New season – new tools, new ideas, new hopes

Each year Ground Cover follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the unfolding winter cropping season. It is a chance to observe modern growers at work as they plan and adjust to a season’s constantly changing challenges and opportunities. In this, the first instalment for the 2013 series, we introduce this year’s participants.

A photo of farm machinery

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Darryl and Sara Bartelen farm at Tulloona, 65 kilometres north of Moree in northern New South Wales. With Sara’s parents, John and Sue Fitzgerald, they crop wheat, chickpeas, faba beans, barley and sorghum. They grow canola and canary grass as opportunity crops, and run 200 head of Angus and Angus-cross cattle.

Average annual rainfall:

523 millimetres, 141mm in the growing season.

Farm size:

4000 hectares, 3200ha cropping.

Use of professional advice:

Agronomist, grain-marketing consultant and accountant.

Memberships:

Profarmer Grain Australia, Grain Producers Australia and Conservation Farmers Inc.

Key recent changes:

Strategic tillage with pre-plant urea applications to reduce herbicide use and control problem weeds, including barnyard grass, fleabane, feathertop Rhodes grass and black oats. Tillage occurs every five years following chickpeas, to take advantage of light stubble loads and provide a disease break. Use of double-knock applications with varied chemical combinations to improve weed control in summer fallow and reduce the risk of herbicide resistance developing.

Short-term goals:

Trialling new wheat, chickpea and faba bean varieties for better grain quality, yields and increased resistance to disease and nematodes.

Long-term goals:

Farm expansion to acquire 5000ha as an optimum cropping area. Succession planning for four children: Jasmine, 19, Catie, 17, Isaac, 15, and Olivia, 14. Investment in a disc seeder designed to decrease the width of planting rows from 35 centimetres to 25cm to reduce in-crop weed pressure.

Challenges and opportunities:

Challenges are weed-control costs, yield gains and climate variability. Opportunities are accessing new markets that provide a price premium for quality and better use of long-range weather forecasts.

R&D directions and priorities:

Variable-rate technology for seeding and fertiliser applications, whole-farm soil mapping, new chemistry, plant growth inhibitors, methods for weed control, and testing the effectiveness of new products such as foliar fertilisers.

Current activity:

We’ve used double-knock applications across our paddocks to conserve soil moisture and control germinating weeds following good rains. We’ve finished pre-plant urea applications in paddocks following chickpeas, and planned for on-farm National Variety Trials (NVT) of chickpeas and faba beans. We’ve also done maintenance on the planter before sowing faba beans and wheat in April, and chickpeas and barley in May.

A photo of David Hermann with machinery

David Herrmann recently invested in a 20-metre disc seeder, mainly to help overcome problems with knife points breaking on stony soils on the family’s property in the South Australian Mallee region.

PHOTO: Sandra Herrmann

David and Sandra Herrmann, their son Braden and David’s semi-retired parents, Ross and Merle, farm 50km north-east of Murray Bridge in South Australia’s Mallee region. They crop wheat, barley, canola and oaten hay.

Average annual rainfall:

300mm, 220mm in the growing season.

Farm size:

3160ha, of which 2990ha is cropped. This includes 30ha of leased land.

Use of professional advice:

Farm adviser and accountant.

Memberships:

Mallee Sustainable Farming Inc, South Australian No-Till Farmers Association, SPAA Precision Agriculture Australia and the Kondinin Group.

Key recent changes:

Investment in a 20-metre disc seeder, mostly to help overcome problems with knife points breaking on stones. Using discs instead of knives also means less stones are brought to the surface, so we’ve been able to halve the area where we need to break down limestone rocks using stone rollers. Other benefits are reduced stubble blockages and the ability to apply liquid trace elements and fungicides with the seed in one pass. 

Short-term goals:

Using the GPS-guided planter for variable-rate seeding and fertiliser applications to match our inputs to different soil types. This means we can concentrate inputs on more productive sandy loam country instead of undulating limestone areas. Our focus on variable-rate technology is to reduce fertiliser and seed costs and increase productivity. We’re modifying the spreader so we can topdress crops using variable rates of urea and ammonia. We’re adding a legume (field peas) to our cropping program mostly because they fix nitrogen in the soil for subsequent crops, provide a disease break and help reduce grass weed pressure. 

Long-term goals:

Growing healthier crops and better grass weed control to lift productivity. Succession planning. 

Challenges and opportunities:

Increasing input costs, climate variability, herbicide-resistant weeds, shallow stony soils, frost and limited growing-season rain are all challenges. The new disc seeder gives us the opportunity to conserve more soil moisture, reduce erosion, lift productivity and reduce input costs.

Current activity:

We’ve been using tractors to drag steel cables across our paddocks on hot days to kill snails. This knocks them onto the ground where they dehydrate. We’ve been spraying weeds, such as milk thistle, melon, potato weed and fleabane, and removing the vestiges of our mixed-farming operation, such as internal fences and water troughs. We’re concentrating on maintaining machinery, farm buildings and finishing the new chemical shed.

R&D directions and priorities:

Frost-resistant varieties and legume varieties suited to the dry Mallee conditions.

Natalie and Leon Bowman farm at Grass Patch, 70km north of Esperance in Western Australia’s Mallee region. They grow wheat, barley, canola and field peas, and run 80 mostly Angus cows.

