SLR Agriculture's Michael Lamond groundcover concern after Corrigin and Bruce Rock fires.

By Shannon Beattie
February 27 2022 - 10:00pm
A strong wind blow on a paddock that was burnt in the recent fires, losing a lot of its stubble and groundcover.

MAJOR fires throughout the State this month have burned through more than 60,000 hectares of land and with the recovery effort now well underway, farmers in the affected regions have turned their attention to what it means for their scorched paddocks.

Of most concern is the lack of groundcover after the fires destroyed any hint of stubble, particularly around the areas of Corrigin and Bruce Rock.

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A lot of paddocks are completely bare and totally exposed to the elements, particularly on sandplain soils which are common in the affected areas.

SLR Agriculture research agronomist Michael Lamond said with nothing holding them together, paddocks were extremely susceptible to wind blow.

"There has already been wind that has blown and disrupted the soil," Mr Lamond said.

"With the lack of stubble cover, paddocks become unstable and wind can cause a lot of damage through making the paddocks really uneven."

With that in mind, farmers will try to get some growth on those paddocks as quickly as possible to offer some sort of stabilisation, but doing so depends on the kindness of Mother Nature.

They're unable to touch the paddocks and get a cover crop in until it rains, meaning being able to preserve their soil is now a waiting game.

Corrigin farmer Luke Hickey experienced burning on about 85 per cent of his paddocks, but he counts himself lucky as they were able to save the house and sheds.

Now he's hoping for some rain and if he gets that, he'll sow some of the more vulnerable soil types.

"The heavier country should be alright, but the lighter sands are really susceptible to wind blow so we need to try and get some sort of cover on it," Mr Hickey said.

"I've got some spare oats up my sleeve which would purely be for coverage and be sprayed out when it gets ankle height so something else can go there for the winter growing period.

"However it'll come down to timing and while I don't like to see paddocks blowing, there's nothing we can do about it until it rains."

The other thing that happens with a really hot fire is that it has an impact on the microflora in the soil - the live bugs that live in the topsoil are destroyed and they take time to build up again.

Further adding to the problem is that a lot of micro nutrients cycle close to the surface, so when the wind blows there is a loss and disruption of that topsoil.

There is also loss of organic matter that has built up over a long period of time and combining those two factors means there is a net loss to the quality of the soil that was there previously.

Historically when that has happened, such as the Esperance fires in 2015, it was harder to get the growth and production that one would normally expect in those areas as it takes a while for the soil to recover.

"Growers might have to use more compound fertilisers then they usually would and even then it's likely those paddocks still won't produce the usual results," Mr Lamond said.

"It's a difficult situation for growers to face when they're already looking at high input costs."

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A lack of stubble and a change to the soil profile also means growers will need to make alterations to their crop rotations.

Prior to the fires they might have been planning to go with lupins, canola or pasture, but that won't be the case anymore.

Where it's completely bare, they'll likely opt to go with a cereal so they've got stubble there for next summer.

For Mr Hickey, he knows if he doesn't get any rain within the next six weeks, then he'll have to seriously consider his rotations and what he does at seeding.

"We'll definitely be growing a lot more cereals this year, but we need to have a few options depending on if it rains, when it rains and how much it rains," he said.

"We're not going to grow canola on big, blown paddocks, so we'll need to have some options up our sleeves.

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"It is what it is and there's nothing we can do about it so we've got to move on and do the best we can with what we've got."

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