Waging war on weeds: the latest research

laser weed control
Blasting a weed with a laser, leaving it smoking with a high voltage zap or watching it wither under a giant magnifying glass may well be my cathartic farm job of the future.

Waging war on weeds – whether with chemicals or tillage – is set to get a whole lot smarter, more cost-effective and kinder for the environment, thanks to new work at the University of Sydney.

I was delighted when researcher Michael Walsh agreed to give Milk Maid Marian a sneak peek at the direction of his team’s research.

MMM: Farmers traditionally use chemicals or tillage to control weeds. Why should we consider new forms of weed control?

MW: Like many other decisions on farm, cost is the driving factor behind the need to consider other forms of weed control. Herbicides and tillage are both relatively cheap to apply but there are production risks to the use of these treatments.

There is a risk of herbicide resistance that occurs every time a herbicide is applied and once resistance evolves it remains in a weed population forever and therefore the herbicide is no longer useful.

For tillage it is the risk associated with soil disturbance and the lack of selectivity. In a pasture tillage for weed control will result in the loss of grazing for that paddock.

MMM: What are the alternatives being researched at the University of Sydney?
MW: We have been evaluating targeted tillage and more recently laser weeding, but we are also keen to investigate electrical weeding and solar weeding.

Electrical weeding is simply just using electricity to “shock” weeds. A weed is touched with a positive terminal and the earth acts as the ground so the charge passes through the weed burning cells as it goes. In the UK there are commercially available hand held electrical weeders.

Solar weed control

Solar weeding is using the sun to burn weeds. It’s the magnifying glass approach where a lens (grooved plastic sheet) is used to concentrate sunlight on to a weed to burn it. These types of lenses (Fresnel lens) are used in lighthouses to focus light into a strong beam.

MMM: What are the benefits?
MW: Initially the main benefit will be the reduced reliance on herbicides.

There will be substantial savings in weed control costs associated with controlling individual weeds rather than applying a blanket weed control treatment to the whole field. These savings will depend on weed density and it is hope that with good weed identification systems we will be better able to reduce weeds to very low numbers in crop and pasture paddocks.

MMM: Other forms of automated weed control have struggled to identify weeds in pasture. How can this be overcome?
MW: The development of new camera and sensing technologies for cars and phones has created the opportunity for weed recognition and identification. This will allow us to use tillage and other physical weed control tactics to selectively target weeds in crop and pasture situations.

MMM: What needs to happen to make this technology a reality on Australian dairy farms?
MW: I guess the first thing to do is to start working on systems that are able to identify weeds in pastures. Basically it is just a matter of training a sensing system (e.g. a robot) to recognise what is a weed and what is pasture plant. This is typically achieved by building up a library of weed images as they occur in pastures over the growing season.

Thank you very much, Michael, for this glimpse of what farmers can look forward to in the war on weeds! I do hope the dairy community is quick to support such an exciting development for farmers and the planet and can begin building that library of weeds.

Secrets of a happy life revealed and it was here on the farm all along

“If your New Year resolution is to be happier, make your priorities fruit, nature, sun and sleep.”

This simple prescription for a happy life stems from Otago University research reported in the NZ Herald this morning.  Sounds a lot like farm life, doesn’t it?

From all of us here on the farm, have a wonderful 2015!

Before we say goodbye to 2014 though, I’d like to pay tribute to our wonderful fellow Landcarer, Margaret Ferguson, who helped us plant trees this summer and tragically lost her life in a farm accident this month. I still can’t believe this magnificent lady is gone but she would be delighted to see how well our trees have already grown.

The trees arrived in September

The trees arrived in September

 

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

 

We finished planting in the first week of October

We finished planting in the first week of October

 

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

 

Look how much they've already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

Look how much they’ve already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

 

RIP Margaret. We miss you.

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

 

From soggy paddock to paradise

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Stretching a temporary fence across an adjacent paddock in the warm winter sun, I was captivated by the scene through the tussocks. Two black swans were gliding across the water, a mob of moorhens were stretching their long orange legs, while a dozen or so wood ducks gathered a little way off.

