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Scholar profile. Robert Baltchford

Scholar profile. Robert Baltchford

Not convinced his cropping rotation was maximising returns on farm, New South Wales cotton grower Rob Blatchford applied for a Nuffield scholarship for answers.

The dry-land cotton grower from Gurley, south of Moree, wanted to investigate cover cropping, in which a secondary crop is planted for benefits such as improved soil fertility and management of pests, diseases and weeds.

It’s a technique Rob describes as a ‘new phenomena’ in his district.

“While I have been using millet, I wanted to find something that may replace it and do more jobs – for example, putting nitrogen in the soil as well.” Rob observed.

With the Nuffield scholarship allowing Rob to travel the globe to seek out world’s best practice, he started researching online to see who was leading the way in cover cropping, with some surprising results.

“I found that Brazil was probably the most advanced cover cropper country that I had seen, and maybe France was just behind it.

I was however surprised the US and many other first world countries did now grow covers in their rotations.

One reason in the US may be because of agricultural subsidies – they don’t have to look at production systems such as cover crops, they’re happy doing what they’re doing and they don’t have to increase their yields like we have to because their input costs and on-farm returns are offset with subsidies,” Rob explains.

So it was off to Brazil to learn about how they do cover cropping, an experience which clearly had a big impact on Rob and his wife Penny.

“We were only in Brazil for nearly three weeks and it wasn’t long enough – it’s a diverse country and they’re doing fantastic stuff across many farming regions. They’re really out there with some of their cover crops.

The challenge for Brazilian farmers is they can get a lot of rainfall in a short period of time, hence the need for a cover crop to protect their soil through the dry, harsh and windy winter times,” Rob says.

After travelling the world investigating the technique, Rob’s biggest conclusion was that there isn’t one solution when it came to cover cropping.

“It looks like I have to do a ‘cocktail’ of cover crops – farmers in France and North Dakota I met were telling me the more you can get in the planter box the better.

A mix of covers brings with it on-farm management challenges, however I believe at least two or three different species targeting separate issues – one for getting nitrogen back in the soil, one just for protecting the soil, and one for mineralising the phosphorous in the soil would be good as an example,” he explained.

Having already tried a mix of vetches with millet, as well as combinations of beans and peas, Rob isn’t planning on stopping his cover crop experiments any time soon.

“I’ve even tried peanuts, so we’ll see what happens! I’m also going to try some Guar next month, which is an Indian legume that handles dry weather quite well, which may suit when I don’t have much moisture coming out of the cotton crop,” Rob observed.

So is it all going to be worthwhile? Well like any research, nothing is guaranteed, but anecdotal evidence at home suggests it will.

“I have a neighbour with a wheat stubble and I had millet beside him and I could plant my cotton and he couldn’t, so that showed me at least I was getting one thing right – the cover had protected the soil and improved its water use efficiency, so the millet worked,” Rob concluded.

Grain Growers Limited supported Rob’s scholarship.

Nuffield Australia is an organisation which provides opportunities to Australian farmers between the ages of 28 and 40 to travel the globe investigating a research topic important to them and Australian agriculture.

Applications for the 2014 Nuffield Scholarship program are currently being taken through until 30th June 2013, for travel in 2014.

More details can be found on twitter @nuffieldaust or on Nuffield Australia’s Facebook page.

You can watch Rob presenting his findings at the Nuffield Australia conference in Toowoomba here.

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