Jack 'French' Desbiolles invents a better hole for world agriculture

By / 21st of May, 2014
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ONE of Australia’s leading authorities on no-tillage seeding believes producing more from less is the next challenge for broadacre no-till cropping.

It is a goal that he says won’t be achieved unless farmers, advisers and researchers, machinery manufacturers and input suppliers all work together.

And Dr Jack Desbiolles knows more about that than most.

He is pioneering the next generation of soil management in no-till farming, coming up with solutions to both help manage herbicide resistance and achieve increased production without increasing acreage under crop.

He and his team at the University of South Australia have already produced the deep-slotting point with back-swept shallow wings designed to backfill the lower furrow as it goes along. Now they are working on bent leg openers, reducing the soil/shank interaction to a bare minimum and ending lateral soil throw.

Apart from being Australia’s leading authority on the subject of tillage, this French-born superstar of the soil also runs farming projects in Eritrea, India, Iraq/Syria, Pakistan and Cambodia.

Desbiolles has been part of the University of South Australia’s agricultural machinery research group since 1995 and in that time has led no-till machinery research and extension in Australia – and more recently around the world.

Particularly as the driving force behind the development of a deep-slotting point designed at the University of South Australia with back-swept shallow wings designed to backfill the lower furrow as it goes along.

Desbiolles says this is an example of significant development enabling farmers to deep till a furrow (thereby breaking through existing hardpans and facilitating quick root system establishment) and sow shallow using conventional seed boots, without the need for an adjustable seed boot with a closer plate.”

He says this point has been marketed as the Armin point by industry, backed by more than 14 years of research knowledge. 

“There are opportunities to closely involve industry in new research outcomes for commercial product development, but most companies are not ready to take on specific R&D investments,” Desbiolles says. “This results in mostly stagnating industry at that level.”

The agricultural machinery research team at the University of South Australia deals with many machinery firms, collaborating on no-till cropping research programs. It also works closely with graingrowers – particularly via farming system groups – in evaluating machinery interactions with cropping system issues.

Fundamental tillage research is mostly conducted via postgraduate projects, and our latest focus on narrow point research is on understanding how narrow point design influences soil movement and soil-throw characteristics.

“PhD studies by Ali Akbar Solhjou, currently researching no-tillage technologies at his home agricultural engineering institution in Shiraz-Iran, have shed light on the effects of the point angle of approach and leading face geometry on soil movement,” he says. “For instance, a low angle of approach promotes deeper soil delving while steeper angles can reduce the extent of soil movement out of the furrow. Single sided and double sided leading face chamfers are an effective way to minimise lateral soil throw and increase furrow size.”

Just before Christmas the agricultural research engineer was in Algeria for two weeks guiding project activities in small-scale machinery for conservation agriculture.

In February and March he worked on the development of small-scale drill mechanisation for the Cambodian rice fields and provided training in no-till seeder technologies as part of an AusAid funded project in Iraq, in collaboration with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

“In these overseas projects, we make good use of the Australian experiences of successful no-till systems and varied seeder technologies,” Desbiolles says.

“It is a great opportunity to both share our knowledge and learn from our local partners.”

Desbiolles and colleagues told the World Congress of Conservation Agriculture last September in Brisbane that narrow point openers to open a furrow and place seed and fertiliser in the soil, followed by press wheels to pack soil over the seeds are commonplace in Australian no-till farming.

“In the Australian no-till farming context, narrow points have been around for a long time and while there are a lot of commercial versions, most fall into a few common categories with no recent major advances in the technology,” he says.

A key area of development over the years has been wear protection using tungsten carbide tiles added via brazing or as hard-facing welding techniques, says Desbiolles. So much so all no-till openers on the market today are sold with cost-effective wear protection.

“Inverted T points are winged points able to increase furrow disturbance at depth, and exist in various configurations of wing width, lift angle and position relative to the point leading edge,” he says.

Initially based on the concept of the Baker boot for moisture conservation in pasture sowing, they were later introduced to the broadacre industry under various names as Super Seeder, Wing Seeder, Maxi Seeder, Flexi Plus, Super Sower, or simply Winged Point – but are mostly not marketed on specific design differences. 

“Some of the design differences can influence the extent of soil throw, furrow backfill, in-furrow smearing and also affect penetration,” he explains.

As an innovative design shape considered in Akbar’s work, bent leg style openers showed the majority of loosened soil could be retained within the furrow, even when operating at high speed.

This was achieved by the combined use of a bevel edge shank offset to the side of a ground engaging side leg and foot.

In previous studies, the loosened soil impacting the shank was found to be the main cause of lateral soil throw.

With bent leg openers, this soil/shank interaction is reduced to a bare minimum and thereafter does not generate lateral soil throw.

As a result, controlling this key aspect of soil disturbance may have a beneficial effect on reducing weed seed germination. Further research is expected to test this hypothesis.

“As a cropping industry in Australia, we are travelling fast on the road to conservation agriculture,” Desbiolles says.

“But that doesn’t mean we have seen the last of the need for paddocks to receive significant but strategic work involving soil cultivation,” he says.

He says that subsoil research suggests the next significant jump in productivity in many soil types may involve the surgical improvement of the 0-50cm soil layer, driving a need for innovative soil engaging technology able to loosen deep soil compaction, mixing deep nutrient and organic matter in low fertility sands, delving clay with effective sub-layer mixing or applying chemical corrections in identified sodic or acidic sub-layers. 

“If done correctly, these major tillage operations may be a one-off investment and provide long lasting benefits,” says Desbiolles.

Key contacts

Jack Desbiolles The University of South Australia
61 8 8302 3946 jack.desbiolles@unisa.edu.au
More...
  • Australia’s cropping industry is fast travelling on the road to conservation agriculture but that doesn’t mean we have seen the last of significant development in soil loosening technology.
  • There have been few significant advances in narrow point technology over the years, but a focus for current development lies in low soil throw and furrow loosening efficient designs.
  • Bent leg openers are new to the no-till scene and the radical SA-inspired design has the ability to loosen a large size furrow with little or no soil throw, offering potential agronomic benefits similar to low disturbance disc seeders.