Acting on drought’s hard-learned lessons
Jules and Pep Alvaro have experienced many years of below-average rainfall farming in Western Australia’s eastern wheatbelt, so this year their crop management is making the most of a wet period to drought-proof the business for future years
This time two years ago Western Australia’s eastern wheatbelt was suffering through another decile 2
season, one in a succession of low-rainfall years that was financially crippling farming businesses across the district.
But fast forward to 2016 and growers throughout this region have seen back-to-back above-average years, with this year set to be one of the best they have experienced in more than a decade.
For Merredin growers Jules and Pep Alvaro, the promising early start, followed by linking rains right through the season, could not have come at a better time. After an excellent 2015 season, the first for many years, the couple have had the confidence to invest in soil-amelioration strategies and extra nitrogen, which should set their business up for the longer term.
Jules says the region has had an extremely tough run since 2008, with every second year under a decile 3.
“Then last year we had a really great year because of the rain we received in March and April, but we were anticipating another poor year for 2016. However, that hasn’t been the case, and we received excellent rain right throughout the growing season. Hopefully that bad run has been broken,” Jules says.
The business has now added a fallow regime into the rotation, which should have longer-term benefits, not least of which is the ability to get on top of diseases such as crown rot.
The business is 60 per cent wheat, 15 per cent barley, 10 per cent lupins and 15 per cent fallow, with opportunistic sheep flocks depending on the season.
Jules says the back-to-back higher rainfall years have given the business some breathing space.
“When we first went out on our own six years ago we had high debt levels, so we planted continuous cereals in the early stages to maximise profits, but after doing that for five years, we needed to give the country a rest because weeds and disease issues were beginning to be a problem,” Jules says.
“Because of our hard rotation early in the life of the business we had some crown rot showing. So with last year being such a good season, it has given us an opportunity to put a fallow rotation into the mix to manage disease and to enable us to conserve that moisture from the year before.”
This addition of the fallow is allowing the couple to look beyond the current season to better drought-proof the business in the future.
“It means we can have the soil ready, with good levels of nitrogen already available for the upcoming crop,” she says.
Like many WA growers, a lack of good September rainfall is often the decider between a good and bad year in terms of yield.
While the long-term rainfall average for September is 26 millimetres, last year, despite the above-average rainfall received through most of the growing season, the property received only 5mm in September.
After being stung by this dry-finish pattern over many years, Jules believes the installation of moisture probes on the property in 2014 has paid dividends for the business.
She says in the first year of moisture monitoring, the probes told them to pull back on the nitrogen application, which ended up being a wise business decision.
“In its first year it was very dry and we were able to see that there was nothing left in the bucket towards the end of the season, so we put a stop to any further nitrogen application,” Jules says.
“That year we only received 167mm of effective rainfall, and had we spent more money on nitrogen in an attempt to maximise yields, it would have resulted in a massive loss.
“Comparing that to last year, where we got 275mm of effective rainfall, we could see the difference in the soil, but since we were coming off the drought we were still cautious with our expenditure.”
She says the business is focused on the end profit, not the end yield result, which means being adaptable to the season.
Sometimes in a below-average year, this means minimising losses rather than trying to maximise yields.
The Merredin and Districts Farm Improvement Group has previously run a National Variety Trials trial on the Alvaro farm, which included the use of moisture probes.
The trial, and the use of the moisture probes in that trial, was so successful that next year the business will add another three probes across the property.
“When I look at our rainfall history, we’ve always had good March rain, but not April. So the rainfall doesn’t join up and we get a very staggered start. But this season was different. It kicked off with 47.5mm in March, which allowed for a strong early start, and was backed up by 48.5mm in April, and another 53mm in May.”
The above-average rainfall throughout this season has allowed the business to invest in more nitrogen than in previous years.
“We haven’t been confident to spend much on nitrogen in previous years, being cautious due to the biannual dry years, but this season has giving us the confidence to put nitrogen on the paddocks.
“We’re still sensible with our rates because there could still be a dry finish, and wheat like Magenta can have high screenings from too much nitrogen,” Jules says.
This year is also the first time a fungicide has been applied to large parts of the farm as a preventive measure.
Different wheat varieties have been used to deal with varying soil types across the farm.
Aluminium toxicity is a major problem in the area, so the couple have planted Magenta because of its double aluminium gene.
Cobra, Mace and Yitpi are also matched to different soil types across the property, and the use of such different varieties also minimises the frost risk.
The business is also investing in strategies to improve soils, applying a mix of dolomite and Hi-Cal to acidic paddocks.
“We were finding that the lime was taking too long to take effect so now we are using 2.0t/ha of locally sourced dolomite mixed with 0.5t/ha of Hi-Cal, and this is giving us a quicker result,” Jules says.
“Since we are able to source the dolomite locally, it’s also less of a burden on the business in terms of freight costs.”
Magnesium and potassium, among various other nutrients, are also being added to the soils.
For the first time, the couple has engaged an agronomy consultant to help them tackle the long-term agronomic issues facing the business.
“We wanted to take our agronomy to the next level and there are things we weren’t totally on top of such as fungicide effectiveness and the impact of the aluminium soils.”
Jules says based on the advice given, they have now deep-cored all their aluminium country so they can implement a plan to solve this long-term problem.
They are also now effectively managing their resistant weeds.
Previously, Jules has been the chair of the Agricultural Women Wheatbelt East (AWWE) group and a committee member of the Merredin and Districts Farm Improvement Group. She was also the state sub-coordinator and a member of the Partners in Grain advisory panel.
She believes grower groups are essential for tackling issues relevant to local areas and are invaluable in providing education opportunities to rural businesses, both in agronomy skills and farm business management.
“They bring a lot of local research and problem-solving strategies into the local area, and the farmer-to-farmer learning has been really important for us. We learn best off each other,” she says.
In the eastern wheatbelt, being a woman in agriculture is not unusual. “While I no longer drive the tractors or the headers, I participate in making decisions and managing the books, and hold a key decision-making role in the marketing of our grain and all strategic investment decisions,” she says.
“Women holding this type of role within the farming business is quite common in this region. There are also many women involved in the broader agricultural industry in a professional sense, so I certainly don’t feel isolated.”
Research, development and extension for WA growers is something Jules is passionate about, particularly given the tangible results she has seen from technology such as the moisture probes.
As a member of the GRDC’s Western Panel, Jules is keen to share with other growers what she has learned from the tough lessons she has experienced in the eastern wheatbelt over the past decade.
“I decided to become a panel member because I wanted to stretch my horizons and get my head out of my own area and learn from what others are doing. Also, the eastern wheatbelt, and our business, has a lot to offer other growers because of the way we farm out here – we run low-cost businesses, and we are less rainfall-reliant, and (because of this) perhaps more business focused,” she says.
Jules is keen to see more research into developing heat-tolerant wheats to help growers deal with the dry finishes that seem to now be the norm rather than the exception.
Crops in the eastern wheatbelt are often exposed to hot winds and temperatures in September, which severely restrict final yields.
Jules says already there is some work being done in this space by the Department of Agriculture and Foods, WA, through GRDC-funded trials at the Merredin Managed Environment Facility, particularly in the pre-breeding stage, looking at traits such as longer coleoptiles.
“Hopefully in the future wheat-breeding companies will take up these traits and we can see the end result of that research in our paddocks,” she says.
“This is the type of research, development and extension that is really exciting for those of us in lower-rainfall areas.”
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Read more about Jules Alvaro in the GRDC’s RCSN Kwinana East Business management and farm business profitability booklet.