Double cropping leaves lucerne high and dry

Neil and Bill Fraser in a heavily grazed paddock of lucerne established in July 1999. Trees on the property are in trouble with a rising saline watertable

Quairading farmers Bill and Neil Fraser realised how good lucerne was after a deluge last December and early January dropped 280 mm on their property.

"This crop is fantastic because it has the ability to use excess water. I drove around the farm in my four-wheel drive to assess the situation and got bogged several times, but I was able to drive onto the lucerne without any problems," Bill Fraser said.

The Frasers' 3,700-hectare property is located in the Avon River Basin, a region suffering the effects of salinity, a rising watertable and a decline in native vegetation.

"We believe that if we don't do anything, we are potentially going to lose 400 hectares or more of our land — and the best land — within 20-30 years.

Lucerne under a cover crop

While the Frasers turned to lucerne as a watertable-reduction exercise, they also reckoned the best returns would come if they were able to establish lucerne under a cover crop which would return income in the first year.

"One year we seeded lucerne with 10 kg/ha of oats and the crop yielded between 1.6 and 1.8 t/ha, which was a complete surprise to us," Mr Fraser said.

He said the recommended seeding rate for lucerne was 5 kg/ha. He tried it and there were far too many plants, and because of overcrowding many didn't survive.

"I assumed this was the rate for older-style farm equipment, but we were direct-drilling at the perfect depth and getting an 80 per cent strike rate.

Seeding rate

"We've tried different ratings and found that 1 kg/ha of direct-drilled knife-point seeding gives 30+ plants per square metre, plus 0.5 kg/ha spread over the top is perfect for our situation."

Mr Fraser said he was going to try a couple of paddocks sown to crop with knife points into the lucerne to see what sort of return he could get.

"One of the reasons we are going down this path is because we have a no-till practice. Although this increased the productivity on the heavy flat country, I'm certain it was also increasing the watertable problems simply because the water didn't lie around and evaporate like it used to, it was seeping into the ground.

"The theory is the lucerne will control the water and the crops will give us the return," Mr Fraser said.

This year Mr Fraser is going to double his fully established 500 hectares to 1,000 hectares with the aim of having every hectare not cropped planted to lucerne.

This will enable Mr Fraser and his brother to maintain an intensive cropping program and have enough on-ground feed to produce profitable fat sheep.

"I think we have huge potential to increase our profitability whilst protecting the environment. I have grown lucerne in paddocks that have been affected by salt and reversed the problem. I have also reclaimed some of my better country by establishing lucerne in with the crop," Mr Fraser said.

The Frasers are among farmers undertaking Landcare within the Avon River Basin catchment. Much of their work is addressing the rising watertable and recharge concerns.

Contact: Ms Linda Leonard 08 9690 2000 (Avon Working Group)

Region North, South, West