High hopes for summer crop trial

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While rain has hampered harvest efforts, Meckering farmers Ray and Wendy Fulwood have been planting a summer crop.

It is hoped the trial, which is being monitored by WA No-Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA) research manager Matthew McNee, will help to determine whether summer crops have a future in the Wheatbelt.

"It may be the direction farming here needs to go; we need to take advantage of every opportunity," Ms Fulwood said.

Ray and Wendy grow seed crops on their 2200 hectare farm and wanted something to fill the void in summer.

"Predictions were for a wet summer, so we decided to give it a try," Mr Fulwood said. "We seeded in paddocks least prone to wind erosion."

So far, they have planted 42ha of sorghum and 3ha of millet and plan to put in 80ha of cowpeas.

"They all grow for about three to four months and are great for ground cover," Mr Fulwood said.

"Cowpeas also have the advantage of adding nitrogen to the soil."

If the crops get enough rain to fully develop, Ray and Wendy will harvest them for seed. However, if the crops dry off, the couple said they would be happy with just the cover crop and nutrient advantages.

"It only cost about $20/ha, so it's not a big loss if they don't yield," Mr Fulwood said.

Mr McNee said the Fulwoods had planted proso millet, a shallow rooted summer annual that had a low water requirement. The variety is suited to semi-arid conditions with high summer temperatures.

"Proso millet is widely grown as an alternative crop in the Central Great Plains of America (300-500mm annual rainfall) and is used when a spring wheat crop has failed," he said.

Mr McNee said research had shown that the variety's productivity and water use efficiency was higher in no-till farming systems compared with tillage systems, with its lowest transpiration ratio per unit of total dry matter.

"In the Central Great Plains, triazine herbicides are usually applied 60 days before sowing. But in WA conditions, a summer crop would usually be grown opportunistically after winter crop harvest," he said.

"Experience with proso millet sown directly after a winter crop in the eastern states of Australia has shown that it is a poor competitor with weeds in its early growth stages, so a clean paddock or knockdown before sowing is required for good establishment."

The millet crop is traditionally swathed before combining to promote uniform drying and to reduce seed shatter. However, research has shown that direct harvesting with a stripper-header reduced costs and average yields were similar despite there being 20 per cent more seed on the ground.

"An added benefit (of millet) is higher standing stubble and groundcover with direct heading. This could be advantageous after a legume crop resulting in low ground cover," Mr McNee said.

Data on summer crop options will be collected and published by WANTFA in early 2012.

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