Going against the grain

23 Feb, 2005 10:00 PM
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FROM a dream of having a small acreage to plant some wheat with a lonely 306 tractor in 1990, Gerard O'Brien and his family have built a grain farming enterprise in the Avon Valley covering three farms and 5059ha (12,500ac).

Gerard bought his first property of 1619ha (4000ac) at Jennacubbine.

Gerard, his wife Leonie and their three sons have since purchased a 2428ha (6000ac) at Northam which consists of three farms, and a 1012ha (2500ac) farm at York.

"I am a first-generation farmer," Gerard said.

"I think that is the biggest difference because you approach most problems in a different way.

"I can do whatever I want to do because I have got no constraints and no-one to answer to."

Gerard said one of the benefits was that they were able to carefully choose the land they purchased.

"As a result, we purchased land that is in the right area with reliable rainfall," he said.

"We were conscious of soil type, rainfall and salinity.

"We have no major areas of salt on our properties and any of the poorer soils we replanted with trees."

Gerard has a degree in agricultural science and worked for Bankwest for 10 years as an agriculture consultant. He said his experience prior to farming has helped.

"I guess I had the ability to look at it from a different aspect," he said.

"One of the things we do when we buy a property is remove all the fences and build laneways.

"That way we can re-fence it and have convenient access to the entire property."

He said from a farming perspective, it was an efficient way to move machinery and livestock around easily.

When it comes to cropping, Gerard said their focus was a good rotation for weed management and successful production.

"We basically crop 10,000ac (4048ha) a year," he said.

"About 20pc would be field peas, 60pc is wheat and 20pc is either hay or canola.

"Our basic operation is to try and grow three wheat crops in a row after a pea crop.

"How we control ryegrass, predominantly, is to make sure we have got two years in a row with 100pc weed controls."

Gerard said they achieved this by growing hay after the three wheat crops and this area was effectively sprayed with Roundup immediately after the hay was baled to kill any ryegrass and prevent any seed set.

"The year after that is when we will put our peas in," he said.

"This is a double knock, sown late, so we've got glyphosate and gramoxone.

"We will then spray top it again early so we've got a very short window of growth with just about a zero seed set."

He said they would generally be able to grow the next two years wheat with the minimum amount of herbicides and by the third wheat crop they were ready to put the paddock back into rotation.

With 60pc of their paddocks sown to wheat, or three years wheat in a row, Gerard said the first year would be a hard, high protein variety.

If they had a good season, the second year would be another hard variety and the third year would be lower protein, noodle wheat.

"We do everything on a rotational growth margin instead of a straight growth margin," he said.

He said it was how the rotation worked and the profit over a long period of time that drove their program.

"Even though we don't pick it up on DNA testing, the biggest yield limiting factor generally is Pratylenchus," Gerard said.

"So we use peas, which is a great crop to reduce the number of the prats, and we are getting good results from that.

"With our wheat we don't do any grub spraying at all, we tend not to have a major issue."

With their operation spread out over three main locations, he said there was some time lost to travel during seeding.

"We start seeding on April 15 and we finish at the end of May, with only our peas to go," he said.

"We seed our peas in the first week of June.

"So we go pretty hard for six weeks and then we have a week of putting the peas in slowly."

Within their program, Gerard said the sowing rates were 80kg/ha for wheat, 140kg/ha for oats, 4-5kg/ha for canola and 120kg/ha for peas.

"We spray top our peas and generally when sowing the wheat we'll use Diuron, if we need to we'll use Treflan and obviously a knockdown," he said.

"We do this 24 hours prior to seeding.

"We don't use any SU up front at all."

He said their operation used a fair amount of fertilisers but achieved an average of 12.8pc protein across the board in their wheat.

"We use about 80 units of nitrogen, 15 units of potassium and 20 units of phosphorus on every hectare," Gerard said.

"Predominantly our main wheat still is Arrino for the noodle variety and Carnamah and Bonnie Rock for the hards.

"We use Kasper for our peas and Stubby for our Canola."

He said the past five years averaged 3.41t of wheat, 6t of hay, 1.41t of lupins, 1.32t of peas and 1.48t of canola.

"We keep our own seed and we try to market a little bit of that to get higher prices," Gerard said.

"We do try and market as much as we can.

"I would say we probably sell 50pc of our wheat to AWB and 50pc we market outside of AWB."

They aimed at value adding with their hay and generally marketed all their field peas themselves.

"We store the peas here in 500t silos," he said.

"We didn't put any hay in last year because the price was below the cost of production, so we put that 20pc in as canola, which we pre-sold."

Gerard said their farming operation was driven by economics.

"If it's an early break, we'll grow more canola, if it's a late break we'll grow less canola," he said.

The whole program is put in with one John Deere 4WD tractor, an Ausplow DBS bar, a semi-trailer with three separate divisions for seed and a 7000L Hydraboom for doing all the spraying.

"We have one John Deere header that does all our harvest and one very old header, which we just use to take off the peas," Gerard said.

"We've also got our own baler, so we bale our own hay and some straw.

"Adopting the DBS bar gave us the opportunity to get our crops in before it rained and therefore maximise moisture in the low rainfall years.

Gerard also runs 3000 ewes and fat lambs and is on the WAMMCO board.

"They are all Merino ewes and Poll Dorset rams and we generally sell the lambs to WAMMCO," he said.

Even though the properties are in 400-450mm rainfall areas, Gerard only recorded about 260mm last year.

He said 2005 was looking to be a tough year and thinks Australia should re-evaluate its position on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

"I sit on the GRDC agronomy reference group and I think we need to look at this," he said.

"America has had GMO canola for nine years and the fact that we still don't have it means we are getting further and further behind.

"GMOs aren't going to give us any more money, they are going to keep us even.

"The industry pays a lot of money into research. I think they need to be getting the information back to move forward."

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