Tractors turning at Merredin

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

The tractor wheels are turning in the eastern Wheatbelt, with some farmers welcoming falls of more than 30mm in last week's frontal system.

For Andrew and Stephen Crook, who farm with Andrew's two sons Callan and Jayden, the early autumn rain has presented them with an opportunity to trial the profitability of early-sown canola on a paddock of 2014 oats that were grazed and left as ground cover.

Andrew says this is the fourth year out of five he has been able to get the tractor out of the shed at this time.

He said he had already sown 400ha of oats after receiving 92mm in March.

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The growing season long-term average rainfall on the Crooks' property is 245mm.

In the past, he has also sown barley and oats, all for grazing purposes.

"There is good moisture in the soil now and we have to take these opportunities when they present themselves to begin our program," he said.

"If we are able to establish something on this early rainfall, it takes a massive amount of pressure off our traditional seeding program."

But he says while the canola trial will be grazed, this crop will be about more than just sheep feed.

Mr Crook said frost was a concern for his business, so grazing would be critical to ensure the flowering period was out of the high-frost risk window.

"In lower rainfall areas, canola doesn't compensate the same way it does in the mid to higher rainfall areas after a frost, so canola crops here are still very susceptible," he said.

Under the guidance of ConsultAg, the Crooks started seeding the 35ha trial on April 2 to take advantage of between 14mm and 34mm they received across the property, which stretches both north and south of Merredin.

The Crooks have a nucleus sheep flock of 1600 ewes, and crop 4400ha of wheat, canola, lupins, oats and barley.

Mr Crook said Department of Agriculture and Food rainfall data during the past 14 years had demonstrated a clear change in rainfall patterns, with more rain falling earlier in the year.

"The DAFWA data has shown that with the change in weather patterns since 2000 we have a system where it's wetter earlier in the year and then wetter later in the year," he said.

"It's also becoming dryer in the middle, meaning when we are trying to establish a crop at the traditional time of late autumn, we are faced with higher temperatures and less rainfall.

"This is a challenging scenario."

ConsultAg consultant Geoff Fosbery, who is working closely with the Crooks on this trial, believes canola has a big future in the eastern Wheatbelt.

"Canola is more profitable than wheat in the eastern Wheatbelt when sown on 10-month fallow, and, despite what some may think, it's not a risky crop if it's planned and planted correctly."

Mr Fosbery said when canola was planted after a 10-month fallow, the rotation provided two years of excellent weed control and reduced disease risk to the following wheat crops.

"It makes growing wheat simple in the following years," he said.

Mr Fosbery agreed rainfall data clearly demonstrated that establishing crops in late autumn was becoming more challenging in the eastern Wheatbelt.

"May rainfall is getting less often, and the increments are lower, and we know March and early April rain is getting higher and more frequent, so we have to find ways to capitalise on this early autumn moisture," he said.

The trial will look at early planted canola that is ungrazed, grazed once, and grazed twice.

It will also look at canola planted at the traditional time of Anzac Day, both grazed and ungrazed.

The early-sown canola trial will be grazed at about 5 DSE/ha at the three leaf stage for 10 to 14 days.

Mr Fosbery said the best results would be early-sown grazed canola showing negligible yield losses, or preferably yield gain, with a flowering period postponed to avoid the major frost window.

"We will be measuring plant bio mass, grazing days per hectare, grazing time, affect of grazing on yield, and flowering time," he said.

"Really, the least acceptable outcome is grain yield loss that adds up to the value of the grazing.

"We cannot lose any dollars across the business."

The Crooks and ConsultAg will work closely with the Merredin and Districts Farm Improvement Group and the Department of Agriculture and Food to monitor the trial and assess the yield data results.

Mr Fosbery said some funding had also been obtained through the GRDC Grain and Graze 3 project.

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