Champions of no-till farming achieve soil health success

Published: December 2019 I By: Paul Robinson, Photography: Sheri McMahon

Sustainable farming is second nature for the Kelly family who have been using no-till farming practices to avoid soil erosion for generations. 

John Kelly with his dog Tippa at Hillview in Central West NSW, where he has been practising conservation farming for about 30 years.
THE Kelly family has been hosting innovative projects on its property Hillview, near Dubbo, for half a century. 

At the heart of the “graze and grain” operation is the practice of conservation farming, a sustainable system that promotes soil health through stubble retention, reduced tillage and crop rotation. But the property has also been the site of ground-breaking government crop trials, and additionally supports a high-performance Poll Dorset stud.  

Hillview at Wongarbon spans about 2,000 hectares, with another 406ha leased from neighbours and share-farmed. It’s a fourth-generation outfit run by brothers Angus and Alistair Kelly, with their wives Airlie and Prue. The family patriarch, Angus and Alistair’s father John Kelly, is still very much involved in the operation. 

Hillview grows wheat, barley and canola as well as running about 3,000 Border Leicester/Merino cross ewes and another 600 Poll Dorset ewes for the farm’s Marocara Dorsets stud.

The Kelly family introduced conservation farming to the property about 30 years ago. It has also been hosting cropping and nitrogen-response trials for the NSW Department of Primary Industries (and its government department predecessors) for almost five decades, dating back to when John was running the place.

“We’ve been cooperating with the department for a long time, running various agronomy trials on a two-hectare paddock with wheat and barley varieties,” John says. “They’ve been developing new strains, some of them haven’t been released yet. It’s one of 20 or so core trial sites between the Queensland and Victorian borders.”

Past trials have indicated encouraging results for early sowing wheat varieties such as Lancer and the early maturing barley strain La Trobe. 

“Once they’re seen to be superior to existing varieties they’re given a name and go on a recommended list for cereal farmers,” says John. “So they don’t just keep on growing the same variety they did 30 years ago.”
Sustainable farming practices help prevent soil erosion

John Kelly and his dog Tippa check the crops. 

The Kellys are also staunch advocates of no-till farming, which favours minimum disruption of the soil to encourage better all-round soil health. According to John, it’s been a long while since they burnt stubble in the paddocks. 
“We’ve been no-till farmers ever since that word was invented,” he says. “It only took me 12 months to be convinced that cultivation just dries the topsoil out. If you can maintain a good ground cover, that’s the secret of it. The moisture retention is so much better.” 

He says that no-till farming does involve some chemical use, but maintains it’s less invasive than a mass burn-off. “Two litres on a given area has the same effect as burning a drum of diesel – and that’s doing a lot more environmental damage,” John says.

Although by no means a new idea, having been around for centuries, crop rotation has been standard practice at Hillview for some time. Growing different crops in the same plot in a regular sequence maximises the nutrient variety in the soil, increasing fertility, and reduces erosion, resulting in an improved crop yield. 

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John reckons they rotate through about a third of their acreage. “Rotational farming is our big thing – the 70 or 80 paddocks we’ve got give us plenty of scope. A third of that land should be under cropping at any one time.” 

Wheat is the staple crop, but John says the first planting in the rotation is ideally canola, as the grasses present in the previous pasture phase are often susceptible to some of the same diseases as wheat. “We’ll follow the canola with wheat, or alternatively, chickpeas and lentils.”

Drought shifts farm management focus to 'graze and grain'

Then it’s into the pasture phase again, much of which, in a good year with ample rain, the Kellys will cut for hay. 

“The third or fourth crop in any rotation will be under-sown principally with grasses – and we’ll probably grow that for three or four years at the outside,” John says. “Normally, we can make our own hay – cereal crop hay – with our own equipment.”

However, as in many other parts of the country, prolonged drought is having an effect on the operation. “Last year we had to buy hay from South Australia,” John says. “All our activity has been pretty much curtailed this past year or so.”

He says the drought has seen a change in focus on the property. “With cropping on some of our lighter land, wheat for example, the emphasis now is on graze and grain. It used to be the other way round. Our existing crop was probably sown a month or so too early, but at least we got the crop out of the ground. There are some lambs that will be weaned off it and our other dry sheep might see the residue of that crop.”

Checking that the Poll Dorset-cross weaner lambs are consuming their starter ration that is delivered in farm-built continuous troughing.

Obviously, when the heavens aren’t being cooperative, water and its retention assumes much greater importance. Hillview uses contour banks to intercept runoff flowing down paddocks to prevent significant soil movement. 

