Taking a punt on dry sowing

Winter of indecision for many croppers in state's North West


Cropping
Mixed farmer Dan Reardon, Lairdoo via Moree, dry sowed wheat and barley this year in a gamble with the weather gods."We've got to have a go," he says.

Mixed farmer Dan Reardon, Lairdoo via Moree, dry sowed wheat and barley this year in a gamble with the weather gods."We've got to have a go," he says.

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Drought in the north-west has delivered uncertain times for croppers and mixed farming enterprises but calculated risk has the potential to deliver rewards.

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Mixed farming enterprises in the North West of the state are trying to generate cash flow from another dry winter by punting on patchy rain.

Fourth generation Moree farmer Dan Reardon, Lairdoo via Moree who farms with his father, Ian at Terry Hie Hie, took a punt and dry-sowed 70 tonnes of wheat and barley seed across 1400ha of cracking black clay soil in anticipation of in-crop rain.

While the present drought is the driest on-property since 1923 there is some hope, with the last lot arriving earlier this week in the form of 12mm at Terry Hie Hie and 8mm at Lairdoo.

If the crop gets another sprinkle around AgQuip, later next month (We always seem to get some rain around AgQuip," Mr Reardon says), there is every chance barley now at second root stage will progress to grain.

Mr Reardon is one of the more fortunate farmers in his district with a crop that has germinated and covers the surface like hairs on a baby's head but the 8mm he received this week may not be enough to get primary root systems strong enough to penetrate a dry layer separating surface moisture from the subsoil.

In fact, Lairdoo has only had 80mm of rain for the year and black soil takes a fair bit of wetting compared to the lighter red soils in the district.

Last December Mr Reardon was one of the last to plant dryland cotton taking advantage of 12 months old fallow with good stubble cover.

Two weeks later he jagged 40mm, which established the crop. A follow-up fall of 25mm in early February saved it. In the end the farm harvested 2.1 bales/ha.

"We were very happy given the season," he said. "My neighbour harvested sorghum with the same rain."

The winter planting program involved a big punt, given the dry summer, but Mr Reardon can use his flock of Samm/ Merino ewes to graze failed grain.

Betting on the weather is something modern-day farmers take for granted, with the prevalence of dry sowing now compared to a decade ago vastly increased as greater financial demands are made on the landholder.

"We've got $50,000 worth of rates to pay before we can turn a wheel," he explains. "So we've got to have a go. We need to generate some cash flow.

"We had the cereal seed on hand so we could afford to take the risk."

Barley has emerged at Terry Hie Hie but will remain at this primary root stage until further rain falls, allowing secondary roots to push deeper into subsoil moisture.

Barley has emerged at Terry Hie Hie but will remain at this primary root stage until further rain falls, allowing secondary roots to push deeper into subsoil moisture.

Meanwhile Mr Reardon has on-farm silos full of chickpeas waiting for enough moisture to tempt the risk of planting.

"There's no ground cover with chickpeas which is fine in times of normal rainfall - you can get away with it. But with our hot and dry summers lately there is too much evaporation.

"We mainly plant Boundary chickpeas with a swing to Seamer's as it's a good disease package in wetter seasons. Boundary is the best variety for harvesting and has good aschocyta resistance."

In the meantime those chickpeas, devoid of a decent export market, are being fed to sheep before being shorn of their 20.5 micron wool this week, again generating needed cash flow at $18/kg, After that they will be assessed for possible culling with those remaining available for grazing off failed barley - but maybe not. Part of the harvest would go to the sheep anyway.

"With good prices for fat lambs and wool at the moment it pays to feed, even with the high value of grain," he said.

Patchy rain permits calculated cashflow

Elsewhere in the state's north-west, the lotto of winter cropping has produced very mixed results. West of the Newell highway remains on hold, although some dryland was harvested.

Country to the east of Moree, especially around Gravesend, is under hibernation in spite of this week's rain.

Sixth generation Moree farmer Oscar Pearse says he has been frustrated by weather forecasts that failed to materialise.

"We waited for rain to plant wheat into long fallow paddocks. Germination had been very patchy as there was none of the follow up rain which we assumed would happen based on the forecasts," he said.

"Then there were the anomalous conditions being so hot and dry. In some fallows we've got summer weeds like fleabane and feather top Rhodes grass coming up in June, requiring a double knock spray. Hello climate change. There is no doubt that is happening."

What little rain fell on Sunday and Monday will benefit a select few - those who took a chance on the season and sowed dry with cereal crops now on secondary root development.

"With this rain those crops could make grain," said Moree agronomist Brad Cogan, noting that crops still at the primary root stage would need twice as much as what fell this week to carry forward.

"Those farmers who took the risk and have cereals at primary root stage need at least 10mm while this last rain would certainly help young crops by mere fact that the plant row slot will concentrate what rain falls."

In spite of the "double knock" of a bad summer and terrible winter, the worst seasons of drought in living memory, the town of Moree remains resilient.

A recent fundraiser for Variety, organised by Lee Estens, raised $50,000 and community spirit was strengthened through the giving.

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