Colin Dunne

Region: Duaringa, Central Queensland

Commodity: Sorghum, corn, mungbeans, chickpeas, wheat, organic beef cattle

Farming area: About 72,000 hectares (2200 cropping, 70,000 beef cattle)

Rainfall: 250–1500 mm rainfall per year

Email: c_dunne@bigpond.com

Phone: 07 4935 7145

Responsive management to seasonal conditions is important for our business. The main climate-related decisions we make are related to weaning times, feeding breeders, stocking rates, row-spacing and double-cropping decisions. With farming, you can’t totally take the risk out of things. I try to just live with it, and deal with what I’m dealt, and do what I do best.

 

See what Colin has to say about:

 

Producing cattle and cropping in Central Queensland

I live and farm about 20 kilometres north of Duaringa, on the Mackenzie River, in Central Queensland. I have a dryland cropping and cattle grazing enterprise.

I was brought up on the property next door and we started farming there in the late 1960s. My family has produced cattle since the 1870s.

We grow crops and can plant all year round. My main summer crops are mungbeans, corn and sorghum. In winter, I grow chickpeas and wheat.

The block where I live is about 12,000 hectares in size. I farm about 2200 hectares of that - the rest is for grazing and fattening cattle. We have 6 other cattle properties, totalling about 70,000 hectares for grazing.

Our cattle operation is fully ‘certified organic’ through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The cattle part of our operation has been extremely beneficial for our business in recent years, and we have had a run of good seasons.

My lovely wife Catherine does our office work, my 2 sons work full time on the farms, my 2 daughters help out part time, and we employ 3 men full time.

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Managing variable rainfall and the river flats flooding

The annual rainfall at Duaringa varies from about 250 mm to 1500 mm.

In the 1950s, we got well over 1000 mm of rainfall in most years and in 2011 we had the same rainfall. But we have had some quite severe droughts too - in 2009 we had 20 mm over 6 months.

Since the flood of 1991 we’ve had 2 more big floods: one in 2008 and another in 2012. From 1991 to 2008 is the longest time between floods that we would usually expect.

The part of our properties which are river flats are a very heavy soil, and are very deep and good - at least 10 metres deep. When it floods, we get between 1 and 4 metres of water over that farming country. Luckily, we have no infrastructure that’s affected there.

Some of my cattle country is a bit lower - on the river flat it can get 6-8 metres of water over it during a flood. When it’s in flood, the cattle go up to the higher country.

The wet times don't affect my farm management too much because I’ve still got the cattle to work with - there is always plenty to do.

During average-rainfall years I quite often have a spring crop, and can sneak in another crop: 3 crops in 2 years. But the last few wetter years I’ve been struggling to do that.

Even though we’ve had lots of moisture, the timing has not been good for the crops, and it’s been difficult to get onto our country with machinery.

The excessive wet has also meant that it's been hard to get the summer crop in. It's always easier to grow a summer crop in an average-rainfall year because our main rainfall comes in the summer and it is our traditional crop.

I used to grow a lot of corn, but because it's so expensive to plant and after listening to forecasts about flooding, I chose not to plant it for 3 years between 2010 and 2013.

The winter crops have been quite good because we can store the moisture over the summertime when we get it; then it stays there, waiting for our winter crop. So there’s been a lot more winter cropping happening in recent years.

In early 2011, some of our paddocks got very wet, so we couldn’t put all our summer crops in. I sowed chickpeas and wheat, but they didn’t do as well as I’d hoped because of zinc and nitrogen deficiencies - an after-effect of the flooding.

I think that our ideas need to change over time to cater for the variation that will occur. It has always happened, and is only going to continue.

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Picking cattle breeds for the heat

Ever since I can remember, we’ve had the same variable climate - but changes are probably pretty hard to pick up just from what you remember. You can’t see a 10 per cent difference in crop yield, for instance, until the header goes in.

The overall pattern of extremes hasn’t changed much, but the minimum temperatures for Emerald appear to be getting significantly warmer. I am keen to keep looking at these figures to see where they go.

Data from the Bureau of Meteorology shows that the mean monthly minimum temperature at Rockhampton Airport (89 kilometres from Duaringa) has increased from 8 °C to 10 °C since high-quality measurements began there in 1940.

On our hottest summer days it gets up to about 40 °C.

Certainly the cows don’t enjoy the heat, but at the end of the day, we choose to work with breeds of cattle that are more adapted for the tropics. For us, that’s an animal with a shorter coat, such as a Brahman or Senepol.

Heat events can hurt my crops at flowering, especially summer crops such as corn or sorghum.

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Spreading planting to manage frost risk

We usually have several frosts a year.

The frost has been an issue with growing our winter crops - in 2012 we lost a lot though frost. It may be because we planted a bit early or planted the wrong variety.

But whether it’s timing or variety, there are still heavy frosts during winter, and a chance of damage.

To manage the frost risk, I usually try to spread my planting: the earlier you plant the bigger the opportunity of yield, but you are also more likely to get frost. If you plant later you take a yield hit, but you're safer. I do a bit of both, adding chickpeas in with the rotation, and it works out well.