“There are contour banks all over the place,” John laughs. “They’re to funnel the runoff away, which means that when there’s heavy rainfall we can prevent too much soil erosion – but they’re not so good for dams.”

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The Kellys rely on bore water and have strategically sited three 20,000-gallon concrete tanks as reservoirs with a pipeline network hooking up the water troughs in each paddock. John is sold on the virtues of polyethylene pipe. 

“It would have to be one of the great hardware innovations in my farming lifetime. With this drought we’ve been relying on four bores. We had another one sunk a week ago. The water is very scarce and there’s a bit of luck attached to finding it. There’s a bit of water divining going on – I reckon that forked stick might know something.”

Soil conditions ideal for no-till farming

A fair bit of the land at Hillview is red and black self-mulching clay, which in years of average rainfall can be a good cropping soil, well suited to no-tilling cultivation. 

As John explains, “When it gets wet it swells, when it dries out it shrinks. Because it’s moving, that has the effect of cultivating the soil. Clay usually has the stigma of being a soil that sets – moisture and seeds can’t get through it – but self-mulching clay is the complete opposite.” 

That soil mobility has a downside when it comes to fences. “They lean over when a crack forms beside the post,” John says. “We often have to go to extreme lengths to make the gateposts stable, which can add a few hours’ maintenance.”
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John is particularly proud of his Marocara Dorsets stud, which has a reputation for breeding top rams. He was pretty happy with the turnout at his annual ram sale in early September, in what has been a tough year.

“Our regular clients turned up and bought a limited number of the rams, but we’re not crying about that,” John says. “We’re quite proud of our spread of buyers.”

The lambs graze a failed oat crop unsuitable for harvesting – but valuable for young livestock.

This is another area where Hillview has a long history of spearheading innovation in tandem with the NSW government. John was one of a small group of Poll Dorset breeders in the late 1970s who cooperated with a department research station at Cowra to set up a performance recording system cataloguing such data as fleshing ability. 

The University of New England has since taken over and established a national database all Poll Dorset breeders can access.

“It was a coincidence that computers and ultrasound equipment came along at the appropriate time to make all that work,” John says. 

“More recently, thanks to genomics, we’ve got DNA markers from 20,000 lamb carcases processed at various research stations across the country. These DNA markers can identify sheep on intra-muscular fat, tenderness, and quick maturity. Within five years, even the scales may become unnecessary when the DNA markers have enough credibility to give us all those indications.” 

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In 2016, a Marocara Poll Dorset ram topped a list of 20,000 rams on the first LAMBPLAN database for meat eating quality. “That did get me a little bit excited,” John says. 

“We then got semen orders from all over the country – that ram at the moment has 1,392 progeny, as well as grandsons and granddaughters. Most of that ranking was because he was credited with being tender with some intramuscular fat, not just his equipment!” 

John with wife Margaret and the vertical feed mixer that processes hay and various grains including barley, wheat, oats, cotton seed and additives.

Ultrasound equipment has also been a boon to breeders, John says, allowing them to tell the difference between meat and fat in a live animal. “What we call the eye muscle, the meat in a lamb chop, we’ve been able to measure that in a live animal and select for it since about 1980. 

“Before that, for us the most attractive sheep was the fatter sheep, because we weren’t able to identify fat depth, and hence eye-muscle depth, until the progeny was slaughtered. All that information is available to us now.”
He reckons lambs are now lean enough. “We run the risk of making the meat too dry. We don’t want to do a Wagyu, but we want enough intramuscular fat to make that meat attractive and tender to eat.” 

When did Australian farmers experiment with no-till farming?

The concept of no-till farming began in the 1940s, when American agricultural agent Edward H Faulkner questioned traditional ploughing methods in his book Plowman’s Folly. 

Australian farmers began experimenting with no-till in the 1960s, and by 2014 an International Soil and Water Conservation Research report estimated that 80-90% of Australia’s winter crops were now grown in this way. 

Under a no-till regime, seeds are directly placed into un-tilled soil on one pass, creating minimal soil disturbance. Previous crop residues are retained in the soil as mulch, and weed seeds are not brought to the surface and therefore don’t germinate. 

What are the benefits of no-till farming?

  1. Stubble retained as ground cover adds to the reservoir of soil organic matter, which leads to improved soil structure.

  2. Ground cover also decreases soil erosion through reduced exposure.

  3. Minimum tillage systems offer savings on machinery hours and fuel of 15-30%.

  4. Better water infiltration and storage is achieved.

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