Crops providing a steady return in south west Victoria

SW croppers find consistent returns from grains, oilseed, pulses

Cropping
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Crop growers in the south-west sing the praises of cereals, oilseed and pulses.

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MIXED FARMING: Lachie Barclay, Mingawalla Agriculture, is one of many primary producers who can see the value in growing crops, in the south-west.

MIXED FARMING: Lachie Barclay, Mingawalla Agriculture, is one of many primary producers who can see the value in growing crops, in the south-west.

The Barclay family, who run Mingawalla Agriculture, Beeac, typify what's been a growing switch to a complete cropping operation, or integration of grains into a livestock system, in south-west Victoria.

The fourth-generation farming family run two properties in the south-west, Mingawalla and Wanderriby, Inverleigh, as well as a third block in southern NSW.

They've gone from Corriedales to Merinos, and Angus, but moved over to include crops 20 years ago, according to Lachie Barclay.

"Raised beds were a big thing that pushed cropping in this area, as they allowed people to crop some pretty wet country," Mr Barclay said.

With the introduction of different varieties and consistently high returns, crops have been the leading enterprise for Mingawalla.

Last season, the enterprise averaged 3.4 tonnes /hectare for canola, 7.7t/ha for wheat, 7.2t/ha for barley and 4.3t/ha for faba beans.

"On a long term average, crops have far outweighed livestock, but it's probably a bit more on a par now, lamb and mutton are selling so well.

"The mix we have here is complimentary."

Grain and straw from the cropping operation were used for livestock production.

"When cropping is up, livestock might be down, and vice versa, I think that's what a lot of people in this area have found."

In recent years, they had moved away from raised beds and put country, less suitable for cropping, back to grazing.

"Raised beds are good in a wet year, but if you get a drier year, the yields aren't as good," he said.

"So we just work on the law of averages that some years it will be better to have raised beds, some years it won't."

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Mr Barclay said the 2310 hectare Mingawalla, just north of Colac, was the original family farm, followed by the purchase of Wanderriby, Inverliegh, 930ha, and Hazeldean, Womboota, NSW, 2025ha, in 2017.

"We also run the 2500 first crops ewes for fat lamb production at Wanderriby," Mr Barclay said.

"Originally, 9000 Corriedale sheep were run on Mingawalla, with minimal cropping.

"Merino sheep replaced the Corriedales in 1982, due to better returns from wool and lamb sales."

Now Mingawalla ran breeding Angus females, Merino wethers and 650ha of crops, while Wanderribby had 500ha of crops.

The properties were growing wheat, barley, canola and faba beans.

The family used minimum till techniques, with GPS controlled traffic, to apply chemicals, fertilisers and seed more accurately, while minimising compaction.

"We did a trial, five years ago, which found under the same growing conditions, using tramlines as opposed to having separate lines for spreading and spraying, we picked up 0.5t/ha in a barley crop."

The property ran three-metre wheel centres on all its machinery, to fit into 36m runs.

"GPS takes the guesswork out of cropping and minimises input costs, such as chemical, fertiliser and seed usage, due to overlapping."

The property used 100-120kilograms/hectare of 70/30 blend MAP/urea, at sowing time, and crops were top-dressed two to three times during the growing season, with urea.

It was applied at a variable rate.

The farm used a very flexible rotation, depending on the weed burden, and the general spread of the percentage of land planted to cereals, or oilseed.

"We try to use block farming, as best we can, to minimise the time travelled between paddocks, when spraying, spreading sowing and harvesting," Mr Barclay said.

Wheat and barley were sown at a rate of 100-120kgha, while canola was sown at 2.5-3.5kg/ha, and beans at 140kg/ha.

Due to seasonal conditions seed was planted at a shallow depth, to get plants established before it got too wet and cold.

Harvest ran from the second week in December, through to mid to late January.

Mr Barclay said a portion of the crop was forward sold, while part of the canola crop was offered for cash, just after harvest.'

