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Wrapping up the Australian grain harvest

It’s mid-January, 2013, and there are just a few acres of wheat and the odd field of faba beans left to harvest here in the Western District of Victoria. These last fields will complete the harvest across most of Australia.

Victoria is a very diverse agricultural state with relative higher rainfall and cooler temperatures but specific grain growing areas do exist in the Wimmera and Mallee regions to the north and to south east of us out on the volcanic plains towards the southern coast. I had a chance to be a part of the harvest for a few weeks in the Pura Pura area, 100 kilometres south east of our place here in Dunkeld, Victoria.

It was indeed an experience, although the combine I drove — a John Deere 9750 — was similar to one I’d driven a few months ago west of Lacombe, Alberta.

The rest of the harvest was very different. The canola was swathed like in Canada, but they mostly use the triazine tolerant varieties. Clearfield varieties are common also. RoundUp Ready types are slowly gaining inroads, however they are discounted when the canola is sold, to the tune of $20 per tonne.

While this has slowed the adoption of the Roundup Ready canola system in Australia, acreage has been increasing over the last three years with farmers appreciating the additional herbicide option against the most common grassy weed, annual rye grass. Prices vary but $500 per tonne is a general price range this season, with yields around 44 bushels per acre.

Once the canola was off we were on to the barley. This has been one of the best barley years on record for this part of Australia.

Raised beds

We did a bit of custom combining, which gave me an insight into a cropping system that was new to me: raised beds.

The volcanic plains of the Western District of Victoria are known for their heavy clay sub-soils. Raised beds are a common option to deal with excessive winter rains.

In essence, raised beds are surface drains placed every 1.5 metres perpendicular to some larger grader-produced drains on the head lands that take the water away to a nearby gully or other natural drain.

The raised beds are a real curse when it comes to hauling grain from the combine. You’re forced to run up and down the field and can only go crossways very cautiously for fear of flipping the grain cart. This year was a good year as far as adequate fall and winter rains, and yield differences between raised beds and fields without them was not seen consistently. However, during really wet winters the grain crops would suffer severely without the raised beds, with yield reductions or crop failure.

The generally ample soil moisture that time of year allows superb germination. The crop develops slowly over fall and winter, then accelerates during spring and matures close to the longest day of the year, the end of December, before the increasing temperatures and summer heat stress.

The barley yielded phenomenally well, with select areas of one particular field of raised beds. Westminster two-row malt yielded nine tonnes per hectare — 165 bushels per acre. The relatively dry spring and summer seemed to favour barley, which I can recall happening under Canadian circumstances also. On average, the barley on the farm (Terrinallum South) yielded 120 bushels per acre. The quality made malt grade and earned a price premium of AU$5.50 (about $5.80 in Canadian dollars) per bushel, pushing the gross return towards $1,000 an acre. That brought some smiles to the faces of farmers who endured the 12-year drought that ended two years ago. There is a huge shift away from sheep and many pastures have been broken up and converted to annual crop production.

Following the barley we finished with wheat, which held to the long-term average of 70 bushels per acre, with only the very odd patch approaching 100 bushels. Not unlike the rest of the world, Australians prefer higher yielding utility varieties.

The next crop

Fertility is generally maintained with an application of 50 pounds of MAP — mono ammonium phosphate (10N, 21.9P, 0K, 1.5S) — applied with the seed. Once the crop comes out of winter, urea is broadcast — typically about 100 pounds per acre.

Once the crop is off and fall — or autumn as it is called here — has arrived, preparations begin for the seeding of next year’s crop. Combines in Australia are most often equipped with a rotary straw spreader as opposed to straw choppers and although most farmers regret having to do this, many see no other option to rid their fields of excessive straw than to light a match. The skies in the countryside are often blackened as stubble is burnt off in March. There is typically no fieldwork done afterwards. The smaller operations use ordinary hoe drills, while larger operations use air seeders to seed the subsequent crop.

Further up in the northern Victorian farming districts, crop yields are typically lower and the straw left behind is easier to manage. The Victorian Reduced Tillage Association is making some good progress in technology transfer for direct seeding for the same reasons this happened in Canada. There is far less stubble burning happening up that way compared to a few years ago.

I thought a lot about how stubble burning could be prevented in the Western District. Equipping combines with actual straw choppers over the spinning discs would be a good start. However, the solution may not be that simple. The straw and chaff doesn’t experience as much natural break down as it would during a Canadian winter before the next crop is seeded. This, coupled with the mere volume of straw adds further challenges. Straw management in the Western District does require some radical solutions to prevent stubble burning, which one day may see environmental opposition. Hopefully good positive reasons for change besides a regulations will come with time. †

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