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Development of a minimum tillage system: Rutherglen experience

D.R. Coventry and H.D. Brooke

Rutherglen Research Institute
Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs
Rutherglen, Victoria 3685

The acceptance and adoption of new opportunities for change is more readily achieved with practices that offer surer benefits and the least hazards. Improved crop varieties and new weed control methods are accepted with slight resistance. Other sub-sets within the whole cropping program can be more inaccessible to change, as experience, with its harsh lessons, has taught caution with the applicability of new information.

The practice of cultivation in preparing land for sowing of crops is long-established in cropping systems world-wide, so it is familiar and provides security. Yet over the past 30 years various methods have been advocated that replace or reduce cultivation; these methods are variously termed minimum tillage, direct drilling, stubble retention, conservation farming and, more recently, sustainable farming systems. Despite the publicity given about the benefits of these systems, farmers have not easily let go of the traditional cultivation methods.

In this paper we will examine the introduction of minimum tillage systems in north-eastern Victoria. The cropping area in north-eastern Victoria is about 750,000 ha, and is a relatively homogeneous area with a rainfall range of 450-550 mm and soils varying from podzolics to red-brown earths (1). The farming system is based on a rotation of cereal crops with subterranean clover based pasture. The pasture phase traditionally has been of 5-8 years duration, followed by 2-3 subsequent cereal crops. The cropping sequence starts with a long fallow out of pasture and then short fallows for the stubble sown crops. The primary aim of the fallow was weed control. The overall farming system however is unlikely to be the same on any farm because of agro-ecological, human and economic differences.

The centre for the work on minimum tillage within this region is Rutherglen Research Institute, which is located within the region. Research on minimum tillage started at this unit in 1961 and is still underway, albeit with much change both in research and extension emphasis. As the scope of this paper includes the integration of research and extension directions within the tillage program, it is important that the development of the Rutherglen unit as an agent of change be discussed.

Throughout the paper four inter-related themes recur. These are the importance of: i) understanding the rural base; ii) availability of new technology; iii) problem identification and research and iv) farmer contact and communication.

Rutherglen research institute

The Government facility at Rutherglen was initiated in 1880 as a Viticultural College Reserve. In 1912, under the direction of A.E.V. Richardson, the land not used for viticultural work was incorporated as an Experimental Farm. Richardson fixed the direction of the agricultural work with objectives relating to establishing a technology base consistent with the resources of the north-eastern region. Specifically, he defined that the work would be multi-disciplinary and should be based on an understanding of the environment (2).

Technology base

Most of the initial experiments were of a long-term design, concerned with crop rotations, tillage methods, fertiliser use and pasture improvement. There was little change in this experimental work over 30-40 years although 'miscellaneous' tests were undertaken on various technologies (e.g. plant pathology work). The responsibility for the experimental design, conduct, analysis and reporting was held firmly by Melbourne based scientists. The work was all done on the Experimental Farm with the Rutherglen staff, which comprised 2-3 scientists and many support staff, maintaining the work.

This approach to work was consistent with the centralised management methods practised at that time and was successful; the clover-ley farming system was an example of a technology introduced to north-eastern Victoria (3).

Farmer contact

Communication with farmers in this early stage was mainly via the Government digest and journals and at the Annual Field Days. The emphasis of Field Days was explaining the experimental work, with little integration of the information given with the wider farm situation.

During the war years the long-term experiments continued, however some new work was initiated that addressed areas of commodity shortages. This work involved some Rutherglen staff with farmers on War Agricultural Committees. Involvement on these committees must have provided some stimulus for the input of new and external ideas for work as written in the summary of the 1946 Field Day notes was the following, 'In addition to working on the farm itself it is desirable that the staff should have sufficient time to visit district farms to discuss their problems and methods to their mutual advantage ...' (4).

It is difficult to ascertain the level of consultation with farmers thereafter, but certainly farmer groups were instrumental in obtaining off-station research work. Groups such as the Wheat and Wool Growers Association (now Victorian Farmers Federation) and the various Agricultural Societies applied to the Government for specific experimental work to be established in their regions. The first off-station work done by Rutherglen was on the property of W.J. Ryan at Yarrawonga in 1954. This work involved wheat variety comparisons plus a large clover-ley experiment.

External influences

The initiation of off-station field work presented a range of new problems, not the least being plot management problems such as equipment transport and within paddock mobility.

Off-station work elsewhere in the State faced similar problems. To assist with this work, the Wheat Industry Research Committee of Victoria (now the Wheat Research Committee of Victoria

(WRCV)) was founded by the Farmers' Association. This committee first met in 1960. In 1961/62 WRCV funded for Rutherglen the purchase of plot drills, cultivation equipment and headers. By 1966/67, with funding for the truck and trailer for transporting experimental equipment, the Rutherglen unit was well established for off-station research.

