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A new crop year in Australia

The problems faced by Australian farmers are a lot like the ones 
we have here. But they’re worried about heat, not frost

Canadian farmers face a short growing season, and are challenged to complete harvest before the arrival of winter. Farmers in Australia deal with climatic challenges as well, but in Australia the biggest challenge is the summer heat. It’s a race to get the grain in the bin before the scorching summer temperatures impact plant growth.

Beat the heat

Aussies beat the risks of crop deterioration and shriveled grain from soaring temperatures by seeding in the fall (or autumn, as they call it), which takes place while Canada is experiencing spring.

The crops that are going in the ground during the autumn months of April and May are not winter crops like fall rye or winter wheat that need cold temperatures to vernalize so they will produce seed. Instead, Australian farmers plant regular spring varieties of cereals and oilseeds. Seeding in autumn is almost a guarantee of going into soils with reliable moisture. The crops get off to a good start and, in the absence of hard frosts, they stay vegetative right through winter before really kicking into gear when increased sunlight and warmth come back in the spring time of September.

It has been extremely hot and dry this summer and fall across a lot of Australia and the long awaited “autumn break” seems to have escaped us.

The autumn break is the first significant rain to assure good crop germination and emergence. Ideally it will come no later than April 25. (Coincidentally, April 25 is Anzac Day in Australia, a day to remember Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and peacekeeping conflicts.)

This year, we didn’t get significant rains until well into May, and many farmers had already seeded into dry soil to get their acres covered, with hopes of eventual rains.

It is critical to have good crop development before the colder soil temperatures of winter slow the crop down. The winters here in Australia are very mild compared to Canadian winters but occasional frost does occur (although rarely causing significant damage). Spring frost on flowering canola is probably the greatest risk.

Australian equipment

Seeding equipment in Australia is pretty similar to Canada with either hoe or disc drills on smaller farms and air seeders on the larger spreads. Canadian farm equipment is well recognized here, with Bourgault and Seed Hawk seeders common on many of the larger farms.

While equipment is similar, there are slight nuances of difference when it comes to fertilizer. Seeding into fall and the wet season of winter with water logged clay soils poses some challenges with nitrogen losses. Quite often, a split application of nitrogen fertilizer is the norm.

It is common to apply 80 to 100 pounds of mono ammonium phosphate of 10N-21.9P-0K-1.5S per acre at seeding time. On our own farm, we are trying something new this year with an additional five pounds of Humate per acre in the fertilizer. Humate is a carbon product that enhances phosphorous uptake and frees up soil bound nutrients (learn more about this at www.humates.co.nz).

Much of our soils in the Australian state of Victoria are volcanic basalt soils, high in iron and aluminium and slightly acidic. Liming is quite common to neutralize the soils and prevent release of soil bound aluminium which ties up phosphorous or causes plant toxicity. The Humate fertilizer amendment also buffers acidification.

Another difference is tissue sampling, used to guide the decision to add nitrogen in the spring and other micro nutrients such as manganese, zinc or copper. If soil moisture is good and there are prospects for a decent crop, additional nitrogen will come in the form of 32 per cent liquid urea, applied with trace elements if needed.

In recent years it has become popular to add calcium to this fertilizer cocktail as well, giving a boost to root development and plant vigour. A typical rate of the liquid 32 per cent urea is 12 litres per acre with eight litres of calcium, all applied with a field sprayer. If timing allows, a herbicide can go into the mix as well.

Australian yields

These fertilizer rates appeared low to me in a Canadian context, but they can sustain some surprising yields if the rains are timely.

In December and January I helped harvest wheat, barley and oats in the Pura Pura district of Victoria, just east of us. I saw some fantastic yields. The barley crop averaged 128 bushels per acre, across 1,500 acres, with some fields yielding 165 bu./ac. The wheat was closer to the long term average with a consistent yield of 75 bu./ac. (across 2,000 acres).

In mid-May I returned from a camping trip into the Australian Outback, up in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, 1,600 kms north west of where I live in Victoria. Rains had fallen in the Outback as well and farmers were seeding with renewed optimism. This is very dry country with annual rainfall in the 200 mm range.

I crossed the famous Goyder Line north of Burra, South Australia. This line was drawn by surveyor general George Goyder to guide settlers arriving in droves from Europe. North of this line, Goyder recommended grazing only, south of the line some annual cropping.

This line was established in 1865 but largely ignored due several years of above average rainfall. Then there were disastrous consequences, not unlike what happened during the dirty 30s in Canada in the Palliser Triangle. Ruins from many farmsteads are scattered all the way up into the Flinders ranges. Today, more modern equipment and direct seeding is testing the Goyder line again. I saw the optimism for a good crop year that I hope will come to fruition for these gutsy stubble jumpers. They have since received more rains and things look positive so far in areas with borderline potential for cropping.

Here in Victoria we saw sporadic showers in early May but not until May 20 did we finally get some decent rains. The Echidna oats we had seeded on our own farm into slightly moist soil on May 6 and 7 came through okay, and with more June rains to the tune of 80 mm, they are thriving in the clay loam volcanic plains soils. There is good soil moisture well north into Victoria, and some parts of Eastern Victoria are actually flooded.

We are cautiously optimistic. It is a long way from the December harvest and when spring and summer arrive, the ground can dry up in a hurry. †

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