Three years of massive reductions in flocks and herds across eastern Australia, means when the drought breaks not everyone is going to be able to instantly restock to more normal levels.
For many landholders an increase or switch to at least some or more cropping area is worth considering.
A message all croppers will tell you when undertaking cropping, is that it is generally only profitable if undertaken at a high standard.
Decisions need to be made now and paddock preparation, if not already begun, also needs to commence from now on.
One doesn't necessarily need to purchase expensive equipment to crop.
With a relatively small cropping part of the farm business, it is commonly more feasible to engage contractors for operations such as fallow spraying, sowing, fertiliser application and harvesting.
For most districts there is capacity of someone to take on contracting roles and probably the first step is to engage contractors that are reliable, will undertake operations for you timely and have suitable gear.
Zero till cropping is feasible for most properties, and in fact some paddocks are more suited to zero till than cultivation farming.
Provided sowing equipment is suitable, with good clearance and ability to sow in maybe more difficult soil conditions, many paddocks never farmed can be cropped.
Some unevenness, slope, and even moderate rock areas once considered too difficult to farm are now commonly cropped.
For all of NSW the most critical cropping factor most years, is to conserve fallow moisture prior to sowing.
Even lighter shallow soils, for example a sandy loam over a clay at say 40cm, can store about 60-80mm of plant available water (PAW).
That might not seem much, but in a year like the last three, that has been the difference between a useful crop and little or no crop.
An average medium clay loam soils may be capable of storing 170mm of PAW and a deep heavy clay can store over 300mm of PAW.
On average across the state cropping on a paddock with conserved summer fallow moisture will yield 1.0 t/ha more cereal than a paddock with no conserved soil moisture.
In addition, paddocks with good stored moisture are far more likely to be able to be sown on time.
Stored soil water is vital to keep crops alive over prolonged dry periods during the growing period.
Stored soil water is also commonly critical for grain fill in spring.
Cropping can also be used profitably as part of a rotation ahead of re-sowing to a more productive pasture than an old run-down one, a native species based one, or a badly weed infested one.
Cropping for two and preferably three years, with good in-crop and fallow weed control can largely eliminate weeds like capeweed, barley grass, vuplia, Coolatai, African love grass, blue heliotrope and many more prior to pasture sowing.
A following strong perennial based pasture can help prevent reinvasion.
Species and variety choice are important aspects when changing from pasture to cropping.
Diseases like take-all and crown rot can be a risk if going straight into wheat when coming from a very grassy pasture, especially barley grass.
Canola may be a good first crop option for many situations.
Oats has less disease issues than wheat or barley, but fewer herbicide options for weed control.
Pulses are good, but if cropping areas are not large be especially wary of pests like hares, rabbits, pigs and kangaroos.
Soil pH is important for crop variety choice.
Crop gross margin costs are commonly about $350/ha, but can vary from less than $200 to more than $500/ha (see GRDC web publication Farm Gross Margin and Enterprise Planning Guide 2019).
While that might seem a bit rich for some livestock businesses, in all but very bad drought years, well run cropping business can offer excellent returns via grain, grazing, hay or silage.
Another critical issue is to arrange seed supply as a matter of urgency.
While seed supplies will be poor in many areas, there are areas where reasonable crop yields are still likely.
Other issues to consider include fertiliser and best sowing time for various crops and varieties.
The NSW DPI Winter Crop Variety Sowing Guide is an excellent reference.
- Bob Freebairn is an agricultural consultant based at Coonabarabran. Email email@example.com or contact 0428 752 149.