Multiple tactics to use every drop

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Photo of Evan Lord
DB Group general manager agriculture Evan Lord, Mirrool, NSW, in a crop of 43Y23 canola windrowed in early November. PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

Careful attention to moisture management softened the impact of 2018’s dry seasonal conditions on the crops Evan Lord manages near Mirrool, Ariah Park and Merriwagga in southern NSW.

Evan oversees all farming operations within the DB Group, a shared equity business he and his wife Katrina own under a discretionary trust with Matt and Samantha Dart and Richard and Trudie West.

Over the years, the business has been developed to maximise moisture infiltration into the soil when rain does fall and halt evaporation when the weather turns dry.

Evan says timely summer spraying was critical in fortifying the business against last year’s dry.

When 130 millimetres of rain fell in December 2017 after a dry spring, every effort was made to control weeds before they robbed moisture and nutrients from the soil.

“We’re dedicated to keeping all summer weeds off our paddocks to maintain a reserve of stored soil moisture and nutrients,” he says.

“Entering 2018 with a bone-dry soil profile wouldn’t have allowed our crops to develop the strong root systems that enabled them to extract every drop of moisture from the soil.”
The red kandasol (sandy loam) soils across the properties store about 100 to 110mm so the December 2017 rain that did fall was stored and helped the 2018 crops.

Stubble retention

Another critical factor that helped fortify DB Group’s 2018 crops against the dry, Evan says, was the use of zero-tillage disc seeding with full stubble retention.

“Nine times out of 10 you won’t see a yield difference between tynes and discs; however, in one year out of 10, disc seeding allows crops to germinate after 5 to 6mm of rain, whereas crops sown with tynes seem to need more rain to establish,” he says.

“Early establishment meant our crops were better able to tolerate the extremely dry growing season because the roots were able to pull water and nutrients from lower in the soil profile.”

Growing-season rainfall in 2018 was well down on the DB Group’s long-term averages of between 220 and 230mm at Mirrool and 150 to 160mm at Merriwagga.

At Mirrool in 2018, 130mm of growing-season rainfall was recorded and at Merriwagga 82mm. Nonetheless, Evan says the business was fortunate to harvest all the crops, despite lower-than-average rainfall and multiple frosts.

Nutrients and weeds

One decision made during last year’s dry conditions was prioritising crop nutrient needs and trimming expenditure where possible.

As a consequence, post-sowing urea was only applied to canola at slightly reduced rates.

Snapshot

Manager: Evan Lord
Location: Mirrool, Ariah Park and Merriwagga, NSW
Arable land: 8500 hectares
Area cropped: 6000 hectares
Rainfall (annual mean): 450 to 480 millimetres at Mirrool and Ariah Park; 300 to 350mm at Merriwagga
Soil types: red kandasol (sandy loam)
Soil pH: 4.7 to 6 (CaCl2)
Enterprises: 75 per cent cropping; 25 per cent sheep (2800 Dohne ewes and Dorset rams)
Typical crop rotation: canola/cereal/cereal/vetch-oats or lupin brown manure or lucerne/canola

“Our system is designed to build organic nitrogen levels so we can tap into those reserves in a tight year,” Evan says.

“We’ll soil test everything and lift nitrogen inputs this year or grow more pulses to replenish the nutrient supply.”

The dry 2018 conditions also meant in-crop weed management was not as effective as Evan would have liked, but a chaff lining system was used for the first-time at harvest and plans will be put in place to clean up escapes this year.

Flexible sowing

Evan says maintaining a flexible approach to sowing was another factor that enabled the business to weather the dry seasonal conditions.

“If we can’t see a seasonal break coming and it is too late to plant one wheat variety, we’ll plant another,” he says. “The downside is having to clean and store more seed.”

A flexible but disciplined approach to sowing allowed Evan to adapt the 2018 sowing program according to seasonal conditions.

For example, the long-season wheat LongReach LancerA was planted from 15 to 30 April and matured well in mild spring conditions.

Using two disc-seeding rigs, Evan and his team take a sow-by-the-calendar approach starting with canola and long-season wheat before Anzac Day and then moving onto spring and quick-developing wheats in May.

Prices and diversification

Evan says the other factor that softened the blow of the dry was high commodity prices for canola and wheat.

“If you take 2017 and 2018 together, we only had to yield half as much grain in 2018 as we did in 2017 to achieve the same result,” he says.

Owning an agribusiness supplies store in Griffith, NSW, also helped to minimise downside risk.

“When the farm is having a bad year, the agribusiness picks up the slack because people still need to feed sheep, so the farm and the store are designed to offset risk from each other,” Evan says.

More information

Evan Lord, 0438 273 087
evan.lord@dbgroup.com.au