Solid rainfall kickstarts 2022 seeding program for Popplewell family, Walebing

By Shannon Beattie
April 24 2022 - 11:00pm
Farming at Walebing, Kieran Popplewell had planned to get burning out of the way before firing up the seeding rig but the downpours at the end of March and beginning of April forced him to getting things going earlier than anticipated.

NO one wants to be the farmer complaining about getting too much rain, but more than 85 millimetres in just over a week threw a real spanner in the Popplewell's seeding plans.

Farming at Walebing, Kieran Popplewell had planned to get burning out of the way before firing up the seeding rig but the downpours at the end of March and beginning of April meant stubbles were too green to get the job done.

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It forced Mr Popplewell, who farms alongside his father Graham, to move seeding forward in order to give themselves the flexibility to pull up for a few days if needed.

Seeding of the 7200 hectare program officially began last Friday, with the first of the planned 2200ha of canola hitting the ground.

Despite the moisture in the profile, Mr Popplewell was doubtful they'd get the canola out of the ground on what was there, as they generally struggle to germinate it unless they get a rain following seeding.

He said while the moisture in the profile was good, it was a month too early and would end up adding costs to the spray program.

"If it turns into a false break and we don't get another rain until late May, which is the average around here, it'll be disappointing as all our pastures come up and die," Mr Popplewell said.

"But if we can get another follow-up rain by the end of April and the cold-fronts start coming through early like last year, then it'll be useful and the moisture in the profile would be a silver lining."

More than 85mm of rain fell in just over a week at Walebing, throwing a spanner in the seeding plans for Dene Bawden (left), Graham Popplewell, Kieran Popplewell and Lucas Navarrette.

While more rain after the canola is in the ground is their wish, the family doesn't want to see significant falls as it will get too wet and there will be too much water in the profile.

Having also copped a freak storm in February, they're already sitting at 110mm for the season in some places, so it won't take much more than 15mm to join the moisture up.

If that happens, it creates the catch 22 of stopping and waiting for it to dry out, but then risking the loss of production potential of 30 kilograms per day by not seeding early enough.

Getting some canola into the ground before the rain came through a few weeks ago was an idea the Popplewells tossed around.

However, they ultimately decided they weren't quite ready and were better off keeping that moisture in the profile for later on in the season as there's more value in it then.

They also didn't want to risk it warming up in April and May which would cause the canola to run through to flower before winter.

"It was going to be too risky to get canola in before the rain as we weren't predicted to get as much as we did and initially we thought we were going to get 8mm in a couple of 2mm and 3mm events which would have caused a very patchy germination," Mr Popplewell said.

"I didn't expect a cyclone to come through and produce such good falls back-to-back two seasons in a row and by the time we looked at it and realised we were likely to get more it was too late to organise a long season canola variety."

Dene Bawden has been working for the Popplewell's for just over a year and will be in-charge of one of the seeding shifts this season.

While the plan is still subject to change, seeding the 2200ha of canola should take about two weeks as the operation will be running 24/7.

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That was another key reason why the Popplewells didn't want to start seeding too early.

It was too risky for them to seed a mid-season wheat in April due to frost and they don't want to stop seeding in between canola and wheat as they lose momentum.

Mr Popplewell said they also have to get their Roundup applications on the GM-canola in-time and before it gets past a certain growth stage.

"The problem is if we get canola in too early then it's going to grow faster because it's warmer," he said.

"If that happened, we'd be putting Roundup on before June but a lot of ryegrass doesn't come up until then when it gets cold enough for a full flush germination.

"If that happened we'd really have missed an opportunity."

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The reasoning behind not getting going any earlier doesn't end there.

Slowly getting rid of rock ridges has been part of the Popplewell's program for eight years. Mr Bawden (left) and Mr Popplewell brought on contractors Kenneth Bavage and Jake Fewster to get the job done.

There were only about five days throughout March where they could have burned, so they weren't able to get a whole heap done and the burning program was already behind schedule when the rain came.

On top of that, the Popplewells also run a low-labour operation with only two full-time employees alongside Kieran and his father.

They believe there's no point getting the wrong person as it'll cost more money in the long run, so they're better off getting a couple of capable people and working with that.

They also have a preference for getting everything right and ready to go, rather than going gangbusters and having to deal with problems during the season.

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"I don't like having to do major fixes on the fly, we've been there and done that a couple of years ago and I don't want to ever have to do it again," Mr Popplewell said.

"In saying that, at this time of year nothing is certain - you can't have a rigid plan as to what's going to happen, you have to be flexible and think on the run."

With the program actually being a mixed operation with 8000 head of sheep, that level of flexibility applies to all aspects of the farm.

They have about 8500ha of arable land, meaning the sheep only run on about 1300ha in the winter and they aim to graze all the stubbles in summer which is helped with neighbour agistment.

The Popplewells are aiming to get to the 10,000 head mark in the coming years which is a big reason why the cropping program is flexible.

"If we're able to find some more sheep and it doesn't rain before the end of seeding is in sight, I won't hesitate to drop off a few hundred hectares as the risks this year are too great given the cost of inputs," Mr Popplewell said.

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With seeding underway, albeit not when initially wanted, the Popplewells expect the program to be wrapped up within about six weeks.

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