Toby and Susie Moore

Region: Walgett, New South Wales

Commodity: Cotton, cattle, dryland and irrigated cropping

This article was written for CottonInfo

 

‘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.’
[Insert image name: Mike_Kerkmans.jpg
Alignment: left
Image description: Mike Kerkmans in wheat field
Caption: none]
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.’
Back to top
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.’
Back to top
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.’
Back to top
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.’
Back to top
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.’
[Insert video name: mike_kerkmans_seeder_wheel.xxx
Alignment: left
Video description: Mike talks about the advantages of the seeder wheel
Caption: none]
[Insert Audio name: mike_kerkmans_seeder_wheel.xxx
Alignment: left
Audio description: Mike talks about the advantages of the seeder wheel
Caption: none]
Back to top
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.’
[Insert image name: small_mallee_crop.jpg
Alignment: left
Image description: A newly planted oil mallee crop within wheat field
Caption: none]
[Insert image name: mature_mallee_crop.jpg
Alignment: left
Image description: A mature oil mallee crop within wheat field
Caption: none]
[Insert video name: mike_kerkmans_mallee.xxx
Alignment: left
Image description: Mike talks about his mallee plantation
Caption: none]
[Insert Audio name: mike_kerkmans_mallee.xxx
Alignment: left
Image description: Mike talks about his mallee plantation
Caption: none]
Back to top
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.’
[Inser t video name: mike_kerkmans_biochar.xxx
Alignment: left
Image description: Mike talks about biochar
[Insert Audio name: mike_kerkmans_biochar.xxx
Alignment: left
Image description: Mike talks about biochar
Caption: none]
Back to top

Farmers Toby and Susie Moore understand the importance of interpreting information to manage climate risk on their Walgett property, ‘Walma,’ particularly at key decision making times.

The Moores operate an extensive farming enterprise that includes both dryland and irrigated farming, as well as rangeland grazing on the rich alluvial flood plain in the lower Namoi catchment. Toby also chairs the Walgett Cotton Growers Association.

Understanding the local climate in terms of the drivers of rainfall and temperature has been a critical survival skill that Toby has embraced as a farmer. Toby studied biochemistry and biology at university, and made a career in the pharmaceutical industry before returning to the family business.

He has adapted skills in analysis, due diligence and critical thinking to aid his decision making in agriculture. Applications for this information include more efficient use of farm inputs and improved agronomy practices, which in turn also assist to minimise greenhouse gas emissions.

Knowing the key climate drivers

With so much information and commentary available on weather and climate, it can be a complex task to sort sea surface temperature indicators, atmospheric indicators and seasonal models when planning cropping regimes or livestock stocking rates.

The Moore’s preparation for the spring sowing of a cotton crop commences at least two seasons ahead, with plans made for likely crop row spacing, nitrogen fertiliser application rates for an estimated cropping area, and most importantly, available irrigation water.

“With early stage analysis of available irrigation water for the coming season, together with stored soil moisture and seasonal forecasts, we can plan for a
range of likely scenarios when procuring inputs such as seed, fertiliser and diesel for irrigation pumps,” said Toby.

“Knowing where indicators such as Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) need to be for the rainfall outlook to be
more favourable, and in which months there is a stronger correlation to rainfall, or no correlation at all, helps me to understand how to interpret seasonal
forecasting models in conjunction with the computer generated guidance maps that tend to dominate our decision making."

Back to top

“Looking at the climatic rainfall analysis from CottonInfo for the Walgett area, the SOI is a key indicator of rainfall from May right through until spring planting.

“In the summer months there is very little connection with the El-Niño Southern Oscillation, but if we know rainfall processes are completely random in these months, at least we don’t need to take too much notice of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation commentary that often dominates media headlines.”

In terms of understanding basic climatic processes, Toby believes the best way to separate the indices is to break them into two basic functions, moisture supply (sea surface temperature indices) and moisture delivery and activation (atmospheric indicators).

