Mike Kerkmans

Farm: ‘Marlingu’

Region: Pindar, North East Agricultural Region, Western Australia

Commodity: Wheat and carbon farming

Farming area: 12,100 hectares 

Rainfall: 200 mm average rainfall per year

Email: marlingu@wn.com.au

Phone: 08 9962 3050

 

‘The climate's changing all the time but so are we - we're just adapting to it. Some people say we're in a low rainfall area but we're utilising the rainfall and just making the best of what we get.’
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Read, watch or listen to what Mike has to say about:
•Farming in a low rainfall region [same-page links]
•Fallowing
•Widening crop rows
•Precision farming / tramlining
•Zero-till / press wheel seeding
•Farming carbon using oil mallee trees
•Producing and using biochar
Farming in a low rainfall region
‘We get 200 ml annual rainfall during a year (growing season) and we can grow and 2 tonne wheat crop.
‘People say our area is marginal but we call it low rainfall. We know a farmer who says "I get the same amount of rain as everyone else but over a bigger area". It is true. We try and farm so that we catch the water – our paddocks are like corrugated iron so when we get a bit of rain it all falls straight down into the root zone.
‘We're in our 11th year and the weather changing seems normal for this area. There are droughts and good years and it's a matter of managing yourself through those times.
‘We've struggled, and not just us – the community. Now most of them would say that they know more about how to farm for these droughts. If we don't get a rain by a certain time the crop won't go in, or only a little bit will go in.
‘We’ve decided now that if it hasn't rained by a certain date we sow any wheat. This year it was the 23rd May. Well it rained on the 23rd May. We started dry sowing two days before that because we knew it was going to rain. The guys that started much earlier have really good crops, but we just weren’t' prepared to take that risk. Our crops won't be an as good as the others, but so be it. What we get we'll be happy with.’
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Fallowing
‘We try to crop 5,000 hectares every year and have 5,000 ha worth of fallow, so each paddock gets cropped every second year.
‘Everyone used to do fallow, that’s nothing new. You rest the paddock for one year to conserve moisture for the following year and control weeds.
‘Fallow had been phased out because everyone's been pushing so hard to make up for the losses we’ve had in previous years. But this year people have found that wheat on wheat crops aren't as good as crops that have been on fallow.
‘Resting the paddock doesn't guarantee a crop but gives a good crop when the rainfall is a bit short, meaning we still get above averages yields.
‘It also keeps our costs down because we're not using ‘in crop’ grass sprays on our wheat. We spray the fallow towards end of the growing season to control weeds.
‘And we agist sheep which gives us a cash-flow. That way we have control – if we haven’t got feed we don’t bring sheep in.’
Back to top
Widening crop rows
‘We had great assistance from the WA Department of Agriculture and Food [insert link http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/] when we first started through the soil scientist Paul Blackwell.
‘We could see that the outside row of every crop was always the best row - always taller than rows inside the crop. And we weren’t getting a finish towards the end of a season because we were running out of moisture.
‘We asked Paul about it, and the result was we started going out to wide rows. We dropped every second row off which meant we were sowing at 24 inch spacing instead of 12 inches.
‘That cut our fertiliser rate a little, and cut our seed rate by half. We still put fertiliser in the middle row so when the wheat's roots grow across they get a feed.
‘By increasing row size there is now moisture available towards the end of the year to finish the crop off.
‘We're still getting the same yields on 24 versus 12 inch row spacing. But only on the red soil; it didn't work on the sand plain.’
Back to top
Precision farming / tramlining
‘We do tramlining now, which means we always drive on the same wheel track. All the machinery is the same size.
‘Tramlining cuts down the compaction of our soils and helps our fuel economy.
‘Precision farming, or auto steer is another great advantage to us all - the tractor just drives itself in a beautiful straight line. Fallow is an old one but bringing in the auto steer has been the best thing.
‘Every year you can come back and sow straight into those same furrows again. If you've had a bad year there's still a lot of nutrients that weren't used in that furrow so you come back the following year and you can sow within 2 cm of those nutrients again.
‘That means you can keep your fertiliser down a bit because you know once you've done soil tests that there's still nutrients there to grow you a good crop.’
Back to top
Zero-till / press wheel seeding
