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Strong yields open new chapters in cereal story

A ‘surprise’ record-breaking yield, new varieties and refined agronomy have prompted Tasmanian grower Hamish Yaxley to rethink the role of cereals in his rotation.
Photo: Melissa Marino


Farm location: Don, north-western Tasmania

Owner and manager: Hamish Yaxley

Farm area: 325-hectare mixed enterprise on owned and leased land

Farm enterprises: 70 per cent cropping and 30 per cent pasture for export Angus beef

Crops grown: potatoes, carrots, onions, broccoli, pyrethrum, poppies, wheat and barley

Average annual rainfall: 764 millimetres

Soil types: volcanic red basalt

Topography: undulating

Soil pH: 6 to 7

Usual cropping sequence: six or seven-year rotation of potatoes with carrots, onions, broccoli, pyrethrum, poppies, wheat and barley

For many Tasmanian growers, including Hamish Yaxley, cereals have long been considered little more than a cover crop – something to grow to improve soil structure and nutrition between the main game of potatoes, other high-value vegetables and pasture for livestock.

So it was something of a surprise that in his first year in the GRDC Hyper Yielding Crops (HYC) program, the sixth-generation beef producer and grower achieved the highest-yielding crop of wheat – not only in Tasmania, but also across 70 participating paddocks nationally.

The ‘lucky’ 12.84-tonne-per-hectare yield of RGT Cesario , Hamish says, came with plenty of rainfall over his 330ha enterprise that consists of a series of owned and leased interlinking farms at Don, near Devonport on Tasmania’s north-west coast.

But it was also aided by agronomic practices he employed as part of the program, working with HYC national extension coordinator Jon Midwood from TechCrop Services and local agronomist Matt Morris from Serve-Ag. This included employing specific strategies around weed and disease control as well as nutrition, with the aim of meeting yield potential.

“We got the inputs on at the time they needed to be on and everything just lined up,” Hamish says.

Cereal rethink

Hamish says his involvement in the awards, part of the HYC project led by Field Applied Research (FAR) Australia, has also prompted a rethink of the role of cereals in his rotation.

Traditionally planted to ‘renovate’ paddocks after soil compaction caused by the heavy vehicles used in often-wet carrot and potato harvests, cereals help to rehabilitate soils, boosting levels of nutrients and organic matter while also helping to control broadleaf weeds.

But they are now providing increasing value in their own right.

“After I got involved with the HYC program, I’ve got more excited about cereals and am keener to try to increase our yields and make them more profitable and worthwhile,” he says.

“It’s made me more interested in it and if we can make it a bit more profitable by trying a few different things then it might become more of a priority in our rotation.”

Combatting disease

Across Australia’s grain growing regions, 2022 brought significant rainfall. North-western Tasmania was no exception, with Hamish’s property receiving 844.8 millimetres. This compares to an average rainfall of 764mm.

And while it certainly helped yields, Hamish says it also presented challenges – most notably in the form of stripe rust that infected his cereals and, in particular, his RGT Cesario wheat.

The fact that the crop returned record yields despite the disease pressure is testament to the resilience of the variety and also its management, he says.

“The stripe rust got into the crop, but then Jon came up with a strategy with fungicides to try to combat it and we got on top of it,” he says.

That strategy included applying prothioconazole (Prosaro 420) in September at growth stage (GS) 32; two applications of epoxiconazole + azoxystrobin (Radial) in October at GS39 (flag leaf fully emerged) and 47 (flag leaf sheath opening); and finally bixafen (Aviator Xpro) in November at GS63 (30 per cent flowering).

Other agronomy around the award-wining crop included a seeding rate of 86 kilograms/ha and applications of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) fertiliser in May, followed by two applications of Green Urea NV in August and September. Various herbicides were applied throughout the growing season and permethrin (Axe) insecticide in November. Plant growth regulators chlormequat (Errex 750) and trinexapac-ethyl (Moddus Evo) were applied in August with a second application of the latter a month later.

Refined fungicide strategy

In the following season, taking lessons from 2022, Hamish applied the fungicide Prosaro to his RGT Cesario wheat crop earlier than he had in the past, at GS28.

“2022 was our first year growing RGT Cesario , so last year (in 2023) we knew what disease pressure can occur with the right environmental conditions, so we were ahead of the game,” he says. “We actually got our first fungicide on a lot earlier than we normally would and we managed to keep most of the stripe rust out,” he says.

