From pastures to crops

Guides for paddocks changing from pasture to cropping


On Farm
Rob Williams, Coona Valley Contracting, zero till sowing an early autumn dual purpose crop. Contracting is a good option to consider for properties considering converting some grazing areas to a cropping cycle.

Rob Williams, Coona Valley Contracting, zero till sowing an early autumn dual purpose crop. Contracting is a good option to consider for properties considering converting some grazing areas to a cropping cycle.

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Not enough stock post drought, replacement stock too expensive, need to establish better pastures, maybe still tentative about post drought pasture recovery.

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Not enough stock post drought, replacement stock too expensive, need to establish better pastures, maybe still tentative about post drought pasture recovery.

All reasons why it may be worthwhile for predominately grazing properties, or mixed farmers, to consider cropping or increasing cropping area this coming year.

One doesn’t need to purchase expensive equipment to crop.

Take our farm’s example. It simply is too small to justify purchase of quality sowing, harvest and spraying equipment.

For nine years we have successfully cropped via contracting.

Clearly it is critical to engage contractors that are reliable and have suitable gear.

For almost all NSW areas, and other states, the most critical cropping factor, most years, is to conserve fallow moisture prior to sowing...that water commonly is the difference between being able to sow on time and to keep crop growing over extended dry periods.

Timeliness of fallow and in-crop weed control is very important, also sowing and harvesting (grain hay or silage).

But many areas have cropping operators with capacity to expand.

Finding that operator is maybe the biggest challenge.

For almost all NSW areas, and other states, the most critical cropping factor, most years, is to conserve fallow moisture prior to sowing.

Even lighter shallower soils, like parts of our property, that can only store relatively low levels of soil water.

This is compared to clay and deep loams, that water commonly is the difference between being able to sow on time and to keep crop growing over extended dry periods.    

This past very dry autumn winter and early spring has been a good example.

A dual-purpose crop was able to be sown late February on a small rain event because of sub soil moisture captured (80mm) over a relatively dry summer fallow.

This water was also vital to keep crop alive over the dry autumn winter and was able to send roots into the sub soil water by mid-July to allow grazing from then onwards (or for grain should that had been the crop choice taken).

Cropping needs not these days depend on cultivation but rather can easily switch to herbicides for fallow weed control and moisture conservation.

Again, as an example we have totally zero till or no-till cropped for nine years with no impediment to crop yield provided sound principles are followed.

These include stubble or pasture stubble retention to help with rain capture and timely herbicide application.

Being able to zero till also means rougher, stonier and hillier country can be brought into cropping.

Provided appropriate planting equipment is available, one-pass sowing with good clearance and breakout gear can often provide an excellent sowing job on fairly challenging country.

Cropping as part of a rotation ahead of re-sowing to a more productive pasture than an old run-down one, a native species based one, or a badly weed infested one, can also be a great long-term strategy.

Weeds like capeweed, barley grass, vuplia, Coolatai, African love grass, blue heliotrope and many more can largely be eliminated via a three-year cropping phase (using in-crop and sound fallow weed control).

Bob Freebairn speaking at a pasture improvement field day about native grass and rotational grazing management on his property “Kingswood” Purlewaugh.

Bob Freebairn speaking at a pasture improvement field day about native grass and rotational grazing management on his property “Kingswood” Purlewaugh.

A following strong perennial based pasture can help prevent reinvasion.

Species and variety choice are an important aspect when bringing pasture into cropping.

Be especially wary of diseases like take-all and crown rot if contemplating wheat and coming from a very grassy pasture – especially barley grass and the like.

Canola may be a good option for many situations.

Pulses are good but if cropping areas are not large be especially wary of pests like hairs, rabbits, pigs and kangaroos.

Soil pH is important for variety choice.

Crop gross margin costs (variable costs) are commonly around $350/ha.

But they can vary from less than $100 to more than $500/ha (see GRDC web-based publication Farm Gross Margin and Enterprise Planning Guide 2018 as a good guide).

While that might seem a bit rich for some livestock businesses in all but very bad drought years well run cropping business can offer excellent returns via grain, grazing, hay or silage.

Next week: Don’t miss Bob Freebairn’s column on new faba bean and wheat variety released at mark 60 years of Narrabri research.

  • Bob Freebairn is an agricultural consultant based at Coonabarabran. Email robert.freebairn@bigpond.com or contact (0428) 752 149.
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