Bending with seasons

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Photo of Bronwyn and Geoff Hunt
Growers Bronwyn and Geoff Hunt from Normanville, Victoria. PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

Facing seasonal and climatic variability with resilience and adaptability, one Mallee farming couple ‘bend’ their approach to crop management based on increasingly sophisticated seasonal forecasting and soil moisture data in north-west Victoria.

There, in this semi-arid region, Normanville growers Bronwyn and Geoff Hunt sharpen their farm business acumen using seasonal knowledge, tools and information drawn from the past, present and future of their 1484-hectare property.

As such, the Hunts look to lessons learnt from past cropping seasons and paddock history; up-to-date data collected by a deep soil moisture probe and weather station installed on their property; and information from short and long-term seasonal forecasts.

Plus they look to the findings of on-farm soil core sampling and a web-based decision-support tool – Yield Prophet® – that estimates crop yield potential based on predicted rainfall and their soil core test results.

Using this suite of tools, the Hunts say they “lean” rather than “confidently step” towards management tactics to help shield their grains operation from a changing climate and variable seasonal conditions, including shifting and, sometimes harsh, weather patterns.

To this end, they routinely measure seasonal forecast information against on-farm soil moisture and nutrient information as part of an overarching strategy that aims to match crop inputs to growing-season conditions and, ultimately, maximise farm business profitability.

Turning to “reliable sources”, they refer to a subscription-based seasonal forecast commentary, The Break, produced by Agriculture Victoria seasonal risk agronomist Dale Grey. The Break provides a range of seasonal forecast summary newsletters, comparing forecast models and soil moisture data for three to six months. They also rely on deep soil moisture probe data and commentary released by Agriculture Victoria seasonal risk agronomist Dale Boyd, who manages a Victoria-wide network of probes on growers’ properties.

Snapshot

Property: Merriwa Pastoral Company
Owners: Bronwyn and Geoff Hunt; Karen, Bill and John Fenton
Area: 1484 hectares, 1436ha cropping
Location: Normanville, Victoria
Average annual rainfall: 342 millimetres
Soil types: duplex, clay loam over clay
Soil pH: 8 to 8.5
Crops grown: wheat, barley, canola, lentils, oaten hay, field pea hay

The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) is another trusted source for the Hunts, particularly in terms of its local and state seasonal forecasts, Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and Southern Oscillation Index monitoring, Australian weather watch radar and wind forecasts, available via Agriculture Victoria as well.

Tracking their strategy through the southern growing season, the couple say: “If the seasonal outlook for April and May indicates there is a 70 per cent possibility of drier-than-average conditions, we might change our farm management approach at the paddock level.”

However, these seasonal outlook predictions are also carefully considered against the farm backdrop of soil moisture and nutrient availability.

For example, when data from their soil core sampling and deep soil moisture probe shows subsoil moisture is depleted, the Hunts may opt to reduce the farm’s canola cropping area.

But in situations when data shows the soil moisture profile is at least half full, they may decide to increase the farm area planted to this thirsty, deep-rooted oilseed, known to forage for moisture a metre beneath the soil surface.

Soil moisture information is also used to identify their wettest paddocks, on which they sow canola.

Sowing time

In contrast with this seasonally elastic approach to their canola country, the farm area sown to wheat and barley remains fixed because these ‘plastic’ cereals have proven relatively adaptable to variable seasonal conditions.

To help minimise the unpredictable longer-term risk of heat shock later in the growing season, the Hunts now early sow their wheat, lentils and canola in April, instead of May, and their barley in May, instead of June. Such an approach can increase the unpredictable risk of frost damage, but the Hunts see this as less of a risk than heat shock.

“We sow earlier to help minimise losses from heat shock, particularly during the sensitive flowering phase, and to help avoid the effect of hot weather towards the end of the season.

“We can’t avoid both these seasonal challenges, but we can manage risk for them.”

An added benefit of earlier sowing is that it helps to buffer their grains operation from shifting weather patterns in a changing climate – a development reflected in seasonal forecasts, historical rainfall data and their own farm records.

“With climate change, rainfall is moving out of the growing season so we receive more summer rainfall and less spring rainfall now.

“Some late-sown Mallee crops were not harvested as a consequence of the dry conditions in the 2018 growing season.”

The Hunts say their management decisions early in the growing season, especially those at sowing, are mainly informed by soil core sampling. They collect six soil cores from each paddock, at increments of zero to 10 centimetres; 10 to 40cm; 40 to 70cm; and 70cm to one metre in the soil profile.

The test results for these soil cores collected in March, just before April sowing, are then entered into the Yield Prophet® decision-support tool and “reality checked” against measurements from the deep soil moisture probe.

Moisture measurement

Accompanied by a weather station, sensors in the capacitance probe record subsoil moisture from a fixed location on their property at 10cm increments from a depth of 30cm to 1m in the soil profile.

The data, which can be accessed by other growers, is then sent via the mobile phone network to a server for storage, analysis and interpretation using graphing software.

The Hunts prefer their early-season crop management decisions to be guided by known soil moisture parameters because there is a limit to how much they can rely on seasonal forecasts due to the spatial variability of rainfall that fluctuates from farm to farm and district to district.

“For instance, we received 22 millimetres of rain on our farm, while the neighbouring property received just 10mm from the same weather event.

“The BoM’s local weather watch radar and Agriculture Victoria information sources have highlighted, quite dramatically, how patchy the rainfall is in this area.”

Nevertheless, they describe seasonal forecasts as an “important, but approximate guide” that increasingly influences their farm business management decisions as the growing season progresses.

For example, acknowledging moisture and nitrogen as their main yield drivers, they consult seasonal forecasts, in conjunction with Yield Prophet®, soil core testing and probe measurements to help inform their approach to crop nutrition later in the growing season.

To minimise the potential for applied nitrogen losses in a ‘risky production area’, the Hunts generally apply nitrogen fertiliser to cereals as late as possible, just before the end of tillering in late July or early August.

But in the prolonged dry conditions in 2018, they decided not to apply any extra nitrogen to their cropping program – a decision partly based on the outlook for drier-than-average conditions that saw them secure better gross margins from moisture-stressed grain and hay enterprises.

In the 2017 season, by contrast, they applied about 100 kilograms of urea per hectare to cereals to optimise the productivity and profitability of that year’s bumper crops.

The Hunts also closely monitor BoM IOD outlooks because they have found these climate events, typically starting in May or June, have a strong influence on their farm’s growing-season rainfall.

More specifically, a negative IOD phase tends to result in above-average rainfall in winter and spring, which provides a cue for the couple to consider applying more nitrogen just before the end of tillering.

BoM wind forecast maps indicating wind direction and average speed are one more tool the Hunts use to help guide their herbicide, insecticide and fungicide spraying operations.

The availability of Agriculture Victoria’s seasonal forecasting tools and information, previously limited to growers in Victoria, is now being extended to growers across the southern grains region in South Australia and Tasmania as part of a new GRDC-invested research project.

More information

Bronwyn and Geoff Hunt
0428 574 245
gbhunt@bordernet.com.au

Dale Grey
0409 213 335
dale.grey@ecodev.vic.gov.au

Dale Boyd
0417 339 804
dale.boyd@ecodev.vic.gov.au