GRAIN farming on the Mongolian steppes is a highly challenging project, writes PETER HEMPHILL

Challenge: Chris Lightfoot and Uugana Erdene have been helping lift Mongolia's wheat production to levels not seen for decades. Pictures: John Ferrier
Challenge: Chris Lightfoot and Uugana Erdene have been helping lift Mongolia's wheat production to levels not seen for decades. Pictures: John Ferrier

It's not hard to unearth an exploded bomb, a piece of a tank or a part of a warplane on Chris Lightfoot's Mallee-type country.
Along with the bomb craters dotted in some paddocks, the remnants of munitions are evidence a major battle was fought on the eastern side of the property run by his wife and himself in remote Mongolia.
In fact, the former Soviet Union successfully fought off an invading Japanese army in 1939 during Japan's expansionist era prior to World War II.
Chris is a Longerenong Agricultural College graduate and former University of Melbourne lecturer, and runs 10,000ha of cropping country in the far eastern region of Mongolia with his wife Uuganbileg (Uugana) Erdene.
They travel to the farm from Melbourne a few times a year, staying three months at a time.
Chris oversees work on the farm by a full-time workforce of five, although employee numbers rise to 20 during harvest.
The property is an investment but also a challenge in turning a former socialist collective operation into a highly productive farm.
Chris has worked much of the past 30 years overseas as an agricultural consultant.
That included time in Mongolia working for the Ministry of Finance.
Mongolia was a socialist state up until 1990, with all the farms run as collectives.
After the collapse of the socialist system, the farms and equipment were given to the farm workers.
"But it didn't work," Chris said. "Annual wheat production in Mongolia fell from 600,000-700,000 tonnes down to about 100,000 tonnes.
"And most of that grain was not millable."
It was during his stint at the Ministry of Finance in 2002 that Chris met Uugana.
She had also worked as a consultant in overseas countries, sometimes for the United Nations.
Uugana's father was a provincial governor under the socialist system. He was a flour milling engineer with post-graduate training from Russia.
He is the foremost flour milling expert in Mongolia.
Links to food production run in the blood, with Uugana's mother a food technologist.
Through a family company, Munkh Tal Pty Ltd, Chris and Uugana secured a 60-year lease on 10,000ha of land in eastern Mongolia in early 2006.
"It is classic grass steppe country," Chris said.
"We are about 720-750m above sea level and at a latitude of 48 degrees.
"The land we have is designated for cropping. Most of it had not been cropped within the past 15 years."
Having the land designated for cropping strengthens the rights to the land.
"Half the population of the country is still nomadic," Chris said.
"There are no fences in Mongolia. Mongolians have this sense of land being common property. If you want to pitch a tent and graze your animals you just set up camp and do so.
"But with designated cropping land, animal herders can't just come and graze it."
Chris said the aim of Munkh Tal was to turn the property into a modern, highly productive, no-till grain operation.
It is being developed in three stages.
About 4800ha has already been brought into production, with a further 800ha expected to be cropped next year and the remainder in 2015.
Chris and Uugana planted wheat and canola and experimented with barley this year.
The climate varies from temperatures plunging to -40C in winter and there are about 10 days each summer when temperatures exceed 30C.
Annual rainfall is 280mm a year, evenly distributed between March and September.
"We start sowing from mid-May to the end of May, sometimes it is still snowing when we start," Chris said.
"And we can also get snow during the harvest, which starts in the first or second week of September."
Chris said the crops - and weeds - grow incredibly quickly and weeds are a particular challenge.
"Sometimes the weeds don't germinate until after the wheat has emerged," he said.
"Sometimes they come up so swiftly, if you don't spray on time they can swamp the wheat."
One weed, called wormwood, in a good season it can grow from 20cm to 1.4m in eight days.
Chris has imported a Goldacres boomspray from Australia to tackle the weeds.
It is part of a range of imported equipment to create efficiencies on the property.
The seeder is a DBS Ausplough from Western Australia and the main tractor is a John Deere 8420 with autosteer.
Chris said he had a small John Deere harvester for stripping the crop but they also rented Chinese-made harvesters during the harvest.
The longer-term average for wheat yields under the collective was about 1.2 tonnes/ha. Chris and Uugana have been doing better than that, achieving an average yield of about 1.8 tonnes/ha with some patches in a good year producing up to four tonnes/ha.
Breakdowns can occur at harvest time and can pose their particular problems.
"We had a harvester jam up at harvest last year," Chris said.
"We found the foot pedal of a Russian fighter plane in the harvester intake."
The canola and barley crops are sold across the border into China.
The wheat is sold to the nearest Mongolian flour mill, which is 360km to the west of the property.
Grain prices are generally slightly higher than world prices and the costs are generally marginally lower than Australia.
Chris said the gross margins were "very good".
"Last year, we got a 40 per cent net return on investment," he said.

Local crew: Monkh Tal's farm employs a number of local Mongolians.
Local crew: Monkh Tal's farm employs a number of local Mongolians.