The silent revolution of Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) continues to gain momentum

What is CTF?

Innovation is how production systems improve productivity and profitability. The Australian grains sector is no different and recent innovations are improving how  moving in leaps and bounds. Controlled Traffic Farming is one of these newly developed ideas that is only recently beginning to become mainstream, however the farmland under CTF has steadily increased annually over the last 15 years. In a nutshell CTF is a farming system built on permanent wheel tracks, whereby cropping and machinery traffic lines are kept separate to improve the productivity, sustainability and profitability of that cropping enterprise. This simple strategy of consistently driving over the same wheel tracks lends itself to CTF’s other name in Australia ‘Tramline Farming.’ You may have heard one of these terms thrown about and in Australia they are interchangeable, but for interests sake Tramline farming in Europe is not the same as CTF and instead refers to seasonal wheel tracks that are changed each year.

Why bother?

Soil compaction was until recently highlighted as the greatest problem in terms of damage to Australia’s soil resource. Numerous studies dispute what the annual production loss associated with soil compaction was in the grains sector, but with values as high as $144 million per year in one region alone the total national loss is likely to be much higher. Soil compaction via machinery, and even livestock movement leads to a variety of negative impacts which are typically soil type dependent. Compaction reduces the infiltration of rainfall which can lead to both drought and waterlogged (clayey soils) conditions, it can impact the rooting depth of a crop and can even result in large scale soil erosion events due to rainfall run-off. Ultimately soil compaction, irrespective of how it impacts the crop will lead to reduced yields which I’d argue no grain grower is out to chase!

How to implement CTF?

There are three fundamentals to CTF in Australia;

  1. All heavy farm machinery (tractors, harvesters, sprayers) have the same wheel and modular working (e.g. seeders, boom sprays) widths to ensure the establishment of permanent wheel tracks. Some farmers are so committed to this practice that they won’t even drive their family car in a paddock unless it is on wheel tracks.
  2. All machinery is fitted with precision GPS technology (e.g. RTK – 2 cm accuracy) enabling machinery movement over the same wheel tracks, year in year out.
  3. Paddock and CTF layout is set up in conjunction with one another to optimise drainage and logistical issues.

It sounds so simple yet the logistics and cost of implementing all these fundamentals at once can often be too much. Often grain growers will decide to implement CTF over a number of years so that they do not focus all their energy at the expense of other priorities, after all CTF is one strategy in a system that incorporates many to ultimately feed us.

How does CTF improve productivity, sustainability and profitability?

Improving the soil structure underpins how CTF is able to improve the productivity, sustainability and profitability of cropping enterprises. There are a number of scientifically proven benefits to the implementation of CTF into cropping enterprises that are the reason for its widespread uptake.

  1. Research into CTF over 20 years has shown that the practice can improve grain quality and yields by 2-16% when there are no other limiting subsoil constraints. A productivity improvement within this range can increase the average profit upwards of $47/ha which is enough to turn heads. These productivity improvements relate to improved rainfall infiltration and nutrient holding capacity of soils under CTF.
  2. Fuel savings are the first benefit grain growers observe when they implement CTF into their cropping enterprises. Improved fuel efficiency comes from machinery operating on firm compact wheel tracks which reduces wheel slips and rolling resistance. A West Australian study found a 25% reduction in fuel consumption under CTF, and in Queensland 50% less fuel was consumed when CTF was incorporated on clayey soils. Less fuel consumption and firmer wheel tracks to drive on means improved efficiency of seeding, spreading and harvesting operations and reduced production of greenhouse gases. Overall this is helping improve the sustainability of cropping enterprises under CTF.
  3. Overlap of inputs is a characteristic of cropping enterprises that do not incorporate precision GPS technology. Ensuring all machinery has modular operating widths that are multiples of each other (30 ft harvester front – 60 ft boom spray) reduces overlap of machinery and reduces wastage of inputs (fertilizer, pesticides etc.). Precision GPS technology ensures that once an appropriate CTF system is implemented, the designated wheel tracks can be driven over year in year out so that the improvement in soil health can continue without taking a backwards step.

Where to now?

What you have just read is all but a snapshot of one of the many innovations Australian and international grain growers are utilizing to improve the productivity, sustainability and profitability of their production enterprises. The large uptake of CTF is credit to the benefits that it provides in cropping enterprises, and its simplicity and ease of incorporation into current cropping enterprises. This is a system that has been widely researched and there is a multitude of papers and articles on the topic, if you have a query or would like to be pointed towards the relevant research on this topic please don’t hesitate to contact us! Otherwise the state departments of agriculture have plenty of information, such as DAFWA.