A Fresh Approach

Latina™ Fresh, a General Mills brand, partnered with Landcare Australia in 2019 to develop a sustainable agriculture program in northwest New South Wales to help farmers improve the sustainability and resilience of farm production systems. Latina™ Fresh has been making fresh pasta using Australian durum wheat for over 20 years and their pasta relies on high quality Australian durum wheat. Some 50 to 70 per cent of durum wheat is grown in northwest New South Wales, which has been hit hard by the effects of drought in recent times. The partnership is working with farmers to develop methods for conserving more spring and summer rainfall in the soils and storing it when needed for crops. 

In the most recent project, supported by a General Mills Foundation charitable contribution, trials for a variety of cover crops in the Moree region aim to assess the effects on soil moisture and durum production. Overseeing the trial, Rimanui Farms agronomist Alice Clark outlines project plans and intended benefits.

Can you tell me about your farm – location and describe the main agricultural enterprises on the property?

Boonaldoon is located in Northern New South Wales in Moree. It is a mixed farming operation, 55 per cent dryland, 10 per cent irrigation and the balance is grazing country. Predominantly dryland cropping comprising cereals, legumes, oil seeds.

Is this common of similar properties in the area?

Some properties are one hundred percent cropping but most are a mixed enterprise of livestock and cropping and it depends where they are situated. They could also be a mix of dryland and irrigation.

What size is the property?

A bit less than 21,000 hectares

Where is the trial taking place on the property?

Across 102 hectares of a dryland paddock at Boonaldoon.

What is your role and connection to the farm?

I am the on-farm agronomist. The farm is privately owned by a family.

Where are you from and have worked on other properties in this region?

Haven’t worked on other properties in this area. I’m from southern New South Wales in the Riverina. This area is quite attractive. Obviously there are some properties of a larger scale, they do have the opportunity to grow both winter and summer crops and it’s a very diverse area between cropping, livestock and irrigation so it was attractive to come here to get experience.

Are you part of a local Landcare group?

I’m not in Landcare but we as a farm are involved in a local grower network, where we meet up called GSG Group. 14 farms and local consultants meet up a few times a year and discuss best management practices. It’s very localised among farmers in the immediate area and it’s good to see what others are doing over the fence; what they have tried, what has worked, hasn’t worked. It’s good to go out and get new ideas and increase the speed of idea adoption; when you see someone else do it, or we’ve done it and someone can get advice from us. It’s good for information.

Talk about the current drought in the region and recent challenges the farm has faced?

It had been the lowest rainfall since records began 130 years ago, give or take, in that period, so obviously during that time, there wasn’t moisture for cropping. There was grass that maintained our cover from previous crops or forage but we didn’t have that moisture in the soil to have that planting opportunity, the moisture was too far down in the profile. Last year, we did put in a crop of chickpea, which you would essentially call a failed crop, to have a go but it was just a year of no cropping in such a vast area, to put in only five per cent to get a very low yield.

There was no stock on the place. I’ve been here for over a year now and we only got our first rain in January and it took a bit of time, everything bounced back.

Has the rain since January been enough to break the drought on the property and in the area?

We were in such a deficit, that despite having half the annual rainfall in that time, we were so low to begin with that we still have a way to go. Our profiles are looking quite good going into winter cropping though some areas of the farm experienced more rain than others. It’s been warm, so that’s been using up some of the moisture but ultimately, it sets us up in a far more advantageous position than before for a winter programme of cropping.

Are you a specialist in cover-cropping?

Where we are in this region, the soil types can store a significant amount of water so part of our rotation is wheat, chickpea and then a long fallow period. And it’s during that long fallow where you will hopefully capture enough moisture going back into the following cereal crop season. That’s where my interest in cover cropping came from, being able to get more out of that fallow period to guarantee the following crop.

Explain the trial and what’s involved.

It’s made up of different treatments – millet, sorghum and barley which are all terminated at different intervals just to see how much water is used to get to a certain stage and allow for so much cover. There are then are strips that represent what would normally happen during the fallow period from last year’s crop.

We didn’t have an opportunity to plant this cover crop before January because we didn’t have any rain till then. So after those first rains, we got some seed. Ironically, it has been a little bit cold recently as the rain has continued through February and March, it has cooled down a lot more than average summer temperatures and sorghum and millet are a summer grown plant. But the millet has been quite surprising in how quick it has grown.

Are you already seeing results?

Yes, the cover crop has been in the ground for over thirty days (note – interview was done towards the end of March 2020) and it has had a fantastic start thanks to the moisture and the result has been a growth of millet, something that has never happened before on this farm. To see this result so early on and the speed it’s growing, it’s fantastic.

What are the benefits for the soil with this trial?

Well, the moisture has dramatically improved. With these three different crops compared to a stubble fallow – for one, millet does not host crown rot – but having that soil moisture increases our AMF levels. Out here, the drought had seen some fallows that had gone for over 18 months and due to the dry, some of the microbes in the soil had broken down and they suffer from long fallow disorder and that just decreases your crop, depending what you put in there. So another thing we want to get out of the trial is seeing if the crops retain that moisture in the upper profile. Does that keep the soil active? Are the microbes there, still breaking things down with all the organic matter that’s left on the soil?

This is all about retaining the moisture in the soil for when the dry seasonal conditions return?

If that can reduce evaporation compared to the bare, well it’s not a bare fallow, we do maintain stubble, but having that increase, having the millet on top of that slows down the evaporation and increases infiltration into the soil by 20 millimetres when we do get rain. If you can increase the efficiencies of your fallow up to 26 per cent, compared to the bare fallows which we sometimes budget 13 – 17 per cent, depending on what the stubble covering is, you get more infiltration and it’s maintained throughout the profile that will hopefully increase our chances of planting the next crop.

Can the results of the trial ultimately assist and support durum growers in this area?

Definitely, if you can find a cover that can increase your fallow efficiency and not host crown rot which durum is usually very susceptible to, if you can increase that moisture, decrease your crown rot and increase the early growth of the seedlings, you would be more inclined to go with durum if you have the field set up and ready to go. And if you can have that warm moisture in the field, it should work to the benefit of durum.

It’s about seeing what it does to decrease crown rot, retain moisture. We just need to monitor the full results. And if you have more moisture, the quality of the produce and the product will ultimately be better. Which is an ultimate benefit for everyone. If the farmers are experiencing a better yield, they will be inclined to go for that over something else. Cover cropping could also have potential for other cereals too.

How has the COVID-19 health pandemic affected operations?

Very interesting times. We are naturally isolated out here in Moree. Last year we didn’t get to complete a full sowing but this year, we are gearing up for a full sowing so that means securing all staff. It’s also securing our inputs, the agriculture inputs we don’t store on the farm, they come from local suppliers and with some coming from overseas, from China, there have been some shortages. Going forward, it’s about being prepared and our staff remaining healthy so we can complete sowing.

When will this trial wrap up and reveal full results?

The cover crops will wrap up mid-winter and we won’t see results for another twelve months until after we complete our first harvest.

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