PHOTO: Jeanette Severs
The Bairnsdale district in East Gippsland, Victoria, is the latest non-traditional cropping district to find cereals can be grown successfully as knowledge and experience builds in the high-rainfall zone
Trevor Caithness has defied the sceptics who question whether Victoria’s East Gippsland is the place for broadacre cereal cropping.
His determination to turn poor, unimproved sheep paddocks into prime cropping country has paid off as the productivity of his soils has been steadily lifted – its pH increasing from 4.8 to 6.0 and average wheat yields doubling, from 2.5 to 5 tonnes per hectare.
However, Trevor believes he is still only part-way towards reaching the land’s potential. He is confident that his continuing efforts to lift soil fertility will eventually deliver wheat yields of 7 to 8t/ha.
The family harvests about 2500t of wheat and barley, which is stored on-farm and sold direct to local dairy farms over the course of the year.
Infrastructure investment has included a 1600t grain shed, 400t secondary shed and 500t of silo capacity.
Growers: Trevor, Carryn and Toby Caithness
Location: Bairnsdale, Victoria
Farm size: Trevor and Carryn 1200 hectares, Toby 340 hectares
Rainfall: 650 millimetres
Soil types: predominantly grey sandy loam over clay
Soil pH: 5.6 to 5.9
Crops: Trevor and Carryn's farming rogram 2015 – 300ha wheat, 160ha barley, 20ha canola, 400ha forage crops, 280ha permanent pasture and 40ha native vegetation; Toby's farming program 2015 – 290ha wheat and canola, 50ha faba beans (in his second year of cropping)
Livestock: cattle – 500 self-replacing beef cows joined to composite bull with all progeny sold as finished cattle into the domestic market.
For Trevor, the cropping economics are clear. Gippsland dairy, poultry and other livestock producers use about one million tonnes of grain a year – and only about 50,000t is grown in the region.
“Locally grown grain has a premium, because there are no additional freight or storage costs,” he says.
His son, Toby, has also taken on the challenge of improving yields, buying his own farm in 2013.
Trevor and Carryn Caithness, with their son Toby, have about 1540 hectares of sandy loam over clay dryland country sown to wheat, canola, barley, faba beans, forage crops and permanent pasture.
The faba beans (50ha) are an experimental crop, sown by Toby for the first time in 2015. This is his second year in charge of his own cropping program.
“Some of the faba beans I’ve forward-sold to local sheep farmers but I’m still learning and exploring marketing options,” Toby says.
Trevor and Carryn bought their first parcel of land in 2001, the same year Trevor became a Nuffield Scholar. With the scholarship he pursued an alternative nutrient source for pasture and cropping, investigating the value of chicken manure.
“One of the great benefits of being a Nuffield Scholar was building networks of people to develop my knowledge,” he says. “I was able to source personalised knowledge from industry colleagues, here and overseas.”
Since moving to the district permanently in 2003, they have bought surrounding farms and expanded their cropping operation.
“We moved to Bairnsdale from South Gippsland because we felt there were more expansion opportunities to get into cropping and continue cattle breeding,” Trevor says.
“We’ve been members of Southern Farming Systems since day one of the move and that’s been a driver behind the work we’ve put into improving grain yield.”
As well as regional networking with other grain growers in Gippsland, Trevor says outreach networking – on-farm tours to Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria’s Western District (some funded by the GRDC) – opened his eyes to possibilities of yield improvement and to building networks.
A lot of the yield improvement so far achieved has been around increasing soil calcium levels. Five tonnes per hectare of lime, to a total of 5000t across the property, has been applied gradually over the past 10 years, along with substantial applications of phosphorus and potash.
“We are aiming for 60 to 65 per cent calcium base saturation of the cation exchange capacity,” Trevor says. Cation exchange capacity (CEC) is the soil’s capacity to hold exchangeable cations. This influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients and provides a buffer against soil acidification.
The family has also increased the levels of copper, zinc, manganese and boron in the soil.
In the early years, Trevor tried to follow conventional methods of applying high levels of nitrogen, but yields remained poor and soil biology did not improve.
Trevor now uses the Albrecht method: “I did some trial work with copper, zinc and manganese, applied at 30 kilograms/ha (10kg/ha of each) all in a sulfated granular form, on barley crops,” he says.
The 10 trial plots, measuring 40 by eight metres, showed an average 28 per cent yield increase in 2011.
