Saunders happy with oats option

Kate MatthewsCountryman

Paul and Lisa Saunders are focusing on a low-cost, low-risk strategy and have cut barley, wheat and canola from their cropping program to focus on oats.

The farmers have downsized their enterprise after farming in Arthur River and the Wheatbelt at Tarin Rock and Dumbleyung.

Only five out of 15 years of Wheatbelt farming were good production years, with the remainder filled with dry seasons, frosts and low sheep returns. Losses last year amounted to $250,000.

Before focusing on grain production, the Saunders were building up sheep numbers.

But in 2006, dry conditions hit and hand-feeding sheep was costing $35 a head.

The breeding ewes bought the year before for $60 a head were sold for $15 to $20 as mutton because of an over-supply.

The Saunders had to sell 3500 sheep for $70,000.

“If it was the previous 12 months, when sheep have been going east, it would have been $350,000 to $500,000 of income, ” Paul said.

Paul’s original plan, having farmed 1038 hectares with his parents at Arthur River, was to own another farm for his two children so they could farm in their own right.

But having reached the 50-year goal post, and with Georgia, 11, and Fergus, 9, interested in other fields, downsizing was the best option.

This year will be the second year in a row Paul will grow oats only.

“Growing all oats is the opportunity to bring cropping soils into line because we don’t have internal fencing anymore, ” Paul said.

It was also a financial decision, given the high price for oats and low yields of other cereals last year.

Paul has cut fertiliser from $120 to $85/ha and uses a blend of 60kg of MAPZC and 60kg of urea down the tube at seeding.

Three oat varieties were planted — Mitika, Pallinup and Yallara.

Mitika accounts for 60 per cent of the program and has excellent grain quality and is a dwarf variety.

“Pallinup is 38 per cent of the program and is a tall variety and competes well with wild oats. We are bulking up Yallara, which is a top milling variety in the eastern states and has possible disease resistance benefits.”

Last year, Paul said Mitika yielded 2.2t/ha and Pallinup made 1.3t/ha.

All seed was planted at 100 to 120kg/ha, 50mm deep at a row space of 230mm. Next year the cropping regime will change to include 200 to 300ha of canola with the balance put back into oats.

“Really, it was the price of oats and seasonal conditions that made me evaluate my cropping regime, ” Paul said.

“Low cost, low risk. When you’re in the cropping game, your biggest risk is when you spend all your money.

“If you don’t get a return on that, it equates to an immediate loss and there is no upside if the season goes against you.

“All our oats were forward-contracted last year and again this year.”

The contract, with an undisclosed buyer, is subject to seasonal conditions with no penalties or washouts.

Oats were seeded from May 2 to 27, with a six-day break while waiting for rain.

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