"We store 2000-3000 tonnes annually, to sell during the year, to keep our trucks working in quiet times and make use of our proximity to markets, such as feed mills, dairy and poultry farmers and piggeries."

Historical switch

Steven Peel, Shelford, has 5000 hectares at Cressy and Shelford, given over to 70 per cent crops and 30pc sheep.

Of the cropping operation, 70pc was cereal and the remainder pulses.

"It's been a fair switch, over the years," Mr Peel said.

"My parents always had crops, so it's just been a natural progression - we've just had more and more.

"This was a traditional wool growing area, so when wool wasn't good, cropping always provided a better, or a potentially better, income."

While the property had started with raised beds, it had moved into power scrapers and graders to use the natural lay of the land to encourage drainage.

"Our farming practices, even in the last five to 10 years, are a long way from when my parents started cropping, 30 years ago."

He said he was using tine press wheel equipment, with direct drilling.

"We are not working the ground up, before seeding, we're minimum-till, as I don't think our heavy clay soils quite allow for no-till."

The properties receive around 500millimetres of rain, a year, and had a long term average of five t/ha.

"We are slowly improving our yields, we've definitely come a long way, in the last 10 years, as we get better techniques, and as we better understand our soils, there is potential we haven't reached yet."

He said the expansion of Berrybank would be of great benefit to him, especially if it meant quicker turnaround times.

"From here to the Geelong GrainCorp terminal, it's an hour and a half travel time, plus waiting time at the port, at the very best it's going to be half an hour in and out the gate, "he said.

"Most of the time it's a lot worse than that, so you can say goodbye to your truck for up to four hours from the time it leaves to time it gets back into the paddock.

"It just comes back to turnaround times when it comes to efficiency."

He said at its current capacity, Berrybank tended to fill quickly, so its expansion was welcome.

Raised beds

Chris Gibson, Foxhow, said raised beds were the game-changer, for the region.

"My father used to plant crops, we would get a wet winter, and they would get washed out, and you would have to replant, in spring," Mr Gibson said.

When sheep and wool prices were down, primary producers would put in an extra paddock or two of crops.

"There's a lot more cropping being done now, farms are being bought that were traditional sheep farms and are now 100pc cropping."

He said that was reflected in the number of storages being built, including at Werneth, which were also filling, every year.

"Local growers have also been investing in privately owned storages."

"Yields are getting bigger, the crops aren't getting as badly washed out, and we are using higher inputs."

But he said there had also been a shift in sowing practices, with many farmers not waiting for the Anzac Day break.

"We are starting to sow earlier, to get the crops in, before it gets wet.

"People are also trying things like long-grazing canola, which can be put in around spring, or early in summer."

He said he was growing wheat, barley and canola, and had also planted faba beans, as sheep did well on the stubbles.

"I think its harder to find young guys that have an interest in stock work, generally speaking, its easier to find someone who will sit on a tractor to do that sort of work."

He agreed there had been a slight swing back to sheep, due to higher prices, but it was more likely to involve a feed lotting operation.

"It's dynamic, really, it's very hard to switch in an out, but if you have some ability, you might by some sheep and tweak the numbers, up and down."

Chris Coutts, Derrinallum, said he was growing wheat, barley, canola and hay on 1000 hectares.

He said his father Bryan, was one of the first people in the region to start cropping, after moving from Kaniva, in 1958.

"He was cropping up there, but it didn't work in this area, back then," Mr Coutts said.

"We had very wet years, in the 1970s and '80s and we were working the bejesus out of the ground because it was so wet.

"It was very wet, you couldn't get a crop, you would sow it three times and still get nothing."

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That all changed, with the introduction of raised beds, incorporating head and tail drains, to get excess water away.

"It was really wet, and it all just died - if we don't raise the beds, the crops all die.

"If you don't make the beds, and the important part is the head and tail drains to get the water away, you end up with a bathtub."

He said cropping in the area was very intensive, and the cost of inputs could be high.

"The returns, per hectare, are so much more than wool - you know nothing is 100 per cent, but you're guaranteed a crop of some type, you are going to get some return."

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