No.1 PRIORITY: Pastures to feed crops

Pastures and field with trees

Farmers in some parts of the southern grains region value pastures more for what they add to the soil and what they can do for a following crop than for their ability to feed livestock. That was a clear message from the National Annual Pasture Legume Improvement Program workshop held at Wagga recently.

Research to find legumes to fill feed gaps came in at number three on growers' list of priorities. More important was the need to transfer nitrogen to crops and to find species capable of dealing with the emerging environmental problems of soil acidity and rising watertables.

The Wagga workshop, focusing on lowand medium-rainfall acid soils brought together 34 farmers and six scientists from WA, SA, Victoria and southern NSW.

Allen Clarke from Brookton in WA summed up grower response to the workshop by saying, "We often don't know how our research levies are being spent and this approach gives us the chance to set the research agenda."

The priorities set by the growers indicate an increasing pressure to perform. This was summed up by Temora grower Peter Allen when he said, "What we used to get out of the system in four PI five - years we now need to get out in two".

But there is also, as Junee-based grower Bernard Hart noted, "the big trend we're seeing in the move from focusing on production-only issues to include environmental concerns".

Low-rainfall zone

Charlie de Fegely, of 'Quamby', Ararat, in Victoria, put particular emphasis on the need to develop systems to measure the value of pastures. This, "and the need to develop new perennial species capable of providing summer feed", finished as top priorities for the group.

The low-rainfall group talked of the problem of establishing pasture ("well, it never rains does it?"), of dealing with the invasion of weeds and of the high cost of protecting their developing pastures from insect attack. There was real concern in this group about the possibilities of insects, particularly red-legged earth mites, developing resistance to chemical control.

The hope was that researchers might come up with a legume with an inbuilt resistance to insects.

Medium-rainfall wishlist

The two groups representing the medium-rainfall, acid soil areas took different routes. The group led by Allen Clarke focused on what went on above ground. There was a perception that pastures didn't pull their weight, of "farming systems collapsing from the lack of performance by pastures".

Cost was high on the agenda. These growers wanted legumes capable of performing on a shoestring without expensive fertiliser applications, and species capable of performing in short and long rotations.

The other group, led by Neil Smith from Maitland in South Australia, wanted to get things right in the soil. "Build up organic carbon and improve the transfer of nitrogen to the following crop," they insisted. And they wanted -legumes capable of establishment in difficult country, particularly sodic soils.

All groups recognised the value of lucerne, particular for its ability to "mop up subsoil moisture", and they wanted research to develop companion species for lucerne.