Tambellup grower Ken Schlueter planned to bale about 140 rolls of oaten hay in the coming weeks.ONLY two words are needed to describe the cropping season to date in WA: extremely variable.
And as Tambellup farmer, Ken Schlueter, put it “the proof will undoubtedly be in the pudding.”
Paddocks from Binnu to Beaumont experienced every type of weather this year and Tambellup was no different.
Regarded as one of WA’s few and far between “safe” areas for cropping and livestock enterprises, Ken’s 2200 hectares (spread over three locations) had only received about 255mm of rainfall for the year when Farm Weekly visited last week, well below its 450mm yearly average since records began in 1927.
Ken’s properties received close to 100mm of rain in June but had received nothing substantial since then.
But in light of what an increasing number of eastern Wheatbelt growers had put up with so far this season, Ken was still jovial and very thankful for what he had on the ground.
The Schlueter family had 980ha of crop in this season of which the majority (450ha) was Nuseed’s Tawriffic TT and Bravo TT canola varieties.
Calingiri and Mace wheat varieties also made up for 300ha of the program as well as 230ha of oats which was to be harvested for stock feed or baled into hay for on-farm use.
Ken said overall his crops looked remarkable for the relatively little amount of rain they had received.
But that was to be short-lived after hot north easterly winds took hold on Sunday, September 30 and didn’t give up until the Wednesday that followed.
“The paddocks already had no sub-soil moisture and it only took the one wind event for crop conditions to drop off immediately,” Ken said.
“The canola stopped flowering and we’re now faced with the prospect of a less than ideal, almost non-existent, spring flush.”
When the Schlueters were last faced with a less than ideal season in 2010 it was the Noodle wheat variety Calingiri which helped to balance their books and set them in good stead to plant their next crop in 2011.
Ken said he hoped the variety’s paddock agronomy and the market’s positive price points would help to do the same this season.
But despite the rapid drying of his cereals and canola, Ken said parts of his farm had still withstood the elements and produced relatively good grain quality from what he could see.
Although it was still too early to tell just how much damage had been done by frost in the weeks leading up, he said there were some patches of potential plump grain and reasonable yields.
“The quick finish should ensure some higher protein levels so now we just have to worry about the yields,” Ken said.
The Schlueters gave up growing barley in favour of more oat hectares after the struggles faced in 2010.
Ken said while oat prices were reasonable and the grain could fulfil his stock feed requirements so it was a “no brainer.”
“Oats gives us a wider variety of options at the end of the season,” he said.
“We stopped growing Stirling barley in support of the market when growers were being told end-users didn’t want it anymore, even though it hit the Malt specifications every time.
“We had some early success with Baudin but when there was an early cut-off, like in the 2010 season, our barley struggled while the wheat toiled on.”
Although crop selection played an integral role on the Schlueter’s farm, it was the old adage of ‘not keeping one’s eggs in one basket’ that would help Ken and his family to get through season 2012/13 with minimal rainfall.
Ken also runs 7000 Merino ewes and lambs and a number of Merino, Poll Dorset and Mount Ronan composite rams for breeding and income flexibility.
In recovering from the 2010 drought, Ken and his family cut wool from a large number of Merino wethers and became confident in their ability to juggle farm income streams and carry stock which they otherwise might have been quick to sell.
“This year won’t be much different,” Ken said.
“Water availability will be a big issue so there will be lots of gates open for stock.”
He was also “unexcited” by the current sheep meat market, especially knowing that he hadn’t hand fed his sheep since September in anticipation of the spring paddock feed which never eventuated.
“Commercial producers like us used to budget to hand feed sheep until the end of July but now we have to be prepared to carry them throughout the entire year,” Ken said.
“We have 110 tonnes of oats left from last season and have purposely kept our storage facilities chock-a-block full in order to feed stock if the need arose.”
The Schlueter’s return to conventional pastures also meant they could once again support a small herd of cattle on their farm.
In 2010 Ken was forced to cut his 90-strong herd of Angus and Murray Grey breeders down to 15 due to water constraints.
But if there’s one thing Ken is passionate about it’s diversity.
This season has seen him increase his herd to 30 but the number would remain flexible in anticipation of feed and water availability.
For now Ken will continue to cut and bale up to 140 rolls of hay and hopes to start swathing in two to three weeks (weather permitting).
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