“The rain making processes work pretty much the same as my irrigation system, we have a moisture supply component - ocean temperatures, and a delivery component - a series of pumps and channels representing the atmosphere.

“When the ocean indices are in the wrong place, the available moisture for rain events is reduced, just like a storage dam being low, so it is a lot harder for the atmosphere to deliver a decent rain event.

“Similarly when moisture supply is average or good (warm sea surface temperatures in the Indian and Pacific oceans), we need a favourable SOI and Southern Annular Mode to transport and activate the moisture to make it rain, a bit like starting our irrigation pumps and filling the channels.”

One of the key things Toby has learnt from CottonInfo climate workshops is how the atmosphere and ocean temperatures work together, and what to watch for in the winter and spring seasons when the connection with these indicators is strongest.

“Watching the smooth line of sea surface indicators can give some guidance as to what the atmospheric moisture supply will be like on a long lead time. In this year, 2015, unfortunately all the models seem to be saying we are now in an El Niño and it will continue for the remainder of the year.

“But out here the SOI really is the key indicator of rainfall throughout winter and spring. so I’ll be keeping an eye on that.”

Back to top

Understanding El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) modes of variability in an historical context can also facilitate a greater understanding of the risks associated with extremes in seasonal elements affecting crop production, and help interpretation of forecasting information.

Interpreting the strength of ENSO connections with rainfall and temperature extremes can lead to better adaptation strategies in the farming businesses, including more accurate nitrogen fertiliser management and reduced on farm greenhouse gas emissions.

“Knowing which indicators and drivers to watch through different seasons does help streamline the process when making decisions,” said Toby.

“The fortnightly summary in the CottonInfo e-news Moisture Manager also saves me time searching for the modelling results. What I’m looking for is a clear trend from a range of sources to give me confidence that something is going to change. At least then I can try and run some scenarios in our business and manage my farm inputs in advance.”

 

Climate tools and information

Through attending CottonInfo webinars and workshops, Toby has developed a basic outline of the climate indicators he’s looking for to make crop selection, irrigation and fertiliser decisions for each season at his Walgett property.

Table: Suggested seasonal risk management plan for farming operations at Walgett. (The ‘X’ indicates the seasons when a climate indicator is likely to provide relevant information for the Walgett region).

Information source/indicator season  Winter  Spring  Summer Autumn 
Seasonal (3 monthly) rainfall outlooks x    
Seasonal temperature outlooks x x x x
Multi-week rain/temp models x x x x
Southern Annular Mode   x    
Southern Oscillation Index x x    
Sea surface temperature indicators     
Madden-Julian Oscillation      x  

CottonInfo Moisture Manager

Like Toby Moore, cotton growers can stay informed about the latest climate risk management information for better decision making (including more efficient use of farm inputs and agronomy practices to increase over all efficiency and minimise greenhouse gas emissions), by subscribing to the CottonInfo Moisture Manager e-newsletter. This e-newsletter is a fortnightly summary of international forecasting models, climate indicators, expert opinion and local analysis delivered by CottonInfo.

Back to top

JRegistry Object
(
    [data:protected] => stdClass Object
        (
            [pathwaypage] => 1
            [pathwaytype] => 1
            [summary_commodity] => Cotton, cattle, cropping
            [summary_region] => Walgett, NSW
            [tabledisplayscale] => 0
            [tabledisplaycost] => 0
            [tabledisplaytopic] => 0
            [tabledisplaymember] => 0
            [tablesubpagetitle] => Page
        )

)


JRegistry Object ( [data:protected] => stdClass Object ( [pathwaypage] => 1 [pathwaytype] => 1 [scale] => [topic] => [member] => [cost] => [summary_commodity] => Cotton, cattle, cropping [summary_region] => Walgett, NSW [tabledisplayscale] => 0 [tabledisplaycost] => 0 [tabledisplaytopic] => 0 [tabledisplaymember] => 0 [tablesubpagetitle] => Page ) )

Print page