War against the weed

Headshot of Jenne Brammer
Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

While January is typically a quiet time for most cropping farmers, it is among the busiest time of the year for those involved in the fight against skeleton weed.

January is the month when farmers, the Department of Agriculture and Food WA and the Skeleton Weed Local Action Groups are out searching for the declared weed, which can significantly reduce cropping yields and cause damage to harvest machinery.

The only effective search method is visual, so searching for skeleton weed is tedious and time-intensive, relying on the vigilance of farmers or dedicated contractors, depending on the skeleton weed history of the paddock and the risk coding allocated.

Results are then collated during February for release at the end of the month and individual action plans collated.

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Lakes LAG co-ordinator Lyn Carruthers said there was likely to be a marked increase in findings in the 2014-15 season because of abundant summer rains prompting vast germinations.

There are now six WA Skeleton Weed LAGs in operation, including the Lakes, Yilgarn, Bruce Rock, Narembeen, Goomalling and the relatively-new Nungarin/Trayning/Merredin LAG operation.

These work closely with local DAFWA offices and form an important part of the skeleton weed management program.

The LAGs are funded by the Grains, Seeds and Hay Industry Funding Scheme, which in turn is funded by a voluntary 30 cent a tonne contribution that farmers pay on the sales of grain, seeds and hay into the scheme.

Mrs Carruthers said each LAG across WA received funding according to its individual needs, with the Lakes LAG having access to about $140,000 in 2013-2014 to cover the shires of Lake Grace, Kondinin, Kulin, Dumbleyung and Wickepin.

These funds are used to pay for the LAG co-ordinator, search contractors, winter spraying programs, as well as literature and other incidentals.

Lakes LAG chairman and Kondinin farmer Gary Repacholi said in the 2013-14 season, more than 400 paddocks were found to be infested with skeleton weed in the area covered by the Lakes LAG, a significant increase on 10 years ago.

However, although more paddocks were infested in this area last year, there were fewer infestations or "squares" within those paddocks.

In WA overall, DAFWA reported 941 properties were infested, which is an increase over the past five years.

However, the area across the State is 1440ha, down from 2518ha in 2012/13.

Mr Repacholi said for real progress to be made in the fight against skeleton weed, farmers must be diligent in reporting any infestations to DAFWA, which is a legal responsibility as a landholder or lessee.

"Ongoing vigilance during day-to-day farming activities on the farmers' part is essential to finding new infestations early," he said.

Once an infestation is found, the farmer is obliged to report this, and work with the LAG and DAFWA on eradicating the weed - an effort which takes a minimum of four years.

Any skeleton weed discovery will be registered on the DAFWA's infested list and the paddock will receive code 1 status. A code 1 paddock will require a full search, and a square with a 20m buffer from the plants will then be GPSed for winter spray treatment.

DAFWA reimburses the costs of searching a code 1 paddock only. Other searches will be at the farmer's own cost.

In subsequent years, paddocks will require further searches according to codings based on how long the paddock has been skeleton-weed free.

A paddock requires three clear searches before it can be released off the infested list.

Mr Repacholi said while the vast majority of farmers complied with their obligations to report new findings, he suspected there was a very small minority who ignored this responsibility.

The lack of control on these properties means seeds can continue to spread to neighbouring properties and cause major setbacks in the fight against skeleton weed.

"Another big issue these days is absent landholders. If people are not present on their farms over the summer months, they obviously won't be in a position to see if skeleton weed has emerged," he said.

Mr Repacholi also concedes that despite the best intentions, it is also possible for farmers to miss new sightings of the declared weed given the vast area covered.

DAFWA Lakes biosecurity officer Brian Kimber said while the main searching and surveillance took place during January, the LAGs remained busy throughout the year.

Raising awareness and communication with growers was an important role. For instance, LAG co-ordinators present at CBH pre-season meetings and will participate in field days such as those at Newdegate and Dowerin.

Meanwhile, there are constant communications ongoing to ensure farmers know their obligations and have up-to-date information on their skeleton weed infestation status.

With the aim to keep skeleton weed at the forefront of all growers' minds, a range of materials are distributed to them, including calendars and stickers to be placed on headers to help drivers identify the weed.

Grain Seeds and Hay IFS deputy chairman and Kondinin farmer Brian Young said farmers had recently reinforced their commitment to participate in the voluntary 30 cent per tonne levy, 27 cents of which went to skeleton weed eradication and 3 cents for bedstraw eradication.

A survey in late 2013 gauged whether farmers wanted to wind down, maintain or increase the voluntary contribution. Farmers voted to maintain it at current levels, with 99 per cent voluntarily participating.

Mr Young said about $3.6 million annually was required for this program.

While recent good seasons and large harvests meant there have been ample funds to date, a poor season with a harvest below the 10 million-tonne long-term average would leave the program short.

Mr Kimber believes despite the spread of skeleton weed, it is possible one day in the future it could be eradicated from WA.

But Mr Young disagreed.

"The spread is too far and too wide. I can't see us eradicating skeleton weed across the State - that would mean finding every single plant," he said.

"But eradicating small infestations on individual properties is achievable, as we have seen many times.

"The program as a whole is very successful in that skeleton weed would be far more widely spread in WA if these measures were not in place."

Once an infestation is found, the farmer is obliged to report this, and work with the LAG and DAFWA on eradicating the weed - an effort which takes a minimum of four years.

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