A mere 192 mm of rain in the growing season can hardly be considered enough for an average crop. But for Don and Bobbie Thomson, of Braeside at Tincurrin, Western Australia, it produced a record paddock of wheat on their 2,572-hectare property.
The 51-hectare crop was so good they won the national Golden Grower award, which is backed by growers through the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
The winning crop of Cascades (with which they won the Australian Premium White (APW) section) reached a yield of 4.04 t/ha with protein ranging from 10.3 per cent to 11.5 per cent. For a farm with a 10-year average of 2.34 t/ha it was quite a feat.
"The paddock was really one out of the bag," according to Mr Thomson. "It really wasn't a great year, although we had 61 mm at Easter which gave us the moisture to start."
The Thomsons' farm usually receives about 350 mm a year and has sandy loam over clay and gravel to heavier clay flats.
For 16 years to 1995 most of it was sown only to wheat and averaged 2.2 t/ha. But as with many continuous crops, problems developed with herbicide resistance (in this case to Group A 'Fops').
Three years ago the Thomsons decided to use the paddock for clover to harvest certified seed for other farmer customers and break the resistance cycle. This year, autumn tickling on 7 April, followed by a sprayseed knockdown and then pre-emergent spraying, kept the weeds in check. The crop was seeded on 15 and 16 May.
Mr Thomson said an extension to the original paddock meant one-third of the crop was sown on an area which had been in a yearly rotation of wheat and clover, while the other two-thirds followed several years of clover.
"There was no difference in yield, but there was a difference in protein. The two-thirds that was in clover ranged from 11.2 to 11.5 per cent and the other third was 10.3-10.8 per cent," Mr Thomson said.
The paddock was direct-drilled, the clover portion with a Flexi-Coil bar with knife point attachments and the other third with a John Shearer combine. Both areas were seeded at 35 kg/ha with 90 kg/ha Agras fertiliser (17.5% N, 7.6% P, 17% S).
Total crop chemical inputs came to $18.40/ha — and total value of all inputs including labour and depreciation was $93.60/ha. "It was the cheapest crop grown on the farm but still delivered the highest gross margin of $653.15/ha," Mr Thomson said. "I don't think we'll see another one like it for a while."
Farm turnaround pays off
Mr Thomson said it was probably not efforts made in the last year or even five years that have been responsible for the production increase.
A massive shift of their best country from sheep to cropping and a focused plan turned the farm from one that was minutes away from foreclosure in the early 1970s to the profitable enterprise it is today.
A move to sustainable farming, improving soil structure and fertility, crop testing and 'conservation farming' methods looking at rotations and stocking rates were par of an all-round farming plan.
Seed sales deliver a supplementary income. Today they sell certified sub-clover seed to more than 80 farmer customers.
Inputs (including time) are closely monitored and matched to output to ensure the whole - farm enterprise is commercial.
Trials in 1973 and 1974 led to a move toward legume pastures. Initially the aim was to increase wool production, but the evidence indicated applying fertiliser to pastures would pay for itself by lifting production across the whole farm. Mr Thomson said they have no problem with soil acidity.
The Thomsons were among the first farmers to use potash as a supplement, which they found, after several years of on-farm testing in the late 1970s, increased the soil fertility of the property.
Healthy pastures key to rotations
The decision to pay extra attention to pastures has paid dividends on the cropping country with about 1,000 hectares in a yearly wheat and pasture rotation. About 180 hectares is in a wheat-lupin rotation, and last year two varieties of oats were grown for sheep feed.
Super and potash are applied to clover pastures, which means the cereal and lupin crops need less fertiliser inputs.
"An integral part of the cropping program is the sheep," Mr Thomson says. They run about 9,500 Merinos on winter pasture at almost 10 DSE/ha. "They are part of the whole farm plan which allows us to use a year-in, year-out rotation and pay extra attention to inputs like higher fertiliser rates."
He said the changes implemented since 1972 had helped improve soil fertility and therefore farm viability, raising output from the cropping and wool enterprises.