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A season of highs and lows

New South Wales grower Stuart McDonald experienced an “awkward” 2021-22 harvest.
Photo: Courtesy Stuart McDonald

New South Wales

Stuart McDonald and Ellen Downes run a mixed-farming enterprise at Canowindra in central-western NSW. They grow wheat, canola, chickpeas and barley and are moving to a more diverse system with lupins, oats and multi-species forage crops. They have self-replacing Merino ewes and a small herd of stud Illawarra dairy cows, which are Ellen’s family heritage from Jamberoo. 

Conditions have been very good for livestock; crops were a hard slog. We didn’t need 210 millimetres of rain in November. It pushed everything back. We were in a holding pattern until the weather gave us a break. It’s been awkward harvesting – waiting until crops were dry but needing to get them off before quality was gone.

Canola windrowing was delayed because we couldn’t get machines onto the paddock without getting bogged. Harvest started early December and test weights were encouragingly good.

Wheat yields looked pretty good, but quality was downgraded. Early varieties including RockStar were shot and will be feed grade, but others (LRPB KittyHawk ) and some later varieties held on and looked better.

Chickpeas performed well – especially CBA Captain which looked double the PBA HatTrick crop – but in one of our wetter years it was not great to grow a desert plant.

We had a bad escape of black oats and ryegrass because chemistry broke down in the prolonged wet and we were too late with our herbicide. If I had my time again, I would have applied it earlier by air. Chickpeas aren’t doing their job as a break crop when they’re so filthy and are probably not fixing much nitrogen either because they’re feeding weeds.

With fertiliser prices through the roof, people are planning to grow more pulses, but if it’s still wet for planting in April/May, I’ll be tempted to rein them in. We might focus on crops (canola and wheat) that are making us money, even though they will cost a bit to get out of the ground.

Early canola and wheat such as DS Bennett with its great grazing and yield potential is an option. It can be a bit of a rust magnet but grazing keeps paddocks firmer for better access. With an over-full profile, there’s great potential for a summer crop like sunflowers, but what we plant will depend on when harvest finishes. Sunflowers are part of our summer forage mix that will soak up water, which has been a constraint this year.

Our farm business management grower group AgEGDE continues to meet regularly (via Zoom). Reporting to the group has helped us keep on top of budgets and on and off-farm issues. The support and advice have been great. It’s been the saving grace.


Matt and Rachel Hinkley run Hinkley Farming at Derrinallum, in a high-rainfall zone in south-western Victoria. They grow canola, wheat, barley, some beans and hay and trade prime lambs over summer. 

This year really reminded us how important it is in the high-rainfall zone to be on the front foot with earthworks. If we didn’t have a good drainage system or our raised beds weren’t working properly, a (wet) year like this could have killed us off.

We had concerns during winter, but a cool, prolonged spring worked in our favour for yield. The ground dried up and the header only bogged twice when we started harvesting canola early December.

AV-Garnet , which we will replace in 2022, yielded 3.6 tonnes per hectare and Roundup® Ready 4t/ha. Oil is 44.5 per cent. We never seem to get the best oil in the district but get good yields, so that’s the trade-off. We escaped frost damage, but canola and bean pods suffered hail damage in some horrible storms.

Our long-season red wheat – Accroc – benefited most from the soft spring, which aided its vernalisation response. It should yield at least 8t/ha.

We harvested beans, barley and white wheat in December and will continue through January with red wheat, finishing with spring barley in February. It also benefited from rainfall and cooler weather. Then when the weather’s dry we’ll get straight into earthworks.

With fertiliser prices so high we’ll apply variable-rate phosphorus in 2022, cross-referencing Precision Agriculture grid soil testing data with yield maps to target specific areas. Even if our overall fertiliser bill is the same, we hope to see a yield and profitability result by allocating it more efficiently.

We forward-sold some grain this year but will store some while closely watching the markets. December prices of $415/t drew a lot of sellers to the market, but when you look at international prices, we feel growers should be getting a better return.

Western Australia

Jim and Kate Heal farm at Three Springs, south of Geraldton. They crop wheat, lupins, barley and canola with 20 per cent of their land used for pasture for 2500 self-replacing Merino ewes. 

Some rain held up harvest, but we’ve been quite lucky compared to over east. It’s probably one of our best years. We’ve got good grain quality and above-average yields. Later-sown wheat (Chief ) suffered from an August/September dry spell and didn’t quite finish off (average 2.7t/ha). It was sown late because we were mouldboarding and spading the paddocks, so it’s a short-term yield loss for a long-term gain.

jim heal

Three Springs, Western Australia, grower Jim Heal has enjoyed one of his best seasons. Photo: Evan Collis

Early sown wheat is probably the best we’ve ever had, despite 60mm of rain during harvest. The header monitor in Ninja (sown 15 April) showed 8.3t/ha in little patches and 7t/ha across spaded yellow sandplain areas. I was amazed. It averaged 5.2t/ha. Scepter , sown four weeks later, averaged 4.6t/ha.

Our six-year wheat average is 2.8t/ha, so the lesson is to get the crop in early – and with good seeding rates to compete with weeds. There weren’t many weeds in earlier crops whose numbers helped prevent germination and establishment.

The barley returned 3.7t/ha – pretty good given that sheep were grazing it until mid-July.

Canola went 2.3t/ha – one of our best yields. GT53 is a tall variety with a lot of regrowth and new pods underneath, so I’m running the header back over it. It could provide a small return and will also help chop up the metre-high stubble so the air seeder can get through it next season.

We threw some lucerne seed in with our lupins in a little trial and, after the lupins were harvested, the paddock was a green lucerne oasis ready for grazing by young lambs. It’s given us two legume crops in a year, providing a double nitrogen fix.

