Pushing yields on the Coorong

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The Coorong region at the mouth of the Murray River is famed for the wildlife and low-impact fisheries on its lakes and lagoon – and soon, perhaps, for the high-quality irrigated grain being grown on land gaining a new lease of life after the demise of dairying

Photo of Craig Swan
Craig Swan with the wheat he is growing under irrigation on his property west of Meningie, SA. Craig is hoping to exceed 10t/ha with wheat this year. PHOTO: Alistair Lawson

Despite being relative newcomers to grain production, a South Australian business is pushing yields on irrigated country with hopes of exceeding 10 tonnes per hectare of wheat this year.

Craig and Anthony Swan are directors of Swan Brothers, a business based in the lakeside town of Meningie focusing mainly on fertiliser sales, distribution and spreading.

The business has been operating since Craig and Anthony’s father and grandfather established it in 1955, filling a demand for fertiliser when land was being cleared and growers were looking for a boost to get pastures going.

Craig and Anthony took over the family business, servicing farms of all types – dairy, beef, sheep and broadacre cropping – within a 100-kilometre radius of Meningie.

But years of driving across other people’s paddocks ignited a desire within the Swan brothers to one day buy their own farm.

That opportunity presented itself in 2005 when they bought 580ha north of Meningie at Cooke Plains and established a cattle operation.

Then in 2009 the brothers set about collating a substantial parcel of land west of Meningie on the Narrung Peninsula, an area that is bordered to the west by the world-famous Coorong and to the north and east by Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert.

The Narrung Peninsula has traditionally been associated with dairying but in recent years more and more area has been put to grain production.

Snapshot

Growers: Craig and Anthony Swan
Properties: ‘Sheoak Lodge’, ‘Tarama’
Location: Meningie, South Australia
Farm size: 1640 hectares, 190ha irrigated by centre pivot
Average annual rainfall: 450 millimetres
Soil types: sandy loams
Soil pH: 6.5
Crops grown: wheat, canola, barley
Livestock: 750 Angus breeders

Over a five-year period, the Swans aggregated 1640ha, including 190ha of irrigated country, and they sold the Cooke Plains block.

Alongside their 750 self-replacing Angus breeders, the business initially had a strong focus on lucerne hay production on irrigated ground.

However, as demand for that product dropped, the brothers began thinking of ways they could better utilise the asset of irrigation. With the help of local agronomist Matt Howell from Platinum Ag Services they decided to venture into irrigated grain cropping.

“We were doing quite a lot of summer fodder production under irrigation but with that also comes the higher cost of power and water during the summer months,” Craig says.

“When we bought the properties we did quite a bit of work rebuilding some of the irrigation infrastructure and wanted to see a better return.

“There aren’t too many doing irrigated cropping out on the Narrung Peninsula, but the area probably lends itself to it with a lot of irrigation infrastructure already established from the days when the area was home to a lot of dairies.

“The soils out there are sandy loams, which are quite free-draining and respond well to irrigation, holding on to water without pugging up or waterlogging.”

The climate on the peninsula is also favourable for winter crop production, Craig says. “It doesn’t get as hot or cold out on the farm as it does in town.

“Frosts are rare and summer temperatures are generally lower. This can present challenges at harvest though because the lower temperatures come in early. In the late afternoon you can see the sea mist coming when you are harvesting and at that point the moisture goes up.”

In 2017 they grew spring canola variety Hyola® 575CL, which was sown later than they would have liked but still ended up yielding 3.5t/ha.

In the same season LongReach Trojan wheat under irrigation averaged 8.5t/ha and 11 to 11.5 per cent in protein.

LongReach Trojan was again grown in 2018 under a 90ha pivot irrigator on ‘Tarama’, with winter-type canola Hyola® 970CL produced under two 33ha pivots on neighbouring property ‘Sheoak Lodge’.

Clearfield® barley varieties grown under dryland conditions supplemented irrigated crops – generally between 100 to 150ha annually – on land in the pasture renovation phase.

Soil testing and nutrition

To get the most out of their sandy loam soils, the Swans set about soil testing under their pivots to a depth of 60 centimetres to maximise yields.

Matt says this has helped them to correct potassium deficiency in the soils resulting from long-term pasture production.

“The sands on the property don’t seem to hold sulfur very well in the profile and there is also a slight calcium deficiency, so gypsum has been spread at about 2t/ha before planting canola, which seems to have helped to address those issues,” he says.

The Swans are also undertaking a significant trace elements program, with copper, zinc and manganese applied to both wheat and canola. They are seeing a response to boron on canola, too.

To reach target yields, the crops require a significant investment in fertiliser.

Nitrogen management is a big focus, with 230 kilograms per hectare being applied on canola and 250kg/ha on the wheat.

Phosphorus is applied between 35 to 40kg/ha, half of that spread as a pre-sowing application and the other half going down the tube at seeding.

They also spread about 70kg/ha of potassium in the form of muriate of potash.

“It is a considerable investment in fertiliser, but under irrigation and targeting high yields it does pay off,” Craig says.

“We do four applications of nitrogen throughout the growing season and the last one for wheat goes on at flag leaf emergence so we can target better protein.”

Crop choice

Matt says winter canola has a lot of potential on the irrigated land of the Narrung Peninsula and is a crop that could also potentially work in well with the Swans’ livestock enterprise.

One of the pivots sown to Hyola® 970CL in 2018 was lightly grazed by about 150 cows over three days early in the season, with the crop responding well as a result of the grazing.

They hope to sow the crop earlier this year – ideally February – and graze it twice before locking it up for grain later in the season.

This year will mark just their third season growing broadacre crops under irrigation, but Craig is particularly keen on pushing the system and trying to maximise yields.

“We did have a bit of trouble with lodging last year in some of our wheat,” he says.

“It just got too tall in some patches and fell over, making harvesting difficult. However, we have applied a plant growth regulator this year, which we are hoping will rectify that issue.

“I see wheat having the capacity to produce up to 10t/ha, maybe even more. We are researching different winter wheat options to see if they will have a fit in our environment. We will keep an eye on them, but at the moment we are happy to keep it fairly simple.”

In previous years they have also grown mustard seed as an irrigated winter crop, which came about through a connection Matt Howell had with a local seed business.

Given it is a brassica, that crop was treated much the same as the canola. It averaged 1.5t/ha and after harvest was packed into 25kg bags, containerised and exported to Asia before being repacked into 500-gram bags and purchased by home gardeners to grow and use the leaves in cooking.

Carrot seed may also be an option in the future, Craig says.

“Essentially, the irrigation allows us to extend the season,” he says. “We can get a good start and a good finish without the higher cost of summer watering.”

Matt says the work the Swans have done has caught the attention of other irrigators in the area.

“People are starting to show more interest in irrigated cropping based on what the Swans are doing,” Matt says. “They can see how it might fit into their own system. But the high cost of water remains a barrier to expansion of irrigation.”

More information

Craig Swan
0428 813 209
craig@swanbrothers.com.au

Matt Howell
0458 277 546
mhowell@ruralco.com.au