It wasn’t always this way. This is, or was, paddock 17.  One of the lowest parts of the farm, paddock 17 was often under water and when we investigated the soil, we found it was a potential acid sulphate soil (PASS) with high levels of salinity. The safest thing to do was leave it alone, so we fenced it off and, one November, planted 800 moisture-loving plants with the help of a Landcare grant and the hard work of the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group volunteers.

The next two seasons were the wettest on record and I thought we’d lost the lot. We moved the fence out further and the Wellington Shire offered some extra money to replant the margins. Well, it’s all taken off – even some of the first plantings I’d given up on – and we now can boast a magical on-farm ephemeral wetland habitat.

Put yourself in the paddock with me for a few seconds and listen to this:

 

Why Landcare matters

It’s one of my earliest memories. Mum, Dad, my little brother and I took a tiny tree wrapped in paperbark down the paddock and planted it by the bank of the gully. It was a big affair that must have taken an hour by the time we got there, assembled the guard and wandered home again.

But that’s what “tree planting” meant back then and here is the very same tree today.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

A tree just about as old as the Milk Maid

Everything changed in my teenage years when we joined 20 or so of our neighbours to visit a nearby farm criss-crossed with healthy young stands of trees. John and Gayle had created an oasis on a windy flat. It was the first Landcare event I can remember and Dad and I came away totally inspired. He set about planting trees.

An aerial photo of the farm in 1994 shows young trees emerging around the dam but little else. It was still a blank canvas but there was a sniff of success.

The centre of the farm in 1994

The centre of the farm in 1994

Can you see a few trees along a rough line in the centre of the picture? It’s a denuded gully that now looks like this, thanks to Dad’s hard work and a Landcare grant that went towards his costs:

The gully 20 years later

The gully 20 years later

During my six-year-custodianship, we’ve planted nearly 10,000 trees and re-fenced our 11 hectares of forest with the help of Landcare, the local catchment management authority, the shire and Greening Australia. Although the funding sources are diverse, it’s all happened because of Landcare as the group acts like a triage service, matching funding sources with farm projects. The funding doesn’t cover everything but it does make it possible, especially with practical help from other Landcarers.

Landcare continues to inspire. In the last few years, our local Landcare group has created a grand vision that brings together the work of individual farms: creating wildlife corridors that stretch from the forest to the river to the foothills across farms, linking precious remnants to provide a network of habitats. And it’s working. Together, we can see that it’s not just our own farms that are changing, it is the entire landscape.

In this, the 25th Anniversary of Landcare, the Commission of Audit has recommended halving its funding – just as this powerful grass-roots volunteer movement has really begun to make a difference. Do you care? I do.

Bruce and Zoe planting in late October

Bruce and Zoe planting trees in October 2011

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.

For our children

Have you seen this?

Yes, it’s by Unilever. Yes, you’re entitled to be cynical and yes, I love it.

The global manufacturer and ice-cream maker has just accredited Australian dairy production as meeting its Sustainable Agriculture Code – a huge accomplishment, which is also a world first. Of course it doesn’t mean Australian dairying is perfect and Dairy Australia has published a Sustainability Framework that will nudge us all to do better.

Here on the farm, our family does a bite-sized project for the environment every year. We have:

When I say “our family”, I have to stress that we haven’t been able to do all this without help. Grants from Landcare, Greening Australia and the Wellington Shire, work by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, together with the hard yakka of volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group and some of our friends have made the tree planting possible.

It just goes to show what we can do when everyone pulls together.

Goanna

Green is not always good

Our farm hosted some very distinguished guests yesterday.

VIPelicans

VIPelicans

I am so glad they arrived now and not two weeks ago. The farm’s stunning Land for Wildlife Dam is sanctuary for many beautiful birds but, for the first time in living memory, the dam succumbed to an algal bloom that looked more like a massive acrylic paint disaster.

