Southern Pulse Extension Case Study  – Pyramid Hill Group, Ash Moon

OWNERS: Ash and Emma Moon
LOCATION: Pyramid Hill, Victoria
FARM SIZE: 1700 hectares
SOIL TYPES: Tragowel clay, Macorna clay and Yarrawalla loam
ENTERPRISE MIX: Broadacre irrigated (50%) and dryland cropping (50%); flock of 300 Merino ewes producing first-cross lambs
CROP PROGRAM (2019): Cereals 50% (Scout wheat, Spartacus barley), legumes 25% (PBA Hallmark XT (PBR) lentils, PBA Samira (PBR) faba beans, vetch-oat mix), canola 25% (ATR Bonito (PBR), Pioneer® 43Y92, Hyola® 970).
TYPICAL ROTATION: Irrigated crops – double-break then pulse/canola/wheat/barley; dryland crops – cereal/cereal/pulse or canola

Ash Moon
Phone: 0487 851 292
Email: [email protected]

After growing up on the family farm, west of Pyramid Hill in north central Victoria, Ash Moon’s first serious encounter with grain legumes came as a student at Longerenong Agricultural College, near Horsham.

Ash’s parents, Robert and Faye, were traditional sheep producers and cropping was a secondary pursuit.

“Our break crops – because Dad was predominantly sheep – were clover, sub-clover or lucerne,” Ash says. “We’d crop an area for three years and then go back to sheep feed or a clover paddock. I wasn’t interested in doing that.”

In the eight years since he returned to farm in the area, Ash has convinced Robert to reduce the size of the flock and – because of ongoing volatility in the availability and price of irrigation water – increase the focus on annual cropping of barley, wheat and canola, as well as introduce legumes into the rotation.

After starting with a 200 hectare lease, Ash and his wife Emma now farm 800ha as well as sharecropping another 900ha with Robert and Faye, and Ash’s brother Dylan.

Ash recalls that pulses, including vetch and field peas, had previously been grown in the area east of Pyramid Hill, but rarely on the sheep and barley country to the west, and farmers showed little interest in alternative break crops during the Millennium drought.

“Everyone lost interest in anything other than wheat and barley in those years,” Ash says. “When I came back was after the big flood (December 2010 and January 2011) and we had some water again and that’s when people got a bit more interested.”

Ash had mixed success with his first crop of field peas in 2013 – yield potential of 2-2.5t/ha was slashed to 1.5t/ha by a late frost – and says it was mostly downhill in the following years.

“The first year was probably the best year I’ve had with field peas,” he says. “After that … we had a run of frosts and dry years. We weren’t losing money, but we weren’t really making money. That’s where the interest kicked off in being part of a pulse discussion group.”

As part of an earlier four-year Farming for Sustainable Soils (FSS) project, Ash and others had undertaken a soil testing program across the district. Soil types varied from lighter loams in the Yarrawalla area east of the Loddon Valley Highway to heavy Tragowel and Macorna clay where Ash and Emma live between Serpentine Creek and the Loddon River, near Durham Ox.

The soil tests confirmed macronutrient levels were sound, thanks to a history of pasture crops that were “fed pretty well”, but zinc levels were low.

“The biggest constraint is the sodic layer at 40 centimetres,” Ash says. “Otherwise it’s similar to everywhere – after a few dry years when you’ve cut back on inputs, you’re only mining the soil … you can buy urea or you can grow (the nitrogen). It’s not that we need the nutrition from pulses, but nitrogen from the peas and other pulses seems to give a lot better result than we get from putting urea out.”

This was especially noticeable in 2015 when “most of our barley got smoked” in an early October heatwave that delivered a punishing five days with maximum temperatures of 30-38 degrees.

“We had a lot of barley go F3-F4,” Ash recalls. “Barley grown on the pulse stubble from the year before still made F1 and a fairly good yield. There was no difference in management that year, it just got going a bit quicker and probably had spare moisture from the year before. It didn’t have to compete with weeds or disease, so it was a really healthy crop when that heat hit.”

The FSS group explored ways to address soil constraints, which included improving soil structure through boosting organic matter, and asked the Birchip Cropping Group to run a pulse trial.

Fortuitously, after the FSS project ended in 2018, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) invested in the Southern Pulse Extension Project and the Pyramid Hill Pulse Check discussion group was established.

Replicated trials have been set up at two sites in recognition of the different soil types to the east and west of Pyramid Hill as part of the GRDC Southern Pulse Agronomy project. Crops include lupins, peas, beans, vetch, lentils and chickpeas.

“In our first year of trials in the area, we saw some possibilities,” Ash says. “Even on pretty ordinary ground, especially out the east side of Pyramid Hill, it showed we could actually grow some of these things on it until we ran out of moisture at the end of the year.”

As well as inspecting the trial sites during the season, the Pulse Check group has hosted visits from Southern Pulse Agronomy program leader Dr Jason Brand, held discussions with grain marketers and looked at different ways to set up headers at harvest time.

Ash says one of the things they’d learned was that vetch could be “a pretty profitable crop if you do it right”, especially since they were relatively close to vetch hay markets.

“We also know prices can be volatile,” he says. “A grain marketer warned if you’re going to grow them (e.g. lentils) you have to be prepared to store them for a couple of years. It’s not like wheat and barley that you can cash-in at harvest.”

Ash has successfully grown faba beans under irrigation since 2015 and is now looking for pulse types suitable for dryland production.

He sowed 30ha of PBA Hallmark XT (PBR) lentils in 2019 on a new block that could not be used for field peas because of Intervix residue. Unfortunately, it appeared as though the lentils may have suffered damage from clopyralid residues still present from two years earlier.

“I’ve learnt the hard way there,” he says ruefully. “I only got the chemical records for last year (but) it’s only a small paddock, so it’s not the end of the world.”

Ash is keen to learn more about different varieties and looks forward to seeing results from the 2019 time of sowing trials.

Typically, he’s sown pulses last for two reasons: to make sure there was enough soil moisture, and to avoid producing an overly bulky canopy that might be susceptible to disease. But this left the crops at greater risk of heat shock.

“Perhaps we should be changing our idea about time of sowing,” he says. “Even if they do get frosted, at least we’d get a paddock full of bulk that will be good for the soil or we can make hay out of it. At the moment we’re running out of moisture and we’ve got half of the paddock bare by sowing them late.”

Even though pulse crops delivered a range of longer-term benefits, including nitrogen fixation, a disease break and the opportunity to tackle Group A herbicide resistant ryegrass, Ash says he wants to see better gross margins.

“We’ve had a couple of years that we’ve made buy-a-few-beers-at-the-end-of-the-day sort of money,” he says. “If we can make more money out of them, we might tighten the rotation to have them one in three years instead of one in five.”

One of the major benefits of the Pulse Check group has been the opportunity to network with other farmers and agronomists from a wide area across northern Victoria.

“I find it interesting to hear what other people do and get different ideas to try,” Ash says. “Because we’re all fairly new to growing pulses as grains it’s hard to know what questions to ask.”

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