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Episode 1: Mallee Sand to Gold Series | Economics of Deep Ripping

June 4, 2020 - 4:47 pm

Dr Rick Llewellyn (CSIRO & MSF Director) joins Tegan Buckley (MSF) in this episode to discuss the economics of deep ripping including discussion around the benefits, risks, ROI and more when it comes to deep ripping sandy soils. Enjoy!

TEGAN BUCKLEY - Hello and welcome to the MSF Farm Talk podcast. I'm taking Buckley from Mallee Sustainable Farming, in this episode included in our Mallee Sand to Gold Series, I caught up with Dr. Rick Llewellyn from the CSIRO to chat economics of deep ripping. Dr Rick Llewellyn is a senior principal research scientist, specialising in ag systems and research group leader based at the Waite campus in Adelaide. Rick's research, bridges farming systems, field research, weed and herbicide resistance management, strategies for tech adoption and agricultural economics. Rick has also been a Mallee Sustainable Farming Director since 2006 and we really value his expertise and knowledge that he brings to MSF. G'day Rick and welcome to the MSF Farm Talk podcast, thanks for coming on board. RICK LLEWELLYN - Thank you TEGAN BUCKLEY - In this episode, we're chatting about the economics of deep ripping. We're seeing so many farmers jump into deep ripping over the last few years, Rick, why do you think we're seeing this trend? RICK LLEWELLYN - Yeah, it's really interesting how rapidly farmers have started deep ripping in the last few years, because at the start of this work we've been doing about three or four years ago, we went around to about 50 different farmers around various low rainfall, medium rainfall regions and there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for deep ripping. They'd had bad experience, they hadn't tried it for a long time, allot had tried it a long time ago, hadn't returned to it. So it's really interesting to think about why we're seeing such a surge in deep ripping and the more you think about it, the more obvious I think the factors are, I mean, first of all, we're seeing a lot more cropping and with that we've also seen a lot more compaction over the last few years and there's evidence that there is a considerable compaction out there that farmers have to deal with. But the other big thing that we're seeing of course is much bigger and better machinery. That's making it much easier to do ripping cost effectively and quickly and particularly important, deeply to an adequate depth to get that effect. I guess, the other important shift in cropping has also contributed to this rise deep ripping, and that's the importance of a stored soil water. We're seeing much better fallows, crops that are much better and there's a lot more yield potential that demand a lot more water, so the chance to get into some of that deeper water by overcoming compaction you're seeing the rewards of that. But one of the other big factors that we saw from farmers and their concerns, it still is a concern and that's erosion. But the big shift to no till since that early ripping experience, I think is one of the, yeah, the big factor that's letting people know, I have a bit more confidence that they can perform deep ripping on these low rainfall, sandy soils. TEGAN BUCKLEY - So Rick, your work's been focusing on the economics of deep ripping, what have you found out so far? RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, we're very lucky in this project because we've got, it's approaching 30 separate trials being conducted across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia across various regions, including the Eyre Peninsula. So, there's a big database coming together. We've still only got a handful that really reached that three year mark, which is probably what you need to truly evaluate the effect of ripping and the benefits over multiple seasons, but we are certainly picking up some very strong and reliable economic responses. So, we're looking at the ripping and a whole range of other treatments as well and from what we can see, we can see why farmers are gaining confidence with this practice because the returns have been generally very impressive. You're looking at a practice that most farmers would quote as costing, you know, $60 to a $100 per hectare, sometimes you might get quotes of less, depending on how you manage the labor costs in your budgeting and also the ability to spread the capital investment cost across area, large areas and time, by number of years, but we're seeing very good returns on investment. Sometimes, you know, cost benefit ratios or benefit cost ratios of three to one, $200 and $300 benefits per hectare. When you're targeting the areas of the paddock that really do benefit from ripping, so the returns are looking good. That's not to say there aren't exceptions though, I mean, we've certainly seen exceptions where there are other important constraints and in some of our trial areas, you've got areas where acidity for example is an issue and situations like that, you're not likely to see the benefits and you've also got areas that just don't suffer from the same level of compaction. I guess another exception to this generally reliable return on investment for ripping has been a couple of examples on the very marginal cropping regions, in the last two dry seasons where the rainfall was so dry that even though there were small benefits in the first year, because it wasn't the rain fall to chop things up you're seeing a small decline in yield in the second year. So, they can be seasonal exceptions as well, but generally the economics are looking very positive and that's why you're seeing so many farmers, gaining confidence and getting stuck into it. TEGAN BUCKLEY - Yeah, so let's just touch on return on investment a little bit more, how does ripping compare with other soil amelioration practices and also how do you know which will give us the best return on investment? RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, one thing we really are focusing on is sandy soils and that's where you do see a lot of compaction, so if that is your primary constraint and often it is a major constraint and particularly if you know what the depth is and how deep you need to go to overcome that, then the return on investment does look good and you can get ripping done like I said, for those costs that I mentioned for a reasonable cost. Once you start looking at some of the other soil amelioration practices, such as the inclusion of deep placed organic matter and things like that, you're really getting into another cost bracket that can become quite expensive, quite quickly. Sometimes people are lucky to have a cheap or even free local source, but that can really increase the cost required and the level of yield you need to recoup those costs. So when we've looked at those practices, that certainly, the jury is still out on the economics around those, because you have got a lot of seasonal factors that come into play as well, which can limit how quickly you can get returns on those more costly practices. It's important to keep in mind that the biggest limitation in a Mallee farming systems is always rainfall, so there is a cap to how much yield you can gain, so it certainly the lower cost, practice of ripping is, I guess it's been the most obvious, in terms of economic response and reliability of response so far. TEGAN BUCKLEY - Yeah, definitely, so is there anything that farmers can do to optimize their investment in deep ripping or soil amelioration in general on farm? RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, there are several things farmers are already doing and they're getting very efficient at applying ripping, I mean, a common question that we do come across is, you know, where do we stop? A lot of our trial work is limited in the sense that it's focusing on just a small area of a paddock and often they are those areas where you are most likely to see a return, those sandy soils with known compaction. So, the question that's becoming clearly profitable in those areas, but then the issue is how much further can you go down the dune, for example, and still gain that profit. So we're trying to look at cheaper ways to determine the depth of compaction and a farmer's are getting good at identifying where the returns might stop and start and there are a few other interesting things we're looking at in terms of ensuring reliable establishment in the years after ripping as well. Because that becomes particularly important because that first year gain of, you know, on average or the typical first year gain that we're seeing in Mallee cropping is around half a ton of wheat, for example, response,  so you do need good establishment and that will be your biggest game. So, you do need to make sure you get establishment right in that first year and in these dry years with a lot of erosion risk. Like we've seen in the last couple of seasons, there certainly have been a few risks associated with that, so it's important to get that ground cover management right as well. TEGAN BUCKLEY - Ah, thank you, Rick so much for jumping on board, the MSF podcast and for your wealth of knowledge that you've shared in this episode. RICK LLEWELLYN - No worries at all, thanks for the opportunity. TEGAN BUCKLEY - Don't forget to share this episode with a mate, if you took some value away from it and be sure to subscribe, rate and review our podcast. Thanks for tuning in and we'll catch you in the next episode.