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Legume cropping helps lift farm business resilience in hot, dry seasons

Pulse trials were the focus of the Southern Pulse Agronomy field day which Tim Rethus hosted on his family's property at Vectis near Horsham, Victoria.
Photo: Clarisa Collis

Lentils, faba beans and vetch conserve soil moisture for mainstay cereals

For Wimmera grower Tim Rethus, pulses are part of a "risk management strategy" that helps improve the resilience of his family's 5000-hectare grains operation near Horsham, Victoria, in hot, dry seasonal and climatic conditions, including drought.

Tim says pulse crops - lentils, faba beans and vetch - planted on up to 45 per cent of their total cropping area spread across three properties at Vectis, Noradjuha and Jung conserve soil moisture for mainstay cereals wheat and barley.

Also helping the Rethuses - Tim, Luke and Geoff - to preserve soil water is the twin benefit of controlled-traffic farming (CTF) on three-metre wheel tracks and zero tillage using a custom-built disc seeding machine.

Early, dry sowing is another seasonal risk management measure they use to encourage early crop development, helping plants to better capitalise on rainfall and compete with weeds which, in turn, increases yields and reduces chemical inputs.

Although early sowing potentially exposes crops to frost damage, Tim says this seasonal risk is generally outweighed by the soil moisture benefit of reduced weed pressure as a consequence of early crop germination, which is equivalent to "gaining an extra rainfall event".

Together, this suite of moisture-conservation tactics underpins a risk management strategy that sees the Rethuses "maximise yields in those critical dry seasons and target high yields in more favourable seasons".

It's a strategy that also sees them secure yields commensurate with average rainfall in below-average-rainfall seasonal conditions.

Reflecting on the dry 2019-20 growing season, Tim says they achieved a "six or seven-decile crop on two or three-decile rainfall". And the drought-resilient combination of pulse cropping, CTF, zero-till and early sowing has helped push their long-term wheat yield target to eight tonnes per hectare.

However, Tim adds that the crop performance lift in hot, dry seasons also stems from the organic nitrogen that pulses fix in the soil for subsequent cereals.

He estimates that the soil moisture and nitrogen which pulses supply to the following cereal can lift yield potential by up to half a tonne per hectare.

Investment in a self-propelled sprayer, matched to their CTF system that is geared to restrict heavy farm machinery operations to permanent wheel tracks, is the latest addition to the family's overall risk management regime.

Tim says that compared with their superseded sprayer with a 37-metre spray boom, the new sprayer has a 49-metre boom that has reduced in-crop wheel traffic by about one per cent, totalling 40ha, ultimately reinforcing their efforts to preserve soil moisture and structure.

More information: Tim Rethus, 0425 791 651,

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