‘If you had 200 mm of rain ten years ago you'd get virtually no crop. The first thing you'd do when you got the rain is plough the paddock to kill the weeds. Then you’d get more rain so you’d plough again to kill more weeds. And then you’d sow it.
‘Every time you move that soil you lose rainfall.
‘Now when it rains we just go straight in and start seeding with the minimal amount of soil movement possible to utilise every bit of rain.
‘Right now we've got weeds growing on our fallow and we'll have to spray them rather than ploughing so we can keep the moisture in the ground. So next year in April when we get the rain we'll still have subsoil moisture.
‘Another innovation is the press wheel behind the seeders.
‘When you fallow, your moisture might be low below the surface. Previously you wouldn't even get a wheat crop to grow because although there was moisture there, the machine couldn’t get below the dry dirt.
If you've got a press wheel, you can move the dry soil out of the way, put the seed on the moisture, press it in nice and firm so the seed gets constant contact with the soil and then a little bit of dry dirt goes back over the top.
‘It could be 28 degrees of the 28th of May but you still get your crop to grow.’
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Farming carbon using oil mallee trees
‘I’m the president of the Oil Mallee Association of Australia [insert link http://oilmallee.org.au/index.html]. The organisation has 1,000 growers and was WA based but we’re trying to branch out into other states.
‘Its aim is to get trees in the ground for farmers to make money and to become more sustainable down the road. Instead of relying on wheat crops, we can have trees on our farms which give us another income. And hopefully will match a long term lease or wheat crop costing.
‘Once tree's in ground, you don't have to worry about anything else, it just grows itself.
‘We have planted oil mallees every 300 ft within our wheat crops. We grow these trees for carbon. It’s not greatly lucrative at the moment but heading it’s that way.
‘We’re working on making between $50 and $100 per hectare through oil mallees, so eventually we'll have 10 to 15% of our farm with trees, or about 1,400 hectares.
‘Where we win is we lease the land to the people who want the carbon credits and we get a once off payment for planting. You get paid around $350 to plant a hectare of trees. So if you plant 100 hectares a year that's a good little cash injection.
‘There’s time we don’t get rain but we're working to put these mallees in the ground to help us get through those hard times. Obviously the more mallees you have in the ground the more income your get, so we don’t have to put a crop in to make our payments. The oil mallees will do that.’
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Producing and using biochar
‘Following from planting oil mallees we moved into biochar [insert link http://www.csiro.au/resources/Biochar-Factsheet.html] which is charcoal made from wheat stubble or biomass from the tree once it's gone through the pyrolysis machine.
‘The pyrolysis machine, in simple terms, keeps a certain amount of oxygen in the machine so you don't burn the product completely to ash.
‘We did the initial experiments over three years. We are still doing some experiments but the main project will be down at Kallaning [sp?].
‘Our trials were using oil mallee biomass. Originally oil mallees were put in the ground for carbon credits but also to make renewable energy. For that you're after the eucalyptus oil, but making the oil leaves you with a whole heap of biomass. Biochar has come out of that.
‘Biochar gets buried in the first 6 inches of the ground before we sow and it'll stay there forever. The idea is to store carbon and keeping record of it is very simply because it doesn’t break down like plants.
‘You need to put a lot on but it can hold 5 times its own weight in moisture so that is a win win for us.
‘The other exciting part is you can use wheat straw. You can bail straight behind your harvester catching your weed seeds, which will eliminate a lot of our troubles with resistance of weeds to chemicals.
‘Plus you get paid for the straw. In good years if there's too much hay you can store it in the corner of the paddock and if it’s dry in following year you have enough straw to keep the machine going.
‘Australia produces 12 million tons of grain so for every ton of grain there's probably 2 ton of straw was normally just left in the paddock. It’s a good thing that it's left in the paddock but you will still leave some behind anyway.
‘You bring all this it together and it'll be a win win for agriculture. You have the oil mallee trees and the biochar store so the farmer is always making money rain hail or shine.’
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"The climate's changing all the time but so are we - we're just adapting to it. Some people say we're in a low rainfall area but we're utilising the rainfall and just making the best of what we get."

