Tasmanian growers walk the talkWet winter sparks Plan B for barley

Positive outlook: Guy McKibben"s farm View Bank at Evandale in northern Tasmania, under triticale and oats.

Average min and max temperatures: 6°C, 20°C
Average yearly rainfall: 600-650mm
Soil types: clay loam, sandy loam and black clay
Farm types: Predominantly a mixed farming area with a substantial component of cropping and some grazing
Dominant crops: wheat, poppies and canning peas.

By Wendy Pyper

Guy McKibben"s 60-hectare property, "View Bank", is aptly named. Situated near the historic town of Evandale, just south of Launceston in Tasmania"s north, the "multi-purpose" farm boasts verdant slopes of oats and triticale that stretch towards a view of Ben Lomond"s snow-capped plateau and downhill ski fields.

Photo: Guy McKibben"s farm View Bank at Evandale in northern Tasmania, under triticale and oats.

A stone"s throw away is Charlie Watson"s property, its paddocks bare in preparation for planting. And just around the corner is Stuart Hogarth, racing the clock to get a barley crop in.

The trio are part of the 25-strong Nile TOPCROP group, which last year won the GRDC"s $4000 Tasmanian grain grower group award. The group is diverse in its age-range (30-65), experience and enterprise. But all members grow wheat; some on a broadacre scale, while others, like Guy, include it in smaller multi-purpose operations.

Encouraged to join by Peter Lindsay, one of the group"s early members and a field officer with Tasmanian Alkaloids, Guy, Charlie and Stuart say being part of the group has many advantages.

"Before these sorts of groups were around we"d often just follow what our fathers or our neighbours did when making decisions," Charlie says. "Sometimes we"d do things because that"s the way it had always been done and we knew it worked - even if we didn"t know why. But now we have a way to find out why things work or don"t work and we"re more confident about experimenting with new practices or techniques, individually and as a group."

This new-found source of information and confidence comes via a series of "paddock walks-and-talks", organised and facilitated by TOPCROP development officer Susan Alexander. These walks-and-talks capitalise on the knowledge and experience of the Nile group members and outside expertise from agronomists and research groups, and focus on topics suggested by the growers.

"The main aim of the TOPCROP group is to get agribusiness and farmers from the region together to exchange knowledge," Susan Alexander says.

"If the group decides they want to know more about nitrogen, for example, I find people who can deliver a paddock walk-and-talk on this.

We"ll go to a couple of farms, the guest speaker or speakers will talk about the topic and then it"s open to questions.

"Sometimes there are conflicting views between speakers on the type of fertiliser, and the rates and timing of application, for example. But my job is to facilitate the flow of information.

Then it"s up to individuals how they want to use the information. The most important thing is that they are aware of the options."

According to Stuart, one of the main benefits of the paddock walks-and-talks is that they open up new learning opportunities. Many of the growers do not realise how much they know, or do not place much importance on their own knowledge.

But by getting people together in a small group out in the paddock and later, over a beer, they are more inclined to talk and divulge useful information.

"As individuals we may not say much, but as a group, ideas get tossed around and discussed. This stimulates new ideas or encourages others to speak up and you can build your knowledge on what others say and do," Stuart says. "We don"t keep any secrets and the information we share can also be useful to the agribusiness or research experts."

Guy says paddock walks-and-talks are invaluable for seeing exactly what is going right or wrong with a crop and what other people have to work with. For example, some members of the group experimented with direct drilling last season.

"We had 200 millimetres of rain in June when we usually get 50-60mm and the crops that were direct drilled became waterlogged," he says.

"Now we"ve seen what can happen, we know to be aware of the pitfalls of the practice in certain soil types. Some in the group have very heavy soils, so this method won"t be suitable for them."

The value of paddock walks-and-talks was demonstrated when a winter wheat specialist, Bob Freebairn, of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, overturned a long-held belief in the group. Peter says the Nile group usually sows winter wheat after Easter, when the temperature and soil moisture content are most favourable.

