Pulses earn respect in tough season

Pulses find valued role in NSW grower's crop rotation

Legumes & Pulses
Wyalong grower Roger Bolte in his paddock of PBA HatTrick (PBR) chickpeas. PHOTO Lorraine Williams

Wyalong grower Roger Bolte in his paddock of PBA HatTrick (PBR) chickpeas. PHOTO Lorraine Williams

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Pulses are working their way into cropping programs on the outer slopes of NSW.

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Chickpeas are shaping up as the pulse of choice for Wyalong, New South Wales, grower Roger Bolte, who is impressed by their ability to handle varying soil types and a tough season.

They also provide a disease break and nitrogen source in his cropping rotation.

And while pulses are not always able to deliver a short-term cash-cropping benefit, Roger says their place in the familys rotation is secure because of the agronomic benefits they bring.

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Roger farms with wife Rachael Bolte, sons David and Mitchell, and Mitchells wife Bianca. Their operation includes:

  • Farm size of 6000 hectares
  • Average annual rainfall of 420 millimetres
  • Soil types of red loam to heavy black selt-mulching clays, plus lighter country
  • Soil pH of 5 to 6
  • Cropping as the main enterprise
  • Cropping program consisting of wheat, barley, canola, chickpeas and vetch.

Roger introduced pulses to his familys operation 10 years ago, with lentils, faba beans and vetch all tried as break crops to rotate with cereals and canola. In the past four years, results have been mixed.

In 2015, Roger grew 400 hectares of lentils and they proved to be a winner, yielding two tonnes/ha.

The next year, the lentils were looking good again until floods hit in spring and covered the crop with one metre of water.

They didnt tend to like that very much, so after two years of growing lentils, we had one win and one loss, Roger says.

In 2017, a low-rainfall growing season meant the Boltes lentil and faba bean crops were too low-yielding to warrant harvest.

Planting chickpea

The season in 2018 was also unusually dry, with just 70 millimetres of in-season rainfall, including 30mm in late August. It was also the first year with significant chickpea planting and the 600ha crop showed a surprising resilience, as well as an ability to grow in a range of soil types.

We have some country that is suitable for lentils, but we have far greater areas that can grow chickpeas, Roger says.

They just seem to be a much tougher crop, and have an ability to hang on.

The benefits

Roger says the longer-term benefits of growing pulses are threefold.

Their ability to fix nitrogen for subsequent crops decreases expenditure on applied nitrogen, and lowers reliance on urea, they provide a disease and weed-control break, and they condition soil.

We find that you cant beat the natural nitrogen and there is not the volatility there is with nitrogen fertlisers, he says.

You have a break crop and a natural form of nitrogen, and we have to realise that nitrogen fertilisers may not always be there, and you just cant beat that natural nitrogen.

Its a better form of nitrogen because it is always there for the plant.

Roger says pulses are a more resilient break crop than canola.

Some of the legumes are pretty tough, and there are the follow-on benefits like better grass weed-management following a pulse crop, he says.

It can mean the canola crop that follows a pulse, and then wheat, can be low cost.

We find that there is a greater availability of nutrients after a legume crop, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen. - NSW grain grower Roger Bolte

Roger says growing pulses is not a matter of 'set and forget'.

We always monitor what is going on with nitrogen levels in the soil, and with weed management in the wheat crop, despite giving it a great start with the legumes fixing nitrogen, and the paddocks being clean following two break crops, he says.

We find that there is a greater availability of nutrients after a legume crop, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen.

We also find the physical health of the soils improves they become softer, absorb moisture better and producer better crops.

The economics

Roger says pulses are only now being accepted more widely as an option on the outer south-west slopes of NSW, and there is plenty of room for R&D around their inclusion in cropping programs.

He has found growing pulses and canola to be comparable in disease and weed-management costs, and yields.

If you grow 1.25t/ha canola crops, you should be able to grow 1.25t/ha of chickpeas, he says.

The growing costs are about the same, as you might spend more on fertiliser for canola, but a bit more on chickpeas for insect control.

If canola is worth $500/t and chickpeas are worth $700 to $800/t plus the nitrogen they fix, then you can see it is worth it.

Varietal choices

Roger says improved chickpea varieties are in the pipeline thanks to GRDC-invested projects with partners, such as the NSW Department of Primary Industries. One of the latest projects is identifying chickpea lines that can tolerate cool temperatures, and could lift yields by 0.25t/ha.

Roger says winter temperatures can be a problem for chickpea crops in the district, with cold delaying the growth of the plant.

The Boltes main chickpea variety is PBA HatTrick (PBR), and they also grow PBA Seamer (PBR) and PBA Slasher (PBR).

Frosts late in the season, especially around flowering, can drastically reduce yields in all of them.

And once pulse crops get to the harvest stage, the Boltes face the same risk all pulse growers do from header fires.

To combat this, they have a manned firefighting unit in the paddock when harvesting chickpeas. Roger says header hygiene is also vital to minimise fire risk.

We would blow our headers out every two hours and thats really important when harvesting any pulse crop, he says.

GRDC Research Code: DAN00213.

More information: Roger Bolte, 0404 295 863, rogerbolte@bigpond.com.au

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