South Australian grower Robin Schaefer finds pulses have helped lift gross margins in cereals and manage grass weeds.
PHOTO: Nigel Parsons
When soil nitrogen levels started to become a limiting factor in South Australian grower Robin Schaefer’s cereal performance, he began to look for alternative sources.
Although the Nuffield Australia scholar, from Loxton, had already started incorporating other crops into his cereal rotations, he was encouraged by his agronomist to look at pulses: “We’d already been growing canola but it was not performing,” he says.
“We’d had frost and heat-stress issues and, in one year, diamondback moths. We needed to find something that would perform more reliably.”
Introducing pulses has since proven to be the much-needed production lift – both from an agronomic and economic perspective – Robin was looking for, although it was not without stumbles along the way.
Robin says he had to wear some early failures, but the past three years have produced big improvements in productivity and profitability.
Last year, in fact, gross margins from pulses – including chickpeas, field peas, lentils and lupins – were markedly better than those from cereals.
He says the key has been “getting the agronomy right” – the soil type and the timing of sowing, chemical applications and harvesting.
In addition to their own performance, Robin says pulses have also driven up gross margins in cereals: “We’ve seen significant yield improvements from cereals planted on pulse stubble.”
Robin’s findings mirror those from the GRDC-funded Low Rainfall Crop Sequencing project, which has assessed different break-crop options in five low-rainfall sites across southern Australia over the past four years.
Project leader Nigel Wilhelm, from the South Australian Research and Development Institute, says break crops have had a spectacular impact on subsequent cereal performance and over the project’s duration represented a more profitable outcome than continuous wheat.
“We found that a break crop brought a completely new lease of life to ‘tired’ paddocks, with the yield in the first year of cereals following a pulse up to one tonne per hectare higher than the continuous wheat control plot.”
Intensive cereal cropping can also lead to declining productivity because of agronomic constraints, such as grassy weeds.
Robin says he has found break crops help particularly with the management of grassy weeds since the family bought an additional property: “Generally speaking, we are making the whole system more sustainable,” he says. “We are no longer relying on one or two crops, and we are not just targeting one pulse crop. They all have a place.”