OptiSurfacing – A Key Farm Investment

Wade Bidstrup of Aloe Farming Co. in southern Queensland, explained how Optimum Surface Landforming is a key investment for increasing the profitability of their dryland grain farm at the Australian ABARES Outlook Conference.


So we’re from Warra, which is on the Darling Downs. It’s about 250 kilometres west of Brisbane. We grow summer and winter crops, with our main crops being mung beans, sorghum, corn, chickpeas, and fava beans. Although we also grow lesser amounts of wheat, barley, and millet.

We’re dry land farming a flood plane. Our soil is grey crack inverter, so I’ll only receive an average of 650 mills of rain a year. And that would range between 300 and 1,000, I reckon, in the last five years.

An investment on farms doesn’t just include and investment in machinery infrastructure. To get the most out of any investment and increase the profitability on any farm, there also needs to be a large investment in knowledge. Knowledge to get the most out of machinery and knowledge to identify shortfalls in your farm and how to act upon them.

And when I talk about profitability, the vast majority of the time I’m talking about increase in yield. Yield is king, and if reduction in inputs means decrease in yield in even one in five years, then very often this is a very poor decision. One example of a technology that a majority of farmers have invested in over the last 15 or 20 years is yield monitoring in harvesters.

These monitors and their associated software produce colourful yield maps that highlight high and low yielding areas of the paddock. Here’s a couple of yield maps from one of our paddocks.

Despite the huge uptake in monitors, though, the vast majority of farmers, at least in or area, do absolutely nothing with them. In fact, I’d say that after looking at them while they’re on the header, 90% of growers in our region don’t even bother downloading the file off the header.

And the reason for that is simple. It has been very difficult for anyone to find a way to use this data to increase profitability. You can see from this yield map that the high yielding and low yielding areas swap around in wet and dry years. And that makes variable rate fertiliser application very difficult. And in fact, there’s a good argument to say that trying a variable rate on this paddock would, in fact, decrease your profitability.

So on our flood plane farm, we have very low slopes. The reason for this is water, and the solution is land forming. Well, the problem paddocks don’t look all that bad. You can see the paddock in that last picture there on the side.

With the low slope, every little ridge from past farming practises or remnant melon hole left after countless passes with the land plane potentially holds water for weeks at a time in wet years. Land forming is a process where fields are first very accurately surveyed using correct GPS, fixed base stations near the fields being surveyed, and permanent accurate benchmarks.

The elevation data from this survey is then fed into a land forming programme. Parameters are set. And out pops a proposed elevation and cut and fill map for that field which balances the cuts and the fills and allows the field to drain perfectly.

The software we use allows the field to drain along natural drainage lines, not in fixed directions, which drastically cuts the amount of soil that has to be shifted so that what would once have been a very expensive job and shipped in lots of soil now takes a lot less time and the cuts are much smaller, which means a lot less soil disruption and corresponding yield impacts on crops for years to come.

The file of this programme is then put back into the tractor, which controls the cutting edge of the bucket perfectly wherever you are in the paddock. While there are some short term negatives to land forming, such as giving up the zero till programme and the compaction and topsoil movement involved with the levelling, the results with drainage have been excellent.

So here’s an example what the land forming is done to a paddock at our place. The left hand picture shows the water crossing one of our paddocks in a flood. That was in 2013. Well, the right hand photo shows the same field, although a little bit further to the west, and 10 days later.

The foreground of this picture hasn’t been levelled yet, while the background has. And you can see all that standing water in the foreground. And that standing water led to the yield losses in that yield map there, which is the same field, just the northern half, pre-land forming.

The land forming of that paddock cost us about $250 a hectare, which is very expensive. But it’s nothing compared to the $600 per hectare worth of damage to that field in that year alone.

We think that the land forming programme will provide us with the next step change in yields, particularly during wet years when the potential for profit is so high, but all too often ends up being our years with the largest losses. Having said that, though, I’m not sure that land forming will provide the same step up in yield as our investment in control traffic and zero til.

Over the last 20 or so years that we’ve been implementing these practises, our yields have nearly doubled. Certainly genetics and agronomic practises have played their role in that improvement, though I firmly believe that it is control traffic and zero till, along with our programme of manure application, that have been the biggest contributors to the increases.

Our soils now capture and hold more water. Our planting windows have been extended. Operations now occur in a more timely manner. And our soils are more nutritious than they once were.

Perhaps the most pleasing thing with these farming methods, though, are the environmental benefits. Erosion is drastically reduced, so now sediment in the waterways and dams are a tiny fraction of what it used to be. Crop residues on the ground are now thriving with ground nesting birds.

