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Growers from around the country reveal their plans for 2020

Derek and Rhonda Young, pictured with daughter Mikayla, left, farm at Kulin in Western Australia's central wheatbelt and are among our 2020 featured growers.
Photo: Evan Collis

Each year, GroundCover follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the cropping season. In this first instalment for 2020, we introduce this year's participants.

VICTORIA

Andrew and Sue Russell, with children James and Philippa, run Lilliput Ag in Rutherglen, north-eastern Victoria, growing wheat, barley, triticale, oats, canola, safflower, lupins, subclover and arrowleaf clover. They run 2200 crossbred ewes for a prime lamb operation and a small herd of breeder cattle.

Average annual rainfall: 587 millimetres (410mm growing season; 260mm in 2019; 190mm in 2018)

Farm size:2500 hectares (80 per cent cropping; 20 per cent rotational pasture)

Professional advice:agronomist, agribusiness adviser, grain marketing adviser, soil scientist

Memberships:Ag EDGE, Kondinin Group, Victorian Farmers' Federation, Riverine Plains Grower Group, GRDC Southern Panel, Regional Cropping Solutions Network.

Key changes:We brought sheep back five years ago for diversity. With new dual-purpose winter wheat and canola varieties we can handle more stock and it has been a real positive. We are now retaining all stubbles and using a Kelly chain to incorporate canola stubbles into the soil.

2020 goals:How long a list can I have? In all seriousness, it is that we have a reasonable season. To enjoy what we are doing and continue to improve. You never stop learning in this business and one of the best things from being involved in networks is learning from others. Whether it is weed control, disease management ... the power of learning from our peers is enormous.

Challenges and opportunities: Along with long-term issues like weeds and stratification, risk management is one of the biggest. We invest a lot of money up-front, so managing risk plays a big role. Key to this is timing. We can control spraying, sowing or fertiliser application timing. But we can't control the weather, so we need to be ready to take advantage of whatever the weather dishes up. We work diligently on that, investing in technology from GPS to soil testing. With GPS we are more precise, with less overlap and wastage. And the platforms we use to host our data make searching for information easier and quicker. It's all about getting good advice that is local to you, identifying your risks and farming to mitigate those risks, and that is why we have diversified by getting back into livestock.

R&D wish list: A long-term solution to acidity, a better understanding of nitrogen, improved climate forecasting. And there is an enormous opportunity with genetic modification to use less fungicides and pesticides. GM could be rapidly expanded for the greater good of the planet.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Derek Young farms with wife Rhonda and two of their three children - Mikayla and Clinton - at Kulin, in WA's central wheatbelt. PHOTO Evan Collis

Derek Young farms with wife Rhonda and two of their three children - Mikayla and Clinton - at Kulin, in WA's central wheatbelt. Photo: Evan Collis

Derek and Rhonda Young and two of their three children, Mikayla and Clinton, farm at Kulin, in the state's central wheatbelt. They grow equal amounts of wheat, canola, barley and lupins in rotation and run 200 Dorper sheep for meat production.

Average annual rainfall: 315mm (240mm growing season)

Farm size: 2900ha

Professional advice: agronomist, accountant.

Key changes: We are dealing with less rainfall and adapting as we go. I tend to be an early adopter. You have to deal with R&D headaches, but it puts us years in front by being on-board early. We introduced optical spraying in 2009 to control summer weeds. Four years ago, we got the second Reefinator in Australia, using it to crush up ironstone rock so we can crop those areas. And the Harrington Seed Destructor is another. The first year was a nightmare, but the second year - with upgraded mills for better airflow - was a dream.

We have also put some tillage into the program, following lupins and preceding barley. Last year we speed-tilled the day before sowing and had about a 25 per cent yield increase at harvest - growing three tonnes per hectare of barley on 200mm of rainfall. It was incredible and weed control definitely improved.

2020 goals: If we can do what we did last year and just add a bit more rain we can certainly improve things. The goals have not changed a lot, but we are always looking for opportunities to improve. You cannot rest on your laurels in this business, you have to keep striving to get one step further ahead each year.

