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Exposed, disturbed soil as far as you can see.

The size and weight of farm machinery has increased significantly over the years. Machinery now can weigh as much as 40 or 50 tons when loaded. In conventional farming this machinery operates across fields without restriction. This results in compaction and serious soil structure decline. Research has shown that there is significant, immediate and long term dramatically over the yearssoil damage from just one pass of heavy machinery. The last 10 years has seen a move away from this system with the new techniques gaining increasing recognition and acceptance. The new techniques are called Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF). CTF involves managing traffic through standardising vehicle width to run down established tracks or tramlines. This can be done manually (by humans) with the use of marker arms to mark the position for the next row.
This however is not very accurate and results in fairly considerable error.

New technologies are providing the solutions to these problems. The application of Differential Global Positioning Systems (GPS) with 2 cm accuracy has resulted in a range of tractor guidance systems often called Autosteer. These technologies result in extremely straight and evenly spaced rows and very effectively remove the need for overlap previously required with conventional farming. This technology is not cheap; an autosteer system is approximately $50,000 Australian with additional costs to modify existing machinery or purchase new equipment. Application of technology results in very¬†accurate rows were vehicles only traverse ‘tramlines’ between the rows. Fortunately the cost of these new equipments is rapidly dropping and becoming more affordable to farmers.

There is also a range of other technologies that can assist in improving farm productivity and reducing farm inputs. One such technology is Remote Sensing for use in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Such information can show moisture levels, growth rates (biomass) and crop infestations. This information can be utilised with GPS to spray only pest affected areas or water only the dryer areas of a feild. By far the biggest benefit of controlled traffic farming is improving the productivity of the soil, primaril through reducing compaction. The result of a good CTF operation is that trafficed area decreases from almost 100% to as low as 5%. The result is higher productivity and less fuel costs.

Controlled traffic farming is used in combination with no-till or low-till farming to reduce compaction and help to rebuild soil structure. Conventional broadacre farming involves plowing the soil for every crop. This continual disturbance of the soil profile results in soil structure decline with implications for lower yield, falling nutrient leves, decreased organic matter in the soil and increasing compaction, or hard pan. Conventional farming has the following major impacts on cropping: poor infiltration of water, leading to high evaporation loses in summer rain events, water logging in root zone when not over wet, the result being poor water use efficiency; hard pan problems which led to deep ripping; and soils that are very fine with very little air in the profile as a result of working the soil. Some farmers are working to reduce these problems by implementing controlled traffic farming techniques. Farmers sick of seeing their valuable topsoil blown away by wind or washed away by water are employing new farming techniques.

One such technique is bed farming where raised beds are used between vehicle tracks. The result is less waterlogging through improved drainage away from the bed and from the field. Other techniques are also used with raised beds, such as parallel lines down the bed to catch small rainfall events.

Farming with a focus on soil health has also resulted in various methods of maintaining cover to reduce erosion and increase organic matter into the soil structure. New crops are planted into the previous seasons crop stubble. In other techniques, cover crops are grown such as sorghum or grasses that provide a thick mulch cover that horticultural crops are then planted into. This has significant benefits for weed control, moisture retention and reduced soil erosion.

Compaction of the tramlines improves fuel efficiency as vehicles perform easier on hard ground and farmers find they need less horse power. Other fuel benefits occur through not needing to till the soil, and coordinating the operations to minimise the number of runs on the field.

CTF farmers are realising significant environmental benefits however the majority still use chemicals and monocultures. In this regard CTF does not mean organic. Some controlled traffic farmers are of the belief that conventional farming, nor organic, low input farming is the answer to feeding the increasing world population. The problem seems to be that without a focus on organic farming, the crops produced are still low in nutrient content and still contain harmful chemicals and still pollute the environment. It would seem that the answer is somewhat a combination of organic farming practices with the principles of controlled traffic farming.

Controlled Traffic Farming provides optimum resource management by use of improved practices and new technology. The theory is clear, but the practice varies between different regions, industries and farming systems. Interaction between these, their advisers and technology suppliers is the focus of great debate.

For professional advice about controlled traffic farming see CTF Solutions.