Tablelands cropping options

Aaron Kemp, AusWest Seeds, New England & Mid North Coast NSW

The Tablelands region of NSW produce some of Australia’s finest wool and prime lamb as well as being home to some of our highest value beef and dairy country. The climate is typically medium to high rainfall, with significantly cooler temperatures than neighbouring slopes or coastal country. The cooler temperatures push sowing times earlier, with some farmers getting away with February or even January sowing times. There is also a need for winter crops to get going early, with little growth expected during the cold winter period.

Tablelands cropping options generally focus on providing winter feed during the cold winter conditions. When looking at cropping options there are a few key things to keep in mind.

  • What class of animals will be grazing the paddock?
    This will help determine what quality of feed we need. Do we need to fatten animals or is maintenance ok?
  • When do I need the feed?
    Where is the feed gap?
  • How long do I need to have feed for?
    This will help determine how big an area to sow, and whether the crop needs to be multiple or single grazing.
  • What is the paddock preparation like?
    Key in working out what weeds we expect, soil fertility needs etc.
  • What is the long term goal for the paddock?
    If we can get weeds controlled and any soil fertility issues corrected during the cropping phase we can greatly aid in getting permanent pasture re-established down the track

While there are many options, some of the more common are described below.

Mainstar forage brassica | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Cross bred lambs grazing Mainstar forage rape at Toombs research farm, UNE, 2017
There are a number of different forage brassicas on the market. The most common are forage rapes, turnips and leafy turnips. While there are some big differences between them, all are able to produce a large bulk of excellent quality feed. Brassicas are best suited for stock with high energy requirements such as lactating females, weaners, finishing or growing stock. Brassicas have a limited range of broad leaf weed control options, but enable good control of grass weeds. Moreover, stock grazing brassicas often eat the weeds as well.

Forage rapes, such as Mainstar and Winfred, have the highest yield potential in this group. They have a deep tap root and are more heat and drought tolerant than other brassicas. They do have a maturity requirement of around 8–12 weeks post sowing before grazing, so plan pastures ahead of time to make sure that the crop is in the ground with enough lead time to be ahead of when it is needed. Forage rape is a multi-graze brassica option with good grazing management, although 70% of total feed is produced in the first grazing.

Turnips and leafy turnips are quite common on the tablelands as winter feed. Leafy turnips are a quick (6-8 week maturity), producing a bulk off high quality feed for a single grazing. Turnips are slower to first grazing (maturity varies between varieties) than leafy turnips but do produce a bulb. The bulb is excellent quality feed and can be used as stand over feed going into winter. It is not uncommon to see turnips planted in mixes with oats and/or ryegrass.

For finer points on sowing, growing and grazing forage brassicas, contact your local territory manager.

While perennial ryegrass should be considered as a pasture, sowing annual or Italian ryegrass into a paddock for short term winter feed is best considered a crop. Ryegrass cannot be planted as early as oats or brassicas as they don’t have the same level of heat tolerance, but they do have higher winter production due to greater cold tolerance. Ryegrass is excellent feed quality and is suitable for all classes of livestock.

Annual ryegrass is a common and cheap crop option to fill the winter feed gap and clean up paddocks. There is a large range of varieties on the market from Tetila, which is very cheap, through to high performance varieties such as Mach1. Annual ryegrass is quick off the mark, and produces excellent quality feed through late autumn and winter. Performance through late winter and spring varies between varieties, with later flowering varieties (eg. Mach1) producing more and better quality feed than early maturing varieties.

While Italian ryegrasses have often been considered a 2 year option on the Tablelands, they are an excellent single year crop, and are used that way in other parts of the country. Knight is a fast establishing Italian ryegrass that produces as much if not more feed than many annual ryegrasses through late autumn and winter. The big advantage to using an Italian ryegrass as an annual crop is its spring production potential. Italian ryegrasses are later flowering than annuals and return to vegetative growth post flowering. As a farmer this gives you back control as to when the ryegrass finishes, and you have the option in the spring of spraying out the paddock when you choose, rather than the ryegrass giving up the ghost before spring feed is ready.

There are many cropping options for the Tablelands. To make a decision as to what to plant you need to consider what the plans are for the paddock, and what stock are going to be grazing the crop and for how long. Winter oats, such as Bass, are an excellent option for early sowing in grazing systems, while Bond, Austin, Comet and Taipan are excellent options for growing a bulk of feed from an early start. Brassicas are great for filling a specific feed gap with high quality feed and are best suited for growing and finishing stock. Annual and Italian ryegrass are all rounder’s in regards to livestock, and are best suited to slightly later sowings to avoid hot conditions at establishment.

In general, oats have good tolerance to warmer soil temperatures and heat and  can be sown earlier than other cereals or ryegrass. They have good dry tolerance once established, but perform poorer than ryegrass if the soil becomes waterlogged. Oats are suitable for all classes of livestock and are a good option for early planting. They have good early vigour and can provide good feed in late autumn, early winter. Winter growth of oats is generally lower than that of wheat, barley or ryegrass. There are two main types of Oats used on the tablelands, forage and dual purpose.

Forage oats such as Bond, Austin, Comet, Taipan and Drover as well as many others, are typically very vigorous with upright growth habits and broad leaves. These varieties are excellent for providing a large bulk of feed coming into winter for grazing, or being left grow to produce a high yielding hay or silage cut. With careful management, they can provide both. Forage oats often have a high crown, which can leave them susceptible to grazing damage and reduce regrowth post grazing if grazed too low. Most of these varieties are considered to be late flowering. Use these varieties if you need a large bulk of standing feed, or are looking for a good hay/silage yield.

Compared to forage oats, dual purpose oats are usually shorter with narrower leaves. They also usually have a lower growing point, making them more grazing tolerant. Dual purpose oats can be split into two categories. Spring oats such as Yarran, Yiddah and Coolabah are often cheaper to purchase, but are early flowering and are susceptible to running up to head early if exposed to hot dry conditions in autumn. Winter types such as, Bass, Nile and Blackbutt have a strong vernalisation requirement that reduces the risk of early flowering. Bass offers good Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV) resistance and has a low crown, dense growth habit and good winter growth. Bass is an ideal winter crop option for grazing systems where the oat needs to be planted early and will be grazed through late autumn into winter. Blackbutt is an older variety that was bred at Glen Innes.
Bass oats | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Tom and Howard Schafer in a crop of Bass oats east of Guyra NSW (2016). From a tough start this February sown paddock was grazed with lambs and steers through the winter, before being cut for hay shortly after. This photo was taken in October 2016.

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