Integrated sheep and cropping operation makes smart business sense
Integration of sheep and cropping has proved its worth for Charles de Fegely’s Ararat farming business.
His mixed farming operation on the 750 hectare ‘Quamby’ property, plus 340 hectares currently being leased, has reduced the risk inherent in a full-cropping enterprise, and has allowed Charles to better manage weeds and parasites and utilise crop stubble for grazing.
“Ararat is a high rainfall area and suits this style of management where summer rain can make it very expensive for weed control,” says Charles, who spoke about his production system at a Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC)/Southern Farming Systems Grains Research Update at Skipton.
Charles, who also works as a consulting partner with agricultural consultancy Mike Stephens & Associates, has welcomed a retreat in the cost of inputs thanks to his integrated operation, which includes a self-replacing Merino ewe flock of 5000 head.
“We have a short crop rotation, with the aim to have a lower crop cost because we don’t need so much urea and use grazing to lower the weed seed bank.”
During the very wet 2010, integration also meant lower-lying paddocks were not cropped and waterlogging risk was reduced.
Charles’ experiences reflect a renewed interest in livestock from intensive grain producers, according to the GRDC.
To support growers in their mixed farming decision-making processes, the GRDC has developed a Mixed Farming Fact Sheet, which looks at livestock as a risk management tool in the wake of escalating crop input costs, climate variability and fluctuating commodity prices.
Not only does an integrated operation have the benefit of reducing input costs, as Charles reports, but it can also improve soil organic carbon levels and introduce more available nutrients including nitrogen.
Getting the mix right is important to ensure ground cover is not removed through intensive grazing which can lead to erosion.
The GRDC fact sheet advises grazing stock rotationally or in confinement areas to ensure a strict minimum paddock ground cover of between 50 to 70 per cent and maintaining optimum soil conditions – particularly moisture – between the same range.
At ‘Quamby’, Charles runs a three-year rotation of canola, wheat and barley or oats, followed by a pasture crop for three years.
He advises planting legume pastures which boost nitrogen levels in soil, which in turn reduces urea requirements.
“If you plant a low cost crop, your risk is reduced because sheep have provided free nitrogen and lowered weed reserves which also reduces the need for high cost chemicals.”
Charles plants a perennial legume component pasture which has a short-term rye grass and sub clover.
Seed bank is controlled by heavy grazing which also ensures the pastures don’t set seed.
“Heavy grazing will encourage sub-clover growth.”
The three-year pasture rotation results in very dominant sub-clover pastures and about $160 a tonne worth of urea already in the soil, ready for next year’s crop, Charles says.
The benefit of integrated operations were very evident in previous dry years, Charles says.
“Growers have been able to pay their cropping bill with sheep cheques in the last four or five years.”
But for croppers looking longingly over the fence at sheep businesses, entering the current market will require deep pockets.
“They could end up with a negative impact on their financial situation.”
Integration remains an operational concept, Charles stresses.
“Current sheep prices are just so high, it’s a nice time to be in sheep, but you already needed to be in sheep for this to become an increased operational focus.”
Rather than buy into sheep, growers could consider lease or agistment options, rather than outlaying cash to develop a flock.
Also, croppers needed to be wary of retiring paddocks too late in a cycle.
“Their weed seed bank will be too high and nutrient base too low which makes it difficult to grow a productive pasture; the longer a crop rotation continues, the higher crop costs become.”
For Charles, the integration of crop and stock has been a “win-win”, but came with a warning: “providing you like sheep”.
GRDC’s Mixed Farming Fact Sheet is available at http://www.grdc.com.au/GRDC-FS-MixedFarming
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