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Harvest in Victoria, Australia

While Canadian Prairie farmers were out in the cold, shovelling snow, 
Kim Neilsen has been running his combine Down Under

Here in Australia we seed in the fall to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, reliable rain and good soil moisture to germinate crops and mature them for harvest before the inevitable hot and dry summer. It has been eight months since we seeded our crop of oats and we are content to see them in the bin now with a yield above our expectations. The crop didn’t have a good start.

The fall season happens gradually like in Canada; the air feels crisper, the leaves on the few trees that are deciduous begin to change colour although the temperatures are still warm and overnight frosts are not in the forecast. As fall or autumn arrives so do more frequent rains, welcomed by the dry soil profile from a hot summer.

Autumn Break is a rainfall event that is sufficient to get a crop started and is what farmers look for to kick off the seeding of grain crops, typically around the end of April or marked by the Anzac Holiday.

This year

In 2013 the Autumn Break was nowhere in sight on Anzac Day. With time ticking, many farmers gambled — seeding in the “dry” to get over the many acres before winter set in with cooler soil temperatures. The summer had been unusually dry with very little to no rain for months.

Here in Dunkeld we hardly had more than five mm of summer rain from December to April. A few millimetres did fall towards the end of April and we decided to go ahead with seeding May 3 with just enough moisture to germinate. This is risky as without subsequent rain, a sudden heat wave could dry out the struggling seedlings.

More rain did finally come and by the end of May the crop was off to a reasonable start. We had hoped for earlier rains for another reason, to give a bit of green-up for a pre-seed glyphosate application for control of annual and perennial weeds. This did not happen, so the crop had a mix of volunteers of previous barley and wheat crops, some annual rye grass and some perennial grasses although expectations of annual broadleaf weeds was not met.

The rains continued into June, July and August and made up for the dry start to the year. We in fact got so much rain that the north ends of the farm became quite waterlogged with the oats suffering. We had applied a bit of mono ammonium phosphate (MAP) as a starter fertilizer to the tune of 70 pounds per acre — not unlike the Canadian practice, but the Australian MAP is 10N-21P-0K as opposed to 11-51-0.

The average annual rainfall for this area of Victoria is 613 mm. By year-end we managed to get to 580 mm explaining the waterlogging scenario. During spring the ground became so soft that no herbicide application was possible by ground equipment. This is normally how additional nitrogen is applied in a liquid urea form.

Crop in a field.

This photo was taken on October 17.
photo: Kim Neilsen

Spring can come with a vengeance and September proved that with days in the high 20s and an average monthly temperature record in recent times. The annual crops advanced from the heat and moisture very quickly into heading and by the time the ground firmed up enough to support a pass by the high clearance sprayer the oats were in the soft dough stage, too late for a cost effective response to extra nitrogen. Needless to say with only seven pounds of nitrogen and 14 pounds of phosphorus applied, we were nervously awaiting how the crop might turn out.

October, November and December were cool and brought frequent rains. Our farm sits on the Victorian Volcanic Plains, the third largest plains of this nature in the world, known for its rich soils. Would there be enough soil nutrients to give a satisfactory yield?

Farmers are wrapping up the harvest as Christmas nears most years, but not this year. As I write this in mid-January many wheat crops are still standing.

The harvest

It was New Years Eve as we got started on the oats. The big surprise was the yield: nearly five tonnes per hectare, as the Aussies like to measure it, or for us Canadians,137 bushels per acre. The crop was a milling variety called Echidna, a very stout crop at the highest perhaps three feet. There was no sign of lodging and it was a treat to thresh with the aging Class Dominator 203.

Despite a shift into cropping our Western District of Victoria is still known for its sheep production. Nearby Hamilton is often referred to as the wool capital of the world. Rather than going the milling route for our oats they are now dispersed around the country side as sheep feed during the ensuing hot dry summer balancing the diet of dry standing feed. We were content to peddle the oats locally at $200/tonne or $2.90 per bushel, which was $20 more than the milling price. All in all it was a good first year of cropping some oats in the southern hemisphere.

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