I can jump (big) puddles

Challenging country: the "melon hole" paddocks of Queensland

Bernie Reppel talks to a young Queenslander who is taking on the challenging "melon hole" country to chance his arm on a future in grains.

Andrew KluckAndrew Kluck (left) says he likes working on his own, and he was getting his wish at the end of August, in the middle of a 600-hectare paddock north-east of the Queensland border town of Goondiwindi.

He was levelling "melon hole" country on the 3300ha Carpandale II property, which the family has bought as a venture into grain crops.

Melon holes are a naturally occurring phenomenon of depressions up to two metres deep surrounded by associated mounds.

They are widespread in the brigalow-belah belt of clay soils in the northern grains region - Queensland and NSW north of the Macquarie River, where after good rains water can cover as much as 75 percent of the country.

Andrew, 24, had left the irrigated, small-cropping Lockyer Valley just west of Brisbane - where his family"s Kluck Farms company grows tomatoes, onions and lucerne - to take up the challenge of developing the grain enterprise.

And also to get away from "so many people".

"I was a fifth-generation farmer at home in the Lockyer Valley, and things were running smoothly on our three farms under my father and his two brothers," Andrew says.

"There wasn"t much likelihood of any neighbouring properties coming up for sale and I wanted to do something different. When I left school at grade 10, I wanted to go laser-levelling."

Today, among the melon holes, he has achieved part of his wish. He is not laser-levelling, but there is an awful lot of levelling to be done.

"Lasering would do a better job than the land planes we are using, but it would be more expensive, and we are not looking for a billiard table finish," he says.

"The aim is just to get the country to the stage where it can be managed without damaging equipment, or a header front." The Klucks initially wanted to partially irrigate any grain farm they bought, but gave the idea away on local advice.

The same advice led to the eventual purchase of semi-developed Carpandale II, after deciding against two fully developed properties in the same area.

The Klucks reasoned that, with time, they could develop Carpandale II and capture the capital improvement. Their new property was already a client of the Goondiwindi-based consultancy Michael Castor and Associates, which advises about 60 farmers in southern Queensland and northern NSW.

Castor"s agronomist Stuart Thorn says that while melon hole country has its share of problems, many of his clients are achieving good results on it. While not the "pick" of country, with appropriate management it allows profitable farming.

"The paddock Andrew has been working, plus probably another 800 hectares, was raked and grassed a long time ago, but when the Klucks bought the property that country had no value other than grazing," Stuart says.

"About half the place was under cultivation when the Klucks bought it in 2001, but the operation needed more scale to be efficient.

"If you can minimise the problems of melon holes, which are not too drastic but which can include poor drainage, high chloride content at depth, acid soils at depth and high EC levels (electrical conductivity as a measure of soil salts), you have soils that grow satisfactory crops.

"They have the advantage that they can hold 130 to 150 millimetres of water, which is being achieved by other clients on melon hole country under the Castor rotational system."

Andrew Kluck, however, has chosen the "keep it simple" approach to begin his grain growing venture - wheat, wheat and long fallow into summer sorghum, three crops in four years but omitting the more complex chickpea, faba bean or cotton that might be options on other soil types and which normally would be advised by Michael Castor and Associates.

As a patch of new country is levelled and worked up, it is included in the system. In August some land was under its second wheat crop and some under its first."With a series of poor winters and little expense on fertiliser, we aren"t looking for high yields straight away," Andrew says.

"At this stage of property development we don"t want to take unnecessary risks and we want to allow sufficient time for the development of new country.

"You can"t expect to break up and level new land and expect it to grow good crops when it will probably take two years to fill the moisture profile."

Andrew says his main focus is to get organic matter into the country, with zero-till and crop rotation to keep the stubble, and to address the more complex issues of varying soil fertility down the track.

For the development stage on Carpandale II, machinery comprises a Case Quad Trak 375 and a Case 285 front-wheel-assist, but the bigger tractor is unlikely to have a place on Carpandale II once the development phase is over.

The Klucks will look for just enough tractor power to match their cropping area. Overall, it is still early days on what will be a steep learning curve for the lad who sees a promising future in cropping.

But even a quiet bloke cannot hold back real enthusiasm: "Actually, just watch out next year," he says, as he surveys his new, flattened piece of melon hole country.

For more information: Andrew Kluck, 0427 140 009

Region North, South, West