The GRDC ‘Southern Pulse Extension’ project was established to help growers maximise income from pulses. GroundCover spoke to some of the people involved in the project about its outcomes.
Owners: Tarren and Adriana Minhard
Property name: ‘Westfarm’
Location: Cummins, South Australia
Farm size: 730 hectares
Annual average rainfall: 400 to 450 millimetres
Soil types: varies from sand over clay to areas of grey cracking clay, with the majority loam over clay/lime rubble
Cropping program (2021): cereals 50 per cent (Vixen wheat), with RGT Planet barley bulking-up for seed, canola 25 per cent (44Y94), legumes 25 per cent (PBA Hurricane XT lentils, PBA Royal chickpeas).
Typical rotation: canola/cereal/legumes.
After harvesting grain crops in Canada for four years, Tarren Minhard vowed he would never grow lentils. Back at the family farm – ‘Westfarm’ near Cummins on South Australia’s Lower Eyre Peninsula – he has just finished applying his first fungicide to his fourth crop of PBA Hurricane XT lentils.
Tarren says he did not know what a lentil looked like when he landed in Saskatchewan with a Working Holiday Maker visa in his pocket in 2009.
“They said, ‘Oh that’s good, we’ve got 17,000 acres to harvest this year’,” he recalls. “When they were going well, they were fun, but when they laid over due to fungus – obviously they’d missed fungicide timing due to having such a big program with only two sprayers running – it turned into a nightmare. I told them I’m never growing a lentil again.”
Growers in the Cummins area are no strangers to legume crops, with many choosing to regularly produce faba beans during the past 15 to 20 years.
Tarren says his father Peter, who is now semi-retired, and a neighbour grew chickpeas in the early 1990s until Ascochyta blight became too much of a problem. Snails, which contaminate grain samples and clog headers, have also driven some growers out of field peas.
Tarren took over management of the farm in 2015, dropping faba beans out of the rotation after several unprofitable years caused by losses from shattering and low prices.
Cummins Ag Services agronomist Martyn Chandler suggested in 2016 that they have a crack at lentils instead.
“And I was remembering those famous last words and wondering what was going to happen,” Tarren says. “In 2017, I went to lentils, and in 2018 I wanted to get back into chickpeas. This is my third full year in chickpeas and sixth full year of lentils.”
Lentil as anything
Like many Eyre Peninsula growers, Tarren was attracted by the high price lentils were fetching in 2015 and 2016, but he has stayed for the rotational benefits they offer.
The typical rotation of canola/cereal/legume provides a two-year pest and disease break for cereal crops. Tarren says his lentil crops can fix an extra 58 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen and the chickpeas an extra 70kg/ha of nitrogen. Some growers might use this to apply less in-crop nitrogen and save costs during the following season, but he targets top-end yields so the same amount of nitrogen is applied at ‘Westfarm’ – or more if the season is on target to be a good one.
Key to Tarren’s success is the lesson learned from Saskatchewan, which produces most of Canada’s lentils, about the importance of timely fungicide application. That translates to a minimum four-fungicide strategy for lentils with application at pre-canopy closure, pre-flowering, flowering and before podding, and sprays every two to three weeks on chickpeas.
“With the current prices of lentils and chickpeas, I think a fungicide treatment is like cheap insurance. If my average fungicide treatment is $30/ha and it assures me three to four tonnes/ha of lentils – but if I miss one or try to cut costs – that could result in a yield penalty of 250kg/ha at $1075/t – then I have cost myself $268.75/ha of lost income. So it’s a no-brainer for me.”
The fungicide programs are based on carbendazim, procymidone and chlorothalonil, often piggybacking with a herbicide and/or an insecticide to reduce paddock traffic and the cost of application.
The 2020 PBA Hurricane XT lentil crop yielded 4t/ha and the Genesis™ 090 chickpea crop yielded 1.5t/ha, but suffered frost damage while flowering, causing plants to drop flowers and suffer from heat damage when podding, which made them produce ghost pods.
