Friday, April 12, 2024

Machine drives journey to carbon gains

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The Olsens simply wanted more productive pastures. They ended up with a welcome soil carbon bonus, too.
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New Zealand farmers are not alone in facing the challenge of striving for value while mitigating their environmental footprint. Senior reporter Richard Rennie is in Australia to find out how our neighbours are approaching the issues of gene technology, carbon farming and sustainability.

Despite a multitude of machines available to aerate, cultivate, plough and rip the soil, east Victorian beef farmer Niels Olsen struggled to find one that did the job he needed doing on his 200 hectare property. 

But rather than just getting by with something that was less than ideal, he opted to build his own. 

That was over a decade ago, and today there are over 100 Soilkee soil renovators forming part of the kit for pastoral farmers across Australia, the United States and, soon, New Zealand.

“What I was looking for was a machine that could encourage more feed growth in the paddock. We wanted to plant a maize crop in our pasture, grow it for six weeks and then feed it to the dairy cows we were grazing at the time.”

After trying “every different seeder under the sun” he found the existing pasture would ultimately take over the maize he planted into it. 

He realised he needed a machine that would maintain 80% of the pasture while also allowing the maize to be sown in a manner that would give it a chance to emerge, and be competitive with the pasture.

In Focus podcast: Bryan hands over the microphone for this week’s feature interview to senior reporter Richard Rennie, who is in Australia right now. Richard catches up with farmer Neils Olsen whose Soilkee Renovator provides a solution to farmers looking to plant diverse pasture species with minimal tilling. He also chats with Hamish Hunt, a Central Victorian who is farming on land not typically suited to dairying. He’s used the Renovator to improve soil health, and to enable planting of multiple species for his regenerative farming system.

Experimenting with a variety of different cultivation blades, he knew he had hit on the right design when he noticed a deep green streak of successfully emerging crop after trialling a prototype.

“We realised then we were onto something. Today the Soilkee is patented in 40 countries around the world.” 

Over time and with trialling working alongside his sons Shane, Jamie and Sean, he found multiple pasture species could be planted into existing pasture, topping up the perennial pasture whose persistence can be an issue under Australia’s hot conditions.

“We have got to the point where we are really increasing the functionality and recycling of nutrients in the soil, rapidly rebuilding carbon, and holding onto that extra moisture as well.”

Today the farm’s sward profile is a “who’s who” of pasture species, including plants as diverse as wheat, oats, peas, vetch, linseed, chicory, plantain, brassicas and even sunflowers.

“It can handle up to 20 species planted at the same time.”

The machine’s blades provide a variation in the cultivated soil environment to suit the wide range of seed sizes planted, including zones of semi-disturbed, disturbed and undisturbed soil. 

The resulting pasture sward viewed in mid-March is a dense mix of those species being break-fed off to Olsen’s Angus cattle daily, with sunflowers proving particularly popular with the young steers.

Today the machines are built on the farm with Shane overseeing Independent trials using the machine have just kicked off in Queensland, funded through the state’s drought resilience package.

The Olsens’ pasture sward includes a wide range of legumes, grasses and crop seeds to deliver a diverse, dense feed profile to their Angus beef cattle.

For Niels, the machine has also delivered carbon gain benefits that have been more of a welcome bonus than the intention of a farmer who initially set out simply to grow more feed.

“We did an initial proof of concept trial with Commercialisation Australia. 

“In the first couple of years we were getting 11.7-12 carbon credits per hectare per year. Seven-eight years in, it is coming up at 26-27 credits per hectare, which is about six tonnes of carbon increase on a hectare.”

Today the income from carbon credits earned is valuable.

“Doing the beef plus carbon credits, each are about the same income amount, which is better than what we would get dairying.”

With NZ’s focus on pasture, Niels sees increasing opportunity for the machine to help maintain or even lift levels across the Tasman.

“I was surprised to see NZ getting rid of farms and planting pine trees. We see plenty of potential in building more into the soil’s carbon, and keeping farmers farming.”

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