Controlled Traffic Farming: the Australian experience
By Donna Fleury
Australia is considered the world leader in controlled traffic farming (CTF) and conducted a lot of research in the 1980s and 1990s. “It really got started by researcher Dr. Jeff Tullberg looking at the effect of compaction on crop growth. However, adoption was driven by the efficiencies and ease of use farmers experienced,” says Peter Gamache, project leader of Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta (CTFA). CTFA is a new project set up in 2010 to assess the fit for CTF in Alberta. Primary funding for the project came from the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund.
Although CTF started in Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most of the research funding was provided in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The results showing efficiency and ease of use of CTF encouraged other farmers to make the move. Today, CTF is relatively widespread in Australia, with about 20 percent of cropping acres in CTF systems. There are also a few Australian manufacturing companies that are knowledgeable and committed to meeting farmers’ CTF equipment needs and specifications.
Gamache likens the move of CTF in Australia to direct seeding and no-till in Alberta and the transformation from a few early trials by Dr. Wayne Lindwall and farmers, early on, to the success it is today. Gamache and a group of 10 other Albertans toured Australian CTF farms in late November and early December 2010 and came away with lots of information and ideas.
Australian farmers have success with CTF
During the CTFA tour in Australia, Gamache and the group visited several farms of varying sizes and types of operations that were using no-till, precision agriculture and CTF. Here is an overview of a few of the farm stops on the tour.
- Russell Taylor, a CTF farmer who has a three-metre tramline system, has been developing his system for more than 13 years and now farms 3000 acres, growing wheat, sorghum, corn, chickpeas and cotton. He has grey cracking soils and some salinity at a 90-centimetre (36-inch) depth. Continuous cropping, CTF and no-till have helped drive the salinity deeper in the profile. Taylor developed his system around his combine header, with a nine-metre header and equipment to match on a 3:1 ratio. For Taylor, the biggest challenge in CTF comes at harvest, with issues of equipment having to go off the tramline for some activities, which has caused soil damage. Most of those problems have now been fixed, and overall CTF has improved his soil water storage and infiltration significantly. Some benefits of switching to CTF include operator efficiencies and crop benefits by the second year. Taylor had some good examples of front-wheel assist axle extensions.
- Peter Bach is a young farmer who has dry land and irrigated land and is an excellent machinery builder. He is on a three-metre system with a 40-foot seeder and 42-foot header and seeds in 15- and 30-inch rows. He has built a shrouded sprayer, added cotton reels (axle extensions) to a front-wheel assist tractor and numerous other projects. On a recently harvested field, the group got a close look at what can happen to tramlines when soils are saturated. The soil punched out to the side. If the field had been in random traffic it would have been a mess or maybe they would not have been able to get on it. He plans to leave the trams as they are and depend on nature to correct them. Some of his black, cracking soils will move up to six inches.
- Rod and Sally McCreath crop 1000 acres and have about 2000 grazing acres for cows. Like many others, they have gradually modified their equipment, starting on a two-metre system but have switched to three-metre. They have been able to integrate livestock but mostly have kept their livestock off of the cropped land except when it grazes on oats in the winter. “One of the challenges for them and other livestock producers is the ability to integrate silage equipment and spreading manure with CTF systems,” says Gamache. “They are working on trying to find answers that many other producers, both in Australia and Canada will be interested in.”
- The McCreaths have also changed their system to start seeding up and down the slopes, rather than across the contours. The slopes are substantial; up to four percent in some cases. Their system is working well and erosion is not a big issue as long as they keep all the residue intact.
- Joe and Rhonda Reddy have come through a long drought and have managed to survive because of no-till and CTF. The systems really mesh well together. They crop 460 hectares (1136 acres) and have about 360 hectares (about 900 acres) of grazing land for their 100 cow-calf herd, keeping the grain and cattle operations mostly separate. He has a three-metre tramline system and a nine-metre seeder on 15-inch rows. “Some of Reddy’s advice is to develop long-term goals for the farm and create a matching system such as a 3:1 system, then move toward it quickly,” says Gamache. “Even with variable weather, he has successfully moved from contour farming to farming up and down the slopes, even those that are steep, saving 20 percent on chemicals with GPS. Reddy said when he first started using CTF, about 10 percent of his fields seemed to disappear but his yields went up.”
- He will grow two crops of Mung beans and one of wheat in 2011 (in a 12-month period). Nothing like tripling the farm size using CTF, no-till and good management along with seeding three times.
