Mick and Kate Caughey

Region: Central Wheatbelt, Western Australia

Commodity: Wheat, barley

Farming area: 5000 hectares 

This article was written by Rebecca Thyer for GRDC for Ground Cover

 

Mick Caughey 

‘The climate's changing all the time but so are we - we're just adapting to it. Some people say we're in a low rainfall area but we're utilising the rainfall and just making the best of what we get.’
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Read, watch or listen to what Mike has to say about:
Farming in a low rainfall region [same-page links]
Fallowing
Widening crop rows
Precision farming / tramlining
Zero-till / press wheel seeding
Farming carbon using oil mallee trees
Producing and using biochar
Farming in a low rainfall region
‘We get 200 ml annual rainfall during a year (growing season) and we can grow and 2 tonne wheat crop.
‘People say our area is marginal but we call it low rainfall. We know a farmer who says "I get the same amount of rain as everyone else but over a bigger area". It is true. We try and farm so that we catch the water – our paddocks are like corrugated iron so when we get a bit of rain it all falls straight down into the root zone.
‘We're in our 11th year and the weather changing seems normal for this area. There are droughts and good years and it's a matter of managing yourself through those times.
‘We've struggled, and not just us – the community. Now most of them would say that they know more about how to farm for these droughts. If we don't get a rain by a certain time the crop won't go in, or only a little bit will go in.
‘We’ve decided now that if it hasn't rained by a certain date we sow any wheat. This year it was the 23rd May. Well it rained on the 23rd May. We started dry sowing two days before that because we knew it was going to rain. The guys that started much earlier have really good crops, but we just weren’t' prepared to take that risk. Our crops won't be an as good as the others, but so be it. What we get we'll be happy with.’
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Fallowing
‘We try to crop 5,000 hectares every year and have 5,000 ha worth of fallow, so each paddock gets cropped every second year.
‘Everyone used to do fallow, that’s nothing new. You rest the paddock for one year to conserve moisture for the following year and control weeds.
‘Fallow had been phased out because everyone's been pushing so hard to make up for the losses we’ve had in previous years. But this year people have found that wheat on wheat crops aren't as good as crops that have been on fallow.
‘Resting the paddock doesn't guarantee a crop but gives a good crop when the rainfall is a bit short, meaning we still get above averages yields.
‘It also keeps our costs down because we're not using ‘in crop’ grass sprays on our wheat. We spray the fallow towards end of the growing season to control weeds.
‘And we agist sheep which gives us a cash-flow. That way we have control – if we haven’t got feed we don’t bring sheep in.’
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Widening crop rows
‘We had great assistance from the WA Department of Agriculture and Food [insert link http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/] when we first started through the soil scientist Paul Blackwell.
‘We could see that the outside row of every crop was always the best row - always taller than rows inside the crop. And we weren’t getting a finish towards the end of a season because we were running out of moisture.
‘We asked Paul about it, and the result was we started going out to wide rows. We dropped every second row off which meant we were sowing at 24 inch spacing instead of 12 inches.
‘That cut our fertiliser rate a little, and cut our seed rate by half. We still put fertiliser in the middle row so when the wheat's roots grow across they get a feed.
‘By increasing row size there is now moisture available towards the end of the year to finish the crop off.
‘We're still getting the same yields on 24 versus 12 inch row spacing. But only on the red soil; it didn't work on the sand plain.’
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Precision farming / tramlining
‘We do tramlining now, which means we always drive on the same wheel track. All the machinery is the same size.
‘Tramlining cuts down the compaction of our soils and helps our fuel economy.
‘Precision farming, or auto steer is another great advantage to us all - the tractor just drives itself in a beautiful straight line. Fallow is an old one but bringing in the auto steer has been the best thing.
‘Every year you can come back and sow straight into those same furrows again. If you've had a bad year there's still a lot of nutrients that weren't used in that furrow so you come back the following year and you can sow within 2 cm of those nutrients again.
‘That means you can keep your fertiliser down a bit because you know once you've done soil tests that there's still nutrients there to grow you a good crop.’
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Zero-till / press wheel seeding
‘If you had 200 mm of rain ten years ago you'd get virtually no crop. The first thing you'd do when you got the rain is plough the paddock to kill the weeds. Then you’d get more rain so you’d plough again to kill more weeds. And then you’d sow it.
‘Every time you move that soil you lose rainfall.
‘Now when it rains we just go straight in and start seeding with the minimal amount of soil movement possible to utilise every bit of rain.
‘Right now we've got weeds growing on our fallow and we'll have to spray them rather than ploughing so we can keep the moisture in the ground. So next year in April when we get the rain we'll still have subsoil moisture.
‘Another innovation is the press wheel behind the seeders.
‘When you fallow, your moisture might be low below the surface. Previously you wouldn't even get a wheat crop to grow because although there was moisture there, the machine couldn’t get below the dry dirt.
If you've got a press wheel, you can move the dry soil out of the way, put the seed on the moisture, press it in nice and firm so the seed gets constant contact with the soil and then a little bit of dry dirt goes back over the top.
‘It could be 28 degrees of the 28th of May but you still get your crop to grow.’
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Farming carbon using oil mallee trees
‘I’m the president of the Oil Mallee Association of Australia [insert link http://oilmallee.org.au/index.html]. The organisation has 1,000 growers and was WA based but we’re trying to branch out into other states.
‘Its aim is to get trees in the ground for farmers to make money and to become more sustainable down the road. Instead of relying on wheat crops, we can have trees on our farms which give us another income. And hopefully will match a long term lease or wheat crop costing.
‘Once tree's in ground, you don't have to worry about anything else, it just grows itself.
‘We have planted oil mallees every 300 ft within our wheat crops. We grow these trees for carbon. It’s not greatly lucrative at the moment but heading it’s that way.
‘We’re working on making between $50 and $100 per hectare through oil mallees, so eventually we'll have 10 to 15% of our farm with trees, or about 1,400 hectares.
‘Where we win is we lease the land to the people who want the carbon credits and we get a once off payment for planting. You get paid around $350 to plant a hectare of trees. So if you plant 100 hectares a year that's a good little cash injection.
‘There’s time we don’t get rain but we're working to put these mallees in the ground to help us get through those hard times. Obviously the more mallees you have in the ground the more income your get, so we don’t have to put a crop in to make our payments. The oil mallees will do that.’
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Producing and using biochar
‘Following from planting oil mallees we moved into biochar [insert link http://www.csiro.au/resources/Biochar-Factsheet.html] which is charcoal made from wheat stubble or biomass from the tree once it's gone through the pyrolysis machine.
‘The pyrolysis machine, in simple terms, keeps a certain amount of oxygen in the machine so you don't burn the product completely to ash.
‘We did the initial experiments over three years. We are still doing some experiments but the main project will be down at Kallaning [sp?].
‘Our trials were using oil mallee biomass. Originally oil mallees were put in the ground for carbon credits but also to make renewable energy. For that you're after the eucalyptus oil, but making the oil leaves you with a whole heap of biomass. Biochar has come out of that.
‘Biochar gets buried in the first 6 inches of the ground before we sow and it'll stay there forever. The idea is to store carbon and keeping record of it is very simply because it doesn’t break down like plants.
‘You need to put a lot on but it can hold 5 times its own weight in moisture so that is a win win for us.
‘The other exciting part is you can use wheat straw. You can bail straight behind your harvester catching your weed seeds, which will eliminate a lot of our troubles with resistance of weeds to chemicals.
‘Plus you get paid for the straw. In good years if there's too much hay you can store it in the corner of the paddock and if it’s dry in following year you have enough straw to keep the machine going.
‘Australia produces 12 million tons of grain so for every ton of grain there's probably 2 ton of straw was normally just left in the paddock. It’s a good thing that it's left in the paddock but you will still leave some behind anyway.
‘You bring all this it together and it'll be a win win for agriculture. You have the oil mallee trees and the biochar store so the farmer is always making money rain hail or shine.’
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Merredin growers Mick and Kate Caughey have seen annual rainfall across their three farms drop between 10 and 20 per cent in the past 10 years against long-term averages.

