Northern red soil: 'new' farmer's trial and error

Jim Dixon’s ‘retirement'from the fast lane has him working harder than ever but enjoying it more, unravelling the challenges of the red soils of NSW.

Most executive fugitives from the stress of big business life follow the Sea Change-Pearl Bay route to a place of much water and benign climate.

Not Jim Dixon, who’d “had a gutful of corporate life” when he walked away from his job as company secretary and general manager of the Hooker pastoral division. He moved with wife, Rosemary, to 3,000 hectares, predominantly red soil, called ‘Gilgi’, next door to her parents’ property outside Coonamble, NSW.

Nearly a decade down the track, Mr Dixon says farming on the red soils of the NSW central west offers plenty of challenges and problems for which there are no simple answers. He’d like to see more research on red soils.

He’s a member of the advisory committee for the GRDC’s Western Farming Systems site at Coonamble. While he finds some of the research results from there valuable, others don’t apply to red soils.

Marginal cropping country

“This is very marginal cropping country,” he says. “You can’t use ordinary probes to monitor water-storage capacity in our soils, for instance. Even when you know they are full of water, it is hard to get the probe down.

“Then, after a good fall of rain, you have a maximum two to three days to get your spraying done. After that dust becomes a huge problem.

“When it comes to marketing, even when a crop looks promising, it is too risky to forward sell. I lack the confidence to say I will get even a third of a crop, because so often I have seen crops look good and then fall over.”

While there is plenty of information around, theory doesn’t always succeed in practice. ‘Gilgi’ has a wide variation of soils in its 1,250 hectares of cultivation, running from “some” heavy country through to lighter sandy ridges. Property layout at ‘Gilgi’ bore no relation to soil type when the Dixons took over, with up to half a dozen soil types in one paddock.

One of the first things the family did was to undersow wheat and barley with lucerne, only to find that — on their red soils — it didn’t deliver the N benefits the nitrogen budgeting workshops promised. And there were the inevitable bloat losses in cattle and failure to make the expected weight gains.

Canola: great rotation hut few $$

The Dixons have tried the glamour crop, canola, twice, with good establishment, and both crops doing extremely well up to the end of August, when the hot, dry westerlies began, right at flowering time for the canola.

“In 1998, our canola had 38.5-39 per cent oil content, and in 1999 36.5-37.5 per cent,” Mr Dixon says. “We were locked in at $293/t Newcastle, and took a pasting with the low oil content, ending up with $267/t.

“My view for the moment is that canola is a wonderful rotation crop that has not made me any money. If we were established we could handle that, but not now.

“Plant breeding will have to overcome that dry finish problem. We have to have a canola — or maybe a mustard — that is more dry-tolerant.”

Lupins, chickpeas another story

Mr Dixon’s rotation experience on ‘Gilgi’ has also had its bright spots. Albus lupins, for example, have thrived on most of his soil types over three years, and delivered enormous benefits in terms of soil N, disease break and opening up hardsetting soils. Despite that, he didn’t plant lupins in 2000 — after being warned of crop oversupply and poor market prospects.

Chickpeas have amazed Mr Dixon with their drought tolerance but, after trying them on different row spacings and grappling with weed and disease problems, he says there’s still a lot to learn about the crop.

Mr Dixon is convinced the answer for his country lies in more choices of rotation crops, including grass and legume combinations, that will provide a good disease break and guarantee quality in following cereal crops.

Contact: Mr Jim Dixon 02 6822 8346