of inputs applied to each paddock.
The Weston family have always seen value in making on-farm investments.
Since Don Weston originally purchased “Hazeldean” in 1967, located in northern NSW at Curban, 30km north of Gilgandra, his family’s farming practices have reflected a progressive approach.
Over the years, the family enterprise has evolved into one that had involved livestock and a more mixed operation, to one with a sole focus on cropping production.
Now, as his son Gary, and grandson Tom, lead the family’s farming operation spanning 3,600 hectares, with a further 900ha of leased/contract farmed land, they are also adopting new technologies and innovation.
After having been collecting yield data on their crops – a rotation that includes wheat, barley and grain oats, with lupins, canola, chick peas and field peas – the Weston family moved into a precision agriculture approach, which they say has dramatically improved the impact of their inputs.
“We started with 400ha, zoning and soil testing paddocks, and then last year we expanded the area, and with the purchase of a spreader with variable rate capabilities, the data was used for lime and urea applications,” Gary says.
Delta Ag Precision Agriculture Specialist Dan Rigney says, “Precision agriculture has allowed us to identify where high and low production zones are within every paddock, why they perform differently and how we can better manage inputs to improve efficiencies.”
Delta Ag Agronomist David Strahorn, who has been providing advice to the Weston family for a number of years, agrees precision agriculture was the next step in striving to improve agronomic practices.
“Zoning and soil testing has given us the ability to be far more accurate in prescribing inputs to match the yield potential across each paddock and more confident in making these decisions. Getting answers as to why different areas of a paddock are consistently producing at varying levels has been invaluable,” David comments.
Gary says there is a combination of red soil, deep red loam and some sand and lighter loams across paddocks.
“With variations in soil types within the one field, we are not really saving any inputs, but we are putting out inputs into more of the areas that require it. We are now getting bigger bang for our buck out of fertilizer and the requirements for lime application and that’s a big part of our program,” Gary says. “While we would normally be putting out a blanket 2.5t/ha on a field, we are still putting out the same 2.5t/ha, but some areas will be getting 4t/ha and other areas 1t/ha. Our overall cost hasn’t been a lot less, it’s putting the inputs in where they are required.”
Dan says that in lower performing soil types within some paddocks inputs have been reduced by 30 per cent, while rates on high production areas have been increased to really push yields.
Tom Weston, at 27, takes a big interest in the new practices on the farm and is excited about the big role he believes precision agriculture has into the future.
“I have always been passionate about farming. Getting out of it what you put in is really rewarding,” Tom says.
“I think it’s really important to stay ahead of the game, it can take a long time to catch back up again… I think we have really been building on the soil testing and data recording, seeing how it can really benefit our operations, but it’s a long-term process and where we will really see the gains.
Through the purchase of further farmland and on-farm infrastructure growth including the construction of a large 10,000 tonne capacity grain storage facility in 2015, originally to be used to store feed barley and weigh bridge and testing site, the operations are well equipped to maintain productivity into the future.
The Westons have also invested in farm machinery equipped with the technology to handle this new way of farming – last year a Gason spreader converted to 3 metre centres, and this year will be the first time they will plant using a Boss Engineering 18 metre bridge frame model parallelogram planter and box with a capacity of 20,000 litres.
“We have already planted some wheat this year and it’s really going to make everything a lot more efficient. Being able to really put the seed in the right area and having the capacity to variable rate fertilizer too as it’s needed is also a new saving,” Tom says.
“I think having the different machines now, and so much more is being shared between farmers on social media too, it’s making everyone more excited. I think the uptake of precision agriculture will grow, especially as inputs become more expensive and land is harder to obtain…
“With Dan and Dave from Delta Ag involved as well, it’s been a real team effort for our operation and we’ve been enjoying seeing the results.”
The Weston family employs one other full-time farm worker and seasonal workers are contracted if needed at planting and harvesting.
Whilst the cereal crops make up 50 per cent of the crop growth, Gary says the introduction of pulses over the years have also proved to be a game changer.
“It’s been important for us to have pulses in our cropping system too, and a wheat and lupins rotation has proven profitable for us over many years,” Gary says.
Dan is excited about this year’s season and says Gary and Tom will have the ability to do variable rate phosphorus, nitrogen and lime.
“These recommendations will be driven by data and an increased knowledge of soil variation across the farm,” Dan says. Using this data has meant we can put inputs out with more confidence. Across the farm there are small bands of soil that have reduced yield potential due to subsoil constraints, now having the ability to do variation rate application will allow Gary and Tom to pull back on inputs in these areas.
“They wanted a good simple platform and process, and they’ve got that now. Going forward there will be some serious gains for them.”
Gary believes there are also results evident in higher protein levels in some of the grain in lower yielding areas.
“It’s cost us money to make the investments to enable the technology of precision agriculture, but we are certainly hoping that the results at the other end of the season is where it will pay dividends.
“In one paddock the average protein of wheat recorded was 11 per cent, in the better areas producing higher protein and yields of 5 tonne, we saw the yields of 2 tonne still achieving up to 13 per cent protein levels. If we can’t lift the yield everywhere, we may also see significant benefit in having protein levels lifted.
“I think it’s the average or above average years is where we will really see the results.”
Average rainfall on the property is up between 500 and 600mm, and despite last year’s total of 190mm, this year is already promising with 300mm having fallen up until early autumn.
“We have a full profile now, urea has been pre-drilled through prescription maps, so we are looking forward to a nice early kick off,” Gary says.
As Tom looks out across the paddocks with his own small sons, Flynn, almost 3 years of age, and Noah, six months old, he believes the future is bright.
“On a world stage I believe Australian agriculture is going to be very strong going forward. Agriculture is always going to be there and relied upon more than ever.”