Other strategies he learned through the HYC program have also helped to combat the impact of disease.

For example, he has changed his sowing timing, now planting winter cereals later – around mid-May – to avoid them bulking up too much in the wetter, colder months. “When we were sowing early, we were getting a lot of growth and, going into winter, the canopy was dense. Being in such a high-rainfall area we found we had more disease,” he says.

Grazing cereals such as Manning are still sown around February to provide cattle with feed in autumn, but Hamish is now planting with higher density to allow for crop loss from the impact of the livestock on the ground.

Community of learning

Jon Midwood, who suggested that Hamish enter the awards, has continued to consult on-farm with him and other growers in the region, particularly on fungicide and fertiliser strategies.

And Hamish says he has also learned from other growers involved in the program. A comprehensive agronomy report provided as part of the HYC program has been invaluable, providing data around his own agronomic decisions and how they compare to others in the region and nationally. This includes information around sowing dates, nutrition spend, timing of inputs and crop protection management.

“Getting the report at the end of the program and seeing how your crop performed and the yield potential of the season versus what you achieved was one of the biggest upsides,” he says.

“It allows you to benchmark your performance against your potential as well as other crops in the region and look at what you might do differently next time.”

One strategy he is now using after being involved in the program is to calculate seeding rates on a ‘thousand grain weight’ formula specific to the variety and seed source rather than the generic seeding rate approach he used in the past.

An encouraging 2023

Armed with new knowledge and refined strategies, Hamish boosted his cereals program in 2023, planting RGT Cesario again along with staple BigRed , trial variety Longford and spring-sown barley RGT Planet .

A somewhat drier growing season in 2023 with 511mm annual rainfall brought significant advantages but also some challenges, Hamish says.

Disease pressure was reduced, and he was able to get on to paddocks to sow in the planned optimal timeframe, but growth was not as strong throughout the season.

Although he operates an irrigated system, his 2023 RGT Cesario was watered only once and the RGT Planet barley not at all.

This, he says, was because of a lack of time and resources rather than supply, with plenty of on-farm storage and a new state, federal and grower-funded irrigation scheme delivering some 370 megalitres to the property in 2023.

In his dynamic multi-crop enterprise, which has grown threefold in area in the 12 years he has been at the helm, the irrigators can only go so far. And the higher-value vegetable crops take priority, he says.

But despite the dry spring and lack of irrigation, the cereals still performed admirably, he says.

The RGT Planet (PBR) barley, grown on the record-breaking 2022 RGT Cesario crop, was planted in spring after an opportunistic broccoli crop was wedged in between the two cereals. It suffered from a lack of growing season rainfall and irrigation but, nevertheless, it became a handy cash crop, yielding an estimated 7t/ha.

Destined for stockfeed and making enough to ‘cover the rent’ on the leased paddock, it has also helped to prepare the soil for the next potato crop, typically rotated through other crops every six to seven years.

Meanwhile, his wheat continues to impress in 2023, with RGT Cesario returning yields of 10t/ha and BigRed 11t/ha.

Plus, the new variety Longford, trialled in 2023 for AGF Seeds, showed great promise as well as disease resistance, yielding 11.41t/ha.

Cereal expansion

These outcomes have fortified Hamish’s confidence in cereals – a confidence that has seen him increase his proportion of grain crops by 40 per cent (to 35ha) in the past two years.

It is growth that has also largely been encouraged by a newly expanded grain handling facility in the area, equipped with drying technology that allows it to accept grain at 14 per cent moisture, rather than at 12.5 per cent as previously required.

In a traditionally cool and wet environment, this provides growers with more flexibility around harvest, Hamish says, making cereals a more attractive and profitable proposition.

“We struggle to get the moisture in our crops low enough for the handlers,” he says. “So the new facility is a driver for us to grow more cereal because, with higher moisture thresholds, it widens our harvest window, enabling harvest to start earlier and go later, resulting in more potential harvesting days.”

For 2024, Hamish plans to plant more RGT Planet barley, as well as RGT Cesario , BigRed and Longford wheats.

As he harvests potatoes and carrots through March, he will be finalising his final cereal mix, buoyed by the results of the past two years and lessons from his and other growers’ experiences through the HYC program.

Being involved in the program has broadened his outlook around cereals, he says – an outlook encouraged through active information sharing around varieties and management.

“It’s been a good way to network and see what other growers are doing and how we can use some of these practices in our own crops to try and push the yield and make things more profitable,” he says.

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