Wheatbelt rain good start for summer cropping

While most Wheatbelt farmers were cursing the wet weather during harvest, Newdegate farmer Nick Kelly was making the most of it.
As the headers rolled to a stop, the 36-year-old was busy working with his tractor and disc drill planting millet.
Nick Kelly’s less than traditional farming system has helped him earn the title of a Wheatbelt Champion, as part of a push to highlight the importance of soil health in the region.
Natural resource management group Wheatbelt NRM is driving the campaign that will culminate in a two-day soils conference to be held in York in March.
Nick Kelly will be one of seven WA farmers who will attend the conference on the adoption of farming systems that help promote soil health.
“For me seeding during November is normal,” Nick Kelly said.
“We’ve embraced the idea of summer cropping to keep a live root system in the ground for the past five or six years.
“The live root system is a huge benefit because you are feeding the microbial activity in the soil.”
Nick farms with his wife Lucy and parents Malcolm and Cathie Kelly.
His parent’s cleared the farm in 1965, which now comprises a 3000 hectare cropping program of canola, wheat, field peas and millet.
The millet is sold as birdseed into Perth, a market currently supplied mostly by Queensland.
“Millet is very tough, it gets its roots down and is drought tolerant if it can get really well established,” Nick Kelly said.
Seeding of the millet starts in September when a disc machine is used to plant the crop at about four kilograms to the hectare.
“Because it is an opportunity crop I don’t want to fertilise and there is usually enough phosphate left over from the previous crop,” he said.
“The millet that is planted in September is usually harvested in March.
“I’m not as worried about the later millet planted in November because that is more about having a live root system in the ground and soil health.
“For me it is a win-win because I achieve better soil health in the summer and I can cut back on spraying.
“The millet creates competition for melons and wild radish.”
Nick Kelly said he was finding conflicting evidence surrounding the theory that having a summer crop took away moisture from the soil profile for the winter crop.
“When we had our Landmark agronomist come out and do soil sampling at the end of the 2011 summer, we found everywhere there was millet cover the soil was damp,” he said.
“The soil during the sampling would stick to the core sampler and didn’t fall out.
“Where there was no summer crop, the soil just fell out of the sampler and the difference was really quite obvious.”
Nick Kelly uses a John Deere 1890 Air Drill or disc drill to sow both summer and winter crops.
While knifepoints are still considered minimum tillage, Nick said he prefers to use the disc drill to keep soil disturbance to an absolute minimum.
He’s also trying to eliminate pre-emergent spraying in wheat, with half his wheat program this year not having a pre-emergent.
“I’m really pushing the boundaries here and I’m learning where you can and can’t get away without using a pre-emergent chemical,” he said.
“Ultimately I’d like to remove pre-emergent altogether, but this is a long term project because of problems like radish.
“We are starting to see the millet squeezing out the radish to a point, especially in summer when the crop is growing.”
Nick Kelly doesn’t just pin point the improvement in soil health to growing a summer crop.
“I think it’s the overall picture of no-till and our whole system approach,” he said.
“It’s been costly to implement because I’ve had to do all the trials myself, but I believe in it enough to keep doing it.
“We haven’t had brilliant years because of the tough seasons, but we can see the crops performing better in the paddocks that have had the millet.
“It’s hard to compare with conventional systems because we don’t run stock.
“But I can see lower inputs including less spraying, without losing out on our yields.”
Nick Kelly will be one of seven WA farmers involved in the Talkin’ Soil Heath: Invention and Innovation in Soil Management being hosted by Wheatbelt NRM.
The conference is primarily aimed at broadacre Wheatbelt farmers and will feature presentations by soils ecologist Dr Christine Jones and broad acre farming systems specialist Dr Michael Robertson from the CSIRO.
Hands on workshops will also be run by Prof. Dan Murphy and Prof. Lyn Abbott from the University of Western Australia.
The conference will take place Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 March at York Town Hall and registration is free.
More information is available at www.wheatbeltnrm.org.au or by phoning Wheatbelt NRM on (08) 9670 3100.
The event is funded through the Federal government’s Caring For our Country initiative.