Meeting hears of mixed growing season

Farmanco agronomists Peter Borstel (left) and Mark Lawrence, Grains Industry Association of Western Australia (GIWA) crop report author Michael Lamond, ConsultAg agronomist Ben Whisson and GIWA chairman Bob Nixon led discussions on the 2017 season at GIWA's Seeding Success event last week.
Farmanco agronomists Peter Borstel (left) and Mark Lawrence, Grains Industry Association of Western Australia (GIWA) crop report author Michael Lamond, ConsultAg agronomist Ben Whisson and GIWA chairman Bob Nixon led discussions on the 2017 season at GIWA's Seeding Success event last week.

THIS year has been a rollercoaster for many WA growers with varied seasons at each end of the grainbelt leading to a mixed bag of harvest results.

Agronomists from across the State gathered at the Perth Convention Centre last Thursday to share their observations on what agricultural practices had fared well this season and what hadn’t, at the Grains Industry Association of WA (GIWA) Seeding Success event.

For Kalannie grower and GIWA chairman Bob Nixon, it was the driest start to the growing season on record until a few small rainfall events hit the region in July.

Mr Nixon planted 9400 hectares of wheat, 2360ha of canola and 1800ha of barley, cutting 2000ha off his program after a dry Autumn.

The Kalannie grower said 50 millimetres of rain in August began to turn things around, before a soft finish in September and October significantly improved the season’s outlook.

For Mr Nixon the 2017 season highlighted the importance of good crop rotations, weed control and soil health.

“For us this year, it really shows why you’ve got to have good rotations and clean paddocks,” Mr Nixon said.

“If you had really good rotations up to now and those crops were clean, then there was no need to spray them out.

“We’ve still got 500 kilograms a hectare and 600kg/ha clean crops there, so it has been a really big thing this year.” 

The Nixons also made the decision to remove livestock from their enterprise for the first time this year, after running sheep on the property since the early 1900s.

Mr Nixon said after a difficult dry season in 2002, the family made the decision to phase sheep out of their program.

“Wool is worth good money at the moment but I’m still glad we don’t have them,” Mr Nixon said.

He said the property suffered significantly from erosion in 2002 and keeping cover became a priority.

“We used to always think they (sheep) complemented cropping but we are losing water and rainfall, things really have changed and in our area on our soil types, they’ve gone from complementing to compromising our program,” Mr Nixon said.

ConsultAg agronomist Ben Whisson said growers in the south eastern Wheatbelt who took advantage of early sowing opportunities after significant summer rain were faring the best in the region this year.

However, Mr Whisson said some had held back on seeding early after being badly affected by frost in 2016.

“We obviously had that in the back of our minds, as well the frost from 2016, so we were a little bit conscious not to go too hard, too early but at the same time through the Lakes area, the early-sowing opportunities have really payed off for us over the long-term,” Mr Whisson said.

“We probably did keep a few longer-season varieties or a bit more seed on hand so that we had some flexibility.” 

Mr Whisson said growers who were on top of summer weeds had performed well this year.

“The other thing was the clients that did really well this year still had everything really well set up early,” he said. “I said to some clients I think summer spray is the second most important spray of the year after your pre-seeding knockdown and they argued no, it’s probably actually the most important spray because if you get it wrong it doesn’t matter what you do for the rest of the year, everything else is going to be limited.

“It was the guys that got that flexibility, gave themselves the options and then sort of managed the season as it progressed rather than just having a set and forget approach, they’ve really payed off this year.” 

A lot of chemicals went on too late, too high and there was yield losses, but at least the weeds were controlled – that was the main strategy this year

Farmanco agronomist Peter Borstel

Farmanco agronomist Peter Borstel, who services the central Wheatbelt, said many growers in the region had struggled with patchy germination.

He said this had made spraying decisions difficult and led to some crop damage.

“The decision that farmers faced was how to control weeds that are at various stages in crops that are at various stages, and the herbicides can be quite damaging for your crops if you’re not going at the right stage,” Mr Borstel said. “A lot of chemicals went on too late, too high and there was yield losses, but at least the weeds were controlled – that was the main strategy this year.” 

Nitrogen application was also difficult for many growers according to Farmanco agronomist Mark Lawrence.

Mr Lawrence said clients in the Great Southern region held back on nitrogen applications, which had led to low protein in many crops after an unexpected rainfall boost towards the end of the growing season.

“Nitrogen strategy was very difficult this year, we had a dry May, June and it didn’t start raining until about mid-July and clearly when you haven’t had the average growing season until mid-July, it generally means that the season is going to finish up fairly dry whereas that wasn’t the case,” Mr Lawrence said.

“Some people probably underdid it, proteins are going to be a bit lower in some areas which is understandable, they didn’t quite hit that nitrogen amount that they were after and some of our malt varieties are struggling with quality.” 

Mr Nixon said while 2017 had been a difficult season – particularly for the north eastern Wheatbelt – he didn’t expect it to have a drastic impact on decisions made in 2018.

He said while many growers will approach next season conservatively, decisions would be based on how the season unfolded.

“I think definitely in the north eastern areas guys will go conservative, there will be a lot of wheat go in,” Mr Nixon said.

By Stephanie Sinclair.