Swartland Canola Farmer of the year

Dirk Lesch is the 2007 Swartland Canola Farmer of the Year with an average yield of 2,32t/ha and the best gross margins of R5 957/ha on his farm, 12km outside Malmesbury. Wouter Kriel writes.
Issue date : 06 June 2008

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The average yield for farmers participating in the Swartland Canola Farmer of the Year competition was 1,58t/ha, with a gross income of R3 302/ha, compared to Dirk’s 2,32t/ha and R5 957/ha. So how did he do it? “I try to get the basics right at the right time,” he says. D irk produces wheat and canola on his 400ha farm Elim. Because of his small land area, he follows a two-year rotation of wheat/canola and wheat/pasture. He also has a herd of 70 Ngunis and 200 Dohne Merino ewes and his wife, Mariette, sells the cured Nguni hides, which are in high demand. “The Ngunis are well-adapted animals and thrive on pasture, stubble and straw, but my animals never set foot on the canola fields, as hooves are almost as destructive on soil structure as a plough, due to compaction caused during the wet winter months,” Dirk says. irk started producing canola in 1995. “considered all my options, which included crops and animals. On paper, canola was better than sheep or cattle, so we embarked on a wheat/canola rotation programme.”

During the first few years, he lost hope for this crop several times. “We started small, but each year planted more. Then 2003 was a particularly disastrous year, as we got very little rain and harvested only 700kg in total,” Dirk remembers. “One of our main challenges in those first years was harvesting. My land has severe inclines and various types of soil. This caused uneven ripening of canola and with direct harvesting, we really struggled. So four years ago we started to swathe the canola, which greatly improved our harvests.” Weed and parasite control Wheat stubble is burned in March to reduce weed populations. uses atrazine for a pre-germination weed control, because it works best on grass weeds.

He does not use trifluralin as it is not registered for canola. Ryegrass herbicide resistance is a serious threat in the Swartland region. Using trifluralin for ryegrass in canola is effective, but Dirk is worried about the long-term impact. “Controlling ryegrass in wheat is already difficult, with few effective products available. Substituting trifluralin with atrazine in the canola selection relieves pressure to some extent in my wheat weed management.” Dirk uses only triazine-resistant canola cultivars, preferring long-season canola.

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“With short-season cultivars, stress during flowering could result in no set at all, while long-season cultivars can abort flowers, but flower again after a spell of rain.” Aphids and false wireworm are controlled with Gaucho seed dressing. “I’m the only farmer in our district with false wireworm problems and last season, 4ha were affected.” The benefits of conservation tillage Dirk has been using conservation tillage since 1989. This entails as little tillage as possible, as shallow as possible, with as much vegetative cover on the ground as possible.

But different conditions require different interpretations, he says. Sandy soil will eventually compact below the surface as repeated planter tine action moves the small particles to lower levels where they eventually form an impenetrable layer. Some form of tillage once every three or four years will be needed to correct this. Although burning would be considered anti-conservation by some, Dirk says he has herbicide resistance and weed control to consider.

“The problem with definitions of organic, biological and conservation farming is that they keep changing and you suddenly find yourself outside the parameters of the philosophy you adopted,” he points out. His farming practices are reflected in the condition of his soil. The carbon content in virgin veld on his farm is 1,6 and his commercial land has a carbon content of 1,2 to 1,4.

The average carbon content for commercial agricultural land in the Swartland area is only 0,4. Conservation tillage has also halved Dirk’s fuel usage, a huge saving with current fuel prices. Advice for canola farmers While the current canola price looks good, input costs have skyrocketed by an estimated 60%. Combined with rising interest rates, farmers need to manage their credit very carefully, cautions Dirk. “If you are over-extended on your credit, you can’t make the best decisions. For example, your bank may force you to accept future contracts on their terms, making it impossible for you to take advantage of current high grain prices.” Contact Dirk Lesch on (022) 482 2069.