Research weighs up economics of CTF systems

Research weighs up economics of CTF systems

The costs of adopting Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) systems are often lower than growers expect, but the benefits are varied in scope and scale.

However, a CTF system does not need to be perfect to gain benefits of soil compaction management.

These are findings of economist James Hagan, of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Queensland (DAF), who recently addressed the National Controlled Traffic Farming Conference, of which the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) was the major sponsor.

Mr Hagan’s research resulted from investments by the GRDC and DAF, along with previous research conducted by organisations including the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) – formerly the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA).

The principle of CTF is to create permanent wheel tracks, commonly called tramlines by Western Australian growers, which are clearly separated from the crop zone. The key aim is to reduce compaction and improve soil conditions in the crop root zone to encourage root growth and increase the uptake of soil moisture – to improve grain yields and quality.

Mr Hagan told the conference unclear costs and benefits of CTF adoption were one reason for variable CTF adoption rates across Australia, including in WA where adoption rates were relatively low.

He said broadacre cropping businesses were now using machinery capable of causing compaction at depths of 30cm or deeper but CTF systems provided a way to manage this.

“Trials by the then DAFWA in the early 2000s across a variety of soil types in WA found traffic yield penalties ranging from 15 per cent (0.5 tonnes per hectare) to almost 50 per cent (1.8t/ha) in a single season,” Mr Hagan said.

“The costs of moving to CTF are often seen as a barrier to adoption.

“However, case studies of growers who have adopted this system show the initial cost is typically less than $50,000, with benefits greatly exceeding this.

“Machinery replacement is an ongoing activity for any business, and it is misleading to attribute all machinery capital costs against the CTF system.”

On the other hand, Mr Hagan said it was possible for CTF to have considerable opportunity costs.

“Timeliness remains key in farming operations, and while small trade-offs may be worthwhile, significant delays are likely to overwhelm any other observable effect,” he said.

“For example, reducing the machinery seeding width from 13.7m to 12m – as part of machinery conversions to a commonly used 3:1, 12m CTF system – could cost about $14,000 annually due to seeding delays.”

However, Mr Hagan said compromises existed which allowed farms to reduce the percentage of their paddocks which were trafficked while also allowing them to make use of wide scale machinery.

“A common compromise is the use of wider planting equipment moving from a 36:12m system, with about 12 per cent of the paddock trafficked, to a 36:18:12m system in which about 18 per cent of the paddock is trafficked,” he said

Mr Hagan said the benefits of adopting CTF would vary by soil type; rainfall; potential yields; cropping enterprise size; and the difference between the percentage of farm which was trafficked – with and without system adoption.

“It is typical for growers to report a 20-30 per cent reduction in fuel use as firm tramlines improve traction and, while yield benefits may vary by season and location, they have been definitively measured across Australia’s cropping regions,” he said.

The National Controlled Traffic Farming Conference was held on Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 August 2017.

The conference was supported by organisations including the Australian Controlled Traffic Farming Association, the Western Australian No-Tillage Farming Association, the GRDC and DPIRD.

The GRDC Western Regional Panel recently released a booklet featuring insights from WA growers about their CTF experiences. Controlled Traffic Farming – Case Studies of Growers in Western Australia is available on the GRDC website.

Source: GRDC

Featured image: The perceived costs of moving to a CTF system can be seen by growers as a barrier to adoption. Photo: GRDC