Analysis and nutrition reset yield goals

13 June 17

While most Australian growers can only dream of growing wheat crops averaging 10 tonnes per hectare, Tasmanian grower Michael Nichols is doing just that. Farming in the north-west of the Apple Isle at Sisters Creek, Michael has a firm focus on continually pushing his production by placing an emphasis on nutrition management and disease control.

High-rainfall cropping is in Michael’s blood. His family emigrated 33 years ago to Tasmania from the UK, where they produced wheat in an environment with an average annual rainfall of 700 millimetres and, since moving to Australia, Michael has continued that tradition.

However, the rainfall at Sisters Creek is significantly higher, at an annual average of 1200mm, a figure that was obliterated in 2016 when Michael recorded a total of 2025mm to late December.

Michael, who also grows canola, barley, onions, potatoes, poppies, pyrethrum and yellow mustard seed, wants to get as much as he can out of every crop he grows, not just wheat and canola.

“That comes down to nutrition and crop monitoring,” Michael says.

“We draw up a full gross-margin chart for each crop we grow so we know how much each crop will cost us to grow per hectare, which helps us to mitigate risk when it comes to pest and disease management.”

Michael’s reasons for pushing production are twofold. First, he is a keen advocate of his state’s grains industry and would like to see it grow more of its own grain to cater for the expanding dairy industry rather than importing from the mainland.

Second, high land prices in his local area make purchasing more land cost-prohibitive.

High rainfall coupled with fertile red basalt clay and loam soils make high yields achievable, but it is a case of getting out what is put in, according to Michael.

“Our budget for nutrition and fungicides is a lot higher than what most would consider reasonable, but when you’re aiming for a 12t/ha wheat crop then you’ve got to put a lot more in than what you would if you were growing a 2t/ha crop,” he says.

“We do a full-analysis soil test on all of our paddocks each season to make sure we’re not depleting nutrient reserves.

“That test gives us pH, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, zinc and nitrogen levels, among many other things. That information is used to make custom blends of fertiliser for each of the crops. Whatever fits the paddock is what we blend.”

Michael budgets for 220 units of nitrogen on his wheat crops, most of which is applied at critical growth stages throughout the season in the form of urea.

“We also put some sulfate of ammonia (SOA) down in the first nitrogen application because we find that has better utilisation when the soils are cold,” he says.

Michael grows Einstein and SF Ovalo wheat, both high-yielding, long-season varieties, or “true winter wheats” as he describes them.

“We find the spring wheats just don’t produce a high enough yield in the time they’re given,” he says. “However, 2017 might be an exception to that because the winter wheats have been harder to keep clean, but generally we just know the winter types are more robust than the spring ones.

“Normally, if we plant something in spring we plant barley, which is what we did in 2016.

“We planted about 9ha of Gairdner barley in late September, which is predicted to yield 9t/ha.”
Septoria tritici blotch (STB) is the main disease of concern and with the extremely wet conditions in 2016 the disease was rampant, so much so that Michael was expecting to harvest wheat crops below the average of 10.8t/ha.

He employed an extensive fungicide strategy to try to control the disease; however, areas with less spray coverage due to non-trafficable ground have suffered.

“In those areas you can almost see a 50 per cent reduction in leaf area as a result of the STB attacking it,” he says.

“Because of that I am predicting a significant yield reduction. When you lose that ‘solar panel’ in the flag leaf you just can’t get the sunlight converted into carbohydrates to produce the grain in the head.

“I also estimate that we were a third behind in our light units for the 2016 growing season, which had a significant impact on crops. We are noticing that the pyrethrum we grow is suffering as well due to the lack of sunshine.”

Michael was one of the participants in the GrainGrowers Australian Grain Farm Leaders Program (AGFLP) in 2016. As part of this program he travelled to Perth for the Innovation Generation conference in July.

Part of his project with the AGFLP is to encourage more cereal production in north-west Tasmania. To help him in his quest to achieve this, Michael recently imported a Claas Lexion 580 harvester direct from the UK, which he uses for contract work.

“I did that because it was already set up for high-yielding crops and it has a variable-cut canola front, which means I can direct-head some of my canola,” Michael says. “The harvester also has a hybrid system with a drum and a twin rotor, which helps to handle the large amounts of straw that come with high-yielding cereal crops.”

Given his desire to push his own production and see Tasmanian grain growing increase, Michael is excited by the GRDC’s Hyper Yielding Cereals Project, which has a trial site at Hagley in the state’s north.

The project, led by FAR Australia’s Nick Poole, is aiming to increase the average Tasmanian red feed wheat yields from 4.4 to 7t/ha by 2020 and to deliver commercial wheat crops that yield up to 14t/ha by 2020.

“I think the advantage of having renowned people running the trial and on the steering committee is that we have the experience and knowledge there that we can tap into and gain a lot of experience from,” Michael says.

 

SOURCE: GroundCover™ Issue: 127 Mar - Apr 2017 | Author: Alistair Lawson

 

GRDC Project Code FAR00003

Region Overseas, South