Crop management focuses on pests and rain

Demonstrating an appetite for innovation and flexibility, growers are taking advantage of new research and extension to trial a range of new measures on-farm. This is part four of the Ground Cover series following a group of growers through the 2014 winter cropping season

Joe and Charlotte Della Vedova farm at Condingup, 50 kilometres east of Esperance in Western Australia’s mallee. With sons Joey and Troy and daughter-in-law Zoe, they crop canola, wheat, barley and lupins, with sorghum and millet as opportunity crops. They run 10,000 Merino ewes and 500 Angus cows.

It’s the toughest year we’ve ever had. We’re at 31 per cent of our normal rainfall average. The rest of the state has had good falls but the south coast has missed out. We were happy to sow in July and we’re confident we can still bring home a 2.5-to-3-tonne crop. We’ve given the lambs some extra attention to keep them healthy. Lamb prices are good so what we lose in cropping we can gain in livestock if the market stays up.

When you get a year like this, it resets your parameters about how you can operate. It lowers your bottom-end cost structure. If I could previously budget on $300 per hectare costs, I can now squeeze it down to $220/ha. If you’re prepared to do that and just work with the season, the worst-case scenario is break even. You just have to say: “Nature’s nature: we’re not going to win this one.”

Andrew and Lynne Hentschke farm two properties in South Australia; in Lock on the central Eyre Peninsula and in Blyth in the state’s mid-north. With sons Stuart and Ashley and daughters-in-law Emma and Maggie, they grow wheat, barley and vetch, and run 1130 Merino-cross ewes.

Our early crops kicked along well over winter but we had some insect issues – redlegged earth mite and lucerne flea at Blyth – particularly where we had a lot of straw cover. We treated the affected crops with insecticide and that cleaned them up nicely.

In spite of the good season, we had some germination problems. I tried applying a wetter on our non-wetting sands and we had great success with that. I applied it during a rain event and I think that may have been the key.

As we had the opportunity for an extra spray during a delay in seeding earlier in the year, our crops are now very clean. The ewes started lambing in June–July, and we had a few headaches with that due to the freezing conditions. However, there’s plenty of feed around for the stock – we shouldn’t have any problems with that for the rest of the year.

Phillip and Cindy Coggan and Phillip’s parents John and Lyn farm 20km north of Westmar on Queensland’s western Darling Downs. They crop wheat, chickpeas, sorghum, oaten hay, and grow barley, maize, navy beans and triticale under centre pivot irrigation. Mungbeans are grown as an opportunity crop and sorghum and field peas as forage. The couple also run 2000 Charolais-cross cattle, 160 Red Meatmaster steers, 100 White Meatmaster steers and 1700 Dorper ewes.

It’s been a tough year with only a few light falls of rain over winter. The earliest sown crops are doing well but some of the later ones are looking dry. We baled for hay during July – field peas and a field pea/barley mix. Not many people up here grow field peas but we planted them in February out of season and by June–July they were waist-high. The oats we planted at the same time grew only a few inches in the same time.

We’ll keep the hay for our own use and the field peas have improved the soil. We filled the feedlot with 2800 head of cattle, which we will start pulling out in September. Fat cattle and lamb prices are good and I’m hoping they’ll stay strong for the rest of the year.

Rob and Hanna O’Connor farm at Avoca, 81km south-east of Launceston in Tasmania’s Fingal Valley. With Rob’s semi-retired parents Frank and Prue they crop wheat, barley, canola, faba beans, poppies, triticale and lucerne hay; and grow canola, clover and ryegrass as seed crops. They have a eucalypt forestry enterprise and run 14,000 Merino and Merino-cross ewes and 850 Angus cows.

We’ve had nice rain and we’ve had it when we needed it. We finished sowing then followed up with broadleaf weed control on our cereals. They’re predicting a dry spring, which is concerning, but the rainfall we got through winter was a bonus. I’m pleased with the way our heavy stubbles have broken down following the discs and roller we used earlier in the year.

We played around with liquid fertilisers over the winter to encourage more early vigour, and this has worked well. It’s something fairly new for this region and is becoming more popular because, traditionally, germinating plants struggle through Tasmania’s cold winters. There hasn’t been a lot of research on this so I’m trialling different mixes on-farm. In September, we’ll be focusing on the maintenance and set-up of our irrigation equipment.

Neil and Helen Vallance farm three properties between 6km and 13km north, east and west of Lake Bolac in Victoria’s Western District. With Neil’s brothers Max and Graeme and sisters-in-law Jane and Rachel, they crop canola, wheat, barley and oats. They run 3000 Merino ewes, 200 Coopworth ewes and a 500-sow piggery.

Image of a man next to farming equipment

Neil Vallance uses normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) satellite images to create maps of crop growth and identify weed problems.

A thermal image of farm land

NDVI image.

We had great sowing conditions but the moisture brought out the slugs. All the canola had to have at least one bait, and they’ve been so bad that we had to bait some of the cereals as well. This year we put nitrogen-rich strips in each paddock, which involve a 100-metre strip of crop in every paddock with 200 kilograms of urea applied. The normal rate is 100 to 120kg/ha.

It was an idea raised at the GRDC Update at Lake Bolac and it helps us to identify which paddocks need more nitrogen without having to test every paddock.

We had normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) satellite images taken at the end of July that create maps of the crop growth and help to identify weed problems. These areas came up as really thick growth on the satellite images: when we went to ground truth the pictures, what we thought was good crop was sometimes actually weeds. In August, we applied fungicides for septoria and rusts and top-dressed urea. Coming into spring, we’ll be lamb marking and crutching, as well as monitoring rust and disease levels in our crops.

Chris Bunny oversees three properties 10km north of Young in southern NSW for Growth Farms Australia. The business crops canola and wheat (grain-only and dual-purpose) and runs 9700 Merino-cross ewes. 

Growing conditions have been ideal. We applied urea to our canola during July. Where we were frost-affected in 2013, the nitrogen levels were still quite high so we didn’t need as much urea as we budgeted for. We split the N application and we’re waiting until early spring to decide whether we need a second application.

We’ve been winter cleaning our lucerne pastures to clean up the ryegrass – grazing them down and spraying them out with Gramoxone® (paraquat) – and this will continue into September.

During September–October the pasture paddocks that will be fallowed for crops in 2015 will be sprayed with Roundup® (glyphosate). We’ll also be monitoring for late-season insects.

One of the things we did differently this year was to lock up our grazing crops a bit sooner. We usually leave the stock in there until the end of August but Dr John Kirkegaard (from CSIRO) presented some research at a field day that showed us we were probably suffering a yield penalty from this practice. As a result of that and all the feed around, we took them out at the start of August.


Companies rally around WeedSmart education


Asia asks: can Australia grow enough wheat?

Region North, South, West