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Fast start for winter crops fuels optimism

Grant Pontifex (left) with long-term employee Jamie Yeates at a Pontifex Farming property in South Australia.
Photo: Catherine Norwood

Each year, GroundCover™ follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the cropping season. In this third instalment, Melissa Marino discovers early signs are pointing to a productive year.

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. 

Cyclone Seroja came through in April, but we were very lucky to escape damage and receive 20 millimetres of rain. Forty kilometres north-east (of us), farmers’ sheds were damaged and trees blown across paddocks.

We already had some canola (GT53) in, so we just carried on – planting barley for sheep feed and a bit of early wheat (Ninja ). Then we got into our lupins (Jurien ) and back into wheat – Hammer , Scepter and Chief . It’s like putting three different chips on the roulette table, but if Hammer goes well it might replace Scepter . As a Clearfield variety it has good weed control.

Sowing finished mid-June, a week behind schedule but I’m not fazed. The seeder caught up to the spader that was going steady flipping over soil to fix non-wetting issues, so we pulled it up for a few days.

We’ve top-dressed fertiliser and were flat-out with post-emergent spray while still seeding. Usually that overlap is unheard of, but this year the crops came up so fast, and everything including weeds is growing so well that we had to get back quickly to make the most of the fine days and get the spraying done. We’ll be watching the canola for sclerotinia. It will have a dose of fungicide and a nitrogen top-up if it keeps raining.

The crops are the best we’ve seen since 2016. That year we had frost in the valleys – so that or a hot, dry September is probably the only thing that will hold us back from a good year. So fingers crossed.

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. 

Rain came in reasonable time to get the Paskeville crop in mid-May, finishing early June. KI was similar, with enough to get the crops established.

Our Paskeville varieties are tried and tested, with Scepter wheat, Compass barley, Jumbo and Hallmark lentils and Samira faba beans. Without an early break we went back to mid-season varieties rather than long.

On KI we put in an extra paddock of canola because of the price, and dropped some broadbeans out because of the late start and how dry it was. The wheat (Impala , Trojan and new Supreme noodle wheat) was up early-June as we finished planting barley. It’s a longer season there so we use Planet barley.

We started spraying for grass in canola and broadleaf in wheat mid-June. Post-emergent weed treatment will continue through winter. We use the plane to spray on KI (where permitted) and fertilise anything that needs it, starting with canola in June. It usually gets three doses of urea at 50 kilograms per hectare throughout the year and wheat gets a bit.

Paskeville’s had all its nutrition. We use chicken manure and won’t apply anything else unless it keeps raining. If we get above decile-5 growing season rainfall and crops look above average, we’ll optimise them with liquid nitrogen from a boom spray.

Mice have been a bit of a problem. We baited at Paskeville as we do every year. We had a mouse plague in 2017 after a fantastic 2016 grain year and they’ve been hanging around ever since.


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. 

We’ve had one of our best runs for conditions, with moisture and good patches of weather for sowing and spraying. We finished sowing mid-May. It’s the earliest we’ve ever been, almost to the point that we’re a bit concerned about being a little early with a crop like white wheat because of the frost risk at the other end.

We’ve got feed wheat Accroc and two white wheats – Trojan and RockStar – that are new. We’re hopeful RockStar works because we’ve been missing a good-quality hard variety in the high-rainfall zone.

We baited for slugs as usual after sowing canola, but had no numbers to speak of. We’re scratching our heads because, after a wet 2020, if there was ever going to be a massive pressure year, this would be it. It may be that we were a little earlier in our bed-forming operations (which suppress juveniles and eggs) when adults were still active after the damp summer. But we’d like to know exactly what it was so we can replicate it.

Canola and faba beans came up really nicely and uniform. We applied our first in-crop herbicide in early June. A big brew went on the beans – fungicide, trace elements and some residual ryegrass control. We’re looking after them as much as we can.

