Different paths to success for Queensland maize growers
GroundCover™ Issue: 102 | Author: Sarah Clarry
The Peters and Petersen families, Queensland Darling Downs and Southern Downs maize growers, have been growing maize for Kellogg’s on and off for 50 years. Although they aim for the same quality in the end product, their farming systems and farming philosophies differ
Methodical agronomy builds resilience
It is not unusual to see the Peters family ‘walking their crops’ and manually pulling out weeds that have survived spraying. This is just one example of a fastidious approach to crop management and the rare achievement of a weed-free farm.
“We’ve grew a lot of wheat and barley seed over the years and they [the seed companies] were very strict about weed seeds,” Arnold Peters explains. “So we developed a strategy where we cleaned up as much as we could … including manual weeding where necessary.
“We walk the crops, and if there is anything in there we don’t like, we pull it out,” he says. “If we see something like Noogoora burr, everything stops. We pull it out, put it in a bag, then burn it. We don’t let them set seed.”
This labour-intensive approach is not for everyone, but the Peters see the fruits of their efforts over the years in the economies that come from a largely weed-free farm. Fleabane is their biggest issue now, but they manage to stay on top of it.
The Peters also try to avoid using pesticides. They grow Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, and have sprayed sorghum only once for heliothis in the past 15 years.“We would have to have a very big pest population for us to consider spraying. We just don’t like using pesticides.”
Arnold and Jill Peters crop 1200 hectares in Norwin, west of Toowoomba, Queensland, with sons Lance and Mark and their wives Annika and Keturah. Arnold’s father Laurie and his brother bought the property from Jondaryan Station in the 1930s.
The Peters grow maize, sorghum, wheat and some cotton on the highly fertile black waco clay soils.
“Anything you want to grow, you can grow here. The clay underneath the floodplain just goes forever,” Arnold says. “That helps in the dry years: when it gets wet, it just stays wet.”
The average annual rainfall is 675 millimetres, but according to Arnold, ‘average’ years are rare. It is usually just one or two wet years with many dry years in between.
The Peters family operation came through the drought relatively unscathed because of its long-fallow rotation.
“We’d rather harvest two good crops every three years, than three or four ordinary ones.”
The Peters push their nitrogen inputs because they have been growing some very big-yielding crops. Phosphorus and zinc levels have responded to consistent nutrient applications over the years and they apply feedlot manure to their irrigation country to lift trace elements.
In a normal crop sequence, the Peters grow maize one year, sorghum the next year, then an 18-month fallow followed by wheat, before repeating the rotation. Through the dry years, they planted one year of maize or sorghum, then fallowed through the next summer. They would then plant a winter crop in June to avoid frost in August, giving them two crops every three years.
Research outcomes have changed the family’s approach to farming over the years and on average, about two-thirds of the Peters’ farm is not tilled.
“We have changed the way we operate,” Arnold says.
“We used to get in and plough everything up and work all hours. Now we harvest, spray for weeds and cultivate after five or six months to control fleabane if necessary.
“Our strategy is as soon as we finish harvesting, we want to get our nitrogen straight back in. When the header is finished, we side-dress with nitrogen gas or urea up the rows and leave the crop standing. We’re ready for anything then. If it gets wet, we can put a winter crop in it, otherwise it can sit there until a summer crop.”
The family adopted controlled traffic about 10 years ago when they put in a GPS system. While he has not noticed a big yield difference, Arnold says the country is easier to handle and there are no overlaps or waste.
When Arnold was growing up, wild oats were a problem on the property and his father, Laurie, started growing maize so he could cultivate inter-row.
Soon, Laurie got to know the Kellogg’s buyer and started selling direct to Kellogg’s. “It was hard back then,” Arnold says. “The varieties weren’t very good, but Dad stuck with it and grew maize right through my teens.”
The Peters grew maize off-and-on for many years, selling first direct to Kellogg’s and then to a merchant. Then in the 1980s, they got out of maize for about 10 years. The varieties they were trying to grow did not yield enough, and suffered heat and moisture stress.
These days with the vast improvements delivered by plant breeders, the Peters are growing maize again and selling to Defiance Maize Products in Warwick, Queensland. Some years their maize goes to Kellogg’s, but not every year.
Arnold says: “We have to do what makes sense – if we’re not going to make enough money out of it, we have to grow something else.”
The innovative do-it-yourself approach
The Petersen family – Rod and Judy, sons Wayne and Scott and their wives Karen and Sandi – focus on summer cropping, using winter crops only as a weed or disease-management tool or as an opportunity crop. Summer crops are maize, sorghum, soybeans and mungbeans.
The family crops 1600 hectares in Killarney, east of Warwick, Queensland. The farm has been built up from an original 160ha bought by Rod’s grandfather in the early 1900s.
Like the Peters family, the Petersens started supplying maize direct to Kellogg’s back in the 1960s, but now supply to Defiance Maize Products in Warwick.
The tonnages they supply to Defiance vary from year to year. It has been as high as 2500 tonnes, but volumes have dropped off in recent times as the markets have shrunk.
The Petersens also send maize to Brisbane for export. To save on transport, the Petersens run their own trucks and manage up to 50 per cent of their transport requirements themselves.
It is part of a do-it-yourself philosophy that the Petersens embrace across their farming operations. They modify existing equipment to suit their circumstances or, if the solution does not exist, they will design and build it themselves.
“We’ve built a fertiliser bin for servicing the planters, which I’m sure would be entirely unique,” Rod says. “It will transport 24t of seed and fertiliser, and it would be a design that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
Scott adds: “It allows us to carry three different products to service the airseeders, and also pull one of the bins off for a water tank for servicing the summer crop planters with water for pre-emergent herbicides.”
The family is clearly innovative, adopting technology as it appears. Rod was one of the earliest adopters of minimum till, in about 1984.
“Unbeknownst to me, the [then] Department of Primary Industries had picked about six of us [on the Downs] for being innovative farmers. They sent their advisers out to encourage us to try to adopt the new zero-till methods,” Rod says.
“I tried a lot of experimentation, not all of it successful. In those days if you wanted to develop a zero-till machine, you had to make it yourself.
“The family copped a lot of flack back then,” Rod recalls. “They said, ‘It might work somewhere else but it won’t work here. Our soils are different’. But most of those guys have gone that way [zero-till] now.”
“We’re always looking for ways to do things better,” Scott says. “When I came home at the end of 1995 we were full zero-till. Since then, we’ve switched to full controlled traffic.
“In the early days I hitched two tractors together to get more horsepower and then developed a bigger planter to suit the power of the two tractors. All of that sort of thing… we have been innovative all the way.”
Spraying is also a big part of the Petersens’ program. They vary chemicals where they can to try to avoid resistance developing, and to augment their spray program they recently bought a heavy-duty cultivator to get on top of fleabane.
The Petersens have 3000t of on-farm storage capacity, and some of the work being done by stored grain pest specialists Philip Burrell and Greg Daglish has taken place on their property.
Their silo set-up has been evolving for 15 to 20 years. They designed and built a centre-pivot auger system that can move grain into any silo from a single unloading point, or from one silo to any other silo.
The Petersens aim for a 100 per cent cropping frequency. “Depending on the season, we’ll see how much above that we go – it can be up to two crops in 12 months. Our best result was five crops in two-and-a-half years,” Rod says.
Scott adds: “Even through the droughts, we were still pulling a crop a year in each paddock. We didn’t miss. We only do short fallows. I have been in a situation where I started planting a paddock with wheat a day-and-a-half after they’d pulled out the header. That’s how tight we can get.
“Our philosophy is, if you have moisture available, plant a crop.”
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