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Mongolian farm with Aussie spin

Some of the farm’s crew with Chris Lightfoot’s John Deere 8420 and the DBS-300 air seeder.ON A farm 1000 kilometres east of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, an Australian and his Mongolian-born wife are breaking ground on wheat’s newest frontier.

Rather than buy a property in Australia, they’ve invested in a 9500-hectare cropping enterprise a stone’s throw from the Chinese border.

And they are finding its potential as a grain producer is only just being rediscovered.

Trading as Munkh Tal Company Ltd (Eternal Steppe), Chris Lightfoot and Uugana Erdene acquired their farm in 2006 when the Mongolian Government began to offer title over land which had belonged to the State under the previous socialist system.

“It’s an opportunity that only comes once in most economies,” said Mr Lightfoot, a consultant economist based in Melbourne.

Their country was farmed for about 30 years under the socialist regime but had been out of production for 20 years.

Currently they have about 1500 hectares of the 9500ha farm in crop, but expect to bring the entire 9500ha into production during the next five years.

The couple introduced wheat first, as it had been a proven crop under the old regime, but also intend to try rapeseed and have already introduced no-till methods.

Buck wheat has also been introduced to meet strong demand from nearby Japan and Korea.

Mr Lightfoot said rainfall was similar to the Mallee: unpredictable with an average of about 250 millimetres a year.

However, the extremes in weather are great.

Temperatures are currently about -30 degrees Celsius on their farm, with an annual range of -40degC to above 40degC – at 48 degrees latitude north being the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of somewhere in the Southern Ocean, south of Tasmania. But they don’t get permafrosts.

In fact, Mr Lightfoot says it’s probably the best wheat soil he has ever seen, describing it as similar to a Wimmera black soil, but not as “clayey”.

“It’s beautiful soil for wheat – we have no problems with clay pans. It holds water well and is easy to work,” he said.

The ground is prepared using a chemical fallow with Roundup bought from China.

He uses a 30-metre boom bought from Australia – the paddock is sprayed twice in summer and autumn, then sown the following spring.

The sowing window is short: the seed must be in the ground by the end of May so harvest can be wrapped up before the third week of September.

However, they don’t sow before May, as there is not enough sunlight for the emerging crop, the ground is too cold, and it is too dry.

“We get a lot of snow over winter, but virtually all of that evaporates, so you’ve got to rely on rainfall,” he said.

One positive, which Mr Lightfoot said might be due to global warming, was the increasing intensity of southern China’s typhoons.

These fed moisture into their region, providing rain during the summer growing season.

“That’s where most of our rain has come from in the past couple of years, the tail-end of those typhoons,” he said.

As in the Mallee, in-crop rain is important for a successful harvest, of which the region has had many.

The Russian varieties used by the locals were hard red wheats, which Mr Lightfoot said produced top-notch grain, and last year their crop yielded 1.6t/ha.

Mr Lightfoot expects this yield to be about the long-term average, with exceptional years reaching three tonnes a hectare – a result which has already been achieved under the old system and a record for the region.

He said the region’s farmers were also catching on to no-till farming after having grown up with conventional multi-till methods.

“They initially struggled with the idea of no-till, but can now see it works, so in the past two years have been swinging over quickly.”

Mr Lightfoot uses a tyned DBS 300 11-metre air seeder, which is pulled by a John Deere 8420.

The seed is placed 10mm to 15mm deep and last year achieved an 85 to 95 per cent germination in just five days on soil moisture alone.

“Mind you, in 2010 we had good carry over moisture, which is not always the case,” he said.

The 2010 crop moved quickly once it rained – in Mongolia the days during summer are much longer than in Australia, providing enough daylight hours to get the crop to harvest.

The couple did have a scare in late July when temperatures exceeded 35degC for five consecutive days, but the higher level of soil moisture from no-till preparation carried the crop through.

“This was unlike our neighbours who suffered a severe setback,” Mr Lightfoot said.

“The no-till system really proved itself this year – not only did we get the highest yield, but we also achieved the best quality.”

A break like this was needed, because all the farm’s improvements had to come from cash flow.

This year the couple plans to sow 1500ha, and next year 2500ha, but Mr Lightfoot said they needed about $5 million to develop the full 9500ha, “so that’s what keeps you poor”.

Despite this, the capital return on investment has been about 25pc – and that had included “two complete wrecks”.

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