After four generations of farming in a more than 600 millimetre rainfall area, the Mitchell family, Mintaro, have learned a few important strategies throughout the years to make sure they remain ahead of the unique challenges a wet, and frost prone landscape presents.
Andrew Mitchell, his brother David and parents John and Pam are not conventional farmers, Andrew says, because “it is a pretty unforgiving environment out here”.
The family operate 3000 hectares from Mintaro through to Hanson and experience consistent weather extremes.
“In a really good season, no other region in SA will be able to beat it but in the bad years, we get hit really hard,” Andrew said.
“Because we have a long season if we get the right conditions and have an extended year we have a great ripening, so we will average about six tonnes a hectare, but if we have a short season and it shuts off, then we go back to about 2t/ha,” he said.
This means the Mitchells choose not to “block farm” and split crops into smaller sections to suit different paddock conditions.
This season, 700ha of Scepter and Trojan wheat, and soft wheat variety Orion will be sown from about April 20.
About 500ha of canola, hay and legumes – lentils, chickpeas and beans – will also be sown, with the last crop expected to be in the ground by June 20.
“We received about 27mm of rain at Mintaro last weekend so we will start with canola, even though we have only had 70mm of rain in the past six months,” Andrew said.
“We have lots of different amounts of each crop in each area and although we do spend a bit of extra time on the road moving machinery and checking crops at different places, it is frost mitigation and a need to spread the risk that drives it,” he said.
“Up north, crops can be ready up to two weeks earlier than Mintaro, so it is a chance to get some paddocks dealt with instead of all paddocks being ready at once.”
Seeding later and at different times for the same crop came about from consistent frost damage that has occurred since 2010.
With frost often being the Mitchells season make or break factor, Andrew said staggering flowering times from October 5-25 helps “dodge frost damage and have back up crops.”
“If one paddock gets hit hard because frost came at a crucial time of the plant’s growth, then we have other paddocks quite a distance away that would not have been hit,” Andrew said.
“From 2011 to 2016 we had severe frost damage and in 2016 we had about 40 per cent damage,” he said.
Livestock is also a part of a frost management plan with 6000 Merino sheep grazing pastures in high-risk paddocks instead of land being used for sowing crops.
High hopes for barley returns
FOLLOWING a slight hiatus from growing barley because of severe frost risk, Mintaro mixed farmer Andrew Mitchell has reintroduced the cereal into his rotation this season.
A slight slump in barley prices in 2016 meant Mr Mitchell decided to grow more wheat instead and leave barley out of his rotation, but because returns have increased and more malting varieties have been released, this year he will sow 200 hectares.
"We have never been big barley growers and there has just not been a big place for it in our program," Mr Mitchell said.
"We have only sown small amounts because of our frost issue and not having the option to cut it as hay because it is not as saleable," he said.
Compass barley was the variety of choice in previous years Mr Mitchell says, but this year Spartacus was chosen for its high yielding and malting capabilities.
"It is a Clearfield variety, so that gives us chemical options – which is a big plus – and the latest trials showed it performed really well because of its growth habit," Mr Mitchell said.
He expects to begin sowing barley on May 20 after canola, beans, wheat and hay.
"I think it will be a part of our rotation each year, especially because of the sheep aspect of the operation – I would have loved a bin of feed going into this year since we have had no rain," he said.
"We have high hopes for its performance and we are hoping for malting."