Thus farmers, through their Associations, could now influence the direction of research. The control for the conduct of the work was still in Melbourne, but with more emphasis on off-station work, the staffing at Rutherglen was changing with more qualified people required for management of the more diverse research programs.

Minimum tillage systems

Technology base

Work done from 1961-1964 established that wheat could be sown and would grow well using a direct drilling technique. From then the focus of the minimum tillage work was on controlling crop weeds, both pre- and post-sowing. The work was done with WRCV funding and received excellent support from Melbourne staff. Much encouragement was also given by Industry (mainly ICI) and the New South Wales Soil Conservation Authority.

Although the farmers did not lack in interest in this work, at this early stage they did not wish to diverge from traditional crop establishment systems. Farmers' particular concern was about weed control.

The work from 1965-1974 provided a workable system for crop establishment and weed control without cultivation (5, 6).

Extension approach

From 1965-1975 the research on alternative tillage systems was publicised at the Annual Field Days and in technical publications. The research had shown that crops sown by the direct drill method yielded similarly to those sown with a conventionally cultivated seedbed (5). This experimental work was all done on Research Institute land at Rutherglen.

The extension approach required convincing farmers of gains, other than yield gains per se, as well as giving details of methodology. Ellington and Reeves (6) list the gains from direct drilling as timeliness and flexibility in sowing operations, energy saving and soil conservation. Cropping was then the significant farm industry, as income from livestock industries was low. The progressive farmers were receptive to new ideas on cropping, and some farmers were prepared to try direct drilling, particularly to enable more crop to be sown. The awareness and commitment of the farming community to soil conservation was not well developed at that time.

Although there was not widespread farmer evaluation of direct drilling, other technology from research at Rutherglen was receiving considerable farmer interest. In particular, research on alternative crops and weed control was prominent and together with later work on soil amelioration, a catalyst was provided for the wider adoption of minimum tillage practices.

Sub-system research

Research on lupins, new herbicides and crop varieties throughout the 1970's was done both on Institute land and district farms. The direct drill method advocated was used either routinely, or as a treatment, in much of this work. In this way considerable experience and confidence with direct drilling was obtained for the different soils throughout the region. Much district research was also done from 1980-1988 on acidic and hardsetting soils, therefore giving emphasis to the connections between the various sub-systems within the overall cropping system. The publicity generated by the work on lupins and soil problems was creating a ground-swell of interest from farmers in the long-term care of their soil, and an acceptance that the right direction was to reduce cultivation and traffic on their soils.

Research-extension integration

Up until the late 1970's, the publicity for the work done at Rutherglen was given by the associated research staff; there was little involvement by specialist extension staff. There also was a parallel and extensive promotion program being carried out by ICI with their 'Sprayseed' program.

Changes were also occurring with farmer education and information availability, with a plethora of farmer short courses, symposia and magazines featuring opportunities for change and development. There was a real risk that farmers were likely to experience information overload. It was obvious that researchers and extension workers stopped and listened to farmers.

Surveys of farmers showed that farmers were aware of the work on minimum tillage, but often did not consider it applicable to their farm situation (P.J. Haines and T.G. Reeves, personal communication). An obvious problem was the lack of farmer acceptance of crops grown in small experimental plots. However, even the use of larger demonstration blocks sown by research staff did little to allay suspicions. More farmer involvement in determining research directions, plus a share in evaluating the technology without too much risk-taking, was obviously needed.

At Rutherglen a research planning meeting was held in 1980 involving about 20 farmers plus research and extension staff. This meeting was important as farmer priorities were determined for research work for the cropping region. The problem areas on which work was subsequently undertaken included acidic soils and lime use, hardsetting and waterlogging soils, subterranean clover decline and stubble management. The publicity associated with these soil-linked problems (plus the impact of the 1982 drought) did much to increase farmer concern about the need to consider soil conservation issues on their own farms. This was a big breakthrough for farmer acceptance of minimum tillage systems.

Another gain from fostering the two-way process of communication between scientists and farmers was to provide continuity of industry funding for the research and development work.

With recognition of the importance of soil conservation on farms, farmers began requesting more evaluation of soil management strategies in their districts. This provided an ideal opportunity for district extension staff to take up much of the tillage development work. Large demonstration sites which optimised soil and crop management for an area were established at several sites in 1985 (as part of National Soil Conservation Program and WRCV projects). 'Best-bet' treatments were decided at group meetings and the sites were managed by the field crop extension staff. A replicated experimental site was usually associated with the demonstration.

