We headed straight to Geneva to meet Nicolas Courtois, an agronomist for AgriGeneve in the region to adopt no till and cover crops and to push the boundaries of how they can be used. Different cover crops mixes have been developed to follow various crops grown but Nicholas had gone a step further. He is working with growing the cover crop with the main season crop in the autumn, so when the cover crop is killed over the winter by the cold temperatures, the crop is left to harvest in the spring. The interesting combination he has grown is a mix of buckwheat, canola and red clover sown in straight after harvest (July), with the buckwheat harvested in late autumn (November), the canola in the summer (July) and the red clover in the autumn (October) the year after the buckwheat.
Nicholas' general observation has been the higher the percentage of legumes in the cover crop mix, the higher the yield in the following crop. The effect of the cover crop is often seen in the second year crop and this varies between between crops.
Canola in winter killed cover crop
Wolfgang Sturny, local no till farmer Jonathon and Nicholas Courtois
The weekend was spent with Wolfgang and his wife Iris, wonderful hosts who took us to Jung Frau ('The top of Europe' at 3454m) and into the Valais region, the main wine region in Switzerland, where we visited one of the local wine makers and friend of the Sturny's. Their is never time to stop when Iris organises a weekend away - we had a great time eating, drinking and laughing with them. We finally got to meet Reuben and Veroniqhue and it was great to catch up with Cedric again, although we didn't meet his girlfriend - next time.
Iris, Wolfgang and Tracey at Jungfrau
We also caught up with Hanspeter and Lillian Lauper and his family. Hanspeter is president of Swiss No Till and showed us his new JD seed drill which he has adapted to steering with RTK auto steer. He has set up his corn planter for auto row shut off but wants to convert his seed drill to auto row shut off for seeding all crops, given the small paddocks he works in as a contractor (as small as 1ha).
We visited two other researchers involved with cover crops while in Switzerland.
Bernhard Streit, Professor for Agricultural Mechanization at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, is involved in looking at the establishment of cover crops and like Nicholas, he is interested in seeding the covers crop at the same time as the main crop. With the subsidy system in Switzerland, farmers get paid to use no till seeding, but there is also a payment now being made if they can grow a cover crop/main crop without glyphosate.
Due to nothing being available on the market for establishing cover crops with a precision planter, Bernhard has purchased his own precision planter (on eBay) so he can look at modifications to achieve this. Bernhard is also working on a project looking at robotic seeding on a small scale. The average Swiss farm size is 20ha, so the cost of owning machinery is uneconomical for may farmers, so the Bernhard is building a tracked machine with 4 openers for full automation of seeding including filling the seed and fertiliser.
Bernhard also teaches at the university and one of the lessons he does with the students is to show them the difference between ploughing and no till in terms of draft requirements. He literally hooks up enough students to a single mouldboard plough in the paddock until they can operate it (usually about 14) and then does the same with a single no till opener (1-2 students). A very effective way of learning.
Raphael Charles is based at Agroscope, Nyon and is leading the research into assessing the suitability of different species as cover crops, having originally started with almost 50. The species in his current trial are lentils, peas, white and brown mustard, berseem clover, tillage radish, vetch, Avena strigosa (Brazilian oats), turnip, linseed, buckwheat, phacelia, Niger, sunflower and sorghum. Crops are assessed for traits including DM production, soil temperature regulation and weed suppression, with a crop sown into the residue to evaluate yield responses. He is
He also oversees a long term seeding trial (wheat-canola-wheat-maize) in 1969 comparing ploughing, minimum tillage and, since 2008, no till. Fertiliser stratification, where nutrients are concentrated in a narrow band at the depth they are placed at seeding over a long period, has occurred in the minimum tillage and is beginning to occur in the no till plots.
Our last visit in Switzerland was to the Meier family near Olten, having had Lukas stay with us in Australia in 2012 after we met him at a Swiss No Till meeting in June that year with Wolfgang. We arrived at lunchtime with another great Swiss meal of rosti and sausage with the whole family (thanks Rita) - something they do most days except when they are very busy. The family has 20 ha which they crop, but Lukas and his brother Philipp also have a contracting business for seeding (built their own no till seeder) and fertiliser and slurry spreading. They run 70 sows and 8 000 chickens which are grown out under contract to 2.1kg. Miriam (Philipp's wife) taught Tracey how to make the traditional plaited breakfast bread Zopf, while Christian, their father is the craftsman of the family, making some great furniture from their own forest timber. And we couldn't forget little Ben keeping us entertained.
Lukas, Miriam, Ben, Philipp, Lukas (the farm apprentice) and Tracey
Tracey making Zopf