We top-dressed as part of our three-application urea strategy. One went down the tube at sowing (at roughly 100kg/ha), one spread in June (at 150kg/ha) and one will be applied at cereal growth stage 32 (in July-August) based on our judgement of where the season is going, the urea price and rainfall. It’s the one we tweak to ultimately determine our final yieldPlenty can go wrong between now and harvest but we’re set up with a good start.

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. 

We dried out after a wet start, but missed five or six hectares of our 1100ha program where springs opened up. It’s something to learn and I’ve earmarked those areas for summer plantings to use that moisture.

Stuart McDonald of CanowindraStuart McDonald on his mixed-farming property at Canowindra in central-western NSW. Photo: Andrew Cross

Most of the crop went in pretty well but we had to re-sow 17ha (of 350ha) of canola where we’d finished off a paddock with old seed from the shed that was treated with insecticide. It just wasn’t coming up.

I think this is the most closely watched canola crop coming out of the ground we’ve ever planted. The price has gone crazy – nearly 50 per cent above last year ­– and we’ve had mice and grass pressure.

The chemical we use is compromised by frost so we had to time the grass spray with good weather. With our zero-till system, without burning stubble or working up the country we’ve had to rely on bait to do the job on mice. We spread bait prior to and after sowing which steadied them enough. I re-sowed about 4ha once we thinned them out. Establishment was good, so if we can grow an average crop and get a better price than last year I’d be very happy.

We identified some boron deficiency through general soil testing so applied that lightly (2kg/ha) at seeding down the tube across everything. And we put a BioAg product – basically worm juice and other goodies – on the wheat as a seed dressing to see whether it would give us some benefit.

We’ll put a foliar boron across prior to flowering (July-August) and do more foliar testing of our crops this year to try and address issues in-crop with foliar spray. That’s new to us.


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.

With a full moisture profile we got stuck in and planted our biggest-ever area. But it was a long process.

An unexpected 35mm Easter rain filled the melon holes. This meant we could only work daylight hours because under the LED lights on the new machines it’s hard to tell the difference between dry and wet soil, which we found out pretty quickly. The D11 (bulldozer) pulled the tractor and planter out of a few sticky spots. Also, after a decent 2020 we had issues getting our machinery through crop residue. The evening dew makes all the straw wet and sticky and it bunched up under the planter.

But it’s 10 out of 10 at the moment. Everything ended up planted in a timely manner, we found plenty of staff – which a lot of people are struggling with – and the mice seem to be leaving us alone. I put a lot of that down to last spring, when we baited the entire place straight away after noticing a few mice getting around.

We use high seeding rates for everything (minimum 50kg/ha for wheat) as part of our integrated weed management plan. It creates crop competition and closes the canopy over sooner, so you get less sunshine on the ground for weeds to establish. Black oats are bad here but pressure is extremely low because we rotate legumes with cereals.

Mid-June we moved to crop protection; keeping fungicide up to the chickpeas and faba beans, which are looking fantastic. We treated all our seed with insecticide to hopefully keep Russian wheat aphid at bay.


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. 

We finished harvesting potatoes early June and I was straight out into the paddocks to get them in shape for winter – ripped and rocks picked.

Cattle cleaned up any stray potatoes and we planted Einstein wheat 10 days after the potato harvest using a power harrow/air seeder combination. Our gear is a bit unique compared to most of Australia because we grow a lot of root vegetables and because of our deep soil types.

We rotate all crops. You don’t want to have potatoes in the same paddock any more than one in five years due to disease pressure and regrowth. It takes a while to get all the little volunteer potatoes under control, but wheat and poppies do a decent job.

Potatoes work well before wheat because through the harvesting process we disturb a lot of soil, which significantly reduces slug pressure, which is extremely high in our area.

There was good moisture in the soil profile and rainfall (80mm) after sowing got the wheat going. Some heavy downpours caused some erosion on our hillsides unfortunately. We’ll apply herbicide in July and add nitrogen when it starts tillering. We’ll plant poppies on last year’s wheat paddocks in September after being grazed through winter.

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