If plants could talk: Fulfilling potential yield by understanding plant language

Ben Creek, Chris Coole and Jamie Nicolaou learned how to speak in plant at Wayne Smith’s workshop earlier this week.

Has our cropland reached its full potential, or can we produce a lot more? Agronomist Wayne Smith from Agronomic Acumen believes we can be much more productive, if only we “listened” more to what our plants are telling us.

Wayne was in Boyup Brook this week to help farmers learn plant language, or in other words, diagnose yield constraints just by looking at the plants. And the first place to look is at the roots.

He believes a deep root system is vital to improving water use efficiency and maintaining profits in dry years. But there are several factors that limit root growth, including pest nematodes.

According to Wayne, root-feeding nematodes are our biggest problem in cropping. So, his first piece of advice was to start by looking at the plant roots for signs of nematode damage, such as root discolouration or a lack of fine hairs.

Wayne said the most successful farmers suppress pest nematodes by giving beneficial nematodes and other bugs a competitive advantage. He said the key to this was to rotate a diverse range of crops and root types, and promote biological activity in the soil by retaining crop residue. The other key factors are avoiding compaction and addressing nutritional deficiencies.

Other key recommendations included prioritising nutritional constraints, starting with liming to correct soil pH, and then fixing trace elements, before addressing phosphate, sulphur, potassium and finally nitrogen. Wayne said that he prioritises trace elements because yield tends to be more sensitive to trace element deficiencies than “luxurious” levels of macronutrients, and farmers will only see a big response from nitrogen if trace elements are corrected. Trace elements like zinc, copper, molybdenum and manganese are naturally deficient in most Western Australian soils.

The workshop was well received by the 14 attendees, who together manage more than 8,000 hectares of cropland and run over 50,000 sheep. They walked away with a good understanding of how to observe variations in leaf shape, habit and colour, and notice where variations occur on the plants, in order to prescribed the most likely deficiency for all essential macro and micro nutrients.

Local agronomist and grower Ben Creek, who helped to organise the event, said that he would recommend the workshop to any grain of pasture producer:

“There’s always room to learn new things and grab opportunities to grow the business,” Ben said.

“Wayne showed us some valuable ways to do this.”

The event was supported by the South West Catchment Council’s Regional Landcare Facilitator Programme with funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

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