“That was the catalyst for embracing a more complete soil-fertility program, improving all trace elements,” Trevor says.
“I applied the same regime to 800ha. The soil test results showed copper levels increased from 0.4 parts per million to 4 to 6ppm. We’re now starting to get our soil levels to where we think they need to be.”
“We’re looking for a soil cation balance of about 65 per cent calcium, 15 per cent magnesium, 5 per cent potash and the rest made up of other elements.
“We’re looking for a minimum 2ppm copper, 8ppm zinc, 50ppm manganese and at least 150ppm potash, ideally 200ppm, to build reserves in the soil.”
In 2015, wheat (SQP Revenue and Adagio, followed by LongReach Beaufort) was sown at a rate of 80kg/ha with 100kg/ha monoammonium phosphate (MAP); canola at 3kg/ha with 100kg/ha MAP; barley at 100kg/ha with 100kg/ha MAP at planting; and 50ha faba beans late-sown in mid-May at 120kg/ha with MAP and a topdressing two weeks later of 90kg/ha superphosphate.
The in-season fertiliser program was a blend (33 per cent urea, 33 per cent muriate of potash (MOP), 33 per cent sulfate of ammonia) applied at 100kg/ha with three applications over the growing season.
While the crop rotation is predominantly driven by cereals, annual fodder crops – rape, turnip or similar – are also sown, to graze 500 beef cows and their progeny.
Trevor has sown an opportunistic multispecies cover crop in the past four summers for forage and green manure.
Time of sowing and amount is weather and season-dependent and the crop is sown into country that has been grazed rather than harvested. The long-term aim of the cover crop is to lift fertility and improve soil moisture retention.
“We’re working to have a greater biodiversity in what we’re growing, to have another form of forage among the cereal rotations, plus capture and utilise summer rainfall,” Trevor says.
“We believe the soil temperature is kept lower through the summer because of the shade effect of the multispecies plants.
“We’ve found this is a farming system that works reasonably well in the higher-rainfall zone but would probably be treated with caution in other grain zones.”
The first two years of cover crop was a monoculture, followed by a multispecies crop in summer 2014-15.
This summer’s multi-species crop – sown on 110ha in mid-November – was a mix of sorghum, millet, maize, rape, tillage radish, faba beans, sunflowers and arrowleaf clover.
“I’ve also planted turnip and last year we tried cowpeas and lablab but neither competed well against the other species,” Trevor says.
He also trialled a pre-planting deep-rip in the country sown to the cover crop. His theory is based on research into how summer cover crops are used in the US.
“It’s to encourage the cover crop root systems to crack through the subsoil faster,” Trevor says.
“I hope it will increase our soils’ carbon levels, organic matter and water-carrying capacity.
“I'm also hoping it will mean, in the long term, less need for artificial fertilisers.”
The multispecies cover crops are incorporated into the livestock grazing regime, as well as the cereal rotation. Due to the size of the cattle mob, manure becomes part of the regime for increasing soil fertility.
“In late February, we crash-grazed 800 head of cattle on 40ha at a time. Grazing decisions are based on how established the cover crop is and how much dry matter content there is,” Trevor says.
“Time of sowing is dependent on the grain harvest, which takes priority for men and machinery. So if harvest is delayed by weather, the cover crop sowing is also put back.
“After grazing, the remaining dry matter is left on the ground as mulch into which the next wheat crop is direct-drilled at 80kg/ha,” Trevor says.
On a farm tour to Esperance, WA, Trevor was challenged by grain growers there to improve water use efficiencies. He has subsequently trialled alternative drainage systems and raised beds and has learned that these types of systems have to be accommodated within the wheel tracks of the machinery in use.
“We had a fair degree of success, but it was inflexible for anything other than cereals,” Trevor says.
“Most of the benefit came from the drainage networks installed at the end of each bed run.
“We’re on flat country so the focus is getting the water away. In East Gippsland, we get regular rain but we can also get 100 millimetres in 24 hours and that water has to be able to get away for the crop to survive.”
Based on the work and achievements to date, Trevor believes the greatest potential yields – up 50 per cent more – are still to come: “The huge differential is still calcium levels in our soil,” he says.
“We still need to build up organic calcium levels and we need to improve the rooting depth of plants. Roots can get down to 900mm now, but I believe, with a softer and easier soil environment, that can increase.”
Although it is still early days, Trevor is driven to prove Gippsland is a viable, technologically advanced cereal-growing district.
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