Tactics that take the edge off frosts Mallee bite

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Mallee grower and member of the GRDC’s National Frost Initiative steering committee, Tanja Morgan, explains her family’s approach to limiting frost’s financial impact

Portrait of Tanja and Adam Morgan

Tanja and Adam Morgan in a Scope barley crop. Being an imidazoline-tolerant barley it has an ideal fit
for their system for improved problem weed control and high-quality hay.

PHOTO: Sue Knights

Frost is a regular, unwelcome visitor to South Australia’s southern Mallee.

Its unpredictable nature – in terms of timing, duration and damage – compounds the challenges of farming in this region, where terminal drought and poor soil types also add to the production constraints.

However, one farming family has implemented a package of frost-management measures that is taking the edge off the frost bite.

The Morgans – Tanja and husband Adam, along with Adam’s brother Daniel and their parents Pam and David – have developed an effective, flexible farming system that buffers them from the full force of a frost.

A combination of geographical diversity, hay production, clay spreading, variety choice and sowing times is enabling the Morgans to reduce frost’s economic impact.

The Morgans have deliberately spread their farming operation geographically to reduce risk, through land they own and lease at Geranium, Jabuk, Parrakie and Peake, SA.

“And one-third to half of our production is now going into hay,” Tanja adds. “That has been a frost-driven strategy that gives us diversity and income.”

Having opted out of livestock about a decade ago, finding diversity and risk-spread within their grain and hay farming operation has been important for the Morgans.

“We found the compromise between cropping and livestock was too great,” Tanja says. “Having livestock meant we were sowing later than we wanted to and the amount of work involved in running a large hay program and year-round deliveries doesn’t allow time to run livestock. So hay has become a focus and the amount we produce has increased every year.”

Hay business

Over the decades, the Morgans have established valuable relationships with dairy, beef and sheep farmers who seek out their high-quality, weed-free hay.

“We have a good, reliable domestic market through our dairy farmer customers, and we also have strong links with an exporter based at Tailem Bend, SA, so we have two selling avenues,” Tanja says.

Producing round and square bales from oats, barley, wheat, triticale and vetch blends, the Morgans cut and bale all their own product.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to invest in machinery,” Tanja says. “You can’t be relying on contractors when you run a big hay program. You have to be able to go in and cut it as soon as you need to.”

Soils work

The purchase of clay-spreading equipment has been another worthwhile capital investment.

“Most of our soils are gutless, non-wetting sands so we bought a clay spreader and have now treated most of the properties,” Tanja says.

“We’re certainly not getting frost as badly where the clay has been spread. The clay changes the colour of the soil and it improves heat absorption and water-holding capacity. Where there is heat and moisture in the soil, there is less chance of getting frost.”

Clay spreading has enabled the Morgans to increase their arable land.

“We are growing crops where we were previously unable to. We are growing wheat where we could only grow barley and we are able to grow crops of greater value.

“And the clay spreading has allowed us to get our crops in on time. We can sow earlier on less moisture and get better establishment; we are certainly making gains in timeliness of sowing.”

Tanja says the clay spreading paid for itself “quite quickly”.

“It has made a huge difference and we’ve been lucky that we have clay beneath most of our soil types. We have really good pockets of clay where we don’t have to go too deep for delving.”

Rolling is another multi-benefit tool used by the Morgans. “We roll our paddocks to prepare for potential hay production, with the added bonus of increasing the capacity of the soil heat bank, which acts as a defence against frost,” Tanja says.

Adam – a fourth-generation farmer in the southern Mallee – believes frost patterns have not changed over the years but the impact is now far greater.

“Adam believes that because we are cropping more intensively and cropping bigger areas than before, the damage seems far worse,” Tanja says.

“The crops are bigger and more dense, so if we get a frost the chances are the damage will be extensive.

Time of sowing

Tanya says their main frost window is from mid-August to the end of November, leaving little reason to try to avoid frost by sowing later.

Instead, their tactic is to sow early and be prepared to cut the crop if it is frost-affected: “If you sow early, at least you will have something to cut, whereas if you sow late, there will be insufficient bulk for hay.”

Variety choice and selecting the most appropriate sites for sowing crops are also part of the Morgans’ frost toolkit.

Frost research

Tanja is one of six growers from across Australia to have been appointed to the GRDC’s National Frost Initiative (NFI) steering committee, which also comprises consultants and scientists. The growers are playing an influential role in shaping the research direction for the NFI.

Passionate about advancing farming systems in her region, Tanja – who is also a project services consultant – says she is keen to be a voice on the steering committee on behalf of growers in her region.

“Knowledge is power. So if I can feed the challenges we face in our area into the frost research that is being undertaken and in turn help direct some of that research back into our region, then that’s a real positive.

“Frost is such as complex issue, and I knew that, but I didn’t realise just how complex it was until I spoke with the researchers involved.

“We know that an overnight solution to frost won’t happen and that varieties with frost tolerance are a long way off, but I think as an industry we can make really good progress in the area of understanding frost and identification of frost damage.

“When a frost strikes, you have only a week or two to make critical decisions about what to do with a frosted crop. If we can help growers be better informed so they can make those decisions quicker and take the guesswork out of their decision-making, then that would be really helpful.”

Tanja is also keen to see further investment in the breeding of oats with improved suitability to the Mallee’s dry conditions.

“If our growers can make money from cutting oats for hay, then it keeps them profitable enough to be growing crops for grain. But at the moment our growers are losing too much money from frost, so providing them with better production options would help.”

More information:

Tanja Morgan,
0429 395 918

Ground Cover Supplement – Frost

GRDC’s National Frost Initiative video playlist

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GRDC Project Code UA00136, CSP00180, YOU00002, CSP00143, DAW00234, DAW00241, UMU0045, CMA00002, UQ00071, CSE00198, CLT00001

Region South