Game, set, match ... provided it rains

Man stands in front of silos

Joe Della Vedova on his property near Esperance,
Western Australia.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Joe Della Vedova approaches the business of grain production with a steely determination that will not hold with any excuses for poor performance. “Whether you’re playing tennis or farming, you set a goal and you go out to win … so we’ve set a high bar, but that’s what keeps the business progressing,” he says.

Joe and his family crop 9200 hectares of sand plain country 50 kilometres east of Esperance, Western Australia, where the annual rainfall is supposed to be 550 millimetres, although like many places of late, this now fluctuates considerably.

The main production constraints are the non-wetting sand he describes as “non-soil”, a changing and intensifying frost period, dry finishes and the disappearance in recent years of the summer rainfall pattern, along with the usual weed and disease pressures.

To Joe these are simply management issues; part and parcel of the business. “Today’s farm management basket is full of tools,” he says.

“Everything a modern grain grower needs is there. You might have to go looking for it, but it’s there somewhere, in research or in the experience of other growers, especially in groups such as the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA). There’s a lot of knowledge and technology. It’s one of the big differences between today and a decade ago.”

He points to the increase in severe frosts. “It’s become a scary weather anomaly right across southern Australia, yet there are ways to manage it. On our property we’re using soil moisture and temperature probes to build up our frost-risk profile to see how we can farm around it … change our cropping window to put the flowering stage of susceptible crops outside the main frost period.

“It just needs a new mindset that recognises a three-tonne crop outside the frost period is better than a five-tonne potential in the frost period.”

Key points:

  • Stubble and clay used to change non-wetting sands
  • Modern grower well equipped with technology
  • Tactical nitrogen can lift grades and returns

In search of rain

Joe, with his wife Charlotte and their five children, moved to Esperance from WA’s central wheatbelt in 1996 to build a more secure future in a higher-rainfall area.

However, while a more reliable rainfall lifts cropping potential, it alone will not do the job. The non-wetting sand is a serious production constraint; effectively halving the yield potential that the high-rainfall environment could otherwise be delivering.

Joe’s strategy is an ongoing claying program combined with a comprehensive stubble retention regime that begins at harvest through the use of headers fitted with Shelbourne stripper fronts. These strip the grain and leave a full length of cut stubble as a soil-covering thatch. “You can see the benefits as soon as you get a summer rain – earthworms appear,” he says.

Joe has fitted hydraulic coulters in front of the tynes, making sowing straightforward despite the heavy stubble load.

For the clay, Joe digs his own pits – the clay being just 0.5 to 1.5 metres below the sand – and sites the pits within a two-minute drive of the area being treated.

“We are trying to use the clay mineral to tie carbon (from the stubble) into the soil. It’s not proven, but the experts say it will work and if it does it will have long-term benefits for our soil biology. It may take 10 years before we can measure this, so we are relying on the experiences of South Australian growers who have many more years experience with claying.”

Immediate gains

Although changing the soil biology is a long-term program, there are more immediate gains such as improved moisture retention and crop establishment and these alone are paying off. The treated areas are now delivering up to 6t/ha – well up on the 3 to 4t/ha average (the bar that Joe has set as the minimum acceptable result) and well on the way to his ambition of 8t/ha.

Joe says the claying (at 1000t/ha) costs about $600/ha – a third of the contractor rate because they have their own equipment. At this cost, he says, claying generally pays for itself with the first crop grown on that area.

“It’s a lot of work, but we are getting enormous gains … although just as we’ve achieved this potential the past few season have had dry finishes. But the vegetative matter in the crops where we have clayed is tremendous, so we can see the yield potential the next time we get a good finish.”

Joe’s determination to improve soil biology across the farm is also why he has persisted with a livestock rotation, although he feels the days are numbered for stock in his operation. The agronomic benefits are not enough to offset a diminishing return on capital, and a sense of despair at the way livestock industries are being treated by the media and the influence this can have on government policy or support.

“Sheep started to come good last year then collapsed in the wake of the television reporting on the live sheep trade, and that was after the job they did on live cattle. We just can’t recover from that sort of king hit, so for us, red meat is out unless there is a change in community attitudes towards farming … and that isn’t going to happen unless Australians start to seriously consider where their food will be coming from in 10 years. The way things are going, it won’t be Australia.”

On the land still shared with livestock, the Della Vedovas’ rotations are canola, wheat and two years’ grazing. On the rest of the property it is canola, wheat, lupins and barley. “We sow directly into old pasture or stubble because with modern weed control there’s enough ammunition in the belt to tackle just about anything.”

Joe says yields averaged across the whole property tend to be 3t/ha for wheat, just under 3t/ha for barley and canola 1.7t/ha, although in 2012 they lost 40 per cent of the canola to frost.

Technology push

Joe says the main change implemented since the family’s move to Esperance has been the steady transition towards total-cropping, and this stems largely from technological advances.

“Add modern herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers to advances in plant breeding and no-till and we are in a position to pretty much beat every problem we come across. We’ve got varieties that can beat rust and other diseases, and then there’s GM technology, which adds another tool by being able to rotate a Roundup Ready® canola in areas with weeds.”

Joe regards GM canola as a tactical crop. His experience is that conventional canola out-yields GM canola if the paddocks are clean: “If there are no weeds, we don’t sow GM canola. If we have weeds, say when we’re coming out of a grazing rotation, then Roundup Ready® canola becomes the logical crop.”

With their wheat, Joe and his sons, Troy and Joey, have been progressing from APW to H1 and H2 varieties through a late application of Flexi N® liquid nitrogen to bring protein up to 12 per cent.

“The nitrogen costs $20/ha, but can potentially return $40/ha if it lifts your grades and you can get them into the right market at the right time.”

Due to the non-wetting sand, Joe regards sowing as the most challenging operation; the accuracy of the seed placement in furrows being the difference between a crop germinating or not germinating.

“You have to place the seed where (a) it’s wet enough to germinate or (b) will collect water from the first rain. You must get the crop established enough for it to get roots down into that stored water below the sand.”

As Joe explains his challenges and opportunities he cannot hide his sense of professional pride in knowing he has developed a finely tuned, productive business.

“Yet there doesn’t seem to be any understanding in the wider community of what we have achieved, or of just how fragile our own food security is … and the consequences if we just let our domestic agriculture be pushed aside by food imports,” he says.

“It’s someting the Australian community needs to start thinking seriously about.”

More information:

Joe Della Vedova,

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