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Agronomy benchmarks fine-tune crop knowledge

Damien Schneider uses a stripper front to harvest grain on his farm near Culcairn, New South Wales.
Photo: Nicole Baxter

Snapshot

Owners: Damien and Carissa Schneider
Farm location: Culcairn, New South Wales
Area cropped: 1100 hectares
Average annual rainfall: 600 millimetres
Soil types: red loam, light grey clay and granite loam
Topography: hilly
Soil pH range (calcium chloride): 4.5 to 5.5
Enterprises: cropping and trade lambs
Crops: wheat, canola, barley, Albus lupin and faba beans
Typical crop sequence: lupins or long-fallow/canola/wheat/wheat or barley

Knowledge harvested from agronomists and growers across Australia has enabled Damien Schneider to fine-tune his agronomy and lift wheat yields on his farm.

The mixed farmer – who crops 1100 hectares near Culcairn, New South Wales, with his wife Carissa – has hosted on-farm fungicide strip trials for the past two years through the GRDC’s Hyper Yielding Crops (HYC) initiative.

The initiative is a national GRDC investment, led by Field Applied Research (FAR) Australia, which explores how to lift wheat, barley and canola yields in high-rainfall environments with best-practice agronomy.

Hosting GRDC HYC on-farm focus trials has allowed Damien to learn which fungicides are optimal for producing a high-yielding wheat crop.

For example, in 2020, fungicide trials in one of his LRPB Trojan wheat crops, collaborating with Riverine Plains project officer Kate Coffey, showed the benefit of new fungicide products (see Table 1).

Damien’s LRPB Trojan paddock, where the trial was held, was previously sown to canola. Variable-rate lime was applied and mixed into the subsurface in 2020.

Ms Coffey says three fungicide programs were assessed in the 2020 trial. The target yield was six to seven tonnes per hectare.

Table 1: Treatments (mL/ha) and timings for the GRDC Hyper Yielding Crops on-farm strip fungicide trial at Culcairn, NSW, during 2020.

 

Treatment and timing

Growth stage (GS)

Sowing
(GS00)

Tillering
(GS20)

Second node
(GS32)

Booting
(GS39)

Control

Flutriafol (Impact®)
400

Propiconazole and tebuconazole (Cogito™)
125

Nil

Nil

Treatment 1

Flutriafol (Impact®)
400

Propiconazole and tebuconazole (Cogito™)
125

Nil

Azoxystrobin plus epoxiconazole
(Radial®)
840

Treatment 2

Flutriafol (Impact®)
400

Propiconazole and tebuconazole (Cogito™)
125

Prothioconazole and tebuconazole
(Prosaro®)
150

Epoxiconazole (Opus®)
500

Treatment 3

Flutriafol (Impact®)
400

Propiconazole and tebuconazole (Cogito™)
125

Prothioconazole and tebuconazole
(Prosaro®)
150

Azoxystrobin plus epoxiconazole
(Radial®)
840

Source: Riverine Plains Newsletter, February 2021.

“The best-yielding fungicide strategy statistically was Treatment 2, which included propiconazole and tebuconazole (Cogito™) at growth stage (GS) 20, plus prothioconazole and tebuconazole (Prosaro®) at GS32 and epoxiconazole (Opus®) at GS39,” Ms Coffey says.

“Treatment 2 yielded 3.56t/ha higher than the control, producing a positive gross margin response of $800/ha.”

She says the trial (see Table 2) showed the importance of a robust fungicide regime when managing disease-susceptible varieties such as LRPB Trojan .

Table 2: Yield and quality results from the Hyper Yielding Crops on-farm strip fungicide trial at Culcairn, NSW, during 2020.

 

Treatment

 

Control

1

2

3

Yield (t/ha)

4.11d

7.42b

7.67a

7.03c

Protein (%)

12.7

11.9

11.8

12.0

Screenings (%)

4.13

1.92

2.47

2.21

Test weight (kg/hectolitre)

63.8

75.2

75.0

73.4

Note: Where lower-case letters differ, there is a statistically significant difference between treatments (p<0.05).

Source: Riverine Plains Newsletter, February 2021.

Damien says the LRPB Trojan wheat that was given multiple fungicide treatments had “massive flag leaves that almost looked like palm trees”.

Agronomy benchmarking

Another way Damien is harvesting valuable agronomic knowledge from crop consultants and fellow growers is by participating in GRDC’s HYC awards.

While GRDC’s HYC initiative focuses on closing the gap between actual and potential yields of wheat, barley and canola, the awards highlight the management growers use to boost yields through agronomic benchmarking.

A drawcard for Damien’s participation in the awards was a 19-page report comparing his agronomy with the management and inputs used by other wheat growers from across southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria.

LRPB Trojan entry

Damien’s 2020 entry was a 68ha paddock of LRPB Trojan wheat sown into a retained canola stubble.

Before sowing, he treated the seeds with 50mL of penflufen (EverGol® Prime) per 100kg to protect the seedlings against disease. He also applied 200mL/ha flutriafol (Impact®) per 100kg of fertiliser.

