Owners: the Price family
Manager: Frank Archer
Farm location: Cressy, Tasmania
Total farm area: 1600 hectares
Pastured area: 350ha
Cropped area: 1250ha
Annual rainfall: 590 millimetres (long-term mean); 572.4mm (2021); 426mm (January to October 2022)
Soil types: sand, silty loam sodosol, clay, heavy black soil
Soil pH (calcium chloride) range: 5 to 6
Enterprises: cropping, 2000 sheep, 300 dairy heifers, 550 dry dairy cows
Crops: Accroc wheat, RGT Planet barley, Hyola® 970CL canola, green peas, poppies, potatoes, hemp
Typical crop sequence: green peas/wheat/poppies or potatoes/canola/wheat
Frank Archer is coy about growing one of Australia’s highest-yielding wheat crops on behalf of the Scotland-based Price family, which owns a 1600-hectare mixed farm east of Cressy in northern Tasmania.
The 36-year-old farm manager, who grew more than 13.3 tonnes of wheat per hectare across a 50.2ha paddock in 2021, was surprised the crop earned first place in GRDC’s 2021 Hyper Yielding Crops (HYC) awards.
He modestly attributes the outcome to favourable conditions. “It was just a great season,” Frank says. “Our management did not vary dramatically from previous seasons.”
After growing 12t/ha wheat crops in 2019 and 2020, Frank joined a GRDC HYC innovation group facilitated in Tasmania by Southern Farming Systems (SFS) in early 2021. He wanted to learn what other growers did to grow high-yielding and cost-efficient crops.
Subsequently, former SFS project officer Naomi Palombi encouraged him to enter a wheat crop into GRDC’s 2021 HYC awards.
The program is part of GRDC’s HYC initiative, led by Field Applied Research (FAR) Australia with assistance from TechCrop Services consultant and GRDC southern regional panel member Jon Midwood.
While the initiative focuses on closing the gap between actual and potential yields of wheat, barley and canola, the awards program and agronomic benchmarking highlight the management that growers use to boost wheat yields.
Frank was drawn to the program because Mr Midwood is considered a crop agronomy ‘guru’ in Tasmania and Frank was keen to hear him talk at local HYC meetings.
So, what agronomy did he use to grow his 13.3t/ha crop?
On 19 April 2021, Frank hired a contractor to plant 100 kilograms/ha of Accroc wheat seed on a 50.2ha paddock previously sown to potatoes.
He says potatoes are typically planted with up to 1t/ha of starter fertiliser and about 400kg/ha of urea is applied during the growing season. Consequently, he estimates plenty of residual nitrogen would have been available for his award-winning crop.
After cultivating the soil with a ridge roller and multi-disc, the contractor used a Horsch single-disc seeder set on 150-millimetre row spacings to sow the wheat into a silty loam sodosol.
The seed was sown with 100kg/ha of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) plus zinc (1.5 per cent). This equated to 20kg/ha of nitrogen, 44kg/ha of phosphorus, 4kg/ha of sulfur and 3kg/ha of zinc.
The HYC agronomy benchmarking report prepared by Mr Midwood notes that Frank’s wheat had access to 18.2kg/ha more phosphorus than the other Tasmanian crops entered into the program.
On 10 August, he applied two litres/ha of zinc and copper (Gripper™ Zn Cu) to improve crop growth with 0.9L/ha of MCPA Ester (MCPA 570 LVE) and a 25g/ha mixture of halauxifen and florasulam (Paradigm® Arylex® active).
Ten days later, he added 75kg/ha of urea and 75kg/ha of ammonium sulfate. This was followed by a further 150kg/ha of urea on 15 September and 100kg/ha of urea on 20 October.
The total nitrogen applied was 185kg/ha. This was 10.8kg/ha more than the other Tasmanian wheat crops entered into the HYC awards.
Frank’s two-spray fungicide strategy comprised 0.8L/ha of azoxystrobin and epoxiconazole (Radial®) at growth stage 31 on 5 September and 0.5L/ha of benzovindiflupyr and propiconazole (Elatus™ Ace) at GS39 on 1 October.
Also applied on 5 September was 1.2L/ha of chlormequat (Errex® 750) and 0.2L/ha of trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus® Evo). He followed this on 1 October with 0.2L/ha of Moddus® Evo.