Today as little as 100 millimetres can fall during the winter grain-growing season.

With end-of-season temperatures also warming, the Caugheys have been gradually changing their on-farm practices to help better manage the new climatic challenges of less moisture and greater heat stress.

This includes retaining stubble and spraying summer weeds (to conserve stored soil moisture) and using precision-farming principles to better care for the soil.

As a third-generation Western Australian grower who has managed the farm for 25 years, Mick says he does believe the climate is changing. “I also believe in the region’s inherent climatic variability. We have dry years and we can still have wet years.”

This year, as part of his philosophy to reduce risk, he plans to begin using variable-rate (VR) technology for applying fertiliser.

Mick says he expects the same fertiliser bill, but the nutrients will be more efficiently targeted.

The Caugheys farm 5000 hectares of wheat and barley at Merredin. Legumes are no longer grown because of the changing conditions. Using a new John Deere aircart, Mick is basing his granular fertiliser application on yield data from the past few years.

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He has also started “playing” with EM38 (electromagnetic) maps and gamma-ray spectrometry to better understand the farm’s soil properties. He has started taking one-metre-deep soil cores across paddocks.

“It’s not necessarily because of worries about subsoil constraints,” Mick says. “It’s because I would like to know what’s going on underneath. It’s all part of learning more about our soils.”

He hopes that better information about his soils will allow inputs to be better targeted “so that we are spending money strategically”.

Soil testing on the Caugheys’ home farm has already found sodicity, while he suspects other paddocks are likely to have low-pH problems.

“Coring has also shown us how far the roots go down. It will be interesting to learn why and what it means.”

Other on-farm changes to deal with a changing climate include a timely approach to spraying summer weeds using a contract sprayer.

This maximises stored soil moisture (if there has been any summer rain) for the following winter cereal crop and has shown potential to deliver a significant yield lift.

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