Next year (2022) will be interesting. I’ll have to bite the bullet and buy some expensive urea. We’ll try to lock in a price for some of our grain next year equal to production costs. Or I might grow more lupins, which don’t need urea and will set up the paddocks for cereals.

Our new Three Springs Farm Innovators Network (3FIN) will launch in February. We’ve finalised our constitution and been incorporated, so we’ll have our first session at the local bowling club with guest speakers and a stripper front on display. It’s stinking hot in February, so it’s a good chance to come into an air-conditioned building, share ideas and have some fun.

South Australia

Grant and Jodie and Ben and Sarah Pontifex run Pontifex Farming across three properties: one at Paskeville on the Yorke Peninsula growing wheat, barley, lentils, oaten hay and faba beans, and two on Kangaroo Island (KI) growing broad beans, canola, wheat and barley. 

Conditions were pretty favourable. We didn’t have much spring rain but with a mild finish yields at Paskeville were better than expected. Wheat and barley averaged about 4t/ha; lentils and faba beans about 2t/ha. The Scepter wheat was high-protein and the price excellent, so I’m very happy.

grant pontifexGrant Pontifex during harvest on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.

The cool spring helped grain fill, so crops reached maximum potential for the rain they had.

Everything is designed to use rain as best we can – keeping our soil in good condition with chicken manure, retaining all stubble to reduce evaporation and planting crops early.

Fifty millimetres of rain held up harvest at Paskeville for a week but it didn’t do any damage. We finished mid-December then moved to KI. The soil doesn’t hold much moisture there so late rainfall was good for the LRPB Impala wheat and broad beans that were still growing through December, accessing moisture and putting on pods. With a hard finish they would have been finished in November. We’ll reap them in the new year.

Canola suffered a bit through the wet winter. It’s a bit below average but the price of about $1000 a tonne will certainly make up for lower yields.

There’s a shortage of shipping containers, so we’ve scaled back work through our packing company, Kangaroo Island Pure Grain. We are just doing our own grain – no third parties. Eventually it will sort itself out – there’s just some bottlenecks at the moment.

Rain at harvest affected mungbeans at our new Queensland property (run by Ben and Sarah) but its only one paddock, so any damage is not a huge loss. Cane came off before the rain.

I’m not going to win any awards for the best marketer. I got excited in July when I saw wheat at $350/t, so I forward-sold about half the crop and then the price just kept increasing. But I’m fortunate I’ve got a crop to deliver.


Jake and Felicity Hamilton, along with Jake’s father Scott, run Krui Pastoral Co, west of Condamine in southern Queensland. The main outputs are winter grain crops – wheat, chickpeas, barley and faba beans.

We were cursing a dry growing season finish because we wondered what could have been, but if the crops had been in better shape we would have been harvesting when all the rain came in November. So, while yields were average, at least the early harvest allowed us to get everything off before all the weather.

We had more than 200mm of rain in November. To put that in perspective, there was 125mm for all of 2019. So we were furiously picking up grain off the ground and carting it away whenever we had clear skies.

Faba beans were a real hassle ... The novelty has worn off.

Storage became a problem. We had silos full of chickpeas because nobody for love or money would take them. They just couldn’t get containers and boats. We used all our field bins and chaser bins for wheat and barley, filling them up and loading trucks as they came. Wheat went straight to port, but feedlots didn’t want the barley until close to Christmas.

Wheat was high-protein milling quality, yielding 2.5t/ha with Sunmax and LRPB Reliant performing best. Barley was roughly the same. Chickpeas could have yielded better with more spring rain, but quality was good.

Faba beans were a real hassle. Quality wasn’t great, nobody wanted them, they were hard to harvest and not worth much money, so we’re cancelling them from future plans. The novelty has worn off.

All residuals for 2022 were down by December. Our deep ripping machine built for us by TTQ in Toowoomba is due in early January, so we’ll be ripping in the fertiliser we have on hand – and spreading cow manure.

We’ll continue to level-off melon holes and build contour banks between rainfall over summer. It has a big impact. After all the November rain, I sprayed a paddock that once had some of our worst melon holes, and it was completely dry. Without levelling it would have been an absolute mess.


Leigh and Alana Elphinstone farm with Leigh’s parents Craigie and Jean at Sisters Creek on Tasmania’s north-west coast. They grow wheat, potatoes, poppies, onions and ryegrass pasture for 600 beef cattle and agisted dairy cows. 

This season has reinforced that no two seasons are the same. A wet winter and spring made some of our farming activities more difficult, especially potato production – our number-one enterprise.

The rain delayed the start of planting and disrupted sowing. Some potatoes didn’t go into the ground as well as we’d hoped because of the excess subsoil moisture. When the weather cleared it became quite hectic to get them done before December, when we like to be finished.

We didn’t get much sunshine and heat until about mid-November, when most of the rain also stopped, so we were busy getting irrigation up and running for potatoes, poppies and onions. Our soils dry off quickly on top – so we top up with irrigation so we don’t start pulling from the deep moisture.

We use hard hose irrigators so it’s a bit of a daily job to move them around. It’s labour intensive but we need to be flexible because we rotate our crops and don’t water in a pasture phase. Plus we lease some potato ground, so we need to provide our own pumps. We’ve improved underground mains in our irrigation infrastructure so we’ve got water outlets at every run. More hydrants mean we don’t have to run as many surface pipes.

In December we were also making hay and tube wrapping silage bales for customers. And we started our fungicide program for potatoes and poppies – an application every seven days for potatoes and every 10 days for poppies. There was a bit going on.

The wheat was flowering and got its third and final fungicide. The wet was really good for it. It’s got long heads and plenty of grain – looking like a solid crop of about 10t/ha. We’re about to start carting grain for the pool we’re part of. We’ll harvest wheat after poppies, around February.

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