Profitability rising on a lentil learning curve

Hamish and Abby Paton are overturning the belief among some that lentils do not grow well in southern New South Wales

Photo of Abby, Indi (with Emily the lamb) and Hamish Paton

For the past three years, Abby, Indi (with Emily the lamb) and Hamish Paton have successfully grown lentils on their property near Morven, in southern New South Wales. Hamish says weed control within lentils remains the biggest challenge in growing the crop.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

Mixed farmers Hamish and Abby Paton are recent converts to lentils after finding that, with the right knowledge, the crop is a pathway to increased profitability and sustainability on their Morven and Urana properties in southern New South Wales.

Convention has it that lentils are not suitable for this region, but the Patons are proving otherwise – the key being the effort they are putting into learning how to grow them well.

Hamish and Abby became interested in trialling lentils three years ago after first considering other pulses, such as lupins and faba beans, in a bid to broaden their rotation from wheat and canola.


Snapshot

Growers: Hamish and Abby Paton
Location: Morven and Urana, New South Wales
Farm size: 1400 hectares
Average growing season rainfall: 660 millimetres (Morven); 457mm (Urana)
Soil types: loam to clay loam (Morven); heavy grey self-mulching clay to hard-setting red soil (Urana)
Enterprises: cropping, hay, cattle, sheep
Soil pH: 5.5 (Morven); 5.5 to 6.0 (Urana)
Crops grown: wheat, canola, barley, lentils 

“I said to Abby: ‘Do you mind if I put in 15 hectares of lentils? I might stuff them up, but I’d like to give them a go’,” Hamish says. “She said: ‘Go for your life.’ So we put in 15ha as a trial.”

Although the lentils were sprayed with fungicide in the first year, Hamish says little attention was paid to weed control beyond the basics. Nonetheless, the 15ha paddock of medium red PBA Ace lentils yielded well, prompting Hamish and Abby to broaden their trial in 2015 to 200ha.

To improve his crop management skills, Hamish attended a GRDC-supported pulse agronomy workshop run by Pulse Australia at Wagga Wagga. He particularly appreciated the comprehensive manual that was given to workshop participants to provide support and information as the season progressed.

While the Patons’ lentil yields remained solid in 2015, Hamish was concerned that the pressure being exerted by weeds was too intense to make the crop sustainable.

Weed control

Last year (2016), the area planted to lentils was expanded to 300ha and the PBA AceA was replaced with the imidazolinone-tolerant variety PBA Hurricane XT to enable Hamish to take advantage of more options for broadleaf weed control.

“We’re happier with the way they performed last year in terms of weed control,” Hamish says. “I have a good relationship with agronomists at Mangoplah and Urana, and also subscribe to agronomic advice from Horsham.”

To establish the lentils, Hamish smashes or burns the previous wheat stubble, applies F70 SuperfineTM lime if needed and incorporates it with a speed tiller to a depth of 100 millimetres to mix it into the root zone.

He is now collaborating in a NSW Department of Primary Industries study, supported by the GRDC, with NSW DPI development officer Helen Burns and senior research scientist Mark Norton. The study is comparing the nodulation and nitrogen fixation of two adjoining lentil crops. One lentil crop had lime applied in 2014 and the other had lime applied in 2016.

Early observations indicate better nodulation and crop vigour in the crop with the 2014 lime treatment. Ms Burns says the result is not surprising as the lime in the paddock treated in 2014 has had time to increase the soil pH.

During spring, the researchers measured rooting depth and tested the soil at 2.5-centimetre intervals to check if low pH in the topsoil (0 to 15cm) had an impact on crop performance.

They are analysing data on nitrogen fixation and production details, and are looking at the economic evidence of the critical role of effective lime application in lifting the yield ceiling of pulses.

To minimise the risk of fertiliser toxicity affecting rhizobia survival and lentil nodulation, Hamish typically spreads the fertiliser before sowing to separate it from the rhizobia on the inoculated seed.

The seed is inoculated with New Edge Microbials (Albury) at twice the label rate to ensure high rhizobia numbers and effective nodulation.

Hamish sows the lentils from about 10 May at 45 to 50 kilograms/ha at a depth of 50 to 70mm.

“We do a post-sowing, pre-emergent chemical application, one in-crop grass spray, at least three fungicide sprays, and one insecticide spray at pod fill to control heliothis,” he says.

Challenges

While progress was made last year, Hamish says weed management remains the biggest hurdle for growing lentils on the family’s farm. 

“Staying on top of weeds has to be the priority and the combination of cutting wheat crops for hay and strategic selection of lentil varieties and herbicides seems to be working for us,” Hamish says.

Currently, he says, there are only two lentil varieties available that are ‘imi-tolerant’.

“It’s a big impediment to the growth of lentil production in Australia that we can’t grab a herbicide label and be told how to clean up weeds like Indian hedge mustard, loosestrife, sour thistle, prickly lettuce and shepherd’s purse in lentils,” Hamish says.

“It would be great to have some of the lentil varieties here in Australia that they have in Canada to broaden our herbicide options.”

In 2015, Hamish initially tried to harvest the lentils conventionally, but moved to windrowing with more success.

When it comes to harvest timing, Hamish prioritises the lentils in his program to minimise the chance for shattering and grain losses.

Paddock selection

Going forward, areas that became waterlogged in 2016 have been earmarked for earthworks to improve drainage.

Hamish says paddock selection for lentils is very important in terms of drainage and to allow timely access to the crops with the boomspray.

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