Sanderston farmer Adrian Bormann was looking for an alternative break crop 10 years ago when a neighbour suggested he try vetch.
Adrian operates a mixed farming enterprise growing dryland crops, with a flock of 550 Merino ewes producing Merino and first-cross lambs.
The homestead, ‘Nornella’, is located at the foot of the Mount Lofty Ranges, east of Adelaide, in an area known as Murray Plains. Adrian’s land straddles two rainfall zones: the medium zone at Sanderston and Milendella, which is nearer the ranges, and the low zone at Punthari to the east.
“We had a run of okay seasons and the sheep did really well on vetch and the benefit afterwards was huge,” Adrian says. “We put vetch in for grazing as part of our rotation as a break crop but also sheep pasture. We still treat it as a crop if we can, as in spraying out grasses and looking after it to make sure it’s healthy and grass-free.”
Vetch is very versatile and can be grown for grazing, hay, green or brown manure, or grain production. Adrian says vetch is also reliable, can handle a wide range of soil types, and its capacity for nitrogen fixation delivers the twin benefits of better grain quality and higher yields in subsequent crops.
The main challenge for Adrian is managing the crop – taking care not to overgraze it in the early stages, which can create issues and hinder regrowth. He grows Timok vetch mostly for hay, but also grazes it and reaps the seed for his own use. The earlier-maturing variety Volga is usually sown for grazing and grain on the more marginal paddocks that tend to finish sooner.
Decisions about the timing of sowing and grazing vary according to the season and how much other feed is available for the sheep.
In an ideal situation, the vetch would be planted in early April and sheep introduced by the end of that month or in early to mid-May to take advantage of quick, early vigour before winter sets in and crop growth slows. The sheep, run in two mobs, would graze for a week before being rotated to another area.
“Ideally, we’d be lambing into nice fresh vetch pasture in May – a bit of goodness for the mother and the new lambs,” he says. “But we don’t live in an ideal world, so we don’t always have that option. Every year is a different situation and you’ve got to go with the roll of the dice.”
He says monitoring is important to prevent overgrazing, although the risk is lower where there is a good stubble load from the previous year. As well as providing valuable feed, early grazing of vetch helps clean up volunteer cereals before the crop receives its first grass weed spray after the break – “if it rains when it’s supposed to”.
Dry conditions set in during 2018 when the winter rains failed, and continued throughout 2019. Rainfall for 2018 amounted to 170 millimetres, followed by 130mm in 2019, compared to the annual average of 300mm.
“Crops were hanging in okay and then we got a bad frost and now we’re cutting vetch for hay that was intended for seed,” he says. “And wheat (is going to hay) that could have been 1.5-tonne-per-hectare crops but a lot of areas are frosted out and dry-tipped. I’d say we’re pretty much still in drought.”
Nutrient and weed management starts with inoculating vetch seed using a double-strength peat slurry mix, although Adrian is considering testing dry inoculant after seeing promising results in trials. The herbicide regime targets barley grass, ryegrass and brome grass, followed by an early application of zinc and trace elements. Grass escapes are rounded up with a post-emergent herbicide, usually applied with a fungicide. This was not needed in 2019 because the dry winter discouraged botrytis grey mould infection at canopy closure.
The main market for the vetch hay is local dairy farmers, most within a 45-minute drive. Adrian feeds the oaten hay to his sheep and sells the excess to horse owners and hobby farmers.
Calculating gross margins from the vetch is not straightforward.
“At the moment, we’re looking at whether you can get 1t/ha of hay or 300 kilograms/ha of seed and weigh it up in more average seasons,” he says. “We’re not comparing what we’ll get out of the paddock. We’re comparing seed versus hay versus grazing the sheep and having to buy feed. The other part of the equation is the benefit for next year. We would hope to grow a 30 to 50 per cent better crop in the following year.”
The rotation is based on the characteristics and needs of individual paddocks. Typically, Adrian would follow a vetch crop with cereal, but he has begun looking at sowing canola after vetch for a double disease and weed break.
“Putting the nitrogen into the canola makes it a less costly crop to grow,” he says. “Then we still have the cleaning ability of that canola break crop for the following year as a cereal in 2021. We had 20 per cent of our farm to vetch this year, but we’re not going to put 20 per cent canola in 2020 because we don’t need double breaks on all paddocks.”
As well as the Timok and Volga vetch, 2019 crops included Scepter and Razor wheat, Compass, Spartacus and Scope barley, 43Y92 canola and Mulgara and Wintaroo oats.
Expanded legume area
Murray Plains farmers began expanding the area under legume crops as the adoption of direct drilling and continuous cropping highlighted the importance of break crops. Many grow vetch and field peas but have been relatively slow to diversify into high-value crops such as lentils and chickpeas. Adrian says the Mannum Pulse Check discussion group established in 2017 as part of the GRDC Southern Pulse Extension Project is helping to give farmers the confidence to change that.
“It’s not just farmers but agronomists – everyone coming together and being on the same page and freely sharing information,” he says. “You’re always learning from these conversations. There’s a lot of things to pick up out of it. I feel like everyone wants to help each other now, try and help each other improve, not get ahead of everyone else.”
Adrian was so encouraged by what he heard from other members of the discussion group that he grew a test crop of PBA Striker chickpeas in 2018. Sown in mid-May, the crop received less than 100mm of growing-season rainfall and was belted by numerous frost events. It yielded 100kg/ha, as well as his first lesson.
“I learnt not to put chickpeas in when there’s no subsoil moisture,” he says. “I’ll probably do chickpeas again, but only when we’ve got subsoil moisture.”
Adrian is also an active member of Murray Plains Farmers (MPF), a local farming group that started a three-year break crop project funded by the South Australian Grain Industry Trust in 2018.
Managed by Frontier Farming Systems research agronomist Michael Moodie, the trial sites include replicated trials of chickpeas, lentils, vetch, canola and lupins and a demonstration trial of faba beans.
The Pulse Check discussion group visited the MPF trials at Sedan as part of a pre-canopy closure meeting in 2018 and for the MPF Spring Field Day at Sanderston in September 2019.
Despite the almost total failure of the faba beans due to low rainfall in the first year of the trials, Adrian says he is intrigued by the potential they showed in 2019.
“When we were there the other day, most things were smoked by frost but the beans seemed to be holding on to their pods and I thought that was interesting,” he says. “They seem a bit more frost-tolerant, which is important for my farm. There’s a long way to go but there are new varieties coming out all the time that are getting better.”
* The GRDC GrowNotes series includes a vetch booklet for the southern region.
More information: Adrian Bormann, 0428 285 102, firstname.lastname@example.org