In the past decade, research into grain varieties well suited to the expanding high-rainfall zone has advanced considerably, and the new barley variety Westminster is proving to be one of the success stories.
Cressy growers Nick and John Nelson in their Westminster barley crop prior to harvest.
PHOTO: Brad Collis
Based in Cressy in Victoria’s Western District, where the average annual rainfall is about 530 millimetres, the Nelson family was among many local growers quick to change to the new variety.
John Nelson, who farms with his sons Brad and Nick, says they planted half of their 380 hectares of barley to Westminster in 2012, encouraged by their agronomist and their local grower co-operative Southern, Quality Produce (SQP). The Nelsons are members of the co-operative, which is the major shareholder of GrainSearch, the company that has commercialised Westminster in Australia.
In 2012, half their barley was Gairdner and half Westminster, but it is now 100 per cent Westminster, with yields of more than five tonnes/ha in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Despite the dry finish in 2014 they still achieved around 5t/ha and most of the crop made malting grade.
Wheat, barley and canola are the mainstay of the family’s operations and have been for many years, although John says when he took on the management of farm operations from his father in the 1970s it was predominantly a livestock business.
Triggers for the change were a major fire in the district in 1977 that killed many thousands of sheep and cattle, followed by the downturn in the wool industry. Rather than rebuilding flocks, many local growers, including the Nelsons, expanded their cropping instead.
Owners: John and Moira Nelson, sons Brad and Nick Nelson
Location: Cressy, Victoria
Farm size: 1200 hectares, plus 1000ha leased
Rainfall: 530 millimetres
Soil types: medium brown loam to heavier black soils
Soil pH: 6
Crops grown: wheat, barley, canola, field peas, oats
Livestock: 2500 to 2700 sheep
These days John focuses on the livestock, which comprises 2700 mostly first-cross ewes for prime lambs, with a small number of Merino ewes bred to Border Leicester rams. John leaves his sons to deal with the bulk of the cropping operations, which they fine-tune from year to year with advice from their agronomist.
Their biggest challenge going forward, he says, is adapting to the more variable weather patterns. “We’ve brought our sowing forward a little in the past few years – into April, which is very early for this district – and I think there have been benefits from that. We have increased our nitrogen applications at sowing, with a second application if needed, for both wheat and barley. We also use trace elements, all of which has helped to lift yields.”
Along with barley, the Nelsons sowed 450ha of Derrimut milling wheat, which they are hoping would yield 3.5t/ha or better, while their canola yielded more than 2t/ha, with up to 47 per cent oil.
They also grow about 80ha of Swan oats a year, under contract to UniGrain, which sells them to the Japanese market as a soil conditioner. John says the oats are sold in 20 or 25-kilogram bags to growers, who sow the oats and then mulch the crop back into the soil. The Nelsons also grow about 20ha of field peas and pea straw for garden nurseries.
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