By SHANNON BARRACLOUGH
SUMMER crops have been coined as opportunistic crops in WA, used in years of abundant late season and summer rain.
But Narembeen farmers Colin and Tammy Steddy have included sorghum, safflower, cotton, corn and millet as an integral part of their crop rotation, although not all are grown every year.
Considered a low rainfall area, it would seem hard to believe summer crops could be grown every year in Narembeen, but for the Steddys it is all about change in farming culture, their duplex soil type and a shift to no-till farming.
As a die-hard sheep farmer from Darkan, Mr Steddy never envisaged the dramatic change in his farming ideals.
In 1989, he left Darkan with 5000 Merino sheep to graze the 3500ha Narembeen farm he bought with his uncle and aunt, Ron and Sadie English.
In 1992 he bought the farm outright.
As soil erosion, due to sheep, became obvious, cropped area increased and sheep were sold.
Since the sheep were trucked off the property, Mr Steddy says his paddocks, along with yield, had improved every year.
The Steddy's aim has been to improve soil health and match rotations to soil type, which summer crops play an essential part in, especially excess water management.
Summer crops were introduced five years ago as a trial, which completely failed.
But as the plants did grow, Mr Steddy didn't give up.
"It takes more than one year to work out whether something will grow or not," Mr Steddy said.
He predicted it would take 10 to 15 years for WA farmers to learn how to grow them properly.
It was then a matter of trial and error to find out what worked on his property and what didn't.
This year, sunflowers, millet, sorghum and corn were grown.
Although they are yet to be harvested, Mr Steddy said he had already learnt a lot this year.
The Steddys sowed sunflowers at two meter spacings and 10kg/ha and 100kg/ha to see changes in the soil next year.
The crop was sown with a conventional airseeder bar but according to Mr Steddy, it was not good enough and a precision seeder was needed.
About 60ha of French White millet was sown at 30cm row spaces and 2kg/ha into pasture, which Mr Steddy said should have been stubble.
It was sown with 50kg/ha DAP and 10kg/ha CAN.
Trial size plots of corn and sorghum were also sown.
For his farm, it was a matter of eliminating what was being done wrong, with soil fertility identified as the main problem.
This was being addressed with cover crops, deep ripping, water harvesting with crop residue retention and furrows, lime, dolomite, gypsum and the adoption of precision farming techniques.
After deep ripping, Mr Steddy said he could not get onto one paddock for two years to crop it.
A summer crop was grown there, which soaked up more water in the first 12 months than any plot of mallee trees he had planted on the farm.
All up there are 70,000 to 80,000 oil mallee trees, some of which Mr Steddy believes he should never have planted but grown summer crops instead.
Not afraid to go against the grain in farming trends, the Steddys have started long-term gypsum and lime trials with 2t/ha, 4t/ha and a control plot for each.
For the first time since the Steddys started farming the property, the wheat yields have reached 3t/ha, which they put down to matching their farming system and rotations to the soils.
Pasture was kept in the crop rotation for a legume phase as heavy soils made it difficult to grow lupins, until last year when the whole farm was cropped.
Although relatively new to cropping, compared to other farmers in the district, Mr Steddy has achieved good wheat yields.
Wheat is grown two years out of the six-year rotation, which includes barley, field peas and canola.
When he started cropping, Mr Steddy set his sights on a wheat yield average of 2t/ha by 2000/01.
His average wheat yield has now reached 2.5t/ha with the help of precision farming techniques and the switch to all no-till crop establishment in 1999.
According to Mr Steddy, although dramatic changes had been made years ago, things had only started to happen now.
The goal posts have shifted to 3t/ha for wheat, even up to 4t/ha.
In a bid to improve this further, Mr Steddy has purchased a Beeline paddock navigation system for the coming season, which should reduce traffic soil compaction and input costs.
He has predicted on a $300,000 program, they would have four per cent per year input costs, which didn't include better returns through yield increase from less compaction.
"We have envisaged it to pay for itself after four years," he said.
He has such confidence in the Beeline improving trafficking and soil structure due to less compaction, he saw no need for all minor contour banks because water would infiltrate the soil, which would also eliminate sheet erosion.
The next crop improvement was to introduce more legumes into the rotation ‹ such as chick peas, faba beans and lupins ‹ and move to wider row spacing, which he predicts would boost yields and save chemical costs.
To do this he plans to custom build a bar to sow two lupin rows at 10cm, with 80cm spacing between each pair of lupin rows.
Using a shield sprayer, two chemicals can be applied simultaneously.
In the 10cm rows, he plans to spray a grass selective such as Verdict at $22/ha, and glyphosate or Sprayseed in the 80cm spaces at $4-$5/ha.
The benefit? Only one-third of the paddock would be sprayed with the expensive grass selective.