Putting SOl to work In the paddock by Bernie Reppel

Julienne and David Brimblecombe: interested in SOl indicators for past 10 years.

The frightening thing about the Southern Oscillation Index (SOl), EI Nino and all that, according to Central Queensland graingrower David Brimblecombe, is that the scientists working in this area of research 'appear to be more often right than wrong'.

Mr Brimblecombe, of Dalkeith, Capella, says he is probably 'warmer'to the possibilities of the SOl research than most of his fellow farmers, having been interested in it for more than 10 years.

That's why, in November of 1991, he took particular notice of predictions from the climatologists that summer rain in Central Queensland would be short and sharp: "buckets of rain which would then cut out".

The prediction was spot-on: 107 mm on Dalkeith in January 1991, 193 mm in February, 3 mm in March and 5.2 mm in April, prompting Mr Brimblecombe - not wanting to drag out the planting - to follow sorghum sowing in January with sunflowers in February.

"In 1997, believing we were only going to get one chance, we zero-tilled Janz wheat in mid-April, on limited subsoil moisture from Cyclone Justin in March," Mr Brimblecombe said.

"Cunningham and Janz are our main varieties, but we went for Janz this season because it is a quicker variety and seems to stand better in dry conditions.

"In mid-May we received a 38 mm fall which gave the wheat secondary roots. There has been no useful rain since."

Despite some of the crop being 'a bit thin', Mr Brimblecombe is happy with a crop that toward the end of August looked like yielding 1.15-1.35 t/ha.

Hedging In a drought

Relying on advice from Toowoomba trader Farmarco, Mr Brimblecombe has sold some of his crop fixed price/fixed tonnage and also hedged with futures.

Mr Brimblecombe is one of four Queensland and NSW graingrowers collaborating in a joint GRDC and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) project to evaluate the role of seasonal climate forecasting in tactical management of cropping systems in north-east Australia.

Managed by the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation (LWRRDC), the project also brings together a team of climate scientists, agronomists, farm advisers, grain merchants and an economist, allied by Agricultural Production Systems Research Unit (APSRU) climatologist Roger Stone.

Climate advice to reduce Cost

Mr Brimblecombe said he had been taking climate advice from Dr Stone for a number of years, because Central Queensland was particularly susceptible to SOI influences and was "predictable only in its unpredictability. You have to take an opportunistic approach to grain growing in this region," he said.

"This year, for instance, taking the SOl into account and knowing - from deep coring - that our soil nitrogen was not too bad, we decided to reduce our risk by not spending on fertiliser.

"I am going to be really interested when the seasons turn around, because it is only in two years out of 10 that we make our real money in Central Queensland. If the SOl is good we can whack on the fertiliser and know we are not going to lose money."

Toowoomba consultant Peter Ridge, who is responsible for the 'whole-farm end' of the project, agrees that the SOI research will show its true value in good, rather than bad, years.

"In a poor season, there aren't many options. You have little chance to change things and, at best, you may still get to put a crop in," Mr Ridge said.

"The real scope to make money will come when we predict what it is possible to do in a better-than-average season - pump in more nitrogen or plant an opportunity crop."

Two of the other growers collaborating in the three-year project - Jeff Bidstrup, of Warra, and Philip Best, manager of Wyobie, at Jimbour - farm on Queensland's Darling Downs; the other is James Clark, of North Star.

Subprogram 3.7.1 Contact: Peter Ridge 076 39 4422

Region North