Algae on January 30

Algae on January 30

The stuff was brilliant green and, while not smelly, it was not a welcome sight. Excess nutrients and warmth can combine to bring about algal blooms that leave waterways toxic for weeks or months. Here’s how the water’s edge looked yesterday. A lot better but still not clear.

Algae February 12

Algae February 12

So, what to do? Experts say to exclude stock from the dam and create a buffer to prevent fertiliser runoff – and that’s already done. Next, we will emulate the sewage wetlands of Melbourne’s newest housing estates and plant dense stemmy vegetation upstream of the dam that will encourage “good” algae and strip nutrients from the water as it passes through. It will mean more wildlife habitat and safer water. Good for everyone!

The positives of being a dairy farmer

It’s one year since I started Milk Maid Marian and seeing as I’ve just finished reconciling our accounts for March, I thought it perfect timing to do the same for my life as a dairy farmer, beginning with the top five positives.

Love of the land
The first one has to be love of land. I am connected to this place and think of myself as its custodian. Just being here is good for the soul.

Farm children have something special
The farm allows me to work with Zoe and Alex, even in those precious early years. The farm’s also a great teacher: respect for work, respect for the environment, animals and nature. They have seen birth, life and death first-hand and I hope they have learned to accept life with good grace yet develop inquiring minds. There’s a palpable sense of responsibility about farm kids that’s matched with the enormous freedoms of farm life.

Working with animals
Cows, calves, bulls and dogs all have their own personalities but none of them play office politics around the water cooler. Because we work with our cows at least twice a day, we get to know and appreciate the characters!

Exercise for mind, body and soul
Farming is not for dummies, lazybones or fragile souls. The challenges are immense and that can be enervating because there is always something new to learn and do.

Knowing that we are making a difference
We produce great, clean, healthy food while looking after our animals and the land. That’s very satisfying.

I’m with Hugh on this one: it’s not fun to kill

I am no stranger to death – every year, just as new calves are born, some old cows must pass away. I am, by necessity, philosophical about it but, still, every loss is felt. Nor can I eat an animal I have known, although I am keenly aware of my own emotional hypocrisy. One thing I am clear about, however, is that I will never kill for fun.

I don’t understand duck season. If I were to fire endless shots at stampeding cows from a hundred feet or more away, I would be rightly condemned for animal cruelty. Why is it so different with birds?

Ducks

Australian Shelducks

This Spring, we’ll be creating another permanent sanctuary for our bird life on the farm with the assistance of the Shire of Wellington, which has provided a grant for the fencing and trees (thanks Andrew!). This paddock will be broken into three pieces: the wet centre will belong to the birds while the higher, drier sections will be amalgamated with neighboring paddocks.

A prickly character on farm

Dairy farms are great places to teach kids a love of – and respect for – creatures of every kind.

We are really privileged to have acres of beautiful bush on our farm and we come across all sorts of creatures – even the threatened goanna. One of the cutest but least cuddly is the echidna and the forest has thousands of these little ant-eating waddlers.

An environmentalist once told me that she builds connections with farmers via birds because they are the most visible fauna on a farm but it’s the far less glamorous and more timid creatures that make an ecosystem. This was brought home to me yesterday when one of the shire’s environmental staff visited to assess the farm’s potential for green projects. One of the criteria was whether the farm is home to threatened flora or fauna. Apart from the goannas, I really don’t know, and that’s a shame.

I hope my children will indeed learn so much more than I’ll ever know about our wonderful world.

What a farm upbringing brings

I am a very proud mama. Zoe loves to run and while I was setting up a paddock for the cows, she galloped off along the track and challenged me to beat her to the next gate. I watched the little dot bob along the track and reckoned she might just win, too. Instead, I found her three-quarters of the way to the “finish line”, doing this:

Picking Up Rubbish

"Rotten rubbish"

Just being part of farm life teaches children responsibility, care for animals, respect for the environment and a sense of pride in their own work. We are very, very lucky.