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Summer crops’ potential to lift system sustainability

With her eye focused on sustainability, Jolene Daniel is part of a team of growers and grower groups investigating the potential of summer crops.
Photo: Evan Collis

Diversity is key to the Daniel family’s sustainability agenda for their farming enterprises in Western Australia’s Great Southern region.

With soil types ranging from sandy loams over clay to deep sands on the 3600 hectares they farm from Needilup to Lake Cairlocup, they grapple with waterlogging, non-wetting soils and salinity in their production systems.

Jolene and her husband Peter bring a mix of farming heritage and commercial experience, having both worked in the agricultural services industries, and they have a rigorous understanding of the natural resource management side to their business. As Jolene holds a degree in natural resource management from the University of Western Australia, it is this thinking that she brings to the couple’s farm decisions.

The Daniels run a 60:40 mix of cropping (wheat, barley and lupins) and grazing, mating 7500 Merinos, and Jolene has been driving an agenda to increase plant species diversity in their enterprises.

“We have already tried summer crops and see greater system resilience with more diversity. Legumes build soil nitrogen, there is synergy between the multiple species, and decreasing the dominance of a monoculture system reduces pest and disease incidence,” Jolene says.

Their average annual rainfall is about 400 millimetres, but rainfall events are becoming increasingly erratic and more intense.

This can result in waterlogging, particularly in areas where there is sand over clay, and perched water tables can occur. Last year’s season was a case in point and across the region many growers resowed crops several times because of seed burst.

With these factors at the front of their minds, the Daniels are further exploring the tactical potential of summer crops.

Summer crops can be inherently riskier, but you need to weigh up repeatedly doing what you do, replanting winter crops as they struggle with waterlogging, or playing another tool and opting for a summer sowing

“Importantly, they can provide cover for vulnerable sandy soils over summer. Also, their vigorous root growth can break up compaction and the active plant growth over summer sustains soil microbiology activity.

“Additionally, they can provide forage for our sheep as either fresh grazing, silage or hay.”

The Daniels have hosted two summer trial sites as part of an 18-month GRDC-invested summer crop study being led by Stirlings to Coast Farmers in 2021-22. One was a single-species trial – a new grain and graze sorghum – while the other was a multi-species trial of cowpeas, lablab, millet and pennisetum.

As Jolene also works part-time as a project officer for the Fitzgerald Biosphere Group, she sees great benefit as a grower to be directly involved in these GRDC investments.

“We are able to access more data through regular soil samples throughout the season, in-depth herbage cuts and comparison to trials hosted in other nearby locations,” she says.

As part of the study, the trial sites will be cropped to winter crops in 2022 and economic evaluation will be undertaken to better inform growers about the system benefits of summer crops.

Read more: Is there a tactical role for summer cropping in southern WA?

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