Grain ark a life­saver

Countryman - - FRONT PAGE - Cally Dupe

Two years ago, Wan­der­ing farm­ers the Watts fam­ily buried 800 tonnes of oats. Their feed time cap­sule was cracked open af­ter a dry win­ter this year. It wasn’t the first time their sheep have been saved by the 70m-long, 15m-deep pit. Steve Watts, pic­tured, wife Marie and son Richard plun­dered their sub­ter­ranean re­serves in 2009, four years af­ter con­struct­ing the un­der­ground grain ark.

Bury­ing 800 tonnes of oats to feed sheep two years af­ter har­vest was never a feat to be taken lightly, but the Watts fam­ily of Wan­der­ing were not one to shy away from the chal­lenge.

Steve and Marie Watts, and their son Richard, dug up their un­der­ground oats bunker this year to help feed their 8000 head Merino flock af­ter a dry win­ter.

The farm­ers buried the Wil­liams oats in 2016, af­ter first craft­ing a 70m-long and 15mhigh pit in 2005.

Their most re­cent ex­ca­va­tion — which took a day with a tele­han­dler and a bucket — was a chal­leng­ing task but one Steve said was well worth it.

It was the sec­ond time the mixed farm­ers had dug up buried grain for safe­keep­ing.

They first dug up the oats time cap­sule in 2009, four years af­ter first bury­ing them.

“We had al­ways wanted some­thing where we can keep fod­der or silage as a re­serve,” Mr Watts said.

“My sis­ter read an ar­ti­cle about a farmer who bought a farm in drought con­di­tions and stum­bled across a pit of oats which was still quite us­able for feed­ing an­i­mals.”

“We had seen stored silage at Wil­liams, and we had heard of a farmer who put oats on top of the ground with clay over it.

“We knew peo­ple do­ing silage but the oats were the ques­tion mark.”

A fourth-gen­er­a­tion farmer, Mr Watts runs a 2900ha prop­erty with his wife, Marie, and 24-year son Richard, who re­turned to the farm from Perth this year.

To­gether, they run 8000 head of Merino sheep for wool and prime lambs and crop 900ha — in­clud­ing oats, bar­ley and canola. The un­ortho­dox method of stor­ing grain has proved fruit­ful for the sheep pro­duc­ers, who say it has saved them from build­ing new si­los or buy­ing in feed grain dur­ing drier years.

The Watts fam­ily buried the 2016 haul when oats was fetch­ing about $180 a tonne.

When they dug it up this year, oats was hov­er­ing at about $200 a tonne, sav­ing the fam­ily from buy­ing in grain or in­stalling ad­di­tional si­los on their farm.

Build­ing the bunker was a big job, which re­quired dig­ging ver­ti­cal walls into a clay hill, spend­ing three days pil­ing in the grain, and then cov­er­ing it with plas­tic and dirt.

Two years ago, the fam­ily in­stalled a pipe across the length of grain pit in case they ever need to fu­mi­gate for wee­vils or other in­sects. So far, all of the grain dug up has been in good con­di­tion.

Mr Watts said his big­gest ad­vice for other farm­ers con­sid­er­ing the method was to “be re­al­is­tic” and use the grain for feed­ing stock.

“Don’t put grain un­der­ground with the idea of mak­ing money out of it,” he said.

“We put it un­der the ground when the prices are low and the first time we prob­a­bly dou­bled our money, but there are a lot of costs.

“It is labour in­ten­sive, and putting it in is eas­ier com­pared to get­ting it out.”

Bury­ing grain is more com­mon in dry parts of Queens­land but it has been done in WA be­fore.

De­part­ment of Pri­mary In­dus­tries and Re­gional De­vel­op­ment pre­vi­ously helped to co-or­di­nate a 31⁄2-year un­der­ground stor­age trial in­volv­ing five, 50 and 120 tonnes of grain.

Al­most all of the grain was in good con­di­tion.

Pic­ture: Cally Dupe

Marie and Steve Watts with their son Richard.

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