Mike Kerkmans on his property in Pindar, Western Australia 

See what Mike has to say about:

 

Farming in a low-rainfall region

We get 200 ml annual rainfall during a year and we can grow a 2-tonne/hectare wheat crop.

People say our area is marginal but we call it low rainfall. One farmer we know says, "I get the same amount of rain as everyone else but over a bigger area". It’s true.

We try and farm so that we catch the water. Our paddocks are like corrugated iron, so when we get a bit of rain it all falls straight down into the root zone.

We're in our 11th year on this farm and the variable weather seems normal for this area. There are droughts and good years and it's a matter of managing yourself through those times.

We've struggled, and not just us – the community. Now most farmers in this area would say that they know more about how to farm for droughts. If they don't get rain by a certain date the crop won't go in, or only a little bit will go in.

We’ve decided now that if it hasn't rained by a certain date we’ll sow anyway.

In 2009 it was the 23rd May. Well, it rained on the 23rd May. We started dry sowing two days before that because we knew it was going to rain according to the BOM website and other websites we use like Weather Zone. The guys that started much earlier had really good crops, but we weren’t prepared to take that risk. What we get we'll be happy with.

Back to top

Fallowing

We try to crop 5000 hectares every year and have 5000 hectares of fallow. So each paddock gets cropped every second year.

Everyone used to do fallow, that’s nothing new. You rest the paddock for one year to conserve moisture for the following year and control weeds.

Fallow had been phased out because everyone's been pushing so hard to make up for the losses we’ve had in previous years. But this year people have found that wheat on wheat crops aren't as good as crops that have been on fallow.

Resting the paddock doesn't guarantee a crop but when the rainfall is a bit short, we still get above-average yields.

It also keeps our costs down because we're not using in- crop grass sprays on our wheat. We spray the fallow towards the end of the growing season to control weeds.

We also agist sheep, which gives us a cash flow. That way we have control – if we haven’t got feed, we don’t bring the sheep in.

Back to top

Widening crop rows

We could see that the outside row of every crop was always the best row – always taller than rows inside the crop. And we weren’t getting a finish towards the end of a season because we were running out of moisture.

We had great assistance from the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA when we first started, through the soil scientist, Paul Blackwell.

We asked Paul about it, and the result was we started going out to wide rows.

We dropped every second row off, which meant we were sowing at 24-inch spacing instead of 12-inch.

That cut our fertiliser rate a little, and cut our seed rate by half. We still put fertiliser in the middle row so that when the wheat's roots grow across, they get a feed.

By increasing row size, there is now moisture available towards the end of the year to finish the crop off.

We're still getting the same yields on 24 versus 12-inch row spacing. But only on the red soil – it didn't work on the sand plain.

Back to top

Tramlining and auto steer

We do tramlining now, which means we always drive on the same wheel track. All the machinery is the same size.

Tramlining cuts down the compaction of our soils and helps our fuel economy.

Precision farming, or auto steer, is another great advantage to us – the tractor just drives itself in a beautiful straight line. Fallow is an old practice that we’ve reintroduced but bringing in the auto steer has been the best innovation for us.

Every year we sow we can sow straight into those same furrows again to within a 2-cm level of accuracy.

If we’ve had a bad year previously there are still a lot of unused nutrients in that furrow so, when we come to sow again, we can sow to within 2 cm of those nutrients again.

And because we can use those remaining nutrients, we don’t need to apply as much fertiliser.

Back to top

Zero-till farming

If you had 200 mm of rain 10 years ago, you'd get virtually no crop.

