Reef no barrier: The Reefinator working rocky land at Barforld, Victoria. Pictures: Chloe Smith
THE Reefinator is a ripper, in both senses of the word. It’s a machine that rips through rocky reefs and transforms them into arable soil and is turning previously unusable land into cropping gold.
Its inventor, Tim Pannell, said it’s making property developers out of crop farmers.
“There’s one guy who’s paid $500 per acre and it’s probably now worth about $3000 or $4000 per acre,” he says.
“I wanted him to go contracting but he’s decided to buy another rocky farm and convert it because he’ll make a lot more money.”
The principle of it is simple. “It’s a bit like a giant cheese grater,” Tim says.
“The cheese grater only peels up the depth of the teeth because the body of it stops it going deeper. The body (sled) on the Reefinator does the same thing.”
Hardened tines mounted on a sled score and crack the stone and rock, and a heavy 20-tonne roller behind the sled breaks up the rock into stone small enough that you can run a seeder through it.
The sled is the key to the machine because it stops the tines ripping too deep and pulling up rock in chunks that are too big to be properly crushed.
“Rather than start coming up in big chunks, the idea is to make the rock collapse and stay in situ,” Tim says
“The rock wants to come up in huge slabs and then you can’t deal with it,” he says.
“With our poor agricultural land in WA, there’s very little topsoil and as soon as you start pulling out large amounts of rock, the soil ends up down the bottom and the rock on top.”
In Boyup Brook, in south west WA, crop farmer Russell Prowse says he bought a machine at the beginning of the year and is working to convert 240 hectares of a 400-hectare property.
“I reckon the land is worth about $1500 an acre now,” he says. “I won’t tell you what I paid for it.”
He says around 60 per cent of his paddocks were covered in lateritic rock just under the surface.
“You can put watermelon-sized laterite stones down to golf ball size within two passes (with the machine) while the ground is hard.
He said that rock piles that accumulate on stony paddocks over years can also be knocked down, crushed and integrated into the soil.
“If you’ve got ground on your property that you can’t use for anything — like rocky outcrops, that sort of thing — you run this over it and you get to use the land you’ve paid for,” he said.
The price for the machine ranges from $119,000 for a two-metre-wide machine to $133,000 for a four-metre-wide machine. There’s a heavy drum version that adds about 10 per cent to the cost and a wheel package for an additional $22,900.
Russell warns that the cost of using the Reefinator is not just in the initial purchase price.
“I pull it with a Case IH STX 485 on single wheels — the rocks would get in between the duals and rip up the tyres, I’ll just take the wheel slip,” he says.
“You do about 10km/h and get through about a hectare an hour. It’s certainly takes some time and some dollars.
“You have to pay a bloke to sit there, pay to run the tractor (fuel, servicing, etc), then (tine) points on the machine — they last probably two to three days depending on what ground you’re in.
“In harder clay ground, you’ll go through a set in about 10 hours. There are 10 points on the machine. They’re a $38 item.”
But the results are undeniable and some of the benefits unexpected. Tim says he had a salination issue on his property but breaking up the rock and allowing water to penetrate the soil solved the issue.
“It was very simple,” he says. “All the water was running off the rock and those lateritic soils are full of salt.
“In their natural state, the salt isn’t concentrated, but when the water runs out to the one spot all the time, it gets very concentrated.
“Once we stopped the water shedding off that country — and lucky we caught it before it got too salty and completely stuffed the red loam — away it went,” he says.
He tells of a prototype trial on a farm. After the machine had been used, they sowed a cover crop late in August.
“They got a tonne a hectare from it,” he says. “Then it went into canola and yielded two-tonne. In the south west of the wheatbelt, that’s a damned good crop. It was the best canola crop they got from all their combined farms.”
Tim insists that hauling the Reefinator into rocky reefs at speed is not as hard on the tractor as you might expect.
“It’s not like pulling a big air seeder where you have a big draught load pulled at a constant speed,” he says.
“We use speed, momentum and inertia. The rock is variable so you get a very inconsistent load. The tractor is doing easy, hard, a bit easier, a bit harder — like off-on all the time.
“The tractors handle it quite well because you’re not using low gears — it’s constant heavy loads in low gears that destroys them.
“Higher speeds and gears mean you’re putting the load on the engine and the drawbar rather than the components in between.”
Contractors are the main customers because they can absorb running costs through their fees, but Tim says many farmers are buying them and hanging on to them.
“I’ve also got clients who have bought the machine and have almost doubled their farming area, so I think they get sentimentally attached to it,” he says.
“They’ve had people bang down their door, but they won’t part with it. If you think about it, if you bought the farm next door and it hasn’t been renovated …”
There are 57 Reefinators working in Western Australia’s wheatbelt where Tim is from, another 10 in South Australia, one in New Zealand and one trialled recently on a property at Barfold near Kyneton, Victoria.
Slippery clay after a day of rain caused the tractor hauling it struggle when it hits harder basalt rocks, but that’s only a few of times.
“Overall we reckon it’s a success,” says Tim, who was keen to see if the machine had potential to help Victorian farmers who have battled with limestone, volcanic rock, softer basalt and sandstone.
“We say it won’t work in granite and we expected a bit of trouble with some of the harder the basalt but that’s only been about one or two per cent of the ground it’s been through,” he says.
The end result is arable soil where before the land was only good for grazing and at least one person in the property market agrees that if it does what it says it can, the machine is a money maker.
“It could add up to 50 or 60 per cent extra value to the land,” says Colac rural property consultant Michael Stewart when asked how he thought such a machine might go in Victoria’s Western Districts where rocky reefs are prevalent.
“If you’ve got land that’s worth $1200 an acre it could be worth an extra $600 an acre. It would certainly add value to the land from an agricultural perspective.”
Kyneton contractor Justin Sciortino bought the Reefinator that was being trialled in Barfold and he’s excited.
“We had a little bit of trouble in the wet clay, but it’s doing what we hoped,” he says.
“The limestone and ironstone here has been a thorn in our side for generations and now we’ve got a solution.
“And an economical one. It’s amazing.”
Victoria’s a different story
IF your paddock is loaded up with big granite or hard basalt yonnies, Tim Pannell says the Reefinator won’t turn it into gold.
“The only rock we say we can’t do is granite,” he says and adds that loose stones on soft ground are also a challenge for the machine.
He says he had a “chip around” Victoria’s rocky areas and built a heavier drum to trial, and is confident it will get results.
Agricultural soil scientist Christian Bannan from South East Soil & Water agrees with him that it would probably work on Victoria’s limestone and volcanic rock.
“I think the machine could improve agricultural prospects on land with some of our softer sedimentary rocks like your sandstones and shales, as well as patches of ironstone,” Christian says.
“It also may have a huge impact on the ability to utilise land for viticultural production in south west Victoria and south east South Australia where limestone exists either on or just below the soil surface.”