Farming Mallee Land
Information taken from Chapter 37 Karoonda East Murray History to 1986 Alan Jones
Clearing the Land
The mallee land was covered by dense scrub when the pioneer settlers arrived. The mallee tree is a multi-stemmed tree with no actual trunk and a large stump or lignotuber below the ground. The stump continues to shoot after the tree has been rolled over.
The first task for the settler to grow a crop of wheat was to clear the mallee from the land with a team of horses and a roller made from an old factory or ship’s boiler, to break off the mallee branches at ground level. Any log rollers had to be brought from higher rainfall areas. The rollers were attached to a frame supported by a wagon wheel and pulled from the side by a team of horses. This method of clearing the scrub was developed by Charles Mullen.
The settler had to cut the first round of the area to be cropped, using an axe so that the horses could move through the scrub. There was the risk of the horses treading on a stake and injuring their feet as well. Clearing the scrub was hard on both men and horses.
After rolling, the mallee was left to dry ready for burning. Dry wood, high temperatures and wind in the right direction made for a good burn – a bad burn meant a lot of extra work for the farmer. The stumps were still left below the ground which made the surface very rough for ploughing. The stump jump plough was invented by Mr R Smith from the Yorke Peninsula in 1876 and it enabled farmers to plough over the stumps.
Sowing the Crop
A crop of wheat was sown on the new ground in the winter after the burn. The first wheat crop was just drilled in to the sandy soil and ash with a disc drill. The mallee stumps kept shooting and had to be cut by hand with a slasher in October for several years.
New ground was usually cropped for the next three years and the stubble burnt to try to kill off the mallee regrowth. The natural fertility of the new ground along with superphosphate meant good yields but after three years it was necessary to fallow or lose yield. (Fallowing was the action of ploughing up the land and leaving over summer to allow the natural fixation of atmospheric nitrogen into the soil for the plants to use.)
The crop was harvested using a stripper which knocked the heads off the grain but did not separate the grain from the chaff. This was done by a winnower. A harvester that combined stripping and winnowing was made in 1884 but couldn’t be used on rough ground hence Mallee farmers had to stay with the winnowing process until the paddocks were cleared of stumps.
The grain had to be bagged and sewn by hand then lumped onto horse drawn wagons and carried over sandy tracks to the railway sidings where it was lumped off again into wheat stacks to await transport to Adelaide by train. This was all very back breaking work but kept many people employed.
Wheat and oats were the only two crops grown in the district in the first 20 years. Oats were cut for hay for the horses and only the wheat was harvested for market.
Every time the land was worked up a few more stumps would be pulled out of the ground – it took up to ten years to loosen them all. The stumps were picked up by hand and loaded onto carts and taken to a heap. If the farmer lived near a railway siding the stumps could be sold to a wood merchant. The stumps had to fit through a ten-inch hoop and had to be split by hand if they were too big. More back breaking work for the farmers but a good supplementary income for them.
The Seed Drill
The seed drill was introduced into South Australia in the 1890’s and had remained unchanged until they began to be phased out in the 1990’s: seed and superphosphate in boxes, tynes to open up a seeding trench to the required depth, seed and super dropping by gravity down the seeding tube to the trench and a mechanism to close the trench. Throughout their 100+ year working life, whether horse drawn or pulled by tractor, the mechanism was ground driven. Air seeders began to be used in the mid-1980’s and brought a new era of precision sowing.
By the end of 1945 the Mallee was at its lowest point, with enormous areas of sand drift, inadequate and run-down fencing and plant and very low financial resources to deal with the problems. It had become apparent that a farming system based on fallow was not right for the mallee. The Soil Board was set up in 1948 to manage the problem of soil erosion.
Mechanisation with tractors and harvesters meant that crops could be sown and harvested much quicker and there was not the need to open up the soil by fallowing over the summer months which reduced the drift problem. These areas had stubble to cover the soil through the summer months. The role of restoring nitrogen to the soil was taken over by growing medics in the pasture years between the crops. Also, the introduction of sulphate of ammonia fertiliser mixed with superphosphate helped to overcome the nitrogen deficiency in mallee soils. Cereal rye sown to hold down sandhills became a popular practice. Barley began to be grown successfully and it didn’t require the fallow period of wheat.
Today fallowing and several workings of the cropping land have been replaced by chemical weed control and reduced or direct drill methods to sow a crop. The sprayer is now one of the busiest machines on the farm. Self-propelled headers have replaced tractor-drawn headers and the trend is for semi-trailers being contracted to carry the grain. Seeding and harvesting can be done in a fraction of the time with the large machines available, all of which can be fitted with GPS systems.