This week, I took a two-day trip to the northern portion of Western Australia’s wheat belt with Mike Ashworth and Roberto Lujan of the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (AHRI). The purpose of the trip was to find and collect annual ryegrass seeds from 15 or so paddocks where farmers are employing alternative weed management practices aimed at dealing with herbicide resistance. Annual ryegrass is one of the most important cropland weeds in Australian wheat farming systems, and many ryegrass populations have now evolved resistance to one or more of the herbicides that are typically applied to these systems. Mike and Roberto will use the seeds in upcoming field studies to determine if the ryegrass populations are also evolving traits that allow them to avoid being killed by the alternative management practices.
Collecting annual ryegrass seeds this time of the year in Western Australia is not nearly as easy as it may sound.
In fact, it is some darn hard work.
First, there are not many annual ryegrass plants to be found in any of the paddocks because most have already been destroyed by the chemical and non-chemical weed control practices that were carried out in the previous cropping season. And because they are annuals, they’ve already completed their life cycle by this time of the year. Therefore, any annual ryegrass that might still happen to be standing in a paddock are pretty darn dead. As a consequence of their being dead and all, they are brownish-gray in color–the exact same color as the wheat stubble (and often the soil) in which we were searching.
Second, these paddocks are huge (we’re talking thousands of hectares in size), so the whole operation is a bit like searching for a needle in a haystack.
The third reason why this is a difficult job is there are an awful lot of flies in the wheat belt. These little flies eventually drive you insane as they relentlessly try to crawl into your nose, mouth, and eyes looking for moisture. Roberto eventually resorted to wearing a head net. Mike, on the other hand, seemed used to them. I was ready for a straightjacket.
On top of all of this, the paddocks are located many hundreds of kilometers apart, and we somehow managed to schedule our trip on two of the hottest days of the year. It was so warm, in fact, that the pavement on the road was starting to melt! Note that the photo at the top of this post indicates that the air temperature outside of the car was 40 degrees Celsius. That’s 104 degrees Fahrenheit! I can only imagine the temperature of the pavement.
Eventually we made it to the last couple of paddocks we planned to sample that day. They were located in tablelands and were surrounded by remnant native vegetation.
After the last paddock of the day was sampled all three of us were pretty hot, dirty, and tired, and really, really thirsty (perhaps we should have brought more water along!). Luckily, our destination for the night, the town of Geraldton, was only about 50 km away.
Geraldton is a small coastal city about 410 km north of Perth. As a regional hub, it has all of the amenities one might want after a long day hunting for ryegrass. It also has some interesting sights. So, after checking into our hotel, taking a shower, and grabbing some dinner at a weird America-themed restaurant called The Hog’s Breath Cafe, we walked up to a hill overlooking the town to visit a memorial for the HMAS Sydney. The HMAS Sydney was a battle ship of the Royal Australian Navy that was a sunk off the coast north of Geraldon by the Germans in WWII. All 645 aboard were lost.
The monument overlooks the city and coastline. In addition to a marble wall with the ship’s history and the names of all of the crew members who perished, it also includes a metal dome made out of gulls, a reflecting pool with the navigational coordinates of where the wreck was discovered, and a tall tower in the shape of the ship’s bow.
As monuments go, it was really quite impressive and moving. After spending a little more time at the monument, we eventually decided to head on down to the waterfront to watch the sun set over the Geraldton harbor. It is hard to beat the sunsets they have here in Western Australia.
After the sun set, we were ready to head back to the hotel for sleep. We had five more paddocks northeast of Geraldton to visit in the morning and then a long drive back down to Perth in the afternoon. Details from the next day’s adventures are chronicled in Part II.