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Versatile vetch builds system agility

A healthy vetch crop at Charlie Williams’ property in north-central Victoria.
Photo: Sue Neales

Charlie Williams is a pioneer in the commercial farming of vetch in Australia – and one of its fiercest and most loyal advocates.

The owner of one of Victoria’s biggest hay and stockfeed grain producers, Jenharwill Baling, near Elmore, Charlie has been cropping vetch for commercial hay production since the early 1990s, a time when many growers were wary of the sprawling legume’s benefits and agronomic fit.

Jenharwill is now cropping more than 7000 hectares of farmland between Mitiamo and Corop in north-central Victoria, which it both owns and leases. About 1000ha a year is sown to vetch to produce 6000 big bales of high-protein and high-energy vetch hay. It is sold mainly to dairy farmers in Gippsland and south-western Victoria, while its oaten hay is exported.

“We were the first in the area to grow vetch and it’s just got bigger and bigger,” says Charlie, who for many years was chair of the Australian Fodder Industry Association.

“We couldn’t do without it in either our cropping or hay programs. It’s a good cash crop – you can always sell good-quality vetch hay for top dollars domestically – and it’s an ideal break crop to control weeds and diseases before putting in oats or wheat, as well as being an excellent nitrogen fixer for the soil.

“We find it a great mix for our business. We use it in the rotation, where we might have two crops of oats and then we have a crop of vetch and then back into oats or wheat. It’s a great way to clean up paddocks and we have tremendous markets for it as well.”

Over the years, Jenharwill has grown many different vetch varieties for its hay and feed grain properties, including the GRDC-funded and South Australian Research and Development Institute-bred Morava back in 1999, which was the first to be fully rust resistant, and several varieties of purple vetch, including its current preferred Popany crop.

A vetch crop on Charlie Williams property.Charlie Williams (left), Alfie Williams (centre) and Stuart Niven in a vetch crop near Elmore, Victoria. Photo: Sue Neales

Charlie also ran vetch varietal trials at his farm for Australia’s “father of vetch”, the now-retired SARDI plant breeder Rade Matic.

“We’ve grown many different varieties and I think with vetch it’s horses for courses. Some varieties are better for hay, some respond better in good rainfall years while others grow well with less, but they are all high in protein and good at putting nitrogen back into the soil,” Charlie says.

“We sow in February or early March and cut for hay in September before it flowers, then leave it on the ground in windrows before baling.

“We usually bale 3.5 to five tonnes a hectare, with a protein content of 22 to 25 per cent and an ME (metabolisable energy) of 10 to 11 megajoules per kilogram of dry matter. It’s no wonder dairy farmers love it. They say it gives them more milk.”

He says some vetch is left over summer to prevent weeds. Wheat or oats are then direct-drilled into it in a one-in-three-year rotation.

Charlie, though, is not alone in singing vetch’s praises.

Since being introduced into Australia in the 1960s, the legume has won many supporters for its versatility of use, especially in medium to low-rainfall areas in Western Australia, SA and Victoria’s Mallee.

Since 1992, using 25 vetch genetic lines imported from overseas, GRDC-funded vetch breeding program has bred six commercial varieties more-suited to Australian soils and southern climatic conditions. It has also introduced rust resistance and lessened the hard-seeded traits.

‘Father of vetch’ gave impetus

Much of the increased popularity of vetch as a cereal break crop, fallow replacement, soil nitrogen contributor, brown manure, hay source and pasture forage crop can be attributed to Mr Matic. As he was breeding new vetch varieties in his Adelaide facility, he was also traversing southern Australia encouraging growers to increase vetch plantings.

Grain, hay and silage from the breeding program’s new common vetch varieties – Morava (released 1999), Rasina (2006), Timok and Volga (both 2014) – can be fed to ruminants without limit, compared to earlier European-bred varieties. They also grow well in lower-rainfall areas (350 to 450 millimetres).

The new woolly pod vetch variety, RM4, has provided another option for growers and sheep graziers, offering soft seeds, early maturity and high dry matter production.

Mr Matic’s work is now being continued at SARDI by specialist vetch breeder and agronomist Stuart Nagel, who has overseen the National Vetch Breeding Program (NVBP) since 2017, backed by $1.9 million of GRDC investment over the past four years.

The breeding program has delivered against outcomes asked of it to date, with good results released in a final report to GRDC recently.

In 2020, a new variety of common vetch, Studenica , was released and commercialised in partnership with S&W Seed Company, with the first growers sowing it this season (2021).

Mr Nagel says Studenica is an early flowering variety, flowering 85 to 90 days after sowing. It demonstrates the best winter growth and vigour of all vetch varieties available, as well as being frost and cold-tolerant.

Its niche is to provide winter feed to be grazed by livestock in mixed-farming systems in areas such as the SA Riverland, Upper Eyre Peninsula and SA’s mid-north cropping zone around Orroroo, where as many as 40-plus frosts between June and August are common.

