Bill Yates

Region: Garah, north-east New South Wales (480 kilometres south-west of Brisbane)

Commodity: Wheat, barley, canola, lambs, hay

Farming area: 17,000 hectares

Rainfall: 175-1050 mm per year; average 540 mm

Email: yatesbill@bigpond.com

Twitter: @yates_bill

Phone: 02 6754 3389

 

We’ve noticed that we don’t really have spring now - we seem to go straight from winter to 30 °C, and that could happen over a week. We are taking advantage of this change by planting our summer crops earlier.

 

See what Bill has to say about:

 

Farming in northern New South Wales

Our property is about 70 kilometres north-west of Moree in northern New South Wales. My grandfather started farming here in 1899, just after the railway came to Moree. The land was up for ballot, and William Thomas Yates was the lucky man. He had to show that he had some money and sheep, and he had to clear the land.

I came back to help my father on the property in 1972 after gaining a Master of Rural Science. When I came back, we had 2000 hectares. Now we have 17,000 hectares, so we have done a bit of expanding.

Andrew, my son, has been back now for about 6 years after he finished his degree. He runs the cropping side of things and I do the stock.

We crop about half of the property - about 8500 hectares. We crop wheat, barley, faba beans and chickpeas. Our summer crop is sorghum. We grow some grazing crops as well - vetch and sometimes other legumes. We like the vetch because it can self-seed, so we don’t have to re-sow it every year.

We run about 500 breeding cows and 4000 ewes. We sell the calves off at any age, either direct to slaughter or to feedlots to fatten up and grow out to domestic requirements. We mainly use the sheep for meat production now, rather than wool.

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Climate changes on our farm: no spring and fewer frosts

Our typical season is a wet summer. In a good year, we get 70 mm rainfall a month through the summer months, and about 130 mm over the course of a winter crop.

The winter sowing window is from mid-April to late May, whereas it used to go into July. We’ve noticed that we don’t really have spring now - we seem to go straight from winter to 30 °C, and that could happen over a week.

We are more frequently getting days over 30 °C in August. Bureau of Meteorology data for Mungindi shows we have had 30 °C days in 6 out of the last 11 Augusts. Prior to that, there had been only 3 out of 50 Augusts when we had 30 °C days.

 

 

The warmer days earlier in the season are maturing our crops a lot quicker and, in the process, decreasing yield. Winter crops such as wheat and barley do not cope well with 30 °C days at flowering or during grain fill. To overcome this, we need to grow shorter season varieties.

While these warmer springs are jeopardising our winter yields, we are taking advantage of this change by planting our summer crops earlier. We do this to manage the risk of extreme temperatures at harvest time.

If the cool season continues to get shorter and our springs hotter, we will most likely plant more barley and chickpea.

We will also look more closely at faster growing and maturing summer and winter varieties to mitigate the extreme temperatures at the end of each season.

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Barley is more flexible during heat, frost and drought

Wheat has always been the most popular crop around this area. If you’re able to get the yield, it gives you the best margin.

But because of the shorter winters, we are now growing more barley than wheat. We find that it is better suited to shorter and drier seasons.

Barley seedlings establish crown roots quite aggressively, which quickly explore the soil profile. Wheat often sits on a primary root system and can’t use stored moisture effectively.

Part of barley’s advantage is due to it being sown earlier and having more opportunity to drive roots down through moist soil without a dry band of soil stopping root growth.

Barley will often reach grain fill before the heat kicks in, and can tolerate frost a lot better too. That’s because it tends to flower while the head is in the leaf sheath.


 

During droughts, barley is also hardier than wheat. If a season has been particularly dry, we will graze the barley and wheat to keep the stock going. However, if we get 150 mm of rain in late July, barley will bounce back quicker than wheat and allow us to harvest reasonable yields.

So we can cover more bases with barley than we can with wheat, and it offers us more flexibility.

