Monsoon disaster yields opportunity chickpea crop

North west monsoon yields first chickpea crop

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As February's horrifying deluge receded in north west Queensland, leaving hectares of silt churned in its wake, it was hard for affected cattle producers to imagine a productive future just a few months down the track.

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An aerial view of the 2830ha chickpea crop at Nelia being harvested in early September, pushing the boundaries of pulse crops in Australia further north. Photo - supplied.

An aerial view of the 2830ha chickpea crop at Nelia being harvested in early September, pushing the boundaries of pulse crops in Australia further north. Photo - supplied.

As February's horrifying deluge receded in north west Queensland, leaving hectares of silt churned in its wake, it was hard for affected cattle producers to imagine a productive future just a few months down the track.

But that's what's happened at Nelia where a 2830ha crop of chickpeas has just been harvested.

Even more remarkably, it was audaciously carried out by a mixed farmer from Warren in NSW deep in the grip of drought.

When Michael Dickson and Malcolm McClymont came to an agreement to sow chickpeas and forage sorghum at Molesworth near Nelia not long after the floodwaters had receded, neither knew what to expect.

Read more: We're on our knees

"I've been interested in crops for a long time but didn't have the machinery," Mr McClymont said.

"When I said yes, I was interested, they flew up and we put a steel probe into the ground - it went straight to the bottom.

"Within a week they were back up and spraying the ground."

Three chickpea varieties - Kyabra, HatTrick and Drummond - were used and around 4000 tonnes was recently harvested.

Mr Dickson said that was about what they'd budgeted for but was less than they hoped.

Despite the country having up to a metre of water across it in February, the lack of in-crop rain had limited the yield, and Mr Dickson said the crop had used all the moisture stored in the soil.

"I can only see something like this working in exceptional years when you've got a full profile of moisture, such as after a flood," he said.

For Mr McClymont and others though, it showed the potential for cropping if water was available.

It's a very positive thing for the north west - Luke Westaway

"It's something that's been encouraged for years - it's a very positive thing for the north west," agent Luke Westaway said. "There's been other enquiry because of it."

Fellow agent Boyd Curran described it as probably the best crop in Australia at the time.

"It's a game changer," he said. "That country is worth so much as cattle country but so much more as cropping land."

Mr Dickson said he had probably been lucky to get away with two sprays of insecticide after allowing for quite a bit more.

Their standard farming equipment was brought up from NSW to undertake the sowing and harvesting, which Mr Dickson said operated satisfactorily.

As well as using a herbicide at the start to remove grass seed and weeds, they used a kelly chain to put a crust over the soil.

Port readiness

Two of the hurdles that would need to be overcome for cropping to flourish in the north west in Mr Dickson's opinion were the cost of freight, and the lack of containerisation at Townsville's port.

Because of the latter deficiency, the crop was delivered to central Queensland, which affected the net return.

Read more: Flinders Ag gets coordinated

Pulse Australia's northern region agronomist Paul McIntosh said chickpeas handled heat much better than they were given credit for.

"The conditions for this crop were probably just right - it wasn't the coldest or the warmest winter on record.

"They don't like temperatures below 15 degrees in the reproductive stage, but chickpeas grow on day degrees so the hotter it is, the quicker they emerge and mature."

As far as he was aware, chickpeas had been grown as far north as the Belyando in central Queensland before.

"All our pulse crops are pushing boundaries," he said.

"There are mungbeans growing in the Gulf and in the Burdekin, and there's lovely soil out there round Julia Creek.

"I congratulate the Dicksons for what they've done - it's a big thing to go from Warren in NSW to Richmond in north west Queensland."

Read more: Legumes get a leg-up

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