Plenty of rain was recorded at Cressy in 2021. The growing season rainfall was 384mm. Frank only applied 40mm of irrigation in two 20mm applications on 20 November and 10 December.
“We generally stop watering our wheat midway through December, so the crop has a month to dry and mature,” he says. “We harvested the crop on 4 February 2022.”
When the HYC team calculated the potential yield of Frank’s award paddock, they estimated it would yield 10.59t/ha of grain.
The team uses computer simulation models to estimate yield using data on rainfall (including irrigation), soil water holding capacity, temperature and radiation.
Mr Midwood says this is calculated during the critical period, from about GS39 until flowering at GS61.
When Frank sold the Accroc wheat harvested from the award-winning paddock, weighbridge tickets verified the final yield.
Subsequently, these tickets confirmed that Frank’s Accroc crop had yielded 13.3t/ha, 25 per cent above expected. The grain protein content was 9.5 per cent.
The result earned him the 2021 GRDC HYC awards for the highest yield and the highest percentage of potential yield in Tasmania.
Accordingly, the crop placed first among the 70 HYC entrants across Australia.
In Frank’s benchmarking report, Mr Midwood notes that the award-winning crop was planted into topsoil with a pH (calcium chloride) of 5.1, considered lower than the optimum 5.2 to 7.5.
The topsoil phosphorus was 120 micrograms/kilogram, higher than the critical value of 36mg/kg but lower than the average value of Tasmanian paddocks at 160.5mg/kg entered into the awards.
Topsoil levels of potassium (330mg/kg) and sulfur (17mg/kg), copper (1.7mg/kg), zinc (4mg/kg) and manganese (19mg/kg) were also well above critical values.
The HYC benchmarking report states that Frank’s paddock had an organic carbon level of 2.1 per cent, higher than the critical value of 1.1 per cent.
Regarding input costs, Mr Midwood notes that Frank’s herbicide spend was $21.25/ha, much lower than the $59.58 spent by the top 20 per cent of Tasmanian growers who entered paddocks into the HYC awards.
With just two preventive fungicide sprays, the cost to stave off foliar diseases for Frank’s paddock was $45.10. This was lower than the $146.53 spent by the top 20 per cent of Tasmanian growers.
Frank’s fertiliser nitrogen costs were $382.75/ha, slightly less than what the other top 20 per cent of Tasmanian growers spent at $386.08/ha.
One of the critical lessons Frank says he learned through GRDC’s HYC awards is that timing is critical when applying urea and fungicides.
Nonetheless, he says the right time to apply inputs requires flexibility with changing seasonal conditions.
“In 2022, when we were at a wet and miserable field day, the agronomists there said they wouldn’t be putting urea on, but we already had a helicopter at our farm applying it,” he says.
“We added nitrogen because the crop was yellow. If we can’t apply it with a ground rig, we fly it on because it is such an important nutrient.”
Drainage a challenge
Drainage is one of the biggest constraints on the land under Frank’s care.
“We spend $50,000 to $60,000 on drainage by adding ditches and laser levelling each year,” he says.
“All areas are mapped for elevation, and most cropped paddocks have at least two distinct soil types.”
When irrigating, variable soils can be an issue because water is applied at blanket rates.
“Ideally, in the future, we’d like to shift to variable-rate irrigation to allow low-lying areas to receive less water and sandy banks to receive more,” Frank says.
“In the meantime, small areas that were too expensive to irrigate in the past will be watered if warranted.”
Frank entered another wheat paddock into the 2022 GRDC HYC awards. It is a dryland paddock of Accroc wheat.
His management and inputs were the same as those used for his 2021 award-winning crop.
He says Septoria tritici blotch was a bigger challenge in the wet 2022 season, with the constant wet weather making the application of a third fungicide spray impossible.
While Frank says grain yields can always be pushed harder, the risk is high. “We could come unstuck as we did in 2022 with flooding, and it just depends on how much risk you want to face,” he says.
He plans to tweak the business to run more sheep and fewer cattle in the future.
“Our grain cropping enterprise will stay about the same, but the paddocks under high risk from waterlogging and flooding will return to permanent pasture,” he says.
“The reward for our effort in growing high-yielding grain crops inspires me to keep going, even when seasonal conditions and the work set before us can sometimes feel challenging.”
More information: Frank Archer, email@example.com