‘Quite heartening’: Investment in drainage 30 years ago pays off after wet 2021

Headshot of Shannon Verhagen
What a difference a year makes: the catchment system at Peter Rundle's farm has proved its worth after last year's rainfall.
Camera IconWhat a difference a year makes: the catchment system at Peter Rundle's farm has proved its worth after last year's rainfall. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman;Supplied

In July 2020, the dams on Peter Rundle’s Carrolup farm were all but dry.

It was the first time the Great Southern grain and sheep farmer had seen the bottom of them in about 15 years.

Jump forward to the same time a year later — in the midst of the wettest season much of the grainbelt has had in decades — and the tables had turned in a dramatic fashion.

Peter Rundle on his Carrolup farm in 2020.
Camera IconPeter Rundle on his Carrolup farm in 2020. Credit: Supplied

There was so much water that many dams were overflowing.

It is all thanks to an investment in an extensive drainage system — along with Mother Nature — by Mr Rundle and his father Bronte in 1987 to channel any rainfall into catchments to drought-proof the farm.

With waterlogging a pressing issue at the time, the pair got in touch with Frankland River farmer Ron Watkins, who had designed a contour system on his own farm and another, making the Rundles the third in the State.

He surveyed the property — on which the Rundles ran 3500 merinos and cropped 350ha — and over the next 10 years the Rundles made his vision a reality, finishing the project in 1997, three years after Mr Rundle returned to the farm with his wife and two sons.

“We basically recontoured the whole farm,” Mr Rundle said.

“Ron had a surveying background and a vision to be able to look at the landscape to assess how you could make it work, looking at the slope of the land and incorporating current dams and laneways.

“He spent hours in preparation on the backhoe, digging holes and looking where clay levels were beneath the soil and working out where drains would go.”

They took out fencing, re-fenced paddocks and got contractors in to dig the drains, which were 80cm deep to reach the clay. In all, 35km of drains were constructed.

They also planted trees — including a variety of eucalypts — in three to four rows behind the drains to provide protection. At the time, Mr Rundle said there was a lot of Landcare activity in the region, with them planting 50,000 trees across the property.

The contour system was a trailblazing idea at the turn of the century, with farmers coming from far and wide to their piece of the Great Southern to see how it would all work.

“Dad used to take busloads of people around the place to have a look,” Mr Rundle said.

CSIRO even conducted a study on it.

The dams at Peter Rundle's Carrolup farm were full to the brim in July 2021.
Camera IconThe dams at Peter Rundle's Carrolup farm were full to the brim in July 2021. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

The benefits were clear to the farming family.

“It was excellent and kept the paddocks pretty well drained,” Mr Rundle said.

“About 98-99 per cent of our cropped area was free of waterlogging.

“We sacrificed 11 per cent of the land to drains and trees but we felt we were getting a 20 per cent return in increased productivity through control of water and wind protection for stock and lambing ewes.

“But it’s very hard to quantify as every year prices, rainfall and the climate vary.”

After a string of fairly dry years — with 2018-2020 particularly dry — there had not been a huge volume of water to run through the system.

Until last year, that is, when Mother Nature dropped double digit rainfall totals consistently from autumn to spring, delivering 600mm to the farm, about 150-175mm above average.

It came just in time for many growers, with a string of unprecedented dry years plunging many communities into drought, with the State Government spending more than $3 million carting emergency livestock water supplies to 12 communities declared water deficient.

Peter Rundle surveys his overflowing dams.
Camera IconPeter Rundle surveys his overflowing dams. Credit: Supplied

Mr Rundle said it was great to see it in action once more.

“It was just nice to see when the water started running and the drains filled those dams up,” he said.

“It’s quite heartening to see that it can work again.

“I’ve only seen the bottom of that dam a couple of times in 30-35 years.

“It was good to see it coming into effect again and let’s hope we have some more wetter years to come.”

He hoped they had secured enough water for their sheep for the next 10-15 years.

It is clean water too, with the Rundles — as well as many growers around the State — cleaning up their dams in the past couple of years while water levels were low.

“The dry weather forced everyone to clean their dams over the past 4-5 years, but it has been advantageous — there’s no mud in the bottom of the dams and they are now filled with clean water,” Mr Rundle said.

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