Peter Horwood

Region: Lockier River, Mingenew, North Midlands, Western Australia

Commodity: Wheat, lupins, Poll Dorset sheep

Farming area: 3440 hectares

Rainfall: 200-470 mm per year


Phone: 08 9928 1171


Our farming system is very simple. The biggest challenge is that we need to be increasingly adaptable, because every season is different, and we can't afford to treat any 2 seasons the same. With climate variability, you have to be very adaptable. It’s not like making a cake with a tried and proven recipe. You’ve got to be adaptable on timing, inputs, and all parts of your farm system. That’s how we aim to make the most of the season.



See what Peter has to say about:

Cropping the sand country

You’ll find us 4 hours north of Perth, and half an hour inland of Dongara, at Lockier River Farm. Our soils are very old and naturally low in fertility; but with the right balance of inputs we have very productive country.

The Lockier River runs through the farm, so we have a small area of river flats, which are naturally more fertile.

The majority of our place is sand plain, which can vary quite a lot. It can vary from poor sands with low clay content, which is quite unproductive for cropping, to better yellow sands and gravels, which are productive soil types.

85 per cent of our arable area is used for cropping; 60 per cent wheat and 40 per cent lupin. Our livestock component is very small, which is typical for this area. In our district, both canola and barley are also grown.

But it wasn’t always like that: when we first came to Mingenew, people cropped maybe 50 per cent of their farms. Even the big croppers might have cropped 60 per cent and ran livestock - mostly sheep with a few cattle. Over time, it has shifted to many farms running no livestock.

We grow a lot of lupins here because the soil type, the climate, and the environment is very suitable. It’s supposed to be one of the best places in Australia for growing lupins. Lupins are also very good for rotational benefits, for the nitrogen they put in and the disease break they offer to our wheat program.

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Mediterranean climate with a drying trend

Although there’s no ‘normal’ climate here, we are in a traditionally Mediterranean climate - winter rainfall and summer drought.

Research shows that since the 1970s, rainfall has been declining.

Unfortunately, we’re also seeing greater variability within seasons - no two seasons are the same anymore. We notice it more now because when we have dry periods they are more pronounced here due to the reduced rainfall.

With a little bit more rain - such as in a 400 mm-rainfall zone - the variability is still there, but a bit more hidden. In a 300 mm-rainfall zone, you’ve got 100 mm less, and see the rainfall loss more.

We’re losing our rainfall from June and July, which are really the months that usually put moisture in the profile for later in the season. So that ‘buffer’ is going.

This year [2014], we had a dry spell in July/August, with some very extreme hot weather. We had 30-plus degree Celsius, which caused a fair bit of havoc in our crop production.

We were lucky last year - in 2013/14, we had a major dry period in June that the crops handled better because they were smaller and required less nutrients and moisture. 2012 was very wet, and 2011 had a big dry too - so, no ‘normal’.

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Liming to make the best of the good seasons

A massive problem with soils here is increasing aluminium levels, which results in decreasing soil pH [more acidic]. Very simply, this limits root growth dramatically, so plants - especially wheat, barley and canola - are unable to access available soil moisture.

What woke me up was visiting John Ive [fellow MCV Climate Champion participant] and their increasingly acid soil - but they can’t afford to put lime on.

The good news is we have very good supplies of high-neutralising lime on our doorstep.

We can’t afford not to put lime on. Historically, it’s the first thing that goes from our budget. In some areas, people may even be better off taking some money out of their fertiliser budget for liming. To do this, it helps to have a comprehensive soil test.

If we had listened to GRDC research and grabbed hold of the idea of liming 20 years ago, I’d be in a better position now. But I’m trying to make up for lost time very quickly.

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Managing Mingenew’s weather: 5 ways

Below, Peter describes 5 aspects of farm management that help him make the most of the Mingenew climate and weather.

