FACED with pulse crops that look to be dying in front of them many drought impacted farmers are being tempted to spray out paddocks or even run sheep on them to generate some modest income.
However, a leading pulse agronomist is urging those who have got at least some crop bulk to cool their jets – even with the outlook for a hot and dry spring, saying there is still the potential for the crops to bounce back.
Jason Brand, Agriculture Victoria pulse agronomist, said while growers in low rainfall zones which had received very little rain in the past month were probably up against it, there was still hope for those in areas such as the Wimmera, reflecting pulse species’ native origins in semi-arid regions of the Middle East and central Asia.
“With crops only a few inches high it might look like brown manure is all they’re good for,” Dr Brand said.
“But pulse prices are still good enough for growers to break even at relatively low yields, and most pulse species have a surprising capacity to burst into life on the back of one decent rainfall event.”
“My advice to growers is not to make the call to brown manure too early.
“There will be some crops that are too far gone now, but equally there will be others that may come good with a rain right up until mid-September, especially in the Wimmera where the rain for the year has been slightly better.
Birchip Cropping Group technical officer Kelly Angel agreed.
“Crops like chickpeas are very hardy, you’re obviously going to need a rain at some time but it is amazing how well the plant can respond even when it looks very weak,” Ms Angel said.
“The fact it can flower at any time means there is always hope if you can get a rain.”
“You only have to look at last year where a November frost dropped all the chickpea flowers.
“There was then late November rain and the chickpeas reflowered.”
“We had some growers harvesting the crop in February on the back of pods formed after that rain going a tonne to the hectare which is quite respectable for the area.”
Having said that, she said many crops in the Mallee were going to struggle to come to anything.
“It has been very dry and many crops, of all species, are struggling, especially those on the heavier soil types.”
Dr Brand said lentils were better at responding to rain again than chickpeas, but said most pulses will not shut down their reproductive stage until the last minute, meaning farmers still could salvage some yield from the crop.
“If the crop is relatively small and not using a lot of water, then a 0.5-1.0 tonne to the hectare yield is achievable, it only takes an inch or two of rainfall (25-50mm) in spring and away they go.”
Dr Brand cited 2015 as a classic example of when prices were high and yields of just 250 kilograms/ha could be profitable.
“Over the long term, a yield of about 500-750 kg/ha is regularly achievable, even under dry conditions.”
He says aiming for a half-tonne yield is worth it if growers can keep their costs down.
Ms Angel said growers contemplating grazing pulse crops had to weigh up the potential for erosion in the summer.
“Pulse stubbles can be prone to blowing at the best of times and farmers have to weigh up whether the short term income from finishing sheep on the paddocks is worth the risk of paddocks blowing in late summer and autumn.”
However, she acknowledged the temptation with sky-high finished sheep and lamb prices at present and some cheap buying opportunities of store lambs from drought impacted NSW.
Dr Brand said should the crop become irretrievable then brown manuring provided some long-term benefits.
“If the spring doesn’t go so well then brown manure can still provide value, the 20 kg/ha of nitrogen from a brown manure crop is better than nothing.”
Even with many sub-par crops in his region, a Swan Hill district agronomist said pulses were critical to cropping in his area.
Kent Wooding, general manager at AGRIvision Consultants, said pulses were a key tool in long-term crop rotations.
“While growers are always looking for and planning for a profitable crop, they need to also keep in mind the additional benefits from pulses,” Mr Wooding said.
“These include the disease and weed break, the nitrogen benefits and also the opportunity to mix up herbicide groups and weed control methods.”
With low yield expectations, he said growers needed to be realistic.
This may involve looking to cut costs in some areas.
When prioritizing Mr Wooding said he believed spending money on crop topping pulse paddocks was the best use of any budget available.
“Returns on fungicides are unlikely in a drier season, but crop topping is one cost that cannot be cut because of the impact on subsequent cereal crops.”
He also said farmers may have to control heliothis moths if they were looking to sell into human consumption markets if there is any level of the pest in the crop.