Dry finish frustrates a promising season

A dry spring in much of the country has meant a disappointing end to a promising season for many growers. This is part 6 of the Ground Cover series following a group of growers through the 2014 winter cropping season

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Rob and Hanna O’Connor farm at Avoca, 81 kilometres south-east of Launceston in Tasmania’s Fingal Valley. With Rob’s semi-retired parents Frank and Prue they crop wheat, barley, canola, faba beans, poppies, triticale and lucerne hay, and grow canola, clover and ryegrass as seed crops. They have a eucalypt forestry enterprise and run 14,000 Merino and Merino-cross ewes, and 850 Angus cows.

We had a very dry spring and the dryland crops suffered, although the canola was OK because it finished early. The irrigated crops did better because we were able to control the water to them. We held back the nitrogen to the dryland crops this season because of the dry conditions. We finished our fungicide program on cereals in November, then windrowed the canola in late November. Harvesting canola started at Christmas, followed by barley just after Christmas.

We’ll start our wheat harvest in January, and we usually finish around mid-February. It’s tricky in Tassie because we have such a small harvest window. The yields won’t be what they were last year. Canola will be around the same but the cereals will be about 20 per cent down.

Neil and Helen Vallance farm three properties between 6km and 13km north, east and west of Lake Bolac in Victoria’s Western District. With Neil’s brothers Max and Graeme and sisters-in-law Jane and Rachel they crop canola, wheat, barley and oats. They run 3000 Merino ewes, 200 Coopworth ewes and a 500-sow piggery.

We were really knocked around by the dry finish, although we still managed an average of 1.8 to 2 tonnes a hectare for our canola. It wasn’t a disaster; everything grew well but it just didn’t fill as well as we’d hoped at the end. We had about 17 millimetres of rain at the end of November, which helped the wheat a little with grain fill. We suspect our barley got a bit of frost through the year and that may affect screenings. We’ll know more when we finish harvest.

This month – January – we’ll be finishing harvest. We’ll start baling straw for the piggery and spreading effluent onto the cropping paddocks.

Phillip and Cindy Coggan and Phillip’s parents John and Lyn farm 20km north of Westmar on Queensland’s western Darling Downs. They crop wheat, chickpeas, sorghum, oaten hay, and grow barley, maize, navy beans and triticale under centre-pivot irrigation. They grow mungbeans as an opportunity crop, and sorghum and field peas as forage. They run 2000 Charolais-cross cattle, 160 Red Meatmaster steers, 100 White Meatmaster steers and 1700 Dorper ewes.

Harvest finished reasonably well considering how dry it was. We averaged about 1.4t/ha for chickpeas and 2.2t/ha for wheat. We have a lot of livestock work on at the moment because it is so dry. We have filled the feedlot back up. Prices are quite strong for grain-fed cattle, so we only sold about 500t of our wheat and we are keeping the rest for ourselves.

Photo of man in hat

Phillip Coggan on his family's property about 20 kilometres north of Westmar on Queensland's western Darling Downs.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

If we get rain by February we will sow some forage sorghum. I don’t think we’ll do much differently this year, although I plan to grow more feed for the cattle. We’re reasonably satisfied with how things finished up, given there was so little rain.

Joe and Charlotte Della Vedova farm at Condingup, 50km east of Esperance in Western Australia’s mallee. With sons Joey and Troy and daughter-in-law Zoe, they crop canola, wheat, barley and lupins, with sorghum and millet as opportunity crops. They run 10,000 Merino ewes and 500 Angus cows.

It’s been the kind of season I call ‘character building’. After flooding in July, a dry August/early September allowed the crops to recover. It started raining in September – we had about 200mm in a couple of weeks. The canola was flowering in October and was in the box seat to turn a 1.5t/ha crop into a 3t crop, then along came a very hot day – 37°C – that fried the flowers. The plant stress was too much. The crops came through OK but harvest was a pain in the butt. Rainfall events dragged it out.

Photo of man in hat standing in front of a silo

Joe Della Vedova: a "character-building" season.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

After we windrowed the canola we had storms with 90km/hour winds and the rows were blowing up against the fences. Despite hail and rain during harvest, the wheat held onto its milling quality and reached an average yield. In spite of all the challenges, we finished the season on a bit of a high because we’re experimenting with some interesting stuff. We’re trying for a summer legume in the rotation to capitalise on the moisture without interrupting the winter cropping rotation, and we’ve been inoculating with vesicular arbuscular mycorrhiza (VAM). We are trialling the VAM to see if we can extend the wheat root system, which may help the non-wetting soils. I’m trying to use the big wet as a plus rather than saying what a terrible year.

Chris Bunny oversees three properties 10km north of Young in southern New South Wales for Growth Farms Australia. The business crops canola and wheat (grain-only and dual-purpose) and runs 9700 Merino-cross ewes. 

The really dry spring brought the season forward 10 days earlier than normal. We started harvesting canola in mid-November. The results were disappointing although not surprising given the dry finish. Wheat, however, was a pleasant surprise. The yields and quality were good: we had high protein and low screenings.

We planted a few longer-season canolas in 2014 but we’ll probably steer away from them in future, if this kind of spring is going to become the norm. We’ll also be trying to be on the earlier side of the sowing window for all crops. All the earlier-sown crops have performed better than those that were sown later.

Andrew and Lynne Hentschke farm two properties in South Australia, one in Lock on the central Eyre Peninsula, and the other in Blyth in the state’s mid-north. With sons Stuart and Ashley, and daughters-in-law Emma and Maggie, they grow wheat, barley and vetch, and run 1130 Merino-cross ewes.

Our season was about two-and-a-half weeks in advance all year. We had 260mm of growing-season rainfall but it cut out in August. However, there was so much moisture and ideal conditions, so we were fortunate to get out of a hole. When we realised moisture wasn’t coming in for September, we had to backtrack on our estimates to average. We had good yields out of our heavier country but our sands didn’t perform so well.

Grain has been good, although a little lower in protein. This is to be expected because it matured over such a long period. I will definitely use a wetter again next year. We had 85 to 90 per cent germination on those hills. There wasn’t much rust – hygiene was good across the state this year, mainly because of the variety MaceA. This season will give the locals a bit of confidence. There’s been a few years where the margins have been coming back a bit and things have been a little tight. Overall I feel very fortunate.

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Catch more, store more, grow more

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