Corrigin grain grower Murray Leach says frost damage has become the biggest production constraint for wheat.
PHOTO: Evan Collis
“Frost, frost and frost,” is Murray Leach’s instant response when asked what farming challenges he faces at Corrigin. Murray and his wife Marie were involved in a family enterprise at Tambellup in the Great Southern, but headed 250 kilometres north to Corrigin when their son, Peter, returned home from the Western Australian College of Agriculture at Narrogin.
Today, they own and lease 3640 hectares across three properties in the Corrigin district. “I was given the opportunity to farm when I was younger, so I wanted to give Peter the same opportunity,” Murray says.
They faced the challenges of the new region head-on, quickly learning that profitable techniques include early sowing, high inputs and frost management. Since buying their home farm in 2005, the Leaches have weathered three bad frosts, which delivered losses of more than than 50 per cent.
“It got down to minus 6°C in 2012. You can’t dodge losses with temperatures that low. We budget for yields of 2 to 2.3 tonnes/ha but some frosted paddocks only yielded 0.8t/ha.” Variable weather adds another layer of complexity. “The 104-year average annual rainfall at Corrigin is 373 millimetres, but we have struggled to get 300mm in the past eight years,” Murray says. “We only received 120mm in 2010, then 400mm in 2013.”
As chair of the Corrigin Farm Improvement Group, Murray keeps a finger on the pulse of grains R&D. He hosts Yield Profit® trials, is considering mouldboarding and supports frost research. Murray takes an integrated approach to frost management, carefully selecting varieties, strategically cropping paddocks and increasing barley production. “We found barley has a greater frost tolerance of about 1°C compared with wheat, so we usually plant half the farm to barley. We took a risk in 2013, planting more wheat because of the market, but it paid off as we didn’t get a bad frost.”
Murray plants barley in lower, frost-prone paddocks. On the basis that dry conditions and frost go hand-in-hand, he maintains subsoil moisture by sowing in-row and retaining stubble. In the worst years, he uses the nearby Brookton hay plant as an alternative market for frost-damaged crops. He is happy with the performance of Mace, Scope and Vlamingh, but frost tolerance tops his agronomic wish list.
“I am interested in University of Adelaide research into comparing frost resistance and cereal varieties. We would look closely at such a tool. Yield is king when it comes to variety selection, but if a crop is frosted that yield potential is irrelevant. Our goal is to balance traits to achieve reasonable returns in our environment.”
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