- Robert Ruwoldt, who has spoken at Alberta events a couple of times and is the person who started Albertans thinking about CTF, uses a 3:1 system: 120-inch trams, a 30-foot seeder, a 30-foot header and a 90-foot sprayer. He seeds canola and faba beans on 30-inch rows, cereals and pulses on 15-inch rows, including his tramlines. “Ruwoldt is more of a CTF purist, so he pays close attention to details and getting everything right when setting up his equipment,” notes Gamache. “He emphasizes that CTF is important to him for risk management. For example, with CTF he has had good yielding crops when often his neighbours didn’t have anything to harvest. And this year (2010), even with the substantial rainfall, he was able to harvest much of his canola and lentils, as long as he stayed on the tramlines. On the headlands and off the tramlines, his equipment bogged down.”
- CTF reduces his risk by improving moisture retention and utilization when it is dry and by allowing equipment to travel in the fields even under very wet conditions.
- The Postlethwaithes are pioneers in CTF, and have built most of the equipment they needed. This has led to a farm fabrication business called TPOS, which, among other things, builds shielded sprayers; builds, revamps and repairs headers and sells, services and installs GPS guidance systems. The shielded sprayer design was very innovative and flexible, offering potential for a lot of savings for in-crop use.
- Steve Lanyon and his father farm about 10,000 acres and had the largest farm the group visited. One of his fields was 1800 acres with 3.5-kilometre runs, making accuracy and GPS very important. His CTF system is set it up on three-metre tramlines and 10-metre equipment widths, and includes a 20-metre shank seeder, 10-metre header and 30-metre sprayer and 13.3-inch row spacings. “Lanyon is more relaxed about his CTF system and tries to keep things simple, like pulling off the tramline to unload or turning the chaser around in the middle of a field if need be,” says Gamache. “He is willing to sacrifice in those situations because it is more efficient with such a large operation. He also built his own Weedseeker 20 M spray rig, which is attached via a three-point hitch. The savings in chemical can be very significant.”
- Josh Walter manages a 1200-hectare (2965-acre) farm that also has an outdoor farrowing enterprise. For the most part they do not mix the livestock and cropping land. They are able to integrate the pig manure into the cropping but it does compromise the CTF a bit. “Walter was very enthusiastic about his system that combines CTF, GPS and precision agriculture,” says Gamache. “He was excited about working with his agronomists on as many as 15 experiments a year, to provide yield data, proximate sensor data and high resolution satellite data that helps to identify and solve problems. He emphasized that it is important to know what is going on your crop land, capture that information, be spatially aware and use it to your advantage.”
Equipment modifications to be made, too
The group also visited a few machinery manufacturers including C&C Machining, which is known as an expert in axle extensions. The company has built some units for farmers in the US and lots in Australia, with prices ranging from $4000 to more than $25,000 per axle. “C&C has become an expert in building axle extensions for mainly front-wheel assist type tractors,” says Gamache. “They are a good resource and hopefully there are some companies in Canada that have this ability as well.”
Gyral built the world’s first airseeder in the 1950s and the company continues building airseeders, openers and other equipment. One unique feature of its airseeders is the use of heated air for the air system, which helps prevent those irritating plugging problems on humid days. “They run hydraulics through a radiator and capture that heat for the air system,” says Gamache. “The heat dries the air and prevents some of the
“Our Alberta group was really encouraged to see the wide range of farmers making CTF work in their operations,” explains Gamache. “It wasn’t just a few small farmers, and in many cases the larger farmers were realizing the biggest benefits. Most had moved gradually into CTF and improved their systems as they were able. All of the farmers in CTF seem to be saving fuel and are very pleased with their ability to get on the field in tough conditions, the improved traction with packed tramlines, as well as the general operating efficiencies and ease.”
CTF field trials planned for Alberta in 2011
The CTFA has applied for funding to conduct field-scale CTF on farm research starting in 2011. “If our funding is successful, we plan to build six to nine sites across Alberta, working with fields of at least 160 acres that will be divided in half to compare CTF and random traffic farming operations,” explains Gamache. “We expect collaborating farmers to also be working with a professional agronomist for the trials and would like a three- to five-year commitment. We plan to arrange for a tractor/drill/aircart system using 10-foot tramlines.”
Field demonstration protocols are still under development and when funding decisions are made, CFTA can move forward with its plans.