Using variable-rate application based on pH maps developed by Precision Farming Australia, Damien applied lime to the paddock. The lime rate varied was varied from 1t/ha to 3t/ha.

He then used a Speedtiller® to mix the lime through the soil to speed up its reaction and ensure acidity did not constrain yield.

Before sowing, he applied a pre-emergent application of 118g/ha of Sakura® and 2L/ha of triallate (Avadex® Xtra).

He then sowed 80kg/ha of LRPB Trojan seed on 15 May into a paddock previously sown to canola using a 12-metre-wide John Deere disc seeder set on 254-millimetre row spacings.

Also applied at planting, was 100 kilograms/ha of monoammonium phosphate (10kg/ha nitrogen, 22kg/ha phosphorus and 2kg/ha sulfur).

On 11 June, he spread 150kg/ha of urea (69kg/ha of nitrogen) on the crop. On 17 August, a further 150kg/ha of urea (69kg/ha of nitrogen) was applied.

On 20 July, Damien sprayed 25g/ha of halauxifen plus florasulam (ParadigmâArylexâ Active) and 0.5L/ha of MCPA amine (Nufarm MCPA Amine 750).

For disease protection, he applied 125mL of propiconazole plus tebuconazole (Cogito™) on 26 July at GS31.

On 3 September, he added 150mL of prothioconazole plus tebuconazole (Prosaro® 420) at GS32. This was followed with 600mL of azoxystrobin plus epoxiconazole (Radial®) on 17 September at GS39.

Rainfall at Damien’s farm in 2020 was just over the 590mm long-term mean for Culcairn. Weighbridge tickets confirmed a 7.31t/ha grain yield for his paddock on average.

Accordingly, Damien earned the 2020 award for the highest grain yield in southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria.

Higher potential

GRDC HYC awards national extension coordinator Jon Midwood says Damien’s paddock had a modelled potential yield of 8.6t/ha.

With a score of 85 per cent, his LRPB Trojan wheat crop placed second in southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria for the highest percentage of potential yield category in 2020.

One observation made in Damien’s HYC award report was that his paddock had a pHCa (measured in calcium chloride) of 5.6, which was slightly lower than the critical value of 5.8.

Another was that he had applied a total of 148kg/ha of nitrogen to the paddock, which was lower than the 171kg/ha applied, on average, by the top 20 per cent of southern NSW and north-eastern Victorian growers.

Nonetheless, Mr Midwood says a 12 per cent grain protein level indicates Damien had almost certainly applied optimal nitrogen to his crop.

Soil potassium from the zero to 10-centimetre soil test was 310mg/kg, which he says was well above the critical value of 175mg/kg.

However, Mr Midwood says Damien’s grain nutrient test results showed potassium levels were marginal and below the average compared to the average level for paddocks submitted from southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria. He says this could be an area to investigate for another season.

Herbicide costs

When Damien’s herbicide costs were compared with what the top 20 per cent of growers in his region had applied ($71.37/ha), his spending was in the lowest 25 per cent at $40.22. This equated to just $5.50/t of yield, which was lower than the $9.87 spent on average by the top 20 per cent of growers.

In 2019, Damien bought a Seed Terminator® to prevent weed seeds from being spread across his paddocks at harvest and to prolong the life of available herbicides.

Although he has not changed his herbicide use since buying the machine, it has reduced the need for other weed management tactics previously considered necessary to drive down the weed seedbank.

“I did not need to plant oaten hay in 2021 because I felt confident that I had already reduced the annual ryegrass seedbank,” Damien says.

“In the past, I grew a lot of Roundup® Ready canola, but in 2022 we only planted Clearfield® canola hybrids and two conventional canola varieties.”

Nitrogen spend

From Damien’s 2020 agronomy report, he discovered his nitrogen spending ($228/ha) was less than the 20 per cent of growers who produced the highest yields ($256.50/ha) in his region.

Damien’s nitrogen spending equated to $31.19/t of grain, which was less than the $35.39/t of grain spent by the top 20 per cent.

For fungicide, Damien spent $33.32/ha or $4.56/t of grain, which was higher than the $25.16/ha or $3.46/t of grain spent by NSW’s top 20 per cent of growers. This was a necessary investment to protect his LRPB Trojan crop from disease.

Paddock entry 2021

Keen to continue learning, Damien entered a 44ha paddock of RockStar wheat into the 2021 GRDC HYC awards.

Before sowing the seed into a retained canola stubble, he reduced the row spacings on his disc seeder from 254mm to 190.5mm to increase crop competition against weeds.

Before sowing, he treated the seeds with 50mL of penflufen (EverGol® Prime) per 100kg to protect the seedlings against disease. He also applied 200mL/ha flutriafol (Impact®) per 100kg of fertiliser.

To manage pre-emergent weeds, he applied 118g/ha pyroxasulfone (Sakura® 850 WDG) before sowing on 7 May.