The cessation of ploughing and the increased organic matter has led to an explosion of worms in our paddock, which is often said to be the sign of a healthy soil. Our nutrition programme based around manure has meant we’re not only replacing nutrients taken out by crops, but increasing their levels in the soil so we have a buffer to provide the maximum yields when the season permits.

The nitrogen in the manure, as well as that fixed by our legume-dominated rotation, is not so prone to de-nitrification during floods, which is both good for our bottom line and for the environment.

Investment in knowledge is also critical for the modern farmer. We host a number of GRDC trials and research sites on our farm. And the information coming out of these is fantastic. If the information coming out of the research was more widely utilised by the farming community, there would be significant gains in profitability by the industry as a whole.

The question of how to get more farmers to more quickly take up this research must be a tough one for the GRDC. I still hear of farmers growing wheat on wheat on wheat, and then complaining about yellow spot and crown rot. And the same can be said for soil nutrition.

If nutrients aren’t replaced and the crop is only barely fertilised for an average yield, then after you finish mourning your soil, you will not get a high yield. It’s obvious and very well researched, but it still happens all the time. So that brings me to where I see the future for on-farm investment.

To illustrate the drivers for farm investment in the future, I’ve prepared this graph of roughly what happens on our farm. The right hand column shows our average in paddock expenses for the last three years. Not, I might add, the expenses incurred for the labour that doesn’t occur in the paddock, which is probably over 50% of the total labour.

Silos, sheds, freight around the farm, living, all that kind of stuff. The left hand column shows what could be classed as an above average wheat yield for our area of four tonnes per hectare multiplied by a price of $280 Brisbane at a safe average of one crop similar to this every 18 months, hence multiplied by two thirds.

I’ve also added the interest cost to the bank for 70% of the land at 4.5% interest and the cost of getting the wheat to the port. Possibly the first thing that stands out in my mind is how susceptible the farming community is to an increase in interest rates.

And as a lead-on from that, how overvalued land has become. Also what stands out, I think, is the high freight charge. We’re only 250 kilometres from port. And how difficult it would be for people further out west where the freight charge is often over $50 a tonne, and their yields are less than half what we have.

I could also show up here how devastating a wipe-out is, particularly if it happens at the end of the season. But it also shows how good a fantastic crop is, and how important it is to make the most of a fantastic season when it comes around.

So this graph, while it is a little alarming at times, does show some tremendous opportunities for farmers. A 1% increase in yield in this situation gives a massive 21.6% increase in profit, while a 5% yield increase gives a huge 208% profit increase.

While this graph will change depending on the crop or the season, what doesn’t change is that doing all the little things right, the little one percent-ers that are really difficult to measure on-farm, do make a big difference to the size of a farm’s profit or their loss. It should also provide impetus for more adoption of research coming out of GRDC, which often has these small but measurable improvements that ultimately makes a massive impact on profits.

Therefore, I think the first and foremost investment in the future will go to increase in yields and protecting our yields. Anything that increases yields will be adopted out of necessity, be it better crop varieties, better crop choices, better economic practises, or genetically modified crops which lead to higher yields or prices.

I think a lot of investment in the future will need to be on protecting our zero till farming systems. In our area at least, the yield and profitability gains from zero till have translated into higher land prices as farmers realise they can produce more from their land.

Unfortunately, returns from farming at current land prices aren’t particularly high, even given the record low interest rates we currently enjoy. So the reduction in yield due to the abandonment of zero till would be a very bad thing for agriculture. And the biggest thread to zero till would have to be herbicide resistance and weeds.

To overcome this, there’s going to have to be more use of weed-sensing technology, the use of herbicides with different modes of actions, including residuals, and more thought will need to be placed on the crop rotations. Research will need to be, as it is, targeted towards different herbicides and how different herbicides can be better utilised, as well as non-chemical means of weed control without resorting to full tillage.

Will the robots be used? Maybe, but not at the expense of control traffic systems. And it will need to be able to happen as quickly as it does now. Timeliness is everything.

Driver-less tractors and sprayers, perhaps, except all operations now require the carrying of a payload, be it pesticides, seeds, or fertiliser. Self load requirements are to be cut. There will need to be research into automatic filling as well.

And you can see from that graph that the labour component of our expenses really isn’t all that high in the scheme of things. Higher payload drones. Well, that is where I think the future may be for pesticide application.

The impact of the spray applicator on yield due to compaction in the spray lines is in the range of a 5% to 10% reduction. This equates to a 2% to 3% yield reduction over the whole field. Drones would also allow for more timely targeting of weeds and pests, as paddocks could be traversed sooner after rain.

In the end, though, the fact remains that yield is king. Anything that increases yield will have the greatest impact on a farmer’s profitability, and I think whatever that is is where we will find the most investment flowing in the future. Thank you.

View the presentation slides here.

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