Rob Anderson admits his family's wheat yields — 3 t/ha on average — are not as good as some 'hard, professional farmers', but says modestly the protein is "always up amongst it".
The Andersons' 2,220-hectare 'Maneroo' property, outside Moree, was for years the most consistent supplier of Prime Hard (PH) quality wheat to the nearby Binniguy silo until delivery there became impractical for a combination of reasons.
Put that PH record down to lucerne rotations, begun by Mr Anderson's father, Graeme, when he bought 'Maneroo' in 1932, and generally accepted by pasture scientists now as the best in northern New South Wales.
Mr Anderson is an unusual farmer in today's northern grains region, mixing conventional cultivation with minimum-till, incorporating stubble, and putting a heavy and successful emphasis on livestock.
Purebred Herefords on 'Maneroo' and its self-replacing Corriedale sheep depend on, and contribute to, the success of the lucerne-pasture rotations, in the process more than paying their way.
And the Andersons even admit to relying on an old-fashioned, one-way disc plough to remove lucerne stands — "about the only thing we use it for".
Fertiliser expenditure is minimal. None at all on wheat until 1999, when an out-of-rotation crop needed a bit of a push, receiving 50 kg of DAP and 75 kg of urea per hectare.
Goldphos (double sulphur super) at 50 kg/ha has been used successfully to boost the growth of Sava medic oversown into a bambatsi grass pasture ley.
A bit more than half the 1,520 hectares of arable country on 'Maneroo' was in the cropping phase in July 2000, with 500 hectares under lucerne and 200 under sown grass, with and without oversown medic.
Grain production averages around 1,000 tonnes of wheat, 400 of barley, 500 of sorghum and a bit of oats for stockfeed and seed, for their own use and sale.
Wheat sowings are spread, mainly middle- and late-season varieties because early ones have disappointed in both yield and protein.
About lucerne leys
Ideally lucerne leys are planted mid-May to early June, under wheat or barley — preferably barley (23-25 kg/ha) because its softer stubble makes better mulch. After harvest, the theory is to allow the undersown lucerne to flower and fully charge its roots before grazing.
Likewise, the Andersons try to let established lucerne flower once every year to recharge roots, unless they harvest for seed which, Mr Anderson says, is a 'pot luck' bonus.
Whenever possible, barley is oversown into lucerne, planted just sub-surface with narrow points on the combine. "Crop performance the first year out of lucerne is usually disappointing and the first thought would be moisture, but that wasn't the case in the last couple of years, which have been pretty wet," Mr Anderson says.
"We know we take our lucerne out a bit late — ploughing in October-November, where August-September would be better, to get the spring rain. We are always chasing feed because we are a bit stocked up most of the time.
"Nitrogen from the lucerne may not have had time to mineralise, and we think now a grazing crop is the way to go in that first year. We got good early results from one paddock and think it warrants looking into.
"We try to keep the lucerne in for six years, seven at a pinch if the stand is holding up."
Cattle and sheep are integral to the Anderson farming system. The family has a premium niche market with Hereford Prime in Casino for its grass-fed, trade cattle turn-off. At 15-18 months old, the cattle have wintered on oats before finishing on lucerne.
"You have to weigh up the grazing benefits of lucerne against the bloat losses," Mr Anderson says. "We suffered our biggest losses when we used bloat bombs instead of management. The essential is 5 in 1 vaccine at 10-week intervals when pasture is lush.
"People have scorned stock in recent years but in 1999, with wheat the way it was, we probably made more money out of our cattle than we did from crops."
While the US tariff imposition has taken much gloss from the export lamb trade, Mr Anderson says their 120 per cent lambing Corriedale flock has another valuable role in providing excellent black oat control.
Not so of wild phalaris, a bigger problem than wild oats ever was, which is being tackled with rotations and chemicals. Linseed has a regular place in rotations and allows a herbicide like Verdict to be used on the phalaris.
Mr Anderson understands his lucerne-reliant farming system would be hard to develop out of a pure farming situation, lacking the infrastructure of fences, yards and water, but says it could be an option for predominantly livestock operations looking to move into grain.
"Our workforce comprises family, a girl and a young bloke, no outside labour except shearers, and plant is modest — a 200 hp FWA tractor, dual-hitch combines, a 5.7 m chisel plough, 10 m Scaribar, harrows and roller. Our own header lets us take lucerne and grass seed.
"There's no book on how to do it and management is really the key to it all," is how Rob Anderson sums it up.
Mr Rob Anderson 02 6754 6526 Dr Rex Williams 02 6763 1205
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