For the first time in 60 years the sounds of a winter crop being harvested have been absent from the Brownhills’ property near Spring Ridge in northern New South Wales. In 2018 they did not plant winter crops on their dryland paddocks.
The Brownhills – David and his brother Gordon – farm 8000 hectares in a district that is supposed to average 635mm of rainfall. When they spoke to GroundCover™ in early November, just 224mm had fallen.
David says this compares with the ‘great drought’ of 1965 his father spoke of when the farm received 454mm. “It was called the worst drought ever, but a wheat crop was planted. Even in 2002 it was drier, at 318mm, but we still put a winter crop in and harvested it to make a bit of hay.”
The Brownhills have dryland and irrigated paddocks. A rule of thumb for the dryland component is that wheat be planted on a soil moisture profile of one metre. “We use a metal probe to evaluate the moisture. One metre equates to about 260 to 300mm of plant-available water,” David says.
This year, there was only 10 centimetres of subsoil moisture, which mirrors conditions across the Liverpool Plains where no winter dryland cropping occurred. “There was no moisture at the surface and no subsoil moisture.”
Despite the lack of dryland winter crops, David jokes his golfing has not improved because the brothers and their nine staff have been kept busy on the irrigated land, with their Angus cattle and with finishing jobs for which there is usually not enough time.
On their 1400ha of irrigated land, three types of wheat and one barley variety were planted – a full program. However, even here the lack of rain was felt. The volume of irrigation water needed was more than double the usual consumption. “We used 2.6 megalitres/ha when we normally use 1ML/ha.”
Fencing and building a new chemical and machinery shed have also kept everyone busy. “We’re also up to date with workplace health and safety tasks – all the jobs that we don’t normally have the time to do properly.”
David says irrigated paddocks will be planted regardless of rainfall for summer cropping, although rotations have changed. “We normally have 10 pivots of cotton, but we’re now doing four cotton and six sorghum pivots because sorghum uses less water and the price is good.”
He says it would take another 60mm of rainfall to trigger a summer dryland crop planting. The decision cut-off is usually 5 January, although David was considering “taking a punt” on a field of dryland sorghum: “We have the seed, the staff and the machinery.” In case that decision is made, spot spraying for weeds has been taking place.
David says the dry means he and Gordon have been continually planning and re-planning. “We have two agronomists and we meet monthly. I think we have taken every opportunity we could have and that’s because we keep planning and re-planning. For example, we chose to feed our cows and with that not to sell our cotton, and to make hay earlier. So back in May and June we spent $70,000 making hay but sold it for $140,000. Of that sorghum hay, it provides the roughage for the cows, while the cotton seed provides the protein. And the cows look good.
“The thing about drought is that it sneaks up on you. You can be in trouble before you know it. That’s why we sold cattle early. But we didn’t get everything right. A decision we made to not buy more cotton seed this year is something that, in hindsight, we should have done. The price was very low early on.”
The Brownhills have also been proactive with their bank. “We’ve been talking to the bank since the early days of this dry time.”
David considers this drought a ‘lucky’ one. “2017-18 was a good year and that cash flow has helped this year. Summer crop income from cotton picked in May and sorghum harvested in April has helped pay the bills through the winter and early summer. Also cows are worth good money, lambs are at record prices and so are grains and cotton seed. There are a lot of positives.”
He says ongoing on-farm research through the GRDC-supported AMPS Research into variety choices also helped. “And we’ve been no-till and controlled-traffic farming for years. We have enough stubble to protect the soil and capture the rainfall when it does come.” He also notes the importance of maintaining social networks during difficult times: “The phones work, the community is strong and, at the end of the day, we are all in this together.”
- More Information: David Brownhill, 0427 473 725, firstname.lastname@example.org