Challenges and opportunities: Weather is probably our biggest challenge. Then weed management, particularly ryegrass. But with speed tilling, we are getting on top of it and our production is lifting. We now have an opportunity to bring trifluralin back and it is working. We like trying new varieties and there will be a few of those this year - a new lupin and wheat and playing around with canola hybrids, looking for yield improvement.

R&D wish list: More into disc seeding, where our options are very limited. There is not a lot of equipment out there, but for us it is a significant fuel saving. We are also still focused on new chemicals, especially in pre-emergence. We would like to see them have longer residual performance. And we are working with the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (AHRI) on resistance testing. We would ultimately like to achieve prescription herbicide applications based on testing. That would be ideal.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Brothers Kevin and Geoff Bond farm at Mannum, in the Murray Mallee region. They grow wheat, barley, oats, canola, chickpeas, vetch and lupins.

Average annual rainfall: 275mm

Farm size: 3000ha, of which 580ha is leased.

Professional advice: agronomist

Memberships: South Australian No-Till Farmers Association, Mallee Sustainable Farming.

Key changes: We are digging deeper at sowing with a DBS seeder, below the seed. This helps overcome Rhizoctonia and to break through our hardpan crust, giving the plant roots access to softer soil. We have simplified our seeding process and are using less nitrogen at seeding, as it can reduce the rate and vigour of crop germination. Instead, we are applying nitrogen as required through the season. We have also started top-dressing with a single phosphorus fertiliser before sowing so it is incorporated in the soil's upper layer. And we have taken on two employees.

2020 goals: Improve infrastructure on the farm, such as roads, sheds, a farm office and a lunch room - and also improve holidays.

Challenges and opportunities: We have non-wetting soils and non-wetting ridges, so our challenge is to get productivity on those areas. Also, we are still trying to find the best legume to fit into the rotation - to reduce our reliance on nitrogen. And managing seeps - we have pockets of excess underground water and initially they are not a problem because you can grow double the amount, but with time they turn saline and waterlogged and you don't grow anything.So we are looking, with researchers, at the best uses for that excess water - trialling summer crops and lucerne to utilise it so it will not evaporate and become salty.

R&D wish list: To make our non-wetting soils productive. And something that is on every farmer's wish list: to develop a suitable frost-tolerant legume for low rainfall.

NEW SOUTH WALES

Peter and Toni Unger farm north of Parkes in NSW. PHOTO Nicole Baxter

Peter and Toni Unger farm north of Parkes in NSW. Photo: Nicole Baxter

Peter and Toni Unger farm north of Parkes, in central-western NSW, helped by their four sons when they are not at school. They grow wheat, barley, canola, lupins, some oats and have 1600 self-replacing Merino ewes - about 30 per cent of the enterprise.

Average annual rainfall: 525mm (200mm in 2018 and 2019)

Farm size: 3000ha

Professional advice: agronomist, livestock adviser, sheep classer, accountant, financial adviser

Memberships: Central West Farming Systems, NSW Farmers' Association.

Key changes: In the past 18 to 24 months we have used a variable lime rate and phosphorus application. We will extend that to nitrogen this year if the season goes with us. We have also brought in more legumes. We utilise a fair few lupins for livestock and they are another option in the tool kit for weed control. They also kill off nematodes, whereas canola does not.

2020 goals: If you look at the past two seasons and our water use efficiency, it really highlights the opportunities and challenges of being able to do better in an average season - what are we not doing to utilise water better in a big year? Whether it is soil constraints, just straight nitrogen, or nematodes in the soil thinning the roots, it is something I think we need to constantly monitor and adjust where possible.

Challenges and opportunities: Our main focus is trying to recover financially and pasture-wise from the past couple of seasons. And that is a head-space challenge as much as anything - to stay positive when you have done just as much work as other years, but with no real reward in the end. But there is a great opportunity if the season breaks. The ground will be pretty sweet. It will be well-rested, so that is an opportunity we can't let slip by. And there is our livestock enterprise. If we continue to maximise our lambing, we will have excess sheep to sell and we could see unprecedented prices for ewes if we get a good general break across the eastern seaboard.

