Increasing frost resilience and soil carbon with organic inputs


Published August 2021

Increased frost events are a symptom of the changing climate. Ryan and Claire Dennis have been exploring how organic inputs can create greater resilience.

Six years ago the Dennis family who farm at Downside in the NSW Riverina applied chicken manure on one paddock.

They’d seen the positive changes in wheat and canola yields on a neighbouring property and decided to test it for themselves as part of a gradual shift in thinking away from their modern, conventional farming system.

Today the pure chicken manure from Pace Farms is working its magic across the whole farm, addressing the increasing frost exposure which they attribute to their synthetic fertiliser program.

Fourth-generation Ryan Dennis, who farms with his wife Claire and their two children and his father Jim, has taken results from the chicken manure a step further through an Active Carbon Project with Australian Soil Management.

“The chicken manure was the first step and we saw this carbon project as the next step to us trying to get away from a full synthetic system, especially on our frosting country,” Ryan says.

“The cheapest and easiest way to get more nitrogen into our system is to chuck on urea out of a bag but we are wanting to use a more natural style of fertiliser – whether it be growing pulse crops, chicken manure or compost. We are trying to get away from the complete synthetic program we used to do.”

At ‘Tracton North’ the Dennis family run a mixed farm with cropping, cattle and some sheep.

Ryan sees compost as playing a future role in their system and is appreciative of the opportunity to learn valuable lessons during the three-year trial, both good and bad.

“The sad result of it was that last year, the wheat crop grew too big and a storm came through just before harvest and pushed a lot of it over. It was very disappointing but from a learning perspective, it taught us a lot.”

Ryan says 2020 was an ‘exceptional’ season and one of their best harvests. “Everything was just right; it was just one of those years.”

They were still able to harvest the crop but the storm caused kinked stems and heads didn’t fill properly.

Although the crop didn’t impress at harvest, the project demonstrated that compost provided the nutrients the crop was looking for and as such, when applying compost they can reduce their urea.

“We put a nitrogen foliar then spread some granular; the foliar nitrogen was more than ample where we applied compost. It showed the crop responded exceptionally to the compost and the right amount of nitrogen foliar. It definitely lifted organic carbon and we’re definitely looking into how we can incorporate compost into our system.”

Ryan says logistics was one consideration, from the perspective of where to source it from and the time it takes to apply.

“There’s a bit more work in compost and you’ve got to be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into.”

Ryan says Jim, now 79, is noticing more frost damage now than when he was younger and is happy to see them shift away from their modern, high-risk farming system.

“It’s still the same farm, in the same spot, so the only reason things are changing (like us getting more frosted) are a result of the way we’ve been farming. Dad is happy to see anything which can alleviate that pressure.”

He says more people are looking at ways to reduce the exposure and risk of naturally occurring weather events.

“You can’t deny that the easiest way to farm is to buy things in a bag that go up and auger and spread easily. It’s not that simple though. We can’t control the weather and the weather can be very expensive. We need to look at how we can minimise the impacts of what we can’t control.

“Our end game with the chicken manure and potentially the compost is to further minimise risk by going to a more natural form of nitrogen.”

Ryan says the end-users are the ones who will reap the benefits of a shift away from high synthetic farming.

“And at the end of the day, a crop grown on a more natural nutrition base ends up being more nutrient-dense and better for the end-users. The end-users will be the winners of farmers on a larger scale taking a more natural approach.”

Ryan says their farming goals are centred around increasing groundcover and diversifying underground activity more naturally. They run a 9-metre Controlled Traffic Farming, strip ‘n’ disc system.

“We’re trying to get as much groundcover as possible, for us groundcover is king.”

They’re also growing companion crops to help bust up hardpans the natural way via plant roots rather than tillage.

“I’ve farmed all my life, as has Dad and the two generations before him, and yes it’s easy to apply everything out of a drum. But if my son wants to take the farm over, I want to leave it to him in the best possible state I can based on the information I have available to me.”

Ryan says he’s a strong believer in farmers helping farmers. Through this project and other farming groups such as VicNoTill he’s been able to connect with a broader network of like-minded people.

“There are a lot of farmers out there interested in trying something different. If we’re all communicating and helping each other out, it doesn’t cost any of us to learn something new and it only makes us all better at what we do.

“Comparing notes and bouncing ideas off each other means we can hopefully make better decisions going forward. At the end of the day it’s an individual decision about what to do on your own farm, but learning from others and communicating with them about what’s working and what isn’t working really helps.”

The ASM Active Carbon Project grant is a Waste Less Recycle More initiative funded from the waste levy

If you want to discuss this project or how we can help you achieve exceptional soil health improvements please feel free to drop me an email.