When chickpeas are hit by frost they lose all their flowers, but while there’s still moisture in the soil they all come back and there’s no loss whatsoever. If anything, it probably evens up your flowering and makes your crop even better, so a frost on early chickpeas is not always a disadvantage if there’s soil moisture.

I think that, during winter, people are definitely getting a bit more ‘game’ with their planting dates and are prepared to plant a bit earlier because heavy frosts don’t seem to occur as much.

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Responding to the season with 4 key cropping practices

Responsive management to seasonal conditions is important for our business.

The main cropping and climate-related decisions we make are related to variable row spacing, rotations, double-planting and strategic tillage. For our stock, it’s about weaning times, feeding breeders and stocking rates.

I use these practices to deal with the weather we’re dealt, as best I can.

With farming, you can’t totally take the risk out of things. Everything you do in farming has some sort of risk, but you certainly can’t let it put you off.

Variable row spacing

I use 1.5-metre row spacing for summer crops and 0.5-metre row spacing for winter crops.

2013 was the first time I’ve put GPS steering on my planter. Since we’ve put the self-steer on the planter, it’s made a huge difference. When I plant my winter crop all the tines are down at 0.5 metres, and when I plant my summer crop I lock some of the tines out of the way.

If the year turns out a bit tougher, I’m there in place with my good, wide row spacings. If I had planted another row of sorghum in the wide space in the middle, the crop would have used all the water up earlier. But with wide rows, at the time of grain fill and flowering, the crops still have a reservoir of water left in the middle.

I put double the amount of seeds where the wide gap is - I just shoot a few extra seeds down beside the wheel tracks, then you’ve got the extra moisture in reserve to ripen at the same time.

During grain-filling time, the crops will spread their roots sideways looking for water - especially sorghum - so wider row spacing is central to Colin’s moisture management in his summer crops.

Trials suggest that 1.5 metre-wide rows give significant yield benefits over rows that are only 1 metre wide in a dry year, says Colin - and that’s what he does in marginal years.

Rotations

I don't grow a crop just for the sake of a rotation: I try to get an income from all of them. Whether it's wheat or corn, chickpea or mungbeans, they are all important.

In the Central Queensland area, there are only a couple of months of the year we can't plant a crop. As long as there’s moisture under the ground, we can usually sow something.

Because there's such a variety in when you can plant, you can plant several crops which don’t take long to grow, such as mungbeans. We grab the opportunity on our way through to our next crop. Chickpeas are a lot slower.

Double-planting

I have harvested crops and double-planted a second crop following that to try to use an opportunity crop.

Although we try to opportunity crop in summer, in the last few years I have focused more on the advantages of our winter crops.

They are high value and easier to grow, you still get the same yield, and you get a lot more ground cover with wheat, particularly during these last couple of years with the wet summers.

Strategic tillage

The river flats where I farm haven’t been tilled or off-set for at least 12 years, now - and I can’t see myself ploughing again or tilling at this stage.

I have weeds that cause a problem, and they are easy to plant through so I will continue on that path at the moment. I don’t want to go back to tillage.

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Using chickpeas in dry times for yield and soil health

The most economic crop here, by far, is chickpeas - because of the deep soils and the tap root of the chickpea.

I’ve grown chickpeas for probably 10 years now. We can get nearly as much yield as wheat, nearly double the money, all the associated soil health benefits and there’s not a lot of spraying in-crop. So it’s a win-win, all round.

The main chickpea variety I’ve grown, since it was released, is KyabraPBR logo. There is a new one that has only been out a few years, PBA PistolPBR logo, and it appears to be going very well, especially in the dry years.

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Finding and using climate information

I enjoy reading the small climate section in the Queensland Country Life, because I get it weekly and it’s easy to read. There are many farmers who don’t use the internet much, so climate and weather information in the newspapers is great.

I do go online occasionally to seek that information out.

I’m sure we are improving long-term forecasting - certainly the 7-day forecast and multi-week outlook is getting better. Over the past couple of years, the predictions of rainfall have been pretty close, and that’s why I haven’t raced in with a summer crop.

It would also help us with the cattle - if a season was to stay dry, I’d start feeding them protein in August. But if you knew it was going to rain, I’d let them hold over.

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Reflections on the MCV Climate Champion program

I’ve personally found the MCV Climate Champion program very good.

As you travel around Australia [for the MCV Climate Champion workshops], it's surprising to see so many people doing so many different things. We are all involved with the land, and our issues always seem to go back to the weather: Is it going to rain? How much is it going to rain?

Once we get out of our region we tend not to worry about it too much, but you can learn a lot from looking over the fence and see what their opportunities or issues are. I wish I could put that info back into my community more.

I think one of the biggest benefits is to capture what information we can in the region and deliver it to other regions. Because most people have the opportunity to know what goes on in their region, and that’s important because that’s where your making your living, but I still think it's important to broaden your knowledge and cross regions.

For instance, fertilising - other regions have done it forever and they do it very easily, whereas as I’ve been farming 30- or 40-odd years and I’ve got no idea how to put fertiliser out, because I haven’t had a need to.

 

Interview dates: August 2011, April 2013

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Contact Colin Dunne

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