Diversifying into new country has paid dividends for North Western croppers

Hamish Brett, Minnel North, in a recently developed 890ha paddock of barley planted into a full moisture profile. For the past three winters the Minton North property has produced barley and chickpeas with stubble retained.
Hamish Brett, Minnel North, in a recently developed 890ha paddock of barley planted into a full moisture profile. For the past three winters the Minton North property has produced barley and chickpeas with stubble retained.

The Brett family, Bullarah west of Moree, diversified out of heavy black soil into lighter country on the intermittent Minnel Creek, north of Toobeah on the Queensland border. Here they struck a purple patch.

This winter, the same as for the past three years, they have taken advantage of a full moisture profile following 150mm of rain last October and November. For the first six months of this year a further 110mm has fallen on summer fallow ahead of planting: 1000ha of barley, around Anzac Day, and a further 1350ha of PBA HatTrick Desi variety chickpeas, in late May.

"We had 18mm of rain at the start of June which established the crop," he said.

Both crops are up and away with Minnel North manager Hamish Brett banking on just 12-25mm of in-crop rain to create a harvest.

Already the barley looks strong, with secondary root systems well established and green growing to the horizon in his largest 890ha paddock. The chickpeas are up and hanging on under the shade of last year's barley stubble.

The annual "average" rainfall is more like 600mm with most of that falling during summer - a situation which has not existed in the past several years, during which time winter crops have been the only success.

However, at the moment, the soil is damp and sticky just below the surface while dams and Minnel Creek itself contain enough water for pelicans,

"It's true our "bucket" of moisture is less than the heavy black soil around Moree, about 150-160mm here compared to 180-200mm back at home," says the Rugby League fan who still barracks for the Blues in spite of his new postal address.

For the past three winters the Minnel North property has produced barley and chickpeas with barley stubble retained for the next rotation of chickpeas, leaving paddocks to fallow through summer.

"We were tempted to bale our barley stubble last year, given the prices," recalls Hamish. "But we had 60mm at the start of harvest, so just focused on getting the grain off. And we prefer to keep the stubble to retain moisture and provide cover for emerging plants. For this year we will assess that decision at the time of harvest. We don't lock ourselves in to any decision. We prefer to leave ourselves open.

"For instance, if we get rain at Christmas and the profile is full enough we will consider planting sorghum or we might try dryland cotton again - it is amazing what that crop can do on hardly any rain - although the last time we tried that in 2016-2017 the summer was the hottest on record.

"If we had planted last summer the crop would have fried. Instead we received a full moisture profile for our winter cropping."