The ‘rise and rise’ of chickpeas in Queensland’s Central Highlands has growers chasing moisture from summer rain to greater depths than ever to more securely establish this lucrative winter crop.
However, the use of existing planters designed to place sorghum or wheat seeds in topsoil has brought mixed germination results for chickpeas and prompted several growers to look for a planter that can more reliably place seed in subsoil moisture.
A unit some growers have found that suits this need is the product of local innovation, a planter developed by Toowoomba Engineering that draws heavily on practical grower experience.
The company’s director, Andrew Farquharson, says the planter, christened ‘the Ground Breaker’, has also been specifically designed and built to allow growers to undertake a range of tasks with the one machine.
It can place both seed and inputs in the target zone in variable conditions to maximise planting opportunities.
Before he and his brothers, Nick and Scott, bought Toowoomba Engineering in 2010, Andrew was an agronomist and sharefarmer in Queensland’s Central Highlands, where variable seasons and soil types amplified the need for a planter like the Ground Breaker.
“What’s inspiring us is the G x E x M – genetics by environment by management – idea, and the desire to supply both growers and researchers with a planter that can be more than just a piece of ground-engaging gear,” Andrew says.
“We are building our planters so they can also be used to apply liquid fertiliser and carry the electronics that collect crop data to help with future decision-making. We have a lot of changes coming in agriculture and we need to be ready for them.”
Growers Bruce Cook and Matt Werner are among those in their Kilcummin district, north of Clermont, who have invested in the new units, which they believe are benefiting profitability.
For example, last year, Matt knew he had the moisture to plant chickpeas – if he could place the seed at a depth of 20 centimetres or more.
With the Ground Breaker planter unchanged from its 1.5-metre spacings for sorghum, and with vacuum units that allowed seed singulation, Matt sowed the paddock with chickpeas in two passes – first at the 1.5m row spacings and, using GPS guidance, a mid-row planting to create seed rows 75cm apart.
“It allowed me to use the planter’s summer crop configuration to plant a winter crop, and we got a yield of 1.7t/ha,” Matt says.
“If I didn’t have this planter I wouldn’t have got a crop at all because the planter we used previously wouldn’t have been able to get down to the moisture. It would have been lucky to get to a seeding depth of 12cm.”
Matt says the innovative planter, combined with placement accuracy made possible through the vacuum seeding units, has also overcome the problem of uneven germination that had previously hampered the performance of his sorghum crops.
“Using an air seeder, you’d get a number of seeds coming out together, and then it would skip a few. We were getting a germination that wasn’t even, and a crop that couldn’t make the most of soil moisture.”
Matt bought his first Toowoomba Engineering units in 2015 and fitted them with precision boxes to a 12m toolbar on 1.5m rows.
“Now we’ve moved on to a 24m toolbar at 50cm spacings for planting wheat and chickpeas, and 1.5m for summer crops.”
Bruce bought his 24m Ground Breaker in December and has planted 400 hectares of forage sorghum and 1600ha of chickpeas with it to date. It has replaced the family’s old planter, which was based on a modified cultivator.
“It was a spring-tyne machine, and you couldn’t put much pressure on it because the tynes would ride back.”
Bruce says the ability to vary the hydraulic pressure on the new unit from the cab is ideal for the farm’s variable soils.
“In one paddock, we can go from light red soil to heavy black, so the ability to go from 200psi to 600psi to reach that moisture in the heavier country without manually adjusting each row is a big help.”
In recent years, annual rainfall in the Central Highlands has ranged from 300 to 600 millimetres and it sometimes misses the planting window for a summer or a winter crop.
“We used to get most of our summer rain pre-Christmas; now it’s more likely to be February,” Bruce says. However, that change in rainfall is helping to consolidate chickpeas’ position as a winter crop that, unlike wheat, can be planted at depth.
For fear of missing out on a 2016 chickpea crop, Bruce engaged a contractor with a planter that could get down to the subsoil moisture that he could not access with the farm’s unit.
“It was a big cost, but worthwhile because we got a good crop out of it … and it made up our mind that we needed to get our own.
“Our next step is to go to singulation with the vacuum units, and to liquid fertiliser applied at planting.”
Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation research fellow Dr Joe Eyre says Toowoomba Engineering fitted components to a Sync-Row Monosem NG+4 planter, which is used on research stations and in on-farm trials from Moree in New South Wales to Queensland’s Central Highlands.
Dr Eyre says research, by nature, tests new concepts and may therefore require unique equipment.
“Nonetheless, when technologies require testing, on-farm researchers typically need to sow at the same time as the grower to avoid confounding effects of micro-climates, disease loads and vertebrate pests.
“In recent years, and the further west you go from the Great Dividing Range, or in Central Queensland, the opportunities for sowing dryland crops get fewer and fewer without the right equipment.
“There is a strongly positive correlation between the uniformity of the stand and the total yield of a paddock. Growers therefore need to put good-quality seed in the right place at the right time each season to establish a uniform crop canopy.”
Andrew and Scott Farquharson
07 4634 5150