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Reducing extreme heat risk by sowing sorghum early

Shorter winters have also meant that we can start to think about sowing sorghum in mid-August instead of mid-September. We do this to reduce the risk of extreme temperatures when the crop is close to harvest.

We base our decision to sow sorghum on temperature and rainfall. We start looking at the 10-day model out of Europe (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, ECMWF) in the second week of August to see if the forecast daily and overnight temperatures start to increase and remain above 14 °C (average of maximum and minimum). We will also look at rainfall, as this can cool things down.

If we see that the next 10 days are predicted to be fine and above 14 °C, then we’ll get to work sowing.

There is some likelihood that we will get a frost that will damage seedling leaves or slow the plant down, but we believe it is a minimal risk compared to the risk of losing yield because of extreme temperatures at harvest time. We are happy to take a 5-10 per cent hit in yield due to early season frost damage and get up to 80 per cent more yield if the plant can flower and fill before 40 °C heat.

Last year [2013] we sowed on 25 August, two days after a big frost. The model said that it was supposed to be fine and warm for the next 10 days so we went ahead. Because many people in the area waited until mid-September to sow, they missed out on sowing sorghum.

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Saving soil moisture through no-till and skip-rows

In our climate, you need a bed of deep moisture to grow sorghum because the roots can extend to a depth of 1.5 metres. The extra moisture provides a good buffer against variable and sometimes-scattered summer rainfall. Vertosol soils will hold up to 180 mm of moisture per metre of soil.

We practise no-till which preserves the moisture, stops the surface drying out and gives you more sowing opportunities. For instance, in 2010, it hadn’t rained since the beginning of March and we started sowing our winter crop in mid-April. No-till enabled us to do that because we could sow deeper into the moisture bed.

 

We also use some tricks to save the moisture for when the summer crop is flowering. We plant a skip-row configuration - sowing two rows and then skipping one - which means there is some moisture available in the skip row, at depth, for when the plant flowers.

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Managing climate variability with livestock and crop residues

Running livestock is a method we use to mitigate climate variability. If a crop fails due to a bad season, whether it is drought or flood, we can still use the crop residue to feed or fatten our livestock. We see no-till fallows as a haystack in a paddock which we use to fatten and grow our livestock.

 

We sell calves and lambs off within a year, either direct to slaughter or to feedlots to fatten up and grow out to domestic requirements. If the climate is favourable, we will keep them for longer to add weight.

If the season is particularly dry and there is an opportunity where we can send them to agistment - somewhere else that has got rain - we send them away.

It’s preferable to do that than feed hay to a whole herd and have to deal with the negative cash flow. My father always said, ‘Don’t start feeding the stock unless you can afford to feed them for 6 months’.

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Using short-, medium- and long-term forecasts

I use a combination of short-, medium- and long-term weather forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

The Bureau's 7-day forecast is now as accurate as the 4-day forecast was 10 years ago.

The forecasts are best thought of as probabilistic and average over a 50-kilometre grid; so if 90 per cent of 5 mm of rain is predicted, parts of the gridded area may miss out and some may get 20 mm.

When sowing, we are always looking at how much rain is predicted for the coming season. We are also factoring if we are in an El Niño or La Niña and how much soil moisture we have.

This year [2014] we started with 100 mm of available, stored moisture and had 50 mm rainfall in-crop by mid-June. The El Niño is now neutral [March 2014], so we have calculated a 35 per cent probability of growing 2 tonnes per hectare using the French and Schultz formula [ see CSIRO explanation of the formula, 823 kb].

In summer, if we experience an extreme El Niño event and have little soil moisture [less than 1 metre], we would not sow much sorghum - and if we did, it would be with a strong perception of getting grazing value from it.

For instance, this summer [2013-14] was predicted to be neutral - neither El Niño or La Niña - but it turned out to be a really harsh summer. To manage this, we turned most of the crop over to feed. In the end, we then had enough feed for our animals for the next 3 months.

 

Interview dates: August 2010, 27 March 2014

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