Upper Hunter farmers get the headers out despite terrible season

TOUGH SEASON: Richard Thompson, of Ballantyne, Cassilis, checks the moisture level of  his canola crop prior to harvest. This year he planted 320ha of canola with yields expected to be affected by the lack of rain.
TOUGH SEASON: Richard Thompson, of Ballantyne, Cassilis, checks the moisture level of his canola crop prior to harvest. This year he planted 320ha of canola with yields expected to be affected by the lack of rain.

The 2017 winter cropping season in the Upper Hunter can only be described in polite terms as challenging. 

But against the odds some farmers have been able to get the cobwebs off their headers and harvest a crop in a year rated the driest in seven decades.

Many crops around Merriwa and Cassilis have failed to make harvest due to the lack of winter and spring rains, which has really sapped morale in a district where the Sir Ivan Bushfire destroyed so much when it hit on February 12.

Eventually the fire burnt out 52,000 hectares, destroying homes, farm infrastructure and livestock.

At the Thompsons’ family property Ballantyne, at Cassilis, 490ha was burnt out but they consider themselves very lucky as just when the fire arrived the wind dropped and saved their property from further destruction.

“Before the change the westerly winds were travelling at between 80 to 100kmh so we could have been devastated,” said Richard Thompson.

His family’s operation covers 2450ha and includes 800ha of cropping as well as running 570 Te Mania and Trio bloodline Angus breeders. 

Richard said it was the driest year on year at Ballantyne since 1948. 

We had a good break in March which enabled us to get crops in the ground but from then on there was virtually no rain.

Richard Thompson

“We had a good break in March which enabled us to get crops in the ground but from then on there was virtually no rain,” he said.

“What got our crops through was the good fallow meaning the crops had moisture ’til August. This year really highlighted the need to have moisture stored in your soil by using the best conservation farming methods.”

Yields are expected to be back but as least after a horror year the crops are still will worth harvesting and prices quoted recently for canola at $580 a tonne (delivered port) are strong.

At Ballantyne, the canola which was either Pioneer Clearfield 45Y90 or Pioneer Atomic TT is likely to yield 1.2-1.5tonnes/ha which compares to their target of 2.5t/ha in a normal season. 

They also planted 120ha of Patrick chickpeas and 80ha of Sunland wheat along with grazing oats and barley. 

Richard said they expected the chickpeas to yield 1.5t/ha and the wheat around 2t/ha after it was grazed by 200 steers for 65 days. 

“Our cropping season, although tough, has been better than others in the district who unfortunately won’t get a crop at all,” he said.

The dry season reduced yields but also meant there was less disease pressure with the chickpeas requiring only two fungal sprays where in a wet season that increases to between 8-10. 

The other important lesson learnt from the 2017 was the need to ensure good weed control so there was no competition for the limited available moisture, said Richard.

And once the harvest is complete farmers in the Upper Hunter are hoping for some good rains to arrive as they have missed out on the heavier falls that have occurred in October and early November in other areas.