All eyes on grain quality and prices

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With grain in the bin for most of our growers, they reflect on what they have learned from what was, even by Australian standards, an unusual season climatically. This is the last instalment in the six-part GroundCoverTM 2016-17 grower series following a group of growers from across Australia through the winter cropping season

Photo of Kalannie, WA, grower Bob Nixon

Kalannie, WA, grower Bob Nixon: “in a positive place” despite another reminder of how much frost “sucks”.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Peter Jackson and his wife, Janice, farm three properties with sons Brad and Phil, their wives, Jenna and Ashlee, and grandchildren Kaylah, Riley, Lilly, Jamie, Isaac and Isabelle at Gurley in north-western New South Wales. They crop wheat, canola, barley, linseed and chickpeas.

Harvest started in the third week of October and dragged into December with better-than-expected results. Canola went two tonnes to the hectare and we harvested a small amount of barley for seed, then the wheat (4.5t/ha), linseed (1.7t/ha), oats (3.5t/ha) and finally chickpeas. We weren’t planning to harvest the chickpeas – I had bought back our contract – but there was still some green in the crop in October so we ran the header over it,  harvesting 70t from the 200ha.

This past year has taught me that I’m not in control and mental health issues can arise for farmers when we don’t manage our expectations. We have to learn to bring our expectations down, so we are not distraught when what we planned doesn’t happen. It’s been the most challenging season ever, but I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t change and just do the best I can. So I’ve also been the most relaxed ever.

Alistair and Simone Murdoch farm with son Charlie, and Alistair’s parents, Gordon and Geraldine, at Kooloonong in north-western Victoria. They crop wheat, barley, canola and a variety of pulses, depending on the season and soils. They also run a feedlot for fat lambs over summer and autumn.

Harvest started at the end of the first week of November. The canola was harvested first and we had good yields and oil content, thanks to the cool, soft season finish. Logistically we had a few commodities – canola, lentils and barley – clash in terms of harvest time. They were all ready to go at the same time, but lentils took priority because harvest timing for them is the most critical.

With the extra commodities grown in 2016 we had to prioritise selling and carting. We decided on the pulses going first because of the historically high prices, and because we store a lot of barley. Internationally and domestically there is an abundance of feed grain around and the Australian barley malt market had two to three-fold more than what is required, so prices are low.

This season we’ve employed some new technology that has worked well for us. We always capture yield data, but this year for the first time we used cloud-based software that measured the harvest at the chaser bin stage – before transport and storage. This has allowed us to have an accurate measure of how much grain is being produced by paddock, rather than finding out eight to 12 months later after it’s all sold.

Jock McNeil farms at Paruna, South Australia, with his parents, Ian and Jane, and brother Digby. They crop wheat, barley, rye, vetch, field peas and lupins.

We started harvesting lentils mid-November, followed by barley, peas and vetch, then wheat and rye. The crops looked good. Our plans are to continue trucking grain, managing summer weeds, and burning narrow windrows when permits are available. Our 2017 crop will be much the same as 2016: a 60:40 cereal–break crop split, as our cereal performance relies on break crops.

One thing I have learned this year is that if I get into the situation of dry sowing on non-wetting sands again, I’d lift seeding rates by 25 per cent in those zones, or wait until conditions are favourable. I am happy with how the liquid fertiliser system performed, and now we have a better understanding of logistics and application, I am looking forward to the 2017 crop. I am planning to trial and explore more products, as I believe being able to apply small amounts of early available nutrition evenly in furrow will greatly benefit crops in our soils.

Arthur Gearon and his wife, Nikki, farm with parents Paul and Naureen at Chinchilla, Queensland. They grow wheat, barley, chickpeas, sorghum, cotton, mungbeans and also run 100 head of Angus cattle.

Harvest only started in mid-November – a month later than what has become the norm for this area with modern varieties, but the soft spring had both the chickpeas and wheat holding on. The chickpeas continued to grow into early November, but only in terms of biomass; there were no new pods. It was a shame we couldn’t spray them out, as the existing pods were still too green. The chickpeas, harvested by the third week of November, were a mixed bag, with some above-average-yielding crops and some below.

Overall, harvest went well, with good wheat yields somewhat compensating for poor quality and even poorer markets. The only real issue this time was that it clashed with cotton planting. We were trying to get more cotton in the ground in paddocks that didn’t have enough moisture to plant with the earlier spring breaks.

All in all, 2016 was a challenge. First it was too dry, then we received 125 millimetres in one week and all the disease, insect and weed pressures that were associated with it. I’m looking forward to 2017 though, particularly with solid markets for cotton.

Brothers Will and AG Morrison farm with their father, Ian, at Cressy, Tasmania. They grow wheat, barley, canola, poppies and canning peas and also run 100 Poll Hereford breeders and 5400 Coopworth ewes.

July 2015 to June 2016 was the driest on record, then the first six months of this financial year have been the wettest on record, so we’ve had some challenges. The poppies sown in early October had to be resown because of rain and waterlogging. Sowing of peas was scattered through October, November and December to accommodate harvest logistics.

We continued to apply fungicides to wheat and barley in November. We started the canola harvest between Christmas and New Year, and we’ll be ready to start on barley around 5 January, then the wheat around 15 January. We will average about six to seven t/ha, which is about 30 per cent under what our wheat averaged last year.

Bob Nixon and his wife, Amanda, farm in partnership with brother, Daniel, and his wife, Melanie, brother Matthew, and parents Robert and Helen at Kalannie in the north-eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia. They crop wheat, barley and canola and run Merino sheep.

Canola was the standout in 2016 with our best yields in the 20-plus years we have grown it, due to an early start and kind finish. The conventional triazine-tolerant canola averaged 1.8t/ha and the GM hybrid 43Y23 averaged 2.15t/ha. Canola is the crop that will pay the bills for many in WA this year. ATR Bonito was the standout variety in yield, high oil content and ease of harvest. Barley was around 30 per cent frost affected, but still produced above-average yields with reasonable quality.

After talking about it for several years we finally sold all our Merino ewes, and the lambs will also go in the coming months. We will then be sheep-free after 90 years of running them. We’re not against the idea of trading some in the future but in the meantime we feel it’s more important to have soft, friable soils with cover to aid cropping and dry seeding. Our cropping percentage won’t change, everything not cropped will be chemical fallow and we hope to buy a spot sprayer.

We have no large changes planned this year; the area planted to canola will drop back to normal after the increase in 2016 following the early break. We will continue to be aggressive in liming, ploughing to incorporate lime and deep-ripping if conditions allow. We’ll keep removing fences, banks and problem trees to aid weed hygiene and machinery efficiency, and 60ha of trees will be planted to offset tree clearing.

Kalannie’s a pretty positive place at the moment coming off two good years in a row, something that hasn’t happened in a while. Unfortunately, many in the state have been reminded just how much frost sucks in what was a high-input year. We need to find ways to improve frost management.


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