Improving the value & sustainability of Esperance port zone grain growers.

The Mickel Family - Beaumont

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Delving solves a multitude of soil issues

Ian and Veronica Mickel farm in partnership with their son Lyndon and his wife Nikki on properties at Condingup and Beaumont. The Mickels own 2000ha at Condindup, 80km east of Esperance, and a further 4000ha another 60km further north, with soils on the two blocks ranging from deep sand plain to a sandy gravel over clay, and loamy duplex sand running through to heavy red clays.

It was in the mid 1980’s that Ian started realising that clay below the surface of his non-wetting sands could hold the key to increasing productivity on his families’ remote Beaumont property, which is the last property on Parmango Road before you enter native bushlands and head down the Balladonia track. Prior to purchase, the property had been a mixed farming set-up and Ian said that increasing non-wetting issues were rife in some areas of the farm which made their chosen program of continuous cropping frustrating and unproductive.

Declining yields in the 80’s were the impetus for Ian to start looking for solutions to improving their soil structure. At first the Mickels were interested in sourcing clay to spread onto the surface of both properties which they knew had excellent yield potential due to consistent annual rainfall of around 380mm at Beaumont and 485mm at Condingup. The soils were unable to hold moisture; had non-wetting issues, and where the clay was close to the surface at Beaumont, they were unable to get their roots down properly.

Claying was an obvious solution and by digging around in the paddocks, Ian found that clay sat below the surface at varying depths of sand on the Beaumont farm. However, often the clay was within 500mm from the surface which meant that delving could be done.

The grey clays especially have an impenetrable layer for plant roots, due to a hard crust sitting at the surface of the clay. This meant that where clay was closer to the surface, the roots were not able to get down through that layer, so they became stressed easily and crops were often stunted and low yielding.

Ian has found that the orange clays are much better to work (they are more crumbly) but both types seem to have the same benefits to the soil once they are amalgamated with the sandy surface soil. And so, more than two decades ago, Ian started investigating how he could break that crust and integrate some of the clay into the sand.
“We can get significant benefit from cracking that hard layer and brining the clay to the top. The ultimate benefits are achieved when the clay is within 300mm of the surface,” Ian said.

He has always been a backyard engineer and a trip to South Australia with Veronica in 2003 to see machinery that had been built there gave him the confidence to build his own delver that same year.  After around 100 hours following diagrams bought back from South Australia, he felt he had come up with a machine that could work for their enterprise. Since then, the massive delver, and how they use it has been repeatedly modified to suit their situation.

The delver has two large 1.5m long tynes that work below the surface between 700 mm and 900 mm, “like a butter knife”, to bring up the clay. Due to the varying clay depths, Ian says he can’t rely on anyone else to work the machine in response to the soil depths as you need to “feel your way with it and where the clay sits as you are going along the paddock”.

The process is slow – the massive tynes are 2.5 m apart and so the paddock needs to be worked over at least twice in the same direction to make the distance 1.25m apart. Integration is then carried out using offset discs which are worked over at least a couple of times more.
“Getting the delved clay-subsoil properly blended through the soil is the key to success,” Ian says.

Where the depth of sand over clay is too deep, clay-subsoil is carted from a nearby pit and spread instead. This is done more at the Condingup property.
Not only have yields dramatically increased; the Mickels have seen more consistent crop establishment and improved weed control. The soils are better able to hold their moisture and root penetration into the subsoil had improved where the clay is close to the surface, allowing the plants to access moisture when they come under stress.

Non-wetting soils have been an issue mainly on the sand plain country, but there have also been areas of the lighter Mallee country affected as well.

Weeds germinate a lot more evenly after claying so pre-seeding spraying programs are achieving a better strike and the pre-emergent herbicides are generally working in the damper conditions. Mr Mickel says the key to success is achieving a good distribution of clay as cleanly [SL1]and effectively as possible.

On the sand plain they use a carry grader to spread clay out on top at around 200t/ha. Mr Mickel said although there can be a significant up-front costs in machinery, he accounts for the investment over a 10-year period, which is the length of time he expects to see benefits to his soils and crops.

The Mickel’s interest in soil health and its impact on crop yield, has also seen them invest in trace element applications, including injections of zinc and manganese, and foliar applications of copper.  They do a few strips every year with a control area with no trace elements and then add various rates of trace elements to test their effectiveness. Performance monitors are used in their harvesters and at end of the year they work out on a cost basis which rates have been most effective and this helps with planning for the future.

On-going monitoring of the two sites will be achieved over the next five years and field days at the property will be held in the future.

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