Water shortage costs peanuts

Photo of Wayne Weller

Kingaroy peanut growers Malcolm, Wayne and Noel Weller are the first to admit that last season"s lack of rain was unsettling. "We got a couple of showers to limp us over the line, but it really was a disruptive season," Noel says.

What it has meant, however, is that the brothers are even keener on pursuing their goal of irrigating at least part of their peanut crop. While they admit more money can be made through dryland farming, they just can"t be assured of adequate rain.

"Dryland farming is more profitable, but that"s only if you get the seasonal rainfall and we all know that is not guaranteed," Wayne says. "Using irrigation we can at least guarantee a crop and we can also minimise the aflatoxin risk."

The Wellers operate a 600-hectare mixed farming enterprise, in which 300ha are devoted to peanuts. After trialling rotations of cotton, the Wellers decided a rotation of peanuts and maize worked best and now aim to have 80ha of irrigated peanuts.

"Experience has shown us that water is the great leveller," Wayne says. "Drought is the greatest challenge facing the dryland peanut industry, so our strategy is to get 20 per cent of our peanut area under water."

For the past six years, the Wellers have farmed 35ha under irrigation, using water from Joh Bjelke-Petersen dam. The success of this irrigated field has prompted them to test a towable, centre-pivot, low-pressure irrigation system, using bore water, at another of their properties. "The area does not have good underground water, but we were able to find a source at 87 metres." The system has been used to irrigate maize and the results speak for themselves. The crop is almost double the size of the non-irrigated crop.

The brothers employed a geophysical survey specialist, and identified another site with water at 50 metres, from a different aquifer.

After testing with irrigated feed maize, only peanuts will be grown under irrigation because of the water"s cost. Rotational crops will continue to be grown under dryland conditions.

Malcolm Weller says that even though yields are ensured through irrigation, water and fuel costs have to be weighed up against crop values. "In the six years we"ve been using water from the dam, the price of water has doubled. On top of that, diesel, needed to run the pumps, has increased in price. So we need to be sure that irrigation is cost-effective."

This year the brothers sowed only triedand- tested peanut varieties because they knew they could handle the dry conditions. But next season they will consider planting high-oleic varieties: "High-oleics might be a point of difference, although it"s doubtful that more money will be paid for them," says Wayne.

Nonetheless, the Wellers believe that research into new varieties best suited to their land and conditions is important, and that a paddock-to-plate mentality and use of technology will give them a competitive edge.

For more information: wellerbrothers@burcom.com.au

[Photo by Rebecca Thyer: Kingaroy peanut grower Wayne Weller checking on maturity in threshed peanuts.]

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