R&D wish list: To identify what we are not doing in those better seasons for more efficient water use. Further research into virtual fencing options and a more reliable winter legume for the central west.

QUEENSLAND

Andrew and Margie Milla are sharefarmers near Surat, in western Queensland. They grow wheat, chickpeas and sorghum on their dryland country and wheat, mungbeans, sorghum, cotton and chickpeas under irrigation.

Average annual rainfall: 475mm (175mm in 2019)

Farm size: 1650ha(1050ha dryland; 400ha irrigated)

Professional advice: agronomist, accountant, financial adviser

Memberships: Agforce, Grains Research Foundation.

Key changes: Development of the farm to cropping. Twenty years ago, this place was a Paulownia tree plantation owned by a superannuation company. But we have now nearly got it to where we want, maintaining maximum stubble under a controlled-traffic farming (CTF) system. We have increased residual herbicides and use an optical sprayer to better control weeds and prevent resistance. Last year we ratooned sorghum on the irrigated country with a fantastic result, giving cotton a pretty good nudge for return. We will definitely do it again - we just have to add water.

2020 goals: Hopefully we will get water to irrigate so we can push our irrigated wheat for better yields. We also want to increase our stubble cover on all the dryland country after such a low-rainfall year in 2019, so our focus will be on cereals. The other is complete development of the farm for cropping, cleaning up sticks, burning grass off, ploughing and levelling the last remaining area. Then we can start fine-tuning the operation to make the smaller percentage gains - like nutrition on a paddock-by paddock basis.

Challenges and opportunities: Hard-to-kill weeds, like Feathertop rhodes grass, and potential herbicide resistance is one our biggest challenges. Sporadic and inconsistent rainfall is impacting our planned rotations. Relying on residual herbicides can lock us into planting a certain crop and if we don't get the right rainfall we cannot always change. So our planning does not always come to fruition. On the bright side, high cereal prices are a great thing and fortunately that fits in with our dryland plan. And we will have lots of opportunities if we pick up irrigation water to push cereals under the pivots and try some different wheat and durum varieties.

R&D wish list: Further developing non-chemical weed control options, like microwave or lasers integrated with autonomous vehicles. More R&D on new chemistry for grass weed control in our part of the world would also be nice. I would also like to see another hearty, reliable dryland summer pulse option, like a pigeon pea. And some higher-yielding, lodge-resistant irrigated wheat varieties.

TASMANIA

Alex and Kate Clarke farm with Alex's parents Tom and Amanda in a mixed operation at Campbell Town, in the northern midlands. They grow wheat, barley, field peas, poppies, forage rape, oats, turnips, tillage radish, white clover and annual ryegrass, and run 7000 self-replacing Merino ewes.

Average annual rainfall: 500mm

Farm size:7300ha, with 800ha irrigated for cropping

Professional advice: agronomist, accountant

Memberships: GRDC, Southern Farming Systems.

Key changes: We have moved to more dual-purpose crops to integrate with the livestock and more multi-species fodder crops to allow the stock a bit more variety. We built electric fencing to divide the irrigated fodder into blocks to get more out of it for fattening lambs. We are also monitoring irrigation with our phones online using FieldNET to cut down on labour and provide peace of mind. We bought our own harvester in 2017 so we can harvest as we need, and we are chopping and spreading crop residue and retaining it for moisture. It has made a difference because we are cutting the straw low and the next year's crops start with the harvest before - so getting that right is very important.

2020 goals: We might try to put in some more irrigation infrastructure.

Challenges and opportunities: With limited water supply on the back of two dry years, our challenge is to try to manage the water that is left in storage to get the best out if it - which is probably through the livestock and fodder this year. There are more opportunities down here for spring crops with irrigation - like hemp and maize - if we get the water.

R&D wish list: I would like to move to more variable rates of irrigation. Our soil types vary so much, so our next step is being able to adjust the amount of water we put out so we don't flood the soil or leave it too dry - and it also saves water. For that we need soil mapping and infrastructure on the irrigators, for example on nozzles so the water rate can change as they go around.

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