AS a grain, wool and meat producer and levy payer, Robert Beard likes to challenge researchers.
He and brothers David and Glenn and their families have a 4000ha mixed farming enterprise north of Meckering and Cunderdin.
According to Robert, rising water tables and herbicide resistance are among the burning issues that need addressing in this state, from a sustainable farming viewpoint.
While dealing with these issues, he also wants to improve the quality of feed available to Merino ewes at joining and throughout pregnancy, boosting nutrition for the foetus and increasing production from the animals, long term.
Lucerne would seem to be the cure-all, with much of the Beards' farm described in an Agnote as "ideal lucerne country".
Annual rainfall is 325mm and the soils on the property vary from deep sands to clay with surface pH 4.5 to 5.8, while subsurface soils range from 4 to 7.5.
Nonetheless, Robert was keen to test the potential of this deep rooted perennial and more specifically its persistence, productivity and water use.
"Summer rainfall that is not used ends up as recharge, resulting in waterlogging and salinity problems," he said.
"Engineering and trees have a role, but we want to explore the potential of perennials and see how they might fit into and complement our existing farming system.
"If lucerne could persist, it would use recharge and reduce the need for supplementary feed, but its growth over summer depends on rainfall events, which are not uncommon."
Robert first sowed lucerne in spring 2000 on a paddock prone to waterlogging, but the season, weed control and insects were a problem.
He has since sown lucerne at the end of June and July into stubbles, but only after controlling a couple of weed germinations, targeting ryegrass and radish.
Involved with the Agriculture Department and GRDC-funded Low Recharge Project, Robert and researcher Diana Fedorencko have put the perennial to the test ‹ looking at lucerne on different soil types and soil pHs which are not recommended.
The growth and persistence has been monitored over two very dry years, with some very good results.
Interested in broadacre rather than plot trials, Robert sowed lucerne in July 2001 across a 1.1km long paddock that encompasses gravel, yellow and then white sand and duplex soil.
The paddock had been in a wheat lupin rotation, which Robert thought had probably made the sand even more non-wetting.
The lucerne established well in a dry season, although plant numbers are low on the gravel.
Robert is surprised how well the lucerne has persisted, having struggled through two very dry seasons.
"We assume that lucerne will be easier to establish in normal seasons," he said.
"This season's plantings, sown in July, are looking very good."
Trials in another paddock have tested lucerne at three sowing rates ‹ 2kg, 4kg and 8kg/ha and Cadiz French serradella at 4kg, 8kg and 16kg/ha of pod.
"Natural attrition has meant that the lucerne density in the 8kg/ha plot is now similar to that sown at 2kg/ha," Robert said.
"In our experience, 2kg/ha would be adequate with good weed control, accurate sowing and the careful management of pests, but we tend toward 4kg/ha in case of problems."
Dry matter plant cuts have also been taken to compare the production of the lucerne and Cadiz from both sites.
As well, plot trials are comparing the performance of 30 lines of lucerne, bred for acid soils.
The selections are not yet commercial varieties.
Lucerne now covers 10pc of the property but Robert is still undecided about how best to incorporate the perennial in the cropping program.
"Going into a cropping phase after a three or four year lucerne phase seems to be the most feasible option, but we would prefer to maintain lucerne in the system and only suppress it with herbicides in the cropping phase," he said.
Robert reckons lucerne establishment costs are $108/ha, for seed, lime, fertiliser, insecticides and weed control (lime and fertiliser costs have been allocated over a few years).
"Bearing these costs in mind, I think we need to leave the lucerne for at least two years to allow the lucerne to establish fully, before we contemplate a return to a cropping phase," he said.
"Water use and recharge on any given property will determine the length of the lucerne phase.
"It might be two or five years before returning to a cropping phase."
Over the next three years, three treatments will be applied to the lucerne ‹ totally killed in spring; suppressed in crop and no herbicide; and as a control ‹ in the overcropping trial.
Cereal crops will be monitored for yield and protein and the lucerne monitored for persistence under each of the treatments.
Cropping aside, Muresk Honours student Maxine Brown has been comparing Merino ewe hoggets' performance on lucerne against normal grazing practices on stubbles and annual pastures.
Sheep body weight and wool quality attributes have been monitored for nine months since December.
The Beards' ewes lamb in June and July and the strategy at present is to use newly sown serradella pastures for weaning lambs onto, reserving lucerne stands for ewe flocks during joining or pregnancy.
p A sheep and pasture field walk, including lucerne and serradella production and water use, sheep production on lucerne and annual pastures, will be held at the Beards' property, Quella Park, on Friday, October 3, 9am-3pm. For more information, phone 9635 1040.