Title Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system
Database Senate Committees
Date 23-04-2012
Source Senate
Parl No. 43
Committee Name Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Page 46
Questioner CHAIR
Nash, Sen Fiona
Responder Mr Hazelton
System Id committees/commsen/45df7df8-df42-415b-b338-e5e7863128f5/0005

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee - 23/04/2012 - Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

HAZELTON, Mr Richard George, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Hazelton : Yes, I would. You will have to bear with me as I am not a fast reader.

CHAIR: Please proceed.

Mr Hazelton : I am here today to talk about how healthy soils go hand in hand with a limited supply of water. What I believe has been overlooked in the Murray-Darling area discussions is the importance of healthy soils. If we put somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of water back into the environment without affecting the productivity of the irrigation areas, what a result for our food bowl, rural Australia and every Australian!

In 1979 I started a fertiliser-spreading business and 20 years later we were the largest spreading contractors in the state of New South Wales. The areas I am familiar with are the Macquarie, Lachlan, Murrumbidgee and Murray river systems. The reason for our rapid expansion was innovation. We built purpose-built conveyors and added eight per cent moisture to the lime and this eliminated the dust problem and stopped the fine lime from blowing away and allowed us to spread a wider pattern. After much trial and error with reversing spinners, we built special spinners and frames for spreading moist lime. I cannot stress enough the importance of spreading lime evenly to show big results. We spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes using this method. Although lime is important to the soil, today I will be primarily discussing calcium and magnesium percentages and the setting up of a truly independent agronomy trial. I first became aware of water efficiencies when we limed half of Chris Taylor's centre-pivot irrigation area on his property south of Dubbo. The pivot at the time was the third largest in Australia and was on a consistent soil type. We limed half the area of the pivot. When we returned the following year to lime the other half of the pivot, Chris informed me that the corn on the lime section had a 10 per cent increase in yield and everything else had remained the same. I knew then that there were a lot of soils that would show a bigger increase as Chris's soils were of a high standard. For those who are not familiar with soil science, magnesium controls photosynthesis and in high percentages makes the soil tighter. Calcium causes structure, improves water infiltration and generally leaves soil in a more friable condition. The easy way to remember this is by knowing that the opposite applies in the human body, which is why magnesium tablets are taken for cramps and calcium makes your muscles tighter.

Our soils in Australia are among the oldest in the world. We have a huge variation of soil types, from the Great Dividing Range, where there is a calcium-magnesium deficiency, to the predominantly high-magnesium, low-calcium soils of the irrigation areas of the Murray-Darling. Soils in the irrigation areas often have an artificially high pH because they are high in magnesium, potassium and sodium. Magnesium has about 1.5 times the neutralising value than that of calcium.

The good book states you cannot lime a high pH soil, because you make nutrients and trace elements unavailable. I started to question this information because of the results we were getting. On the dump sites where we tipped the lime, if you cleaned them up properly, the concentration of lime on the ground would be 10 to 20 times what was spread on the field. The crop on the dump site sometimes was actually better than on the rest of the field. This is where the controversy starts. When you lime these soils you displace the magnesium, potassium and sodium, which have a high neutralising value. There is a pie chart which is used in agronomy. If you put, say, calcium into the pie chart you have to take something out. In this case, calcium and magnesium have two positives. You push out magnesium and, if in excess, you will take out potassium and sodium. This is how we manage to keep the pH in check, and because the soils usually have a heavy exchange capacity this also helps to keep the pH in check. The heavier soils require a heavier rate to correct the imbalance, and the lighter soils require a lighter rate to correct the imbalance.

When in balance, the fertiliser efficiencies improve. One unit of nitrogen will grow one bushel of corn. When out of balance, it takes one-and-a-half units of nitrogen to grow one bushel of corn. Drip irrigation has a big role to play in the irrigation areas. Having the correct calcium-magnesium balance improves the ability of water to disperse through the soil profile. Biological farming may well have a big role to play. They also heavily depend on calcium. The cost of a truly independent agronomy trial throughout the Murray-Darling that would show the correct balance on how to gain greater water efficiencies, I estimate, would be around $6 million. With the productivity increase created, a return on investment would be in a five-year period. If someone can improve on what we have achieved—I might add, with the help of many others—I will welcome this. The Murray-Darling is so important for the growing of food and fibre in our nation. I thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. This is precisely what I think this committee has to look at on the solution side of making more production from fewer inputs. As you correctly point out, Mr Hazelton, you can lock up the nutrients in the soil, and we have to unlock the nutrients, which is a by-product of chemical farming. The lime you use up in your area—has that got that reddish streak through it?

Mr Hazelton : Yes, it is the pink lime from Westlime at Parkes.

CHAIR: We have half-weight lime and half of that. What is that?

Mr Hazelton : I can actually tell you. I virtually set the distribution up for Westlime Parkes, that was about six or seven years ago. It is a little bit of iron, about half a percent, not even that. In Australia with limestone, if you have any impurities, it shows up in the colour. That why they bring white limestone across from Tasmania to the mainland, because it is pure. It is white.

CHAIR: So the gist of your argument is, if we are going to have efficient use of water and less water available, then for God's sake let's get the soil at its maximum productive capacity.

