Matt Curtis in a paddock he sowed to Wedgetail in January 2015 to try and get some cover on a sand hill. He will terminate the paddock in autumn and sow it to vetch,
Farming in the low rainfall zone of north-western Victoria means Matt Curtis needs to make every drop of rain count. That is why for the past four years, he has opted to early-sow some of his 3000-hectare property to EGA Wedgetail
Matt, who farms at Wargan in the Millewa region, has noticed a pattern of shifting rainfall out of the traditional growing season and into summer. Historically, his district’s average annual rainfall is about 250 millimetres with about 150mm in the growing season. Matt fell short of that total in 2014 but received about 60 percent in summer and early-autumn.
Matt first sowed Wedgetail in March 2011 on the back of 500 millimetres of summer rain – an extraordinary event – and some encouragement from Mallee Sustainable Farming agronomist Michael Moodie. That year paid off when it yielded 2.4 tonnes a hectare. It was grazed in winter by Matt’s 1000 Merino and Merino-cross ewes and their lambs.
Last year, after another good summer rain, Matt decided to sow 63ha of Wedgetail
on February 20 – the earliest he has ever sown. Matt admitted it was “a bit of a gamble”.
“We got lucky because the plant was able to establish itself and get out of the ground, which was followed by another rain in March,” he said. “Originally, I wasn’t planning to sow that early, but I worked with Michael to get it in at that time. It was a matter of having the tractor and seeder ready to go.”
He put 120 ewes and their lambs on in mid-April until the end of June. While good rains continued until the end of May, Matt had the same issue as many other growers in south-eastern Australia – the tap turned off in winter.
By the time harvest rolled around in October, the Wedgetail went about 1t/ha. While the variety did not achieve the same lofty heights of the 2011 season, Matt said it was on par gross margin-wise with his other crops because he was able to gain the grazing benefit from it.
Matt says the biggest factor that has made Wedgetail appealing is its ability to use summer moisture and its vernalisation requirement. Being a winter wheat, Wedgetail needs to be exposed to low temperatures of between 4°C and 18°C for a certain period of time before spike development and stem elongation (growth stage 30) can begin.
He has been taking note of CSIRO research scientist Dr James Hunt’s work on early sowing, which Matt says has given him more confidence in sowing wheat early. Matt has been called on by grower groups, including Birchip Cropping Group, to discuss his early-sowing experiences at field days.
With some experience under his belt in growing long-season wheat, Matt believes he has discovered the key to growing a successful crop.
“From the past four or five years of growing long-season wheats, I would say the biggest lesson is to have at least 50 millimetres of summer rain prior to sowing early,” he said.
“I would sow in February again if I needed the sheep feed. Whenever I have had a decent result I attribute it to good summer rain. Last year, the start of the ‘traditional’ growing season – April and May – was good and temperatures were pretty mild right up until June so the crops got away early.”
Besides the early-sown Wedgetail, Matt waits until ANZAC Day to start sowing, regardless of whether it is dry or wet.
Matt has already sown about 20ha Wedgetail this year to cover up a sand hill, but he will terminate it in autumn and sow the paddock to vetch.
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