Profitable break crops strengthening low-rainfall zones

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Man in a ploughed paddock

Low-rainfall Mallee growers have had few profitable break crop options, but trials are showing that high-value pulses can be grown profitably even with in-season rainfall as low as 130 millimetres.

Low-rainfall grain growers looking for break crop options will be heartened by northern Mallee results that suggest high-value pulse crops can be a profitable inclusion in crop rotations.

Mallee Sustainable Farming (MSF) is part of a South Australian Grain Industry Trust (SAGIT) trial testing the viability of pulses as profitable break crops in traditionally intensive cereal cropping areas such as the SA and northern Victorian Mallee.

MSF agronomist Michael Moodie says the signs so far are that high-value pulses will become a welcome option in the rotation in low-rainfall zones (LRZs) such as the Mallee.

“As recently as four or five years ago few northern Mallee growers had experience with high-value pulses, such as chickpeas and lentils,” Mr Moodie says.

“This is changing now that there have been trials and growers are seeing some success.”

The current work builds on the GRDC-funded Low Rainfall Crop Sequencing project, which explored ways growers who are reliant on cereals could profitably introduce break crops. After early work showed success on soil types suitable for pulses, the project is exploring pulse production and profit on a wider range of soils.

Mr Moodie says pulses were being put to the test in northern Victoria and the SA Mallee, which have similar average annual rainfalls (about 260 millimetres) and average growing-season rainfall (GSR) of about 170mm.

Gross margin data for 2013–15 from the Millewa area provide early evidence to support Mr Moodie’s optimism.

“GSR for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was 130, 132 and 145mm respectively. This means the pulses have been tested in three successive seasons of below-average GSR, although there was reasonable subsoil moisture during that time,” he says.

“However, last season between mid-August and mid-October there were four days of temperature-tag measurements of 0°C or less measured at 50 centimetres (which is around canopy height).

“Also in that time, we had 15 days over 30°C and three days were more than 40°C. Last year’s yields were the lowest,” Mr Moodie explains.

The gross margins, including input costs, were calculated using the Rural Solutions SA Farm Gross Margins Guide. The five-year average price is calculated from January 2011 to January 2015 (Rural Solutions SA 2015). Input costs for pulse crops are typically similar, at approximately $230 to $255 per hectare.

As Table 1 shows, lentils had the highest gross margin of $688/ha, followed by kabuli and desi chickpeas. Field peas had the highest yields each year and the second highest gross margin average. Kabuli chickpeas had the biggest gross margin variability, achieving a $510/ha gross margin peak in 2014 when GSR was 132mm.

Mr Moodie says the kabuli chickpea gross margin declined sharply to only $31/ha in 2015 when the GSR rainfall was 145mm, but the season included frost and extreme heat conditions.

“The 2015 growing season was a harsh test. Even if we use the five-year average price – which is far less than the actual 2015 price – lentils came through profitably,” he says.

“Chickpeas are also emerging as a viable option. However, with kabuli chickpeas the grain size is critical to profitability.”

Table 1 Results from the MSF Millewa site, 2013–15
   Yield (t/ha)
Gross margins ($/ha)
Price (5-year average)
High Low
Average High Low Average
323 1.9  1.2 1.5 393 187 273
529 1.5  0.5 1.0 510 31 259
450 1.6  1.6 1.1 452 153 259
628 1.5  1.5 1.2 688 364 526
414 1.4  1.4 0.8 415 76 192
265 1.1  1.1 0.9 125 –3 77
265 0.9  0.9 0.6 62 –65 –3

# Two years of data from 2014 to 2015

Implications for farming systems

Mr Moodie says the northern Mallee trials have implications across the LRZ.

“The findings from the Millewa area are just an example, and are similar to findings across other LRZ sites,” he says. Earlier, the Low Rainfall Crop Sequencing project found that a two-year break phase in the rotation was up to $90/ha/year more profitable than maintaining continuous wheat (Moodie, Wilhelm et al. 2015).

Part of the documented financial gain was attributed to improved nitrogen status and improved yield in subsequent cereal crops.

However, the largest benefit was due to brome grass control and the inclusion of a profitable break crop in the rotation. Profitable lentils widen northern Mallee options

Six years ago, several predominantly cereal growers in Victoria’s north-eastern Mallee were seeking ways to address problems with brome grass and soil fertility.

Lentils were among the pulses that the growers chose to trial with the intention of generating profit from much-needed break crops.

The lentil income data from these growers supports the data from the MSF trials, particularly when prices were high in 2015.

For this group of north-eastern Mallee growers, Table 2 confirms that cereals remain the ‘bread and butter’ crops. However, lentils generated the highest income per hectare.

Growers experienced greater yield variability of lentils when compared with field peas, and so are reluctant to be overexposed to them in the rotation.

However, the price premium makes lentils an attractive break crop.

Where soil type allows, these growers have shifted to lentils as the main pulse crop in the rotation, but have limited lentils to no more than 15 per cent of the total cropped area.

When planning for the 2016 season, these north-eastern Mallee growers will assess the seasonal and global price outlook in the knowledge they have lentils as a profitable option when planning their crop mix.

Table 2 Victorian north-eastern Mallee harvest data 2010-14 (five-year average.
Crop Yield
Price Income
(t/ha) ($/t) ($/ha)
2.3 210 480
Barley 2.3 223 510
Canola 0.8 485 390
Lentils 1.4 594 813
Lupins 1.2 303 369
Chickpeas 0.6 511 313
Peas 0.8 306 252


More information:

Michael Moodie,
0448 612 892,


Moodie, M., N. Wilhelm, R. Lawes, P. Telfer and T. McDonald (2015). Two year breaks profitably reduce agronomic constraints in the Northern Victorian Mallee. Mallee Sustainable Farming.
Rural Solutions SA (2016). Farm Gross Margin Guide: A gross margin template for crop and livestock enterprises. Sponsored by SAGIT and  and the GRDC.

2016 Farm Gross Margin Guide


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