    1. Because of the increasing variability in rainfall we’ve got to be a lot smarter on every aspect of our farm. At the beginning of the season you have to make the most of every opportunity to control weeds before sowing crops. We use a combination of chemicals and, by getting the soil pH right, our crops are more competitive at reducing weed growth. We can also sow east/west instead of north/south - it costs nothing to change, and the weeds receive less sunlight so are not as competitive, resulting in less weed seed being set.
    2. There is some thinking that, in the dry periods, crops which are not limited by potash can take up moisture more effectively: we're trialling it on our place. We have added 14 units of potash to wheat at seeding since 2012. If the soil is a bucket of water, we think about how we can use all the water in the bucket - not just using the top couple of inches.
    3. The closer we can get our row spacing to seven inches apart, this will also help increase cereal yield. When the rows are closer together, in-between the rows gets less sunlight - and so fewer weeds grow there. This is especially important as your potential yields go over 1.5 tonnes per hectare. This is another piece of work carried out by GRDC which many farmers like us are still to take on board.
    4. It is standard practice around here to use furrow sowing. Because we have slightly non-wetting soils, if you get a small amount of rain it’s like there’s a valley between the rows - it encourages the water to run to the bottom. At the beginning of the season when we’re seeding, that extra water at the bottom might be just enough to get the seed to germinate.
    5. Our sandy soils blow away really easily, so we’ve gone to minimum tillage, with one pass. You don’t want to expose the soil. We aim to level all stubble; this helps reduce erosion problems.

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Watching the results of others’ incremental practice changes

The farmers in this wheat/sheep belt in Western Australia who have survived and done best, especially in the lower rainfall zones, run very simple, traditional farming systems.

They watch and monitor new ideas and grain varieties for 3 or 4 years before making changes, and they don't have the latest machinery, but they’re still there and still profitable.

That’s the way I try to approach it - every time I make a move, I want it to be a step forward. I’m not taking too many steps backwards, and not losing out on much.

Improving your production now is very incremental: hanging your hat on just one thing is wasting your time. It’s more like ‘1 per cent here, 1 per cent there’, and all the 1 per cents add up. 10 per cent improvements are few and far between these days.

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Getting the basics right, but being adaptable

For an area with declining rainfall, the biggest challenge is keeping farming profitable.

Because our climate is changing slowly, not dramatically, for me it’s most important to get the basics of my farming system exactly right. The basic agronomy - our bread and butter stuff - doesn’t change so much.

Our farming system is very simple, and there is not much I think I’ll change. The biggest challenge is that we need to be increasingly adaptable, because every season is different, and we can't afford to treat any two seasons the same.

With climate variability, you’ve got to be adaptable. It’s not like making a cake with an unchanging recipe. You’ve got to be adaptable on timing, inputs, and all parts of your farm system. That's how we aim to make the most of the season.

If you’re adaptable on inputs and it looks as though it’s not going to rain, you can pull up - especially on fertiliser. You can save yourself a lot of money, because you haven’t got the water to grow the crops, so you don’t need the fertiliser.

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Sticking with tough decisions on inputs

I know we’ve had seasons with less rain than this year and last year, and we weren’t as smart in those years.

A classic example was 2011: it wasn’t raining, so I sat down and looked at rainfall observations for April/May/June, when we maybe would get half of our growing season rainfall.

So I made a decision not to run extra nitrogen fertiliser because it wasn’t raining. It was pretty hard not to, and I held out. But I didn’t spend the extra money because it hadn’t rained.

Within the following year it rained, so we put more on. But for some farmers, those kinds of decisions could mean the difference between making a profit or not, or surviving on the land or not.

What helped me was that I sat down with my fertiliser bloke and worked through it - we need to have the right people around us, like I did that time.

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Planning using forecasts

I will only look about a week out for forecasts for this area. The main sites I use are the Bureau of Meteorology and Australian Weather News' Operational Consensus Forecasts.

I still don't have any confidence in any long-term forecasts for our location.

My first call in how the season is going to end up is at the end of June: I will sit down and look how much rain I’ve had, because historical records show that it is approximately 50 per cent of our growing season rainfall.

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Learning about communication: the MCV Climate Champion program

I was interested in the MCV Climate Champion program because I like to see how other people do things and learn from them. But, even more, I was interested in how to communicate better and understanding how other people think and the psychology of acceptance.

It’s easiest to approach communication from a profit view - can you make more money? Converting it to dollars. I like to think about how can you make a farming system more profitable. If this can be achieved, all involved in agriculture will hopefully have less call on government assistance or fewer times of hardship.

And you’ve got to bring facts in - stuff that stacks up. I only like to deal in work that’s been scientifically evaluated and peer-reviewed, so when I take on new ideas and farming practices, there is only one way and that is forward. Going backwards costs a lot of money and time.

There are over 20 of us around Australia [in the Climate Champion program], and I can see people who do a good job in communicating. I think it’s also interesting that some people look at things quite differently, especially if they’ve come back to farming later in life after study, or a different career.

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Dates interviewed: 30 July 2012, December 2014

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