On 8 May, Damien sowed 78kg/ha of RockStar wheat. Also applied with the seed was 100kg/ha of MAP (10 per cent nitrogen, 22 per cent phosphorus, 2 per cent sulfur).

On 21 May, he applied 150kg/ha of urea (69kg/ha nitrogen) and followed this with a second application of 200kg/ha of urea (92kg/ha nitrogen) on 29 July.

On 15 August, he spread 100kg/ha of ammonia sulphate (GranAm®) on the crop. GranAm® comprises 21kg/ha of nitrogen and 24kg/ha of sulfur.

He decided to increase his applied nitrogen based on what he learned from his 2020 agronomy benchmarking report.

For disease management, he treated the crop with 0.5L/ha of epoxiconazole (Soprano® 125) at GS31 on 22 August. Added to the tank was 1.1L/ha of MCPA Ester and pyrasulfotole (Precept® Selective Herbicide) to control broadleaf weeds.

Above-average rainfall

After 625mm of rainfall for the season and 522mm of rainfall for the growing season, Damien was delighted to discover that weighbridge tickets had confirmed his RockStar wheat had yielded 8.88t/ha on average.

The result was just enough to earn two 2021 GRDC HYC awards: one for the highest yield and the other for the highest percentage of potential yield in southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria.

GRDC’s Graeme Sandral, Riverine Plains’ Kate Coffey, HYC NSW/N VIC award winner and Culcairn grain grower Damien Schneider with FAR Australia’s Dr Kenton Porker and Nick Poole.

GRDC’s Graeme Sandral, Riverine Plains’ Kate Coffey, 2021 GRDC Hyper Yielding Crops southern NSW award winner and Culcairn grain grower Damien Schneider with Field Applied Research Australia’s Dr Kenton Porker and Nick Poole.

Mr Midwood says modelling enabled the research team to estimate the crop’s potential yield at 8.73t/ha. This meant Damien’s crop exceeded its benchmark by 1.6 per cent.

Crop challenges

Nonetheless, Damien feels his agronomy was far from perfect.

Although lime was spread on the paddock four years earlier, it was left on the surface. Since then, he has learned about the importance of mixing lime through the subsurface layer and does this with his Speedtiller® every time lime is applied.

Ms Coffey collected soil samples that showed Damien’s paddock had a soil pHCa of just 4.5, which was significantly lower than the optimum range of 5.2 to 7.5 listed in Damien’s 2021 HYC award report.

Mr Midwood says soils high in acidity or alkalinity can cause various species of earthworms and nitrifying bacteria to disappear.

“Low pHCa soils can also constrain the availability of nutrients,” he says.

“When soil pH is low, beneficial elements such as molybdenum, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, potassium, calcium and nitrogen become less available, and others, such as aluminium, may become toxic.”

While the paddock’s low soil pH did not seem to affect grain yield in his 2021 award-winning crop, this is likely because soil moisture was plentiful during winter.

Damien has earmarked the paddock for liming in 2023 and plans to use his Speedtiller® to mix the ameliorant through the soil. This will enable crops to extend their roots deeper into the soil profile and access moisture in dry conditions.

Wet harvest

Another yield constraint was a fungal disease in the heads. Damien says the disease reduced grain weight to 72kg/hectolitre. A further limit to grain quality was preharvest sprouting caused by heavy rainfall.

“There was eight per cent grain yield loss because of the rain,” he says.

“When the first grain sample went into town, it was rejected because they said it was frosted. It wasn’t frosted, but we think a fungal disease affecting the heads caused the grain to shrivel.”

In hindsight, he says he would have applied a fungicide, but at the time, he did not realise the disease was present and constraining grain size and weight.

Lessons learned

Damien says he has learned several lessons from participating in GRDC’s HYC awards.

“Everything has to be done right and on time,” he says. “And if you don’t measure plant-available nutrients and soil pH, there is really no way to know if they are constraining grain yields.”

After two years of high wheat yields, Damien knows replenishing soil nitrogen supplies is critical for securing the long-term resilience of his farm. On the back of high grain prices earlier this year, he budgeted to apply the nitrogen needed to chase high grain yield potentials in 2022.

Replenishing the soil with a balanced supply of nutrients is also vital because he uses the ‘strip and disc’ farming system, which involves using a stripper front at harvest and a disc seeder at sowing.

Previous research has shown that stubble-retained systems require extra applied nitrogen to overcome tie-up that can reduce yield. A balanced supply of nutrients is also needed to build soil organic matter.

While Damien values soil cover when conditions are dry, he says a thick layer of stubble led to significant waterlogging from late 2021 to early 2022.

Accordingly, he burnt several paddocks to dry the soil before sowing. This enabled spraying and seeding gear to traffic paddocks without becoming bogged.

“Although this year was the first time we’ve burnt our stubbles in a long time, it did enable us to sow on time,” he says. “And that’s farming … flexibility is king.”

More information: Damien Schneider, damschneider@hotmail.com

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