Growers: Bill, Jeanette and Will Long
Locations: Tooligie Hill, Cummins and Auburn, South Australia
Property size: 4000 hectares across three farms (3600ha of crops, 400ha grazed at Auburn and Cummins), including some leased land
Enterprises: Tooligie Hill: lentils, wheat, barley; Cummins: wheat, barley, canola; Auburn: mixed cropping (wheat, barley, canola, beans, lentils), livestock (sheep)
Soil types: Tooligie Hill: highly alkaline loam over light clay, some limestone in parts and some sandier soils; Cummins: deep sands through to loam over clay (highly acidic soils); Auburn: red-brown earth, black cracking clay; loam over limestone
Average annual rainfall: Tooligie Hill: 380 millimetres (highly variable year to year); Cummins: 420mm; Auburn: 500mm
Bill Long was one of the first growers to plant lentils around Tooligie Hill in the middle of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.
His first lentil crop there, planted in 2017, was hardly a promising beginning. That season’s low rainfall meant planting occurred late – not a good combination for pulses – and subsequent yields were very low.
“Five years down the track, lentils are now a significant part of the rotation for most of us in the region,” Bill says.
Having grown lentils successfully at Ardrossan on the Yorke Peninsula, Bill – along with his wife Jeanette and son Will – saw an opportunity to scale this up on the Eyre Peninsula in areas with similar soil types and rainfall patterns but cheaper land. They sold up at Ardrossan in 2016, buying the property at Tooligie Hill in an area with loams suited to lentils and chickpeas.
They also bought land at Butler on the eastern Eyre Peninsula, but they later decided to sell that farm and buy another one further south near Cummins.
“We realised that we’d need a great deal of genetic gain or technological advancement to handle predicted future rainfall patterns on the Eyre Peninsula,” Bill says.
Soil management is the key
The Cummins property includes some challenging soils not suited to lentils, but the higher rainfall on the southern Eyre Peninsula is well-suited to other pulses.
The Longs have invested significantly in machinery, including syndicating with a neighbour, to overcome non-wetting soils and improve soil drainage.
The key strategy has been to bring some of the clay up into non-wetting sand through delving, deep ripping, spading and clay spreading. In combination with the application of lime to increase pH levels and gypsum to overcome sodicity, they hope to improve their cereal production and lay the foundations for growing high-value pulses such as lentils.
The extreme wet weather experienced in spring 2022 has waterlogged a lot of paddocks at their Cummins farm, resulting in substantial loss of production potential.
Nevertheless, if liming is carried out on well-drained paddocks, Bill says lentils can still be grown successfully on ripped soils in wet seasons in this region, providing a good opportunity for market expansion.
“In this extremely wet season I have seen ripped and limed paddocks supporting a reasonable crop of lentils with acceptable loss compared to untreated paddocks, where waterlogging has caused production losses of up to 80 per cent.”
Such comparisons demonstrate the benefits of a judiciously planned and well-executed soil amelioration program, Bill says.
Bill is buoyant about lentil market opportunities. The vast majority of Australia’s production is exported to South Asia (particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), where lentils constitute a major protein source for a large proportion of the world’s population.
“Demand should easily exceed our ability to supply. The expansion of the lentil industry in Australia is not a threat to demand,” he says.
“Developing long-term stable relationships with these trading partners allows us to make decisions about the investments needed to ramp-up lentil production in our difficult soils.”
When he moved to the Eyre Peninsula, Bill took a up a role as chair of a steering committee for GRDC’s Southern Pulse Extension investment, which aimed to develop high-value pulses across the southern region (SA and Victoria) in areas where they were not traditionally grown.
During this period, GRDC supported Pulse Check discussion groups and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) ran agronomy trials focusing on varieties, weed control, time of sowing and mixed pulse species to examine constraints and opportunities.
“These initiatives supported the growers and addressed some of the basic questions being asked by first-time lentil and chickpea growers,” Bill says.
“They were hugely important in expanding the areas sown to lentils on the Eyre Peninsula, giving growers and advisers the knowledge and confidence to start or expand.”
Shaky start now paying off
Despite the success of these programs, a run of dry, frost-heavy seasons combined with low prices in the wake of Indian tariffs on lentil imports left many growers wary.
Those who persisted were rewarded with a good 2021 season and Bill notes that 2022 looks promising, with a potential combination of good yields and excellent prices driving profitability to very high levels.
“We’re anticipating a very profitable season with some sensational gross margins off the lentil crops, far exceeding those for cereals, providing we can get the crop off in time,” he says.
“There are risks with all crops, and harvest risks with lentils are as high as any. Wind and rain damage pose the greatest threats, so growers need to be prepared to harvest as soon as the crop is ready.”
Simple transition into lentils
Bill encourages growers who are thinking about starting or expanding lentil production to “start with a couple of paddocks and have a red-hot go”.
To start, talk to another grower who is already growing lentils.
“That was the basis of the peer-group learning project supported by GRDC,” Bill says. “A bunch of farmers talking to other farmers is the most powerful way to make anything happen.”
While trials support decision-making, Bill notes there are many practical aspects to growing the crops that cannot be demonstrated at the trial level.
For growers who have produced any other type of pulse prior to lentils, Bill says the transition is relatively simple and does not require a huge financial investment.
Lentils can also help cut fertiliser costs. They are relatively low-yielding so do not require a lot of phosphorus and they add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for fertiliser in subsequent cereal crops.
There are varieties available with excellent herbicide tolerance and disease resistance, and provided stones can be managed effectively, most harvesters can handle lentils with a 12-metre to 13.5m front (a flex front helps but is not necessary).
Grain legume project to close yield gap
SA growers seeking to adopt or expand their pulse production stand to benefit from the GRDC investment ‘Development and extension to close the economic yield gap and maximise farming systems benefits from grain legume production in SA’.
The project aims to address the current 40 per cent yield gap between average grain legume yields and water-limited yield potential and drive its closure through supporting growers with extension of best-practice grain legume agronomy.
Project research coordinator Sarah Day, from SARDI, says they are exploring the economic impact of various management options for grain legume crops, including diseases, weeds and addressing soil constraints.
“We are capturing knowledge to support growers in adopting pulses,” says Ms Day.
“We have trials at the project’s ‘hub’ sites at Tooligie Hill, Hart and Loxton and at ‘spoke’ sites at Millicent, Lameroo, Melrose, Riverton, Maitland, Bute, Pinnaroo, Kimba and Wangary.”
The project’s contributing research organisations are the University of Adelaide and SARDI. Key collaborators for the SA project are SARDI, Frontier Farming Systems, EPAG Research, FAR Australia and Trengove Consulting. Affiliated communication and extension partners are Ag Innovation and Research Eyre Peninsula, Upper North Farming Systems, Hart Field-Site Group, Mid North High Rainfall Zone Group, Mallee Sustainable Farming and AgCommunicators.