The war against skeleton weed continues

Muntadgin farmer Chris Flintham believes the skeleton weed program is not working and wants changes made to better deal with the weed.
Muntadgin farmer Chris Flintham believes the skeleton weed program is not working and wants changes made to better deal with the weed.

THE war against skeleton weed continues in the eastern Wheatbelt, but one Muntadgin grower feels he is losing the battle.

Chris Flintham farms with his parents Charles and Norma and said they have been trying to eradicate the weed from their property for 20 years.

Eradication of skeleton weed in Western Australia is driven through the skeleton weed program, which is delivered by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) under a service delivery arrangement with the Grains, Seeds and Hay Industry Management Committee.

The committee acts under the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Industry Funding Schemes (Grains) Regulations 2010 to manage prioritised pests affecting the grains industry.

The Grains, Seeds and Hay Industry Management Committee is funded through levies raised on the sale of grain, seed and hay.

In more recent times, a project was developed to investigate the potential of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, as a more efficient way to search for skeleton weed.

DPIRD is hoping that skeleton weed surveillance activity will cover up to 40,000 hectares of farmland per year.

The Flinthams, however, say increasing surveillance will not combat their problem - the challenge of eradicating the weed from their property.

Mr Flintham said they have followed the skeleton weed program to the letter, but it was onerous and not achieving the aim of getting rid of the weed.

David Stephens, Agrometeorology Australia, says farmers have boosted water use efficiency in the past 40 years.

David Stephens, Agrometeorology Australia, says farmers have boosted water use efficiency in the past 40 years.

He said he has had numerous conversations with DPIRD staff to vent his frustrations but is continually told to stick to the program.

Mr Flintham said he had also had conversations with several politicians, but these discussions had amounted to nothing.

"The program isn't getting us anywhere," he said.

"I can live with the program if it was working and if I only had a small area of infestation, but the whole farm is riddled with it.

"I am at the point where I am out spot spraying plants to try and get rid of the weed, I would have sprayed thousands of plants with a drench pack and gun, so what do they classify as doing my bit?"

Mr Flintham said in recent years he had been told that continuous cropping had proven to reduce skeleton weed, but their farming enterprise consisted mostly of sheep.

"Why didn't they tell me that when we first found it," he said.

"We could have multi-cropped that one paddock to get on top of it.

"But now we have got it, we have 20 paddocks with it."

Mr Flintham said after many years of sticking to the program, this year growers were provided with Lontrel for winter spraying.

"That is a change to what has happened in the past, why has it taken this long for that to happen?" he said.

"The problem with skeleton weed is that once the plant gets established, it gets a tap root going and the chemical used can kill the plant to a certain extent but the tap root seems to survive."

Mr Flintham felt he was banging his head against a brick wall in trying to eradicate the weed.

"At the end of the day if they want to get it eradicated, let's do it," he said.

"The program only seems to be half done, if they are short of funding put the levy up to a dollar and go hard and get rid of it."

Mr Flintham said the onus was on the farmer to stop seed set by summer spraying.

"I don't like that but we do our best," he said.

"We are harvesting and shearing in January and it is a busy time of the year.

"We are busy enough and farming is hard enough without having to do all this on top of it."

Mr Flintham said he has followed protocol all the way along.

"I have not swept anything under the carpet, I report it every time I find it and all DPIRD does is come out and mark it with a GPS and then you deal with it yourself," he said.

"One year we decided to try registered contractors to search and spray it and we received a bill for $6500 and we still have the problem."

Grains, Seeds and Hay Industry Management Committee chairman Rohan Day said Mr Flintham's concerns were not common to the feedback he was receiving from other growers with skeleton weed.

Mr Day farms at Burracoppin and said he had also been working on eradicating the weed for almost 20 years.

"There are nearly 900 properties in WA with skeleton weed and everyone is having to deal with it," Mr Day said.

"The program is there and it does work and you just have to stick with it.

"It isn't easy but growers and landholders do have to do some of the work themselves."

In response to Mr Flintham's claims about the weed coming back on areas that had been given the all clear, Mr Day said being a weed, this was going to happen in some cases.

"It is a weed, it is mobile and there are seeds flying around on the wind and sometimes when you eradicate it, it will come back in," he said.

"The goal is to eradicate it from a property level but we are never going to eradicate it from the State.

"It will come back again and it will be an ongoing thing but the aim is to get it down to a manageable level and hopefully there will only be a handful of paddocks that have it on those impacted properties."

Mr Day said one of the changes made to the program recently was the introduction of Lontrel for winter spraying.

The chemical was now provided to growers as a component of the skeleton weed program.

"When a paddock gets more than a 10 per cent infestation we use the Lontrel treatment to bring it back to a manageable level," he said.

"Lontrel won't kill older, established plants but it does tidy up the new plants and Tordon will still be used to kill the older, more established plants."

Mr Day said the best way to deal with skeleton weed was to find it in the first place.

"If you don't find it, you can't kill it," he said.

"The program does work, it has worked on our place and while it is a pain managing skeleton weed and dealing with it we have to all do the best we can."

DPIRD acting director invasive species Malcolm Kennedy said the main aim of the skeleton weed program was to assist WA landholders to eradicate skeleton weed where possible and to prevent further spread within the State.

"The program takes a multi-pronged approach - surveillance for the weed, treatment to prevent seed-set, compliance activities to help affected landholders meet the treatment requirements, education and extension, community engagement and collaboration, and research and development," Mr Kennedy said.

"Costs to growers for undertaking activities such as surveillance and herbicide treatments are subsidised through the program.

"An important part of the program is targeted surveillance of properties that are not known to be infested with skeleton weed, but are in areas where the weed is likely to spread.

"Skeleton weed can be more readily eradicated from a farm when it is found in the first year after establishment, therefore early detection is critical.

"Where skeleton weed is established, it is a challenging weed to eradicate and can take years.

"DPIRD works to support about 850 affected growers with management information and advice to support control of this weed."