Dustbowl to record breaking canola harvest for family farm at Oberon | Ralph-Lauren

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From a dust bowl to a record breaking harvest, it has been a massive turnaround for one farming team in New South Wales.

Conditions were “desperate” in January 2020 on Mayfield, the Hawkins family farm at Oberon, managed by Peter Brooks.

“In 2019 the farm was heavily in drought and practically a dustbowl, so [how the season turned] is beyond our wildest expectations,” Mr Brooks said.

“We were having stock water issues and the farm was in distress and it didn’t rain in Oberon until February or March.”

And then a remarkable run of happy coincidences led to a record harvest of the winter canola variety — Hyola970CL — producing 7.16 tonnes/hectare.

Mr Brooks said they got everything right.

“It’s volcanic soil, its got an eastern slope, it had a big nitrogen history in terms of cattle grazing and this was its first crop in anyone’s memory.”

The result was well above the previous Australian record, set by a Tasmanian farmer who harvested 6.17 tonnes/hectare in 2017 and just below the world record set in 2020 by an English farmer who recorded 7.19 tonnes/hectare.

It was a surprising result because Mayfield is 1,000m above sea level in an area not known for cropping, plus the result is a long way above the national average for canola of just over one tonne/hectare.

A paddock of canola under a blue sky.
Canola crops as part of mixed farming operations help farmers get through tough seasons.(ABC Rural: Tim Fookes)

A game of patience

Peter Brooks has been working with Dr John Kirkegaard at the CSIRO for 15 years to develop a good cropping system for the Oberon farm.

Dr Kirkegaard has been developing a dual purpose system that allows farmers to put livestock into a crop to fatten them up for market, and then take them out again so the crop can still mature.

Mr Brooks said that has had a massive impact on farming in areas that traditionally haven’t grown canola.

On this occasion Peter Brooks put 20 lambs on the canola crop in the early part of the growing cycle, so he made good money from his livestock at a time when prices are at historically high levels, and he was still able to produce a record crop.

Farm agronomist James Cheetham from Delta Agribusiness said that kind of mixed farming can also help farmers get through tough seasons.

“Dual-purpose crops also help farms to manage their operations during times of drought due to the extra winter feed which forms a significant part of farm revenue,” Mr Cheetham said.

An economic analysis of dual-purpose cropping found that businesses can benefit by $100-$200 per hectare due to the extra income from grain and increased autumn and winter grazing.

And while Peter Brooks doesn’t expect to break the record again he does think the result will make farmers around Australia think more about the potential for growing canola in areas where it hasn’t been done before.

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