Corporate farming and weed control
At Warakirri Cropping Trusts’ ‘Orange Park’, manager John Stevenson has set up a crop rotation that is profitable and able to combat herbicide resistance in weeds.
Orange Park is an 8200 ha corporate dryland cropping operation with eight main blocks, all within a 30 km radius of Lockhart, NSW where John introduced the use of the double break from cereals 10 years ago.
“Our rotation is driven by herbicide resistant weed management,” he says. “A double break, such as hay/canola, pulse/canola, fallow/canola, is implemented once in a 7-year rotation. The rotation is flexible but we do what we can to avoid growing three cereal crops in a row because the result is inevitably a weed blow-out.”
The main weeds on Orange Park are annual ryegrass in-crop and fleabane in summer, which has been increasing since 2005, particularly in wet years. Wild oats is a lesser but persistent weed.
“We have low level glyphosate resistance and varying levels of Group A resistance to contend with,” says John. “We don’t use much Group B chemistry either, except occasionally in imi-tolerant crops, partly because of decontamination issues with canola, but mainly because of poor efficacy.”
The wettest September on record in 2016 saw about 10% of the crop across the Orange Park operation inundated – compromising their weed control and nitrogen management.
“Essentially we lost a year of weed control with ryegrass blow outs due to poor crop competition and not being able to do timely herbicide applications,” says John. “We also saw a shift in the weed spectrum with more carryover of weeds that thrive in wet conditions, such as toad rush and lesser loosestrife.”
Crop rotation and double break cropping
The rotation that is working well on Orange Park since 2008 consists of two cereals followed by canola, then another two cereals and finally a double break before returning to cereals.
John incorporates as much diversity within the system as possible to maximise returns and keep pressure on weed numbers. Canola, wheat, barley, pulses (including faba bean, lentils and vetch hay), oaten hay for export, and strategic fallowing to conserve moisture, all feature in the list of options. The diversity in crops enables the rotation of herbicide groups, including pre-emergent herbicides ahead of each crop.
Imi-tolerant crops such as Hurricane lentils, IT-canola, possibly barley in the future add to the mix although John often grows hybrid IT-canola conventionally simply for its inherent yield advantage.
“The price of lentils is attractive however logistics are difficult, as grain needs to get to Horsham, over 6 hours away,” he says. “Realistically, canola and feed grain for poultry and feedlots are our mainstay crops.”
To maximise the competitiveness of canola crops John grows some hybrid crops and also grades OP canola to 2 mm diameter as a cost-effective way to improve crop establishment and early vigour that also suppresses early weed growth.
This year John planted 650 ha trial of lentils in a block that would normally have been fallowed. “There was good residual soil moisture from last year’s wet winter and we tried a late planting system to reduce the density of the lentil crop to keep air flowing through canopy, hopefully reducing the incidence of disease,” he says. “Weed control in the Hurricanes XT lentils has been exceptional although the crop has demonstrated the need for better pH amelioration at depth.”
“Including lentils will spread the workload and we can target a different weed germination cohort,” he says. “Having a different group of herbicides available will also help add diversity to our control program.”
Row spacing, CTF and stubble management
John manages Orange Park as eight 1000 ha management units, where a unit may consist of several blocks in close proximity. He is looking at opportunities to implement east–west sowing in suitable blocks to maximise yield and reduce weed pressure.
While on a Nuffield Scholarship trip to New Zealand, John saw crops grown on 125 mm (5 inch) row spacing where farmers were able to include ryegrass as a crop in their rotation, without concern over future weed problems.
“Historically, our seeding has been on a 300 mm row spacing but we are in the process of investing in a full disc seeding system, which will allow us to narrow the row spacing to 175 mm (7 inches),” says John.
The disc seeder will enable John to retain stubble from their 1.7 t/ha pulses, 3.4 t/ha wheat and 4 t/ha barley crops within their 18 m system with 3 m CTF tramlines.
Harvest weed seed control
John and his team have been narrow windrow burning for three years. Having tried this harvest weed seed control tactic in canola, wheat and barley crops they have found the safest and best results are achieved in canola.
“Realistically, narrow windrow burning is not very compatible with the council’s fire regulations so we are looking at alternatives,” says John. “Cereal stubble burns for 4 or 5 hours, and whirlwinds can easily shift burning chaff 300 m into a neighbour’s stubble.”
A downside to narrow windrow burning is that more moisture is stored under the narrow windrows, which can cause uneven crop germination the following season.
John is looking into other options for harvest weed seed control and will probably phase out narrow windrow burning over the next few years. Chaff deck systems suit CTF and although John thinks they have merit, there are limitations on the options available when using contract harvesters. Chaff lining seems easier to implement and is likely to feature in the near future.
“Narrow rows help push weed seed heads to the top of the canopy,” says John. “Two plants per m2 is too many, especially if the weed is able to adopt a prostrate habit and evade collection at harvest. The big challenge is getting inexperienced header drivers to harvest low, even though we pay the contractor a premium to have this happen.”
John uses spray topping in canola, and sometimes wheat and barley, along with hay production to take out late germinating weeds.
Over summer, John uses a contractor with an optical (camera) sprayer to treat survivors with paraquat following a broadacre spray of glyphosate. He says the optical sprayer is also a valuable tool to help manage cud weed, which is becoming more prevalent.
There is no routine cultivation in the system however John does incorporate lime with a speed tiller before planting and a full tillage using a flexicoil is done when there is levelling work required.
“When we change over to the disc seeder we will probably need to cultivate to remove the ridges left by the tined system,” he says. “The disc seeders can’t handle too much chaff on the ground either, so burning is still an option for weed control, or when slugs and mice are a problem.”
Soil fertility and weeds
Across the Orange Park operation John has acidic (pH 4.5) red soil ridges and some sodic vertosols to contend with. He is using variable rate technology (VRT) to apply lime to the red ridges using rates ranging from 1 to 3 t/ha to lift the pH to 5.5.
“We saw an immediate response of lower ryegrass population in low pH blocks after lime application due to stronger crop competition,” he says. “Variable rate application and soil testing has been very cost effective for us and has helped reduce weed numbers and improves herbicide efficacy. Fixing soil pH gives the best return on investment through improved nutrient availability, which supports higher yield and better weed control.”
John is also using soil sensing and VRT to address constraints in nitrogen and phosphorus.