It costs Tarren $750/ha to grow and harvest the lentils, which he sold for $636/t, yielding a gross margin of $1794/ha. The chickpeas cost $740/ha to produce and sold for $900/t with a gross margin of $609/ha.
Not all plain sailing
Tarren admits his experience with legumes has not all been plain sailing. He is aware of only one other grower in the region growing chickpeas and worries about the threat of Aschochyta blight, saying, “I’m not too sure if it’s the right thing to do.”
Then there’s the 70ha patch of lentils that drowned after 150 millimetres of rain in August 2018. Soil mapping showed it had a pH of 5.0 along with sodic subsoils, so Tarren ripped, spaded and applied lime and gypsum.
“The pH was not too bad, but I wanted to lift it to 6.0 to hopefully gain a yield benefit,” he says. “In 2018, that paddock averaged 3.45t/ha of lentils and I lost the 70ha that only did 100kg/ha. If they’d gone 1t/ha on those areas, it would have been a nifty lentil crop.”
Tarren describes the amelioration work as “a disaster” because it raised sodic clay and last year’s barley crop sat in water all season – with bog holes 45 to 50 centimetres deep – after 150mm of rain in May.
“Every time I sprayed that paddock and went over it, I cursed,” he says. “So in 2020 we made a variable-rate gypsum map, and put a heap of gypsum in those areas. It was sown to canola in 2020 and to wheat in 2021, and we’ll probably look at pulses the year after.
“So far it has settled quite well with just a few areas laying water (mainly punched-out wheel tracks). In 2022 we could see lentils over there again.”
Tarren says the Cummins Pulse Check discussion group established in 2017 as part of the GRDC ‘Southern Pulse Extension’ project has provided valuable support.
“I didn’t have chickpeas at the time, and I was just getting into lentils, so it was important,” he says. “We’ve had a pretty good, proactive group and I find it helpful to bounce ideas off the other guys, hearing about their successes and failures, and learning from mistakes.”
As a result of taking part in the discussion group, Tarren implemented several changes, including bumping up the sowing rate for lentils from 40kg/ha to 55 to 60kg/ha on 30.5cm row spacing to increase crop competition against annual ryegrass.
The Cummins area is in a medium-rainfall zone and has a reputation for producing high-yielding crops, but they require high levels of inputs – and ‘Westfarm’ is no different. Average annual rainfall is 400 to 450mm, and it costs Tarren $800 to $850/ha to grow and harvest each wheat crop and up to $800 to $900/ha for canola.
“I need that 3.5t/ha at $250/t to make some money from the wheat,” he says.
I’m also a believer in high risk/high reward.
“Even after growing a legume crop, I’ll still push yield potential, so if that means throwing more urea, I’ll go for it.
“In the past, urea requirements have been 300kg/ha over all cereals and canola but, if the right season comes up, I won’t hold back. I’m willing to add 400 to 450kg/ha as we have done trials and still seen a yield benefit. But there comes a moment that it becomes uneconomical and you need to draw the line.”
He also fitted a CropScan protein meter to his header last harvest and is hoping to use the data from that with yield maps to help improve his nitrogen management program.
The farm has operated on no-till principles since 2000 and Tarren, concerned about soil compaction, is progressively updating machinery to controlled traffic on three-metre wheel spacings.
The Minhards sold their last sheep 20 years ago and removed all internal fences. The layout across the two properties is divided into four paddocks: one each for canola, wheat and pulses, and one that is usually either a cereal or canola, but could also be sown to another legume if prices stay high and urea prices continue to increase.
The 2022 cropping plan could include PBA Hurricane XT lentils, as well as a GM canola variety, Vixen wheat and RGT Planet barley. “I have decided to drop chickpeas, as lentils are far more profitable and easier to grow,” Tarren says.