Wet winter opens the future-proofing cupboard

Image of Julie Alvaro

Merredin grower Jules Alvaro says the wet season has allowed her and her husband Pep to finally make some long-term investments.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

For the first time in many years, growers in the eastern wheatbelt have experienced the perfect combination of early opening rains, post-emergent follow-up rains, and a long, wet winter.

For Merredin, Western Australia, growers Jules and Pep Alvaro, this has meant the luxury of farming for the future, not just for now.

But while 2016 has seen above-average rainfall across the eastern wheatbelt region, many businesses are still feeling the financial strain of several years of low rainfall, and the Alvaros know they will need to keep the budget strong for the next dry spell.

“We’ve seen biannual dry years over the past decade, so unfortunately we’ve had to farm by playing the season every year, and that’s quite common out here because the margins are so tight in these areas,” Jules says.

For the past decade, like many growers in this low-rainfall environment, they have been cautious with every business decision, ensuring they stay within their tight budget parameters.

“This year we have seen above-average rainfall right throughout the growing season, so hopefully the pattern of long-term below-average rainfall years has been broken,” Jules says.

“Coming off the back of a really good year in 2015, we now have the confidence to make some business investment decisions, knowing that it will carry the business for future years.”

The timely rain has given the Alvaros some financial breathing space, and they are now investing in the long-term health of their soils by applying dolomite combined with calcium, and adding nutrients such as magnesium and potassium to their paddocks.

“We were finding that lime was taking too long to take effect, so we have now changed this strategy and are using locally sourced dolomite, combined with calcium, and we are seeing some good early results from this application,” she says.

The Alvaros have introduced a fallow to their rotation, have invested in technology, such as moisture probes, and are applying extra nitrogen to their paddocks, all strategies to drought-proof the business for coming years.

They are also planting different wheat varieties to help manage their variable soil types, diminish the impact of aluminium toxicity in their soils and to reduce their frost risk.

As a GRDC Western Panel member, Jules believes the experiences of growers in the eastern wheatbelt – farming under low-rainfall conditions – could be a valuable learning tool for growers across Australia.

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Region West