More new varieties are also on their way. Mr Nagel says the NVBP has selected and validated the top performance of another new common vetch from its trials, SA 37107, which has consistently outperformed varieties such as Volga and Morava in both grain and hay yields. It is likely to be commercially available in late 2023.

“We aim for a minimum seven per cent yield increase each time we release a new variety, as well as finding new climatic or regional niches,” Mr Nagel says.

“SA 37107 has a better performance than Morava in low to medium-rainfall zones, is more robust in seasons that have early heat or short finishes, and consistently outperforms all other current varieties in low pH soils. This makes it an excellent option for large areas of WA, southern NSW and other parts of the southern cropping zone where acid soils have meant vetch is not traditionally grown.

“It’s a real step up in a low-pH environment. Below a soil pH of 5.5 it will give an eight per cent increase in hay and grain yield. I can see it being grown from the region south of Wagga Wagga, across the acid country of western Victoria and the SA border, and really suiting large tracts of WA, too.”

A new woolly pod vetch line is also close to commercial release. Line SA 37714 consistently outperformed older varieties such as Capello, RM4 and Haymaker for hay and grain production, and it is particularly suited for hay production in lighter soil zones with annual rainfall of 450 to 550 millimetres.

The most important point to remember is to treat vetch as a crop. The more you put into it, the better your potential return.

Vetch varieties that can flourish in winter in non-traditional growing areas such as Moree and northern NSW are also being trialled as a green manure crop, with growers turning the vetch green into the soil in spring for its nitrogen boost, and then sowing summer crops such as cotton directly into it.

The breeding program continues work on Botrytis-tolerant strains to reduce fungicide costs, while varieties to help avoid frost-risk windows are also planned. “We are trying to get new material out there and create a greater diversity of vetch lines and varieties,” Mr Nagel says.

“The way Esperance farmers, for example, have taken to woolly pod vetch, based on their grazing system – sow early, graze over winter then terminate before September and it sets (toxic) seeds – proves to me that vetch has a real place in so many different systems.

Low-cost, low-input legume

“Versatility is the key. I call it a low-cost, low-input legume because, unlike pulses which you have to take through to harvest, with vetch you can change tack if seasons or circumstances dictate, and it can be anything from grazed in winter, turned into high-yielding hay, taken through to be grain (common vetch) or treated just as a high-nitrogen break crop.

“The most important point to remember is to treat vetch as a crop. The more you put into it, the better your potential return – be it yield, fodder or nitrogen benefits.”

Dr Harriet Sangma, GRDC’s manager of the vetch breeding program, admits the legume has been a difficult one to justify GRDC investment, given only a small percentage of vetch production is used as grain cash crop, with much of it grown for other uses such as hay, forage and mulching. “But for many growers, especially in lower-rainfall areas, it is a good fit as a break crop before canola and wheat, as well as being important for mixed grain and sheep farmers,” Dr Sangma says.

“But we are also finding higher-value pulses such as field peas gradually replacing vetch in the existing production areas. For growers to continue using vetch as a break crop, new varieties that offer greater genetic diversity and a combination of new traits, such as increased yield and yield stability across differing seasonal conditions – and tolerance to things like low pH, drought, salinity, frost and Botrytis – will be important.”

Royalties flow back to both SARDI and GRDC when new varieties from the NVBP are commercialised by a seed company and seed sold to growers.

The Esperance experience

Esperance grower and mixed farmer Mark Roberts is a big supporter of GRDC getting behind the NVBP and the work of scientists and breeders such as Mr Nagel.

Mark and his family farm on mallee country with duplex alkaline soils at Cascade, 100 kilometres north-west of Esperance, where they sow more than 2000ha of woolly pod vetch every February–March in a five-year rotation program with wheat, barley, canola and oats.

Their self-replacing Merino flock grazes the vetch – they are now using RM4 – as green standing fodder from mid-April until November, when the sheep move on to barley or canola stubble. The vetch is left as ground cover over summer for the next cereal crop.

“It’s not a fallow; it’s where we graze our sheep for half of the year,” Mark says. “We used to have a medic (clover) based grazing system, but the new woolly pod vetches grow so much biomass they have superseded that. It provides us with a reliable grazing system and gives us weed control before we put in the cereals.

“And vetch is up there with the best legumes. It adds 30 kilograms of nitrogen (to the soil) for every tonne of biomass grown, reduces my nitrogen fertiliser costs and adds an extra half tonne of yield to the following cereal.

“Most people around here who still have sheep grow vetch in their system and it’s gaining traction across WA.”

Mark says vetch underpins his whole cropping system. Even though it is not a major grain crop, he says, it is of such great benefit to Australia’s overall cropping system that he fully backs GRDC’s investment in the SARDI breeding program. “Without this, without new varieties, vetch could drop off the radar pretty quickly,” he says.