Average annual rainfall:

350mm, 210mm in the growing season.

Farm size:

9300ha, 8100ha cropping.

Use of professional advice:

Agronomist, grain-marketing consultant, farm adviser, management board and accountant.

Professional memberships:

Esperance Organised Primary Producers Co-op (board chair), South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (committee member), GRDC Regional Cropping Solutions (group member), the Western Australian No-Till Farming Association and the Kondinin Group.

Recent key changes:

We’ve changed our crop sequencing pattern to suit different soil types and increased gypsum application rates to 2000 tonnes a year to increase the soil’s water-holding capacity. We’ve been using radiometrics and electromagnetic surveys to map our variable-rate fertiliser applications.

Short-term goals:

Consolidate the new approach to rotations and install soil moisture probes and a weather station to measure water in the soil profile and monitor frosts. Investment in a second sprayer for more efficient weed control.

Long-term goals:

Succession planning and measures to increase productivity and, ultimately, profitability.

Challenges and opportunities:

Boron toxicity in our heavy clay subsoils and climate variability are challenges, and improved water use efficiency and more profitable break crops, such as canola, are opportunities.

R&D directions and priorities:

New weed-control options, long-term crop sequencing trials and new cereal varieties that can tolerate salt and boron toxicity.

Current activity:

We’ve finished spraying weeds, which germinated following a wet harvest. We’re focused on finances, carting fertiliser, spreading gypsum and preparing machinery for seeding after it rains in April.

A photo of St John Kent leaning against farm machinery

Queensland grower St John Kent is keen to explore alternatives to oil-based herbicides, such as steam and microwave technologies, to control weeds on the property he farms in partnership with his neighbours on the Jimbour Plain.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

St John and Edwina Kent farm in partnership with their neighbours, Brett and Helen McLaren, on the Jimbour Plain, about 36km north-west of Dalby on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland. The two families crop sorghum, chickpeas, maize, mungbeans and wheat. They grow cotton as an opportunity crop and run Wagyu-cross cows.

Average annual rainfall:

680mm.

Farm size:

1740ha, aggregate owned and leased.

Use of professional advice:

Agronomist, grain-marketing consultant and accountant.

Memberships:

Conservation Farmers Inc. (board member), Brigalow-Jimbour Floodplains Landcare Group and Darling Downs Cotton Growers. 

Recent key changes:

We’re still on 3m wheel tracks, but we’ve invested in a new header with a 12m front and modified both the seeder, with a 12m planting bar, and the boomspray, increasing its length from 27m to 36m.

Short-term goals:

Adding more legumes to our cropping program, mostly to fix nitrogen for subsequent crops and allow for varied herbicide use.

Long-term goals:

Explore alternatives to oil-based inputs, such as weed control using steam and microwave technologies.

Challenges and opportunities:

Climate variability is a challenge and more strategic crop sequencing is an opportunity.

R&D priorities and directions:

New fibre crops, plus legume and feed grain varieties, improved market access, soil health and weed-control alternatives.

Current activity:

We’ve been cultivating and grading the tramlines in 2012’s winter crop and repairing flood damage using a tractor-drawn laser bucket. We’re monitoring the sorghum and mungbeans, and fallow-spraying the wheat stubble a second time before planting chickpeas.

Rod and Victoria Kennedy farm two properties, one 40km south of Skipton, and the other 30km west of the town in Victoria’s Western District. They grow wheat, barley, canola and oats and run 3500 Merino sheep.

Average annual rainfall:

660mm, 396mm in the growing season.

Farm size:

2000ha, 1500ha cropping.

Use of professional advice:

Agronomist and accountant.

Memberships:

Woady Yaloak Catchment Group (committee member), Southern Farming Systems and the Kondinin Group.

Key recent changes:

Increased focus on measures to control slugs, such as burning wheat and barley stubble, and using a tyre-roller to eliminate soil clods where slug numbers tend to build up. We’ve started applying copper and zinc fertiliser at seeding on light soils to increase yield potential based on plant tissue and soil testing. 

Short-term goals:

Consolidating controlled-traffic farming, which was implemented with raised beds 10 years ago. Increasing the size of our self-replacing sheep flock and improving the quality of its breeding stock.

Long-term goals:

Investment in a self-propelled sprayer to improve operational efficiency, particularly in canola. Installing silos to store an extra 500t of grain, and farm expansion to acquire 2500ha as an optimum cropping area. Converting our 2m raised beds to 3m raised beds, mostly for better machinery access. Succession planning for our children, including Campbell, 7, Sara, 5, Olivia, 2, and newborn, Angus.

Challenges and opportunities:

Yield gains, waterlogging and controlling pests and weeds are challenges, and new varieties and yield mapping are opportunities.

R&D directions and priorities:

Fungicide and herbicide alternatives, slug research and new varieties suited to the Western District high-rainfall zone.

Current activity:

We’ve spread superphosphate and potash on pastures and placed the sheep on stubble. We’ve run the prickle chain over the canola stubble and started applying lime at a rate of 1.5t/ha on all paddocks, plus 0.5t/ha of gypsum on canola paddocks. We’re preparing to renovate our raised beds, but this will depend on seasonal conditions.

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