But Bob illustrated that wheat could be sown as early as February, and if managed correctly, could be grazed and still produce the same grain yield.

"Wheat needs 10 to 12 weeks of cool weather to establish its roots, and rain within six to seven weeks of sowing," Peter explains. "We"ve never tried to sow any earlier than Easter … because we were worried the sub-surface moisture would be too low and the seed is too expensive to risk."

However, Bob (whose visit was sponsored by the GRDC), convinced them that the soil conditions in the Nile would be suitable in February, giving them a two-month head start on growth and a greater potential yield.

"If we sow the wheat earlier, we can use it as fodder over winter as well," Peter says. "And now that lamb prices have increased, farmers running mixed enterprises could free up some of the paddocks usually used for sheep, and sow an early wheat crop instead."

As a result of this discussion a few members of the group are keen to trial the new sowing regime next year - a scenario they may never have considered before joining the group.

"We need guidance to trial new, innovative techniques and the Nile TOPCROP group gives us that," Peter says. "Our progress would be slower as individuals, as we"d probably just watch what our neighbour did. But in this group, we get to see and learn a broad range of things and develop the confidence to try new things."

For more information: Susan Alexander, 03 6233 3192, susan.alexander@dpiwe.tas.gov.au
GRDC Research Code: DAT00002, program 6

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Improving their technique: Nile grower group members Mark Pearton, Charlie Watson, Stuart Hogarth, Jim Taylor, Guy McKibben and Peter Lindsay

Photo: Improving their technique: Nile grower group members Mark Pearton, Charlie Watson, Stuart Hogarth, Jim Taylor, Guy McKibben and Peter Lindsay.

An unusually wet Tasmanian winter thwarted the Nile TOPCROP group"s ambitions to trial a range of new and commercial winter wheats … but not for long.

Since winning the GRDC"s $4000 Tasmanian graingrower group award last year, the innovative and enthusiastic 25-member group has embarked on Plan B - a barley trial.

"With the money we received from the GRDC, we wanted to conduct a range of carefully considered trial scenarios on all the commercial and up-coming wheat varieties we could find," Nile group member Peter Lindsay says. "The wet winter meant we couldn"t sow winter wheat, and we couldn"t find any good spring wheat varieties. So we"ve opted for barley."

Peter says the barley trial may not prove as informative as a wheat trial - given that wheat is the predominant crop in the region, after poppies - but it will provide a discussion point and allow the group to improve their trial technique.

"We also want to achieve a balance in our cereal-growing that gives the best return, and we might find that some barley varieties return as much as wheat, without locking up the ground for extended periods," he says.

If climatic conditions allow, the group will use the knowledge and skills gained from the barley trial to conduct a large-scale wheat trial next winter.

"The soil types in this region change within paddocks - in one part of the paddock you might get shallow topsoil on a clay base, while in others you might find rocky, heavy, black cracking clay," Peter says. "Our 2002 trials were unreplicated, so we didn"t compare performance across all soil types in the region.

"This time - using barley initially - we want to do replicate trials in different parts of the paddock, to determine the effect of changing soil types.

"All farmers in the group will be involved in inspecting plots, scoring and harvesting the crop and weighing each plot so that we can work out gross margins. When we find differences, we"ll analyse the reason, or bring in an expert to help us determine why the plant grows differently in different areas."

Down the track, the group aims to look at a range of variables that could reduce yield, such as fertiliser regimes, disease and insects.

They will also look at whether limited grazing of some of the newer wheat varieties improves crop yield, and the effect of different chemical control strategies.

"We"re also interested in looking at growing conditions for other cash crops, such as pulses and peas," Peter says.

He believes this commercial size grower-group controlled style of crop trialling is a natural progression from the intensive trials run by Southern Farming Systems.

"It"s really beneficial to have the opportunity to see how these varieties perform in our group"s local conditions," he says.

GRDC Research Code: DAT 00002, program 6