Mr Hazelton : Yes. It is a really big area. It is a huge area, where you have got the high-magnesium, low-calcium soils. I have had a heap of people knock what I have done and most of it has been behind my back.

Senator NASH: Welcome to trouble!

Mr Hazelton : Yes, but none of them have ever stepped forward or done anything about it. I have never had a farmer come back to me and we had 256 clients in Hazelton Groundspread—that was my company. We had 256 clients and I did not ever have one come back to me and say, 'It didn't work.' We have always had a response.

CHAIR: I take your point about where the lime dump is too, by the way.

Senator NASH: I agree with the chair. I think this is exactly one of the places that we should be focusing on in this committee. We all keep talking about water efficiency and what we need to do, but we also need to think outside the square that, when it comes to water efficiency, it is not just all about piping channels. It is about actually looking at the soil structure and what we can do. How many clients did you say you are doing this particular process for?

Mr Hazelton : I sold Groundspread six years ago, but our clientele base when we sold it was 256. We had 256 clients.

Senator NASH: Sorry, just following as you were reading. I am just trying to get my head around the process—exactly what you are doing. Do you know if those clients that you had then are still using the same practices that they were when they were with you?

Mr Hazelton : Yes, very much so. When I sold my business an agent who owns Westlime asked me to come and work for him, but all I did was virtually set the distribution base up. I knew everybody, because I was New South Wales state president of the Australian Fertiliser Services Association for seven years and I had one year as national president of the association as well. I virtually knew everybody in the industry. The areas that I concentrated on, which I thought would be our big growth areas, were these areas that had the high-magnesium soils, like you get down around Finley, Deniliquin and all those areas down there. I set up all those—Jerilderie is another one—and did a lot of work in those areas.

They have just grown and grown. What I did not allow for was that there was three dry years after I started doing it, so they did not have much water. Even though we were still getting 2,000 tonne waters at Parkes that went into Finley—blokes who had bores. Now, you could come to me and ask me for the results—I could certainly get results for you—but the best way to get a result would be to go to Westlime and ask them where the lime is actually going. Tens of thousands of tonnes are going into those high-magnesium, low-calcium soils.

Senator NASH: If we as the committee wanted to get our hands on the evidence behind the water efficiency from what you have been doing, what is the best way for us to do that? I say that in the context if we are going to sit down and say, 'This particular process means that these particular farmers will be more water efficient,'—do you have information you could provide for the committee that you would be able to give us?

Mr Hazelton : Yes, that is no problem. I was actually prepared for that question. There are a number of consultants and a heap of farmers. That would not be hard to get. It would probably take me a couple of weeks to put it all together for you.

Senator NASH: If you could do that and provide it the committee on notice, that would be really useful.

Mr Hazelton : Yes. There is no problem. I am only too glad to do it. Also, if you would like—I have not got permission from Westlime, because I very rarely do anything for them now—it is only a few days a year. I think Westlime would be—as long as there is some privacy to it—quite prepared to give you their figures as well.

Senator NASH: Absolutely. We would not need names, pack drill or anything, just the actual effect, the benefit and the water efficiency.

Mr Hazelton : What is going into the areas. Yes. That is the dead giveaway.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that because we the committee we are not in a hurry to report, I have to say, because there is such controversy. One of the areas in which there is no controversy is the suggestion that there has got to be a lot more research put into how we produce more with less and keep farmers viable. Your work could be quite valuable in that area, so we will be in touch. I sincerely congratulate you. Thank you very much.

Mr Hazelton : Just before I go can I just say that as a committee you will go away and get second opinions and they will hail me down but, as I said to you , they have never vetted what I have done.

CHAIR: I do not know that that would necessarily be the case because we know that chemical farming locks up nutrients and we have got to unlock the nutrients.

Mr Hazelton : I will give an example. I worked on Budda station, just out at Narromine, many years ago. They have got very difficult soil types there and the manager, Tom McKeown, said to me, 'I have had every staple of salesman in Australia here.' I said to Tom, 'We will pay for the trial.' It was block 7; I can distinctly remember it. We went and did this trial and we actually paid for it. To cut a long story short, the following year after being a total sceptic they spread 2,000 tonnes of lime. The year after that they spread 2,000 tonnes of lime. That just gives you some idea of the response and that says it all. You can have all the facts and figures but it is about what they buy afterwards.

I can tell you a heap of stories but why I tell you the story about Budda is that the water had run down the channels. Once a upon a time we used to run the water down every 2nd furrow. Then they started running it down every furrow. What happened was that the soil was sealing off totally, so the water would run right past the plant and the plant would die from lack of H20. They just could not get the water infiltration. That was what we actually did with the lime. What caused that problem—and this is me surmising, but I have seen it over and over again; it is amazing the little things you pick up—is that they had been spreading heaps of gypsum on that country. That is what fertiliser companies recommend for these soils. If you keep on putting gypsum on it takes out the calcium carbonate, which is your lime. The sulfur actually takes it out. When Tom McKeown took me down to the block he said to me, 'It has become nonviable for us to grow cotton on this block.' They are still banging on about putting gypsum on. I cannot understand it; it is just totally beyond me.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that. We will be in touch.

Pr oceedings suspended from 13:05 to 14:09