Weed admission angers farmers

THE WA Government has angered some farmers by declaring that skeleton weed, a plant some say has the potential to wipe 20 per cent off WA’s grain production, cannot be eradicated.

Copies of a ‘best practice’ manual to help farmers control skeleton weed outbreaks on their properties are being mailed out to grain growers this week.

WAFarmers president Colin Nicholl said he believed the weed could be eradicated and wanted control of the funds farmers had raised towards that end.

“We levied ourselves but didn’t take the step of watching where the money went,” he said.

“Last year farmers agreed, through a referendum, to increase our skeleton weed levy from 13 cents per tonne of grain to 35 cents. We’re happy to pay that if it means the weed will be eradicated.”

Mr Nicholl said the weed had the potential to remove 20 per cent from the value of the State’s grain crop.

However, WA’s other farming lobby, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, branded such claims as scaremongering.

The PGA contends that modern broadleaf herbicides are restricting the growth of the weed in crops and supports the WA Government’s approach.

PGA spokesman Geoff Gare said there would never be any guarantees that the weed would be eradicated and that the levy should be scrapped.

“Our view is the eradication program is not working and that it is better for farmers to control the weed on their own properties within their own budgets,” he said.

“The eradication program became a disincentive. Once a farmer reported an outbreak of the weed he was subjected to some pretty onerous and disruptive procedures.

“Generally most producers will support a program if they can see some benefit from it but this panel has conceded that the skeleton weed problem is too far gone.”

WAFarmers called for a Skeleton Weed Eradication Board to be established, something Agriculture Minister Kim Chance has ruled out.

The panel currently reviewing WA’s skeleton weed eradication program found it would cost at least $20 million a year to eradicate the weed with no guarantee of success.

Indeed, a deluxe eradication program using full contract labour rather than the part contract part volunteer approach used now would cost around $45 million a year – and still there would be no guarantees.

About $3.5 million is spent each year on the skeleton weed eradication program, with the bulk of that money coming from the farmers’ levy.

The skeleton weed panel, chaired by Dexter Davies and including weed management expert Professor Stephen Powles, agribusiness consultant Peter Falconer and a representative from the PGA and WAFarmers, has recommended a management approach similar to that used in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia was the best way forward.

It conceded that the skeleton weed eradication program had helped restrict the plant’s spread and that made its control easier.

Indeed, most people exposed to regional television in the late 1980s would recall the ‘stamp out skeleton weed’ commercials.

Agriculture Minister Kim Chance has not accepted the panel’s recommendations in full and has opted for a continuation of a modified program, with annual reviews, for the next three years.

He said the revised program would include identifying cost-effective surveillance for new infestations to replace the more costly search methods.

Over the past 12 months the number of skeleton weed-infested properties has almost doubled, from 1,650 to 3,056. In 1995 there were 719 properties pegged.

Agriculture Protection Board spokesman Chris Richardson said the APB had recently expanded its search program and found the skeleton weed problem to be more widely spread than previously thought.

“We started searching randomly and found the weed in paddocks where we expected to find it and in a high percentage of paddocks where we didn’t expect it to be,” he said.

“We believe we’re only engaging about 30 per cent of the skeleton weed problem.

“To eradicate the weed properly we need to be searching around one million hectares a year rather than the 150 hectares we are currently searching.”

Mr Richardson said there were herbicides available that greatly reduced the impact of skeleton weed on crops.

“The weed also poses less of a problem to the new open-front headers some farmers are using,” he said.

The weed is most densely spread through the shires of Yilgarn and Narambeen, although skeleton weed plants have been found as far east as Esperance and as far north as Northhampton. It has even turned up alongside metropolitan railway lines.

It is widely spread throughout the eastern States.

Mr Nicholls said farmers had learnt to live with the weed in the eastern States.

“But there are a lot more graziers there and the weed doesn’t have that much effect on pasture,” he said.

“In WA a lot of farms are running both grazing stock and crops.”

A spokesman for grain marketing body the Grain Pool of WA said skeleton weed did not pose any threat to the value of the State’s grain at the marketing stage and was more of a production issue.

The weed is believed to have come to Australia from the US last century, tangled up with imported farm machinery parts.

The weed tagged a ride to WA in the 1960s from the eastern States in second-hand wheat bags that were used to wrap those parts.

It is an incredibly virulent plant that can be spread through both seed and root fragments.

One plant can create a root mass spanning around 20 square metres.

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