Pea plantings drop as canola finds favour
Canola is booming in Western Australia as growers are attracted to the crop’s economics; the trick now is to find the right balance to maintain the agronomic benefits of pulses.
It is a simple philosophy – do something every year that will improve the farm – and it works well for south-east Western Australian grower Ron Longbottom. “We are looking at slow improvements. Our philosophy is ‘adapt’,” he says.
Like many WA growers, Ron, who farms with his wife Kerrie and full-time employee Farney Rossouw at Grass Patch, 85 kilometres north of Esperance, is looking at how he can “tweak” his wheat-and-field-pea-based rotation by including more canola. He is experimenting with both the rotation mix and canola varieties.
It is a scenario familiar to Pulse Australia’s industry development manager in WA, Alan Meldrum. Mr Meldrum has seen the area planted to field peas in the state drop by 50 per cent in the past three years, while canola plantings continue to grow.
“About 1.3 million hectares of canola have been planted this year, more than three times that of just four years ago,” he says.
Mr Meldrum says field peas, along with lupins, have been under pressure from canola for a few years, mostly due to the oilseed’s profitability – gross margins up to $150 per hectare more than for field peas – plus there is easier market access.
“Both triazine-tolerant and GM canola offer a range of marketing options, including forward contracts, futures and a very stable price outlook.
“To export field peas you need to find a buyer, secure payment guarantees and then ship the grain – a harder task for those in the Esperance region where there is only a small quantity of field pea to market.”
Growers are also turning to canola for the weed-control options it offers: “Triazine-tolerant canola has a wider range of in-crop herbicides than the pulses and this scenario is true for most of western and southern Australia.”
Yet, despite canola offering a higher return per hectare and more marketing and weed-control options, Mr Meldrum and growers such as Ron Longbottom are quick to point out that field peas still have a crucial role to play in a balanced cropping regime.
Ron says the crop’s contribution to high soil nutrition lifts the yields of subsequent cereal crops. For example, wheat planted on field-pea stubble in 2013 yielded 700 kilograms/ha more than wheat planted on canola stubble.
As well as this yield boost, Ron says field peas also contribute to integrated weed management (IWM) and nematode control.
He explains that, for him, field peas are well suited to crop topping – the control option for annual ryegrass where a desiccant herbicide is applied close to the pulse’s final maturity. For growers in the Esperance region this usually occurs in October.
Mr Meldrum says as field peas are close to maturity when the herbicide is applied, yield and grain quality risks are minimised.
The ideal timing for crop topping is when the field pea seeds have reached 30 per cent moisture, or when the lower 75 per cent of pods are brown with firm seeds and leathery pods.
“A good result is about 80 per cent control of ryegrass seed set with little damage to the pulse. This can be less, depending on weather and regrowth; however, early harvest and capture and removal of weed seeds from the paddock can combine to give an overall ryegrass control of up to 95 per cent.”
Mr Meldrum says crop topping also targets resistant weeds, but he stresses that it only works as part of an IWM plan in which the herbicide label’s withholding period is strictly adhered to.
So the decision for growers at the moment is how to balance the pros and cons of canola and field peas in a rotation. Mr Meldrum suggests an extended rotation: perhaps introducing field peas to a paddock every five years instead of every three or four.
He says Pulse Australia is writing a manual on growing field peas to help growers understand the dynamics of field pea agronomy to make decisions on including them in the rotation clearer.
The manual will show how to avoid diseases such as blackspot and improve harvesting efficiencies. “Field peas tend to lodge at harvest so the process is slower than with other crops.” Experienced growers already have this in hand, but Mr Meldrum is keen, despite the strong competition from canola, to help new field pea growers make the crop a success.
As Ron contemplates changes to his rotation, he says it all comes down to what is good for a paddock in the long term.
“And for us, that will be to continue with field peas.”