A practical divide
GroundCover™ Issue: 108 | Author: Clarisa Collis
Northern NSW growers Andrew Earle and Tom Greentree both run on-farm trials as part of a shared pursuit of increased profitability. But despite farming just 70 kilometres from each other they have found quite different paths to achieving their goal.
Their contrasting approaches to finetuning grain-growing skills in the same farming region north-west of Moree highlight the importance of on-farm research in identifying practices suited to the variability that underpins individual farm businesses.
Providing the impetus for these contrasting measures implemented by the Earle and Greentree families were trials overseen by the Mungindi Cropping Group and the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) in 2011 and 2012.
Since hosting the trials, Andrew and his wife Angela, who farm in partnership with Angus and Leonie Livingston, have wasted no time in applying the findings to their 26,187-hectare farming operation, ‘Bullawarrie’, about 30km north of Mungindi.
Drawing on wheat trials to ascertain optimum plant densities, the Earles increased their wheat sowing rates from 40 to 60 seeds per square metre in 2013.
Andrew says that while the additional seed cost was $4/ha, the trials showed the extra expenditure could potentially return $70/ha or $755,370 overall from the 10,791ha planted to wheat. The season, of course, has a big say in potential versus actual yield. After harvesting their wheat, which was affected by dry seasonal conditions in the Mungindi district in 2013, Andrew says the increased spend on seed costs returned about $40/ha or $431,640.
Nonetheless, faced with this rainfall deficit in 2013, the trials have given the Earle family greater confidence when deciding whether to replant areas of early sown wheat showing poor germination due to moisture stress.
“The 2012 trials showed May-sown wheat to be more profitable than June-sown wheat – unless the early-sown plant population drops below a threshold of 15 plants/m2, in which case we are now prepared to re-sow,” Andrew says.
“However, the latest findings from the 2013 trials suggest the threshold may be even lower than 15 plants/m2 because yields from just 7 plants/m2 sown in May were equivalent to 80 plants/m2 sown in June.”
Trials examining the profitability of canola as a sequencing option also spurred the Earles to eliminate oilseeds from their 2012 cropping program.
They found that gross margins for the six canola varieties tested ranged from just $13/ha to $48/ha, prompting the family to replace canola with chickpeas.
In contrast with canola, Andrew says their chickpeas have the potential to return a gross margin between $400/ha and $600/ha. However, moisture stress and frost meant the family’s 2013 chickpeas returned about $50/ha.
On the other hand, Tom Greentree, who farms with his parents Neil and Pauline, has drawn alternative tactics from the research on his family’s 12,140ha property, ‘Quisisana’, about 40km south of Mungindi.
Tom says on-farm trials by DAFF and the Mungindi Cropping Group that examined the profitability of different wheat seeding times have led them to start sowing the crop in late April instead of early May.
In 2012 and 2013 this new approach saw the Greentrees increase their yields from a range of wheat cultivars from 0.3t/ha to 0.7t/ha, lifting gross returns up to $120/ha, he says.
Trials to determine optimum row spacings in wheat have also provided a catalyst for the family to make the switch to planting the crop on rows that are 40 centimetres apart.
He says the transition, which involved modifying two of their three planters previously set to sow wheat on 30cm and 50cm row spacings, was spurred by two main benefits highlighted in the research. These include improved stubble flow through the planter tynes, resulting in reduced machinery wear, maintenance costs and downtime at seeding.
Another advantage of the shift to 40cm row spacings is that it provides a mid-range planting density suited to wet and dry conditions as part of a strategy to help manage seasonal risk, Tom says.
A second prong of this risk management strategy has seen the Greentrees reduce their wheat seeding rate from 30 kilograms/ha to 20kg/ha in dry seasonal conditions based on the trial findings.
Conversely to the different interpretations of on-farm trial data demonstrated by Andrew and Tom, the two growers have made similar adjustments to their mix of wheat varieties in response to National Variety Trials (NVT) findings in the Mungindi district.
Both the Earle and Greentree families have moved to phase out older wheat cultivars after NVT data from 2011 and 2012 showed a decline in their performance.
Andrew has opted to exchange Baxter with Suntop, adding to the LongReach Spitfire, EGA Gregory, Sunzell and Echidna varieties grown on their property. Tom has replaced the older wheat varieties, Sunbri, Sunco and Strzlecki with the new varieties Suntop, Sunzell and Sunguard.
However, the latest NVT data from 2013 has shown some older cultivars, such as Baxter, performed better than new varieties, such as Suntop, in the dry conditions. This finding has now led Andrew and Tom to consider reinstating older cultivars on their properties to help manage climate variability.
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