The first thing you'd do when you got the rain is plough the paddock to kill the weeds. Then you’d get more rain so you’d plough again to kill more weeds. And then you’d sow it.

Every time you move that soil you lose soil moisture.

Now when it rains we just go straight in and start seeding with the minimal amount of soil movement possible to conserve every bit of rain as soil moisture.

We've got weeds growing on our fallow right now [November] and we'll spray them rather than plough so we can keep the moisture in the ground. Then next year in April when we get the rain, we'll alredy have subsoil moisture.

Back to top

Press-wheel seeding

When you fallow, your moisture might be low just below the surface. Previously you wouldn't even get a wheat crop to grow because, although there was moisture deeper in the soil profile, the seeder couldn’t get below the dry dirt.

With a press wheel behind the seeder, you can move the dry soil out of the way, put the seed on the moisture, press it in nice and firm so the seed gets constant contact with the soil, and then place a little bit of dry dirt back over the top.

It could be 28°C on the 28th of May, but you still get your crop to grow.

Back to top

Farming carbon using oil mallee trees

There are times when we don’t get rain. Instead of relying on wheat crops, we can have trees on our farms, giving us another income, and hopefully matching a long-term lease or wheat-crop costing.

Once a tree is in the ground, you don't have to worry about anything else—it just grows.

We’ve planted oil mallees every 300 ft within our wheat crops. We grow them for carbon. It’s not greatly lucrative at the moment but we believe it’s heading that way.

We’re working on a target of making $50–$100 per hectare through oil mallees. So eventually we'll have 10%–15% of our farm planted with trees, or about 1400 hectares.

We lease the land to the people who want the carbon credits and we get a one-off payment for planting.

You get paid around $350 to plant a hectare of trees. So if you plant 100 hectares a year, that's a good little cash injection.

We’re putting these mallees in the ground to help us get through those dry times. Obviously the more trees we have in the ground the more income we get. So we won’t have to put a wheat crop in just to make our payments. The oil mallees will do that.

I’m the president of the Oil Mallee Association of Australia. The organisation has 1000 growers. It started in WA but we’re trying to branch out into other states.

The association’s aim is to get trees in the ground for farmers to make money and become more sustainable down the road.

 A newly planted mallee crop

A mature oil mallee plantation running through Mike Kerkman’s wheat fields

Back to top

Producing and using biochar

Originally, oil mallee trees were planted for carbon credits or for eucalyptus oil. When you make eucalyptus oil, you are left with a heap of biomass. Biochar has come out of that.

Biochar, is charcoal that can be made from oil mallee biomass or wheat straw.

We bury biochar in the first 6 inches of the ground before we sow and it stays there forever. So we are storing carbon.

Keeping a record of it is simple because, unlike plants, it doesn’t break down. So this would be useful if a carbon credits program is eventually introduced.

Because biochar can hold 5 times its own weight in moisture, it is a ‘win win’ for us.

The process to create biochar is called pyrolysis. In simple terms, a pyrolysis machine burns the biomass but keeps a certain amount of oxygen in the machine so that it does not burn completely to ash.

We did experiments over three years using oil mallee biomass, and further experiments are now being conducted in Kallannie under Project Rainbow Bee Eater.

The other exciting part is that you can use wheat straw to create biochar. You can bale straight behind your harvester, catching your weed seeds, which will eliminate a lot of our troubles with resistance of weeds to chemicals.

Plus you get paid for the straw.

In good years, if there's too much hay you can store it in the corner of the paddock. If it’s dry the following year, you have enough straw to keep the pyrolysis machine going.

Australia produces 12 million tonnes of grain, and for every tonne of grain there's probably 2 tonnes of straw left in the paddock. It’s a good thing that it's left in the paddock but, even if you use it to make biochar, you will still leave some behind.

When you bring all this together, I see it as a ‘win win’ for agriculture. With the oil mallee trees and the stored biochar, the farmer is always making money—rain hail or shine.

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