Cropping's quiet achiever establishes a foothold

Vetch is one of those crops every Australian farmer has heard of but would not always recognise when they drive past a paddock covered hip-high in a dark green tangled mass of curly tendrils, unfolding new leaves growing on vine-like stalks.

Yet in the past 30 years vetch has become an established part of Australia’s cropping landscape, especially in dryland mallee areas such as south-eastern Western Australia around Esperance, all across South Australia, in Victoria’s Mallee and central regions, and in New South Wales’ Riverina and central west cropping zones.

Belonging to the same plant family (Fabaceae) as fellow legumes, field peas and lentils, all vetches are of the vicia genus, and so are close relatives of faba beans (Vicia faba).

Stuart Nagel of SARDISARDI vetch breeder and agronomist Stuart Nagel. Photo: Sue Neales

SARDI specialist vetch breeder and agronomist Stuart Nagel believes vetch is, in many ways, the quiet achiever of the cropping world – a versatile annual legume that has several potential purposes or markets.

It can be sown as a rotational break crop with cereals to add nitrogen to the soil and to break the grass weeds and disease cycle; as a green manure to improve soil fertility; as a winter and early spring forage crop for sheep and cattle in a mixed-farming system; as a brown manure crop to suppress summer weeds ahead of direct drilling a following cereal crop; or as a high-protein, high-energy and high-value commercial hay source.

It is also grown as a source of feed grain for livestock mixes, or even as speciality bird seed.

The first commercial vetch varieties were introduced into WA in the mid-1960s by CSIRO, as part of its legume program looking to address trace element deficiencies in farming soils.

But they were Mediterranean-climate vetch varieties – Blanchefleur and Languedoc – better suited to pasture as a replacement for medics or clovers, rather than grain and dry matter production, although both uses formed the basis of most vetch growing in Australia for the next 30 years.

In the early 1990s, GRDC and several state agricultural departments, led by SARDI, instigated research to develop a range of vetch varieties better suited to Australian conditions.

After slow uptake in the 1990s, rust outbreaks in susceptible varieties and an export red lupin substitution scandal involving split Blanchefleur seed, the crop’s fortunes changed with the release of Australian-bred, rust-resistant varieties better suited to local conditions.

By 2005, 200,000 hectares of vetch was being planted every year, while today it is estimated more than 300,000ha of vetch is grown annually across southern Australia.

“The game changer was the release of the first fully rust-resistant common vetch variety, Morava, by SARDI in 1999,” Mr Nagel says. “Vetch used to be regarded as a sideline secondary crop, but Morava completely changed vetch production and farmer attitudes in Australia.

“It is a credit to GRDC that it started [supporting] the vetch breeding program without quite knowing how vetch as a grain fitted into the Australian grain growing world because, while it is a legume like lentils, peas and beans, it is not a pulse as it is not grown for human consumption.”

The species

There are three main species of vetch grown in Australia, all of which originated in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East and were domesticated hundreds of years ago, mainly because it was a drought-tolerant crop.

Common vetch (Vicia sativa), also known as grain vetch, is the most versatile of the vetch species as it can be grown for early grazing, green or brown manure, or high-value silage, hay and grain production for livestock feed. It is also ideal as a green manure crop. Across many diverse locations, different varieties of common vetch showed the most potential in terms of average dry matter and seed yield.

About 70 to 75 per cent of vetch grown in Australia is now common vetch. All Australian common vetch varieties are suitable for grain production, to be used as high-protein feed for all ruminants and a limited amount (no more than 20 per cent) in pig rations. Popular varieties include early maturing Languedoc (not rust resistant) and SARDI-bred rust-resistant varieties such as Rasina (PBR), Morava, Timok (PBR), Volga (PBR) and the just-released Studenica (PBR).

Purple vetch (Vicia benghalensis) is commonly grown in southern Europe. It is a subspecies that is later-maturing, copes with some waterlogging but does not recover well from winter grazing. It is ideally suited to niche hay production. Popular varieties include Popany and the Tasmanian-bred high-rainfall Benetas. About five to 10 per cent of vetch grown in Australia is purple vetch.

Woolly pod vetch (Vicia villosa) is predominantly grown in WA in medium-rainfall areas by graziers looking for a winter grazing crop, or for paddock renovation, where it is a highly efficient nitrogen fixer. It has not been popular with haymakers and cereal croppers in their rotations in the past, as older woolly pod varieties such as Namoi had a 30 per cent hard-seeded content, meaning it continued to germinate in following years, contaminating the next wheat or canola crop.

But new, more soft-seeded varieties developed by SARDI, such as RM4, and to a lesser extent Haymaker and Capello, have eased that problem, with high dry matter yields often greater than common vetch for hay production too.

About 17 to 20 per cent of vetch grown in Australia is woolly pod. A key difference to common vetch is that woolly pod grain cannot be fed at any level to ruminants, as it contains a different toxin, meaning it cannot be grazed as a pasture or field crop after it has gone to seed, or its grain harvested to be mixed in stockfeed.

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