Turning Rocks Into Soil With The Reefinator

Feb 21,2017 at 02:00 am By Admin - Rocks Gone



The Professionals Guide To Cultivation & Crop Establishment, pages 12-14


Turning Rocks Into Soil With The Reefinator. 

Your farm has bony reefs of rocks amongst skinny patches of soil. What are your options?

You could keep machinery off the land and leave it for grazing. But who wants to be a rock sanctuary?

You could sell the farm and buy something more fertile. But no one’s making more land, and fertile land is at a premium.

Or you could bring a rock crusher in, but how expensive is that?

This was the problem facing Tim Pannell on his farm in Western Australia.

“I had land with laterites and I knew the potential if I could fix it. I tried what was commercially available and it was too expensive for agricultural use. It was okay for civil engineering but not economic for farming.”

Tim is a born and bred farmer with a strong inclination as an engineer and designer. So in 2012 he started to build his own rock-crushing machine.

Imagine reefs of rocks in paddocks; picture Arnold Schwarzenegger busting them up in Terminator mode – that’s the idea behind the Reefinator.

The Reefinator is 3.0m wide and tractor-towed. It has 10 tines that hack into the rock and a ribbed roller that smashes up the pieces.

Much of the soil in Australia, especially in the west and south, is very old and shallow with streaks of laterites. Laterite is a soil and rock type rich in iron and aluminium. When it is underground, laterite is soft enough that plant roots can go through it but when exposed to air it oxidises and forms a hard cap.

“We worked on a farm where the topsoil had been washed away a few years before. We crushed it and the rock was a lot harder as he exposed it. It was many times harder than concrete.

“A lot of ways of destroying rock also destroys the topsoil but the Reefinator doesn’t. It crushes and rips in situ, so there is more soil. It does not invert the soil, it just crushes the rock.

“We break the cap and leave 250mm of loose soil on top of the laterite, and that is the end of the problem.”

The Reefinator is increasing the availability of productive land.

“We can add tens of thousands of hectares to the ag scene. It is land that has already been cleared but is unproductive. Here in WA some of our best soils are sandy but they commonly have these laterites,” Tim says.

“Once we loosen it, it becomes productive. Some clients tell me it becomes their best land. It holds more water, and there’s less run-off.”

Farmers have more options after the Reefinator had been on the job. Some are growing wheat, canola or barley, or grazing more sheep. There is even scope for lupins, which don’t like shallow soil.

“We are converting shallow, difficult soil into deep, crop-friendly ones.”

Tim says it usually takes multiple passes to achieve this. Exactly how many depends on what you’re crushing and how much there is but on average it takes three passes.

There are a variety of soil-types in Australia. The Reefinator does an excellent job with sandstone and limestone but missed in amongst it can be lumps of granite. It is not designed to crush granite but it is designed to survive the encounter.

“Granite pops up in weird places and you don’t always know it’s there. If a rotary machine hits it, then you’re talking $10,000 to $20,000 worth of damage, If the Reefinator hits granite, it will break a shear pin and cost say $50.”

The Reefinator weighs 21 tonnes and it takes a minimum of 270hp to pull it. More traction is good so duals help.

It is a high-speed machine that works at 10-15 kph. It can do up to 20 ha per day but that’s a big day.

The tip of the Reefinator’s ripper does 95 percent of the work. The weight of the machine and a grate around the ripper’s teeth holds rock down so it can’t roll up in big chunks. The ripper smashes the rock into little pieces. To get through the grate it has to be smaller than a football, and then it goes under the roller. “After multiple passes it gets smaller and then you have a great seedbed.”

The Reefinator has a very long drawbar, levelling out the differences in uneven paddocks and minimising the force on the tractor and the operator.

Usually it’s transported on a truck but Tim also sells a dolly that can carry it during road transport.

The Reefinator is designed for rock in the ground but it can work on surface rocks as well.

“Rocks on the surface are bigger and they are harder to break but not many defeat us. We have broken rocks bigger than a metre and we do a lot of rock heaps. We crush it down roughly and do the whole paddock and the rock heaps become part of the paddock.”

 Contractors are buying some Reefinators but most are going to farmers. Tim started selling Reefinators in August 2014and has already sold 58 machines to W.A, S.A and one to a New Zealand contractor.

The New Zealand machine has a few differences. It’s not dealing with reef rocks but rather individual rocks in soft soil. It needs a much heavier rig, hydraulic tines and a blade to level the soil.

“It’s going even better than we thought it would. I had concerns it might push the rock deep but it is actually breaking it fine enough to work and level it.”

Tim is never idle and he’s working on another model similar to the New Zealand one for the volcanic rocks of Victora.

“I haven’t given it a name yet; but it will be heavier with a more aggressive rib on the roller,” he says.


Tim’s daughter Joanne Pannell runs the contracting side of business. They have three Reefinators working around WA.

The contracting service is affordable for farmers.

“To use a rotary crusher machine we’re talking a cost of thousands per hectare but with this machine it’s hundreds, maybe $500 to $600 per hectare on full contract. It depends on how rough it is, of course. There is an awful lot of variation and we charge per hour.”

The contracting operation doesn’t just do farms. They have also made a runway.

“We smoothed out 800m by 60m. It was a horrible ridge with great big rocks. It only took a few days. An air strip isn’t much to us.”

The Reefinators are a runaway success. When Tim was still trialling them he was constantly asked when one would be available for sale.

“People saw it and wanted it but I was still having problems and wanted to get it right. In 2014 I decided to build 5, and that turned into 12. Then the business took off at 100 miles per hour.”

Reefinators are made in partnership with an engineering company in the small WA town, Manjimup, near Mandurah. That company has now employed another 15 people to cope with the work.

They supply spare wear parts like the points, although no one has managed to wear one out as yet.

“A developmental machine was bought by a local farmer and he is still using it. That early machine was only 10 percent as efficient compared to these new ones. They are too well built: they go on forever.”

In September 2015, Tim took the Reefinator to the Yorke Field Days in South Australia, where it won the award for the Best Australian-Manufactured Machine.

“We were as proud as punch to win that. SA received it really well and they have a lot of shallow soils, especially limestone. “It’s been a win-win machine. Building them creates jobs, it’s a big win for farmers because it increases their production and adds value to their farm, and it is increasing exports. I can’t see any losses.”

Tim’s company is called Rocks Gone. For further information regarding sales or contracting vist www.rocksgone.com.au, email tim@rocksgone.com.au, or phone 0429 203 039 (Tim) or 0499 866 813 (Darren). AC