A criticism of this approach by the farmers involved was that we (the scientists) were still attempting to teach the farmers what we want them to know, without giving them a major share in the work. Therefore the approach to managing the demonstration areas was modified. The initial step now is to establish a farmer discussion group in the year preceding the establishment of the demonstration site. The group decides for itself the tillage system to be trialled, taking into consideration the soils of the area, soil management strategies and the economics of the approach. The group members also are required to define the traditional system for comparison with the 'new' system. The groups manage the demonstrations themselves, the emphasis being on shared concern and consultation. In this way it is hoped that through understanding each new phase in the process of a new farming system, the group members will be more likely to adopt the process as their own eventually. It is

anticipated that there will be 10-12 such groups operating in north-eastern Victoria in 1989-1990. An objective for each group is to appreciate that there is no 'one' minimum tillage method, and that they will have to do much themselves towards developing their own systems.

Farming systems approach

In this paper we have summarised the work done by Rutherglen Research Institute on minimum tillage systems in a period which has seen significant change to crop production systems in north-eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales. Clearly, the role described here is only part of an overall and broad perspective to changing tillage systems, with influences from other institutions, industry, farmer education and the farming socio-economic environment.

The work done by the Rutherglen group on tillage systems has been multi-disciplinary, has involved farmers at all stages and is an example of a farming systems approach to a practice which is known to be relatively inaccessible to change. The work has been done over 27 years, so provides an opportunity for comment on the approach taken and lessons learnt.


It is natural for scientists closely associated with new technology to expect change to occur quickly. In fact the scientist is under pressure to obtain results quickly, both for reasons of credibility and to ensure continued funding. With completion of a phase of research, scientists are anxious to move to new work areas. A risk therefore is that we may pass farmers by with new ideas or technology before the value of the new is accepted. Yet with the work done at Rutherglen, progression to new work areas has greatly benefited the minimum tillage program by broadening the technology base and creating more opportunity for understanding.

Sometimes concern, sometimes optimism have been expressed by the Rutherglen group about progress with adoption of minimum tillage methods (7). Whatever the progress, we should not be critical of farmers falling short of our expectations as farmers differ considerably in their abilities to understand technology and change, and many farmers accustom themselves slowly (and possibly reluctantly) to change of any sort (8).


Although at no stage was evaluation of progress with farmer adoption a structured part of the Rutherglen work, the work still had to be regularly reviewed for funding purposes. It was always possible to estimate the extent of minimum tillage. For example, information on areas of direct drilled crop obtained from commercial groups (e.g. ICI "Spray Seed" program) would indicate farmer interest; in 1978 it was estimated that in a 100 km radius from Rutherglen there were 1,100 ha of direct drilled crops, and 50,000 ha in 1981 (7).

However the most valuable evaluation came from direct contact with farmers. The usefulness of this contact is a consequence of the regional location of the research group and the confidence developed with the farmer over several generations.


The management system of any organisation obviously directs to some extent the work done and influences efficiency and opportunity. In Victoria the structure of the organisation has moved towards less centralised control and more unit autonomy. The unit is therefore largely responsible for the work done and how it is done. With more staff working in the region and integrated management of research and extension staff, it has been possible to widen the knowledge base on problems which are relevant to the region. It is also possible to develop more research linkages both within and between problem areas.

Accountability for work done in this environment often is seen to be to the funding groups as much as to the farmers. Whichever way, accountability is with the people who are doing the work, which gives personal commitment. The personal commitment and identity with farmers over a long time has had much to do with the success so far in introducing minimum tillage systems.

Research-extension differentiation

As industry development is the main objective of the minimum tillage program, there has never been pressure to classify work as purely research or extension. However, with progress of the work, opportunities have developed for more specialist inputs. Probably the most recent input into the tillage program in north-eastern Victoria has been specialist extension programs. These programs are possible because of the development of farmer discussion groups which have both a local commitment and a broader basis (e.g. Victoria's Landcare system). The change in perception by farmers on conservation issues has been instrumental in forming group involvement and identity.

Present adoption

In any season in north-eastern Victoria, probably about one-third of crops are sown with a conscious awareness that a soil conserving strategy is being used. In accepting these methods, the farmers are aware that the new system offers them flexibility in the way they prepare the soil for cropping. At the same time, the scientists must also be flexible and recognise the fatuity in maintaining a blind adherence to a favoured 'new' system.

1. Coventry, D.R., Walker, B.R., Morrison, G.R., Hyland, M.T., Avery, J.C. and Bartram, D.C. 1989. J. Exp. Agric. Res. 29 209-14.

2. Farmers' Field Day, Rutherglen Experiment Farm, 1913. Government Printer, Melb.

3. Bath, J.G. 1949. British Comm. Sci. Official Conf. Melb.

4. Farmers' Field Day, Rutherglen Experiment Farm, 1946.

5. Reeves, T.G. and Smith, I.S. 1973. J. Agric. Vic. 71 74-75.

6. Ellington, A. and Reeves, T.G. 1978. J. Agric. Vic. 76 150-156.

7. Reeves, T.G. 1981. Wheat Research Council workshop. South Australia.

8. Reeves, T.G. 1989. Proceedings, 'Communication in Agriculture'. Armidale.

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