'We'll go okay': Western Riverina farmers not in line for monster harvest

'We'll go okay': Western Riverina farmers not in line for monster harvest

Gavin Howley and his sons Austin, Max, Jack and Archer, checking a paddock of Scepter wheat.

Gavin Howley and his sons Austin, Max, Jack and Archer, checking a paddock of Scepter wheat.


Despite some great crops in districts not far away, Riverina wheat grower Gavin Howley said they'll be lucky to pull off yields that are just below average.


Grain growers in the western Riverina could be forgiven for experiencing a touch of envy right now.

"The crops have been okay, considering," said Gavin Howley, of Kyalite.

"Although you get a bit tired of saying that. And it's hard for people in our area to look on social media and see these monster crops not far away from us.

"It's been a shocking year here, but I think we'll come out of it okay with just below average yields."

Mr Howley crops about 3000ha of the 6000ha at Woodmount Station, between Kyalite and Balranald, with his wife Rhiannon and parents Lance and Pauline.

They also run sheep periodically for prime lamb production, but sold the last 500 of their scanned-in-lamb Merino ewes in January when feed availability was "pretty dire" and prices were good.

Until last week's falls of 16mm, Mr Howley said they'd recorded just 166mm of rain for the year, making it not much better than 2019 (177mm) and 2018 (165mm).

Average annual rainfall is 320mm with growing season rainfall trending downward in recent years.

Rasina vetch was sown dry in mid-April followed by cereals - Scepter, Hammer and Razor wheat, Spartacus CL and Commodus CL barley - from late April.

Because of the dry, late conditions, lentils were dropped from the rotation and the area of fallow expanded. Oura field peas were sown after rain in late May.

Mr Howley uses an Agco Challenger 855E tracked tractor to tow an 18m Ausplow DBS triple bin air seeder, with a fourth liquid tank on the bar for trace elements.

Crops are sown on 380mm row spacings with variable rate seed and fertiliser.

Pre-emergent herbicides included Trifluralin on the cereals and Terbyne on the field peas, while Reflex was applied post sowing, pre-emergence on the vetch.

A blend of Granulock and urea was applied upfront at variable rates of 30-70kg/ha across all crops, followed by top dressing with up to 70kg/ha of urea in cereal-on-cereal paddocks and the lighter soil types which produce the bulk of the yield.

Soil types vary from Mallee dunes and swales to limestone gravel and sodic heavy flats. Soil pH ranges from 7-8.5.

The property includes about 2800ha of floodplain forest and has frontage to the Wakool and Murray rivers, but no pumping points suitable for irrigated cropping.

Mr Howley operates on a quasi-controlled traffic farming system based on 36m A-B run lines for the Vector 300 self-propelled boom sprayer and WEED-IT used for fallow spraying.

The A-B lines are also provided to the contract harvesting team to limit traffic on most of each paddock.

The standard three-year rotation is wheat, barley and chemical fallow or a pulse crop.

"We grow pulse crops here for the wheat," Mr Howley said.

"It's pretty rare you make good money on a pulse crop in this low rainfall environment ... the last time was field peas that averaged 2t/ha in 2016."

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Weeds are always a challenge, hence the WEED-IT precision sprayer bought in 2012 for summer weed control, and use of Clearfield varieties in paddocks where needed to combat brome grass and barley grass.

Mr Howley said the WEED-IT had saved him a lot of money, but it wasn't magic.

"In summertime if you ring me I'm generally on it," he said.

"You have to keep it moving to make it work. It doesn't get everything in one pass, but if you've got scale, you'd be mad not to have one in a low rainfall environment."

This year's vetch crop was terminated with glyphosate, Surpass and Lontrel Advance for brown manure in early September.

Late last month a paddock of barley was crop-topped with Crucial and the field peas were desiccated with Paraquat.

Mr Howley said the barley would probably yield 1.5t/ha, the wheat 1.3t/ha and he was hoping to pick up 900kg-1t/ha of field peas.

"It's been pretty cool and a pretty mild finish which has helped all those big crops, so hopefully I'll get some advantage out of that too," he said.

"Wheat prices are still historically pretty high, so it should help us to have a reasonable year in a financial sense."

The scenario reinforces Mr Howley's conviction that nutrition is crucial for successful cropping, even in a low rainfall environment.

"You've got to have that right in order to get yield, not only for this season but the following ones," he said.

"As I get older I've found it's more of a longer game, than farming for right now.

"You've got to make decisions today that will benefit you for the next 10 years not the immediate future, hence the decision to have some more fallow because I know that'll be good for a wheat crop in that paddock next year."

Mr Howley has been a director of farming R&D group Mallee Sustainable Farming for the past decade. He often hosts trial days at Woodmount, although COVID-19 restrictions prevented that this year.

"It's pretty exciting at the moment because we've got our first female chairperson, Nicole Byrne, who farms at Pooncarie," he said.

"There's lots of interesting people on the board and it will be good to have face-to-face meetings again."

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