Changes afoot under the summer sun

Western Region

For most growers in the drier parts of WA"s wheatbelt, the summer months are considered best spent cooling off near the sea, but for a steadily growing number it is now becoming a chance to maximise the farm"s cropping potential by growing another crop.

Pushing the boundaries: Owen Brownley is finding a useful role for sunflowersFor no-till growers like Lake King"s Owen and Terri Brownley, it is a time to experiment, to push no-till/stubble retention concepts further and further by adding new crops like sorghum and sunflowers.

These were almost unheard of in the WA wheatbelt a few years ago, but are showing they might have a profitable role, not only as an extra income source but for weed suppression and the management of soil moisture.

Pushing the boundaries: Owen Brownley is finding a useful role for sunflowers. Photo: Brad Collis

For Mr Brownley, farming seems to have become one ongoing experiment since he first switched to minimum tillage 20 years ago. That change opened the door to a wellspring of ideas and options as the system gradually evolved into complete no-till, stubble retention and controlled traffic.

For beans, and summer crops like sunflowers, Mr Brownley has been trialling wide rows, measuring the effects of increased airflow in the crop to lower humidity and make conditions less favourable for disease. So far, he says the wide rows are showing considerable promise.

While experiments like these can be costly, Mr Brownley says they are paying off. For example, he is finding that a half-rate of diathane fungicide applied every three or four weeks, for four or five applications, can take bean yields close to their maximum potential for the area. This means an increase of up to two tonnes a hectare at $200 or $300 a tonne. That is a $400 to $600 a hectare lift for a cost of about $55 a hectare for the products and application.

The Brownleys now crop through the whole year when seasonal conditions are favourable, with the underlying rationale being the health of the farming landscape; to make sure it remains productive, now and into the future.

Mr Brownley says that for them, moving to no-till, continuous cropping and stubble retention has meant embracing a whole new system; not just "the easy or obvious bits".

He admits there is no shortage of uncertainty with so much trial and error work happening: "You make mistakes and you suffer losses, but provided you stay focused on the long-term net gains that you can see are possible, then you have the confidence to keep pushing," he says.

See full report: The never-ending story

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