Resilience and profitability in the mix

GroundCover Live and online, stay up to date with daily grains industry news online, click here to read more
A man in a paddock with sheep

Cam Nicholson, Grain & Graze 2 southern region coordinator, with sheep grazing on wheat stubble at his Bellarine Peninsula property in Victoria.

PHOTO: Lydia Nicholson

After four years and the involvement of 20,000 primary producers across seven growing regions, Grain & Graze 2 has overseen some significant changes to farming practices

Mixed-farm growers account for the majority of Australia’s broadacre landholders and each year face a delicate balancing act; weighing up the feeding of livestock with maximising crop yields, while maintaining adequate ground-cover levels to minimise erosion. Add to the mix the need to maintain and improve farm profitability along with sustainability, and the challenges are self-evident.

Since 2010, Grain & Graze 2 (G&G2) has facilitated at least 200 trials, demonstrations, workshops and other activities to increase mixed-farm growers’ knowledge and skills in land management and provide greater confidence in decision-making.
And it appears to have had a significant impact. The GRDC’s final report into the program found nearly three-quarters of growers who participated in G&G2 activities changed their practice in some way as a result of their involvement. Of those, 30 per cent have made several sustainable management practice changes as a result of improved knowledge and skills.

The $12 million program funded by the GRDC and the Australian Government’s ‘Caring for our Country’ initiative partnered with growers, advisers, universities, agribusiness, state agencies, natural resource management authorities and CSIRO to run activities across seven regions in five states.

Increasing whole-farm profitability, sustainability and ground cover while helping businesses become more resilient by better equipping growers to make complex decisions as they face climatic, market and natural resource challenges were among the program’s overarching objectives.

Tailoring and delivering information relevant to producers in each region covering northern, southern and western Australia was a key reason for the strong rates of practice change, GRDC Grain & Graze program manager Tanya Robinson says.

“Mixed farming is complex – you are juggling multiple enterprises and each one has a trade-off effect because if you invest time or money into cropping you may not have the resources to put into livestock"

– Tanya Robinson

Not-so-risky business

Ms Robinson says the program’s greatest contribution was equipping growers with confidence around decision-making through a better understanding of risk.

“Mixed farming is complex – you are juggling multiple enterprises and each one has a trade-off effect because if you invest time or money into cropping you may not have the resources to put into livestock,” she says. “So understanding the risk profile in decisions means being more comfortable making those decisions; knowing what impacts there might be. It’s the ‘being able to sleep at night’ principle.”

Cam Nicholson, G&G2 southern region coordinator, says the emphasis the program places on managing risk is one of its most important outcomes.

As climate and grain price volatility continues, growers will look increasingly towards hedging their bets through diversification, so reliable information around practices such as grazing crops is very important, he says.

“The most common question is: ‘If I graze do I lose yield?’, and understanding the balance between providing feed and potential yield loss is fundamental,” Mr Nicholson says. “The thing that has excited me about this program is getting a handle on the trade-off between risk and reward and being able to put some numbers around it.”

For example, he says, adaptive (risk) management projects run across western and southern Australia found growers relied heavily on averages and historical ‘rules of thumb’ in decision-making.

However, risk could be mitigated – and better-informed decisions made – by considering more meaningful parameters such as the past rainfall or yield range rather than the average.

“An average is about the ‘middle’ and tells you nothing about potential volatility and therefore risk,” he says. “If growers could get average rainfall and average yields every year it would be the easiest game in the world. But the bottom line is that we don’t get either.”

With an enhanced understanding of their exposure, producers can decide which level of risk they are comfortable with and can make informed decisions within those parameters, he says.

Practice change

Six land-management practices to reduce erosion and increase soil carbon content were identified as targets for G&G2: stubble retention, crop rotation, managing stocking rates, water budgeting, use of perennials and integrated weed management.

The GRDC reported that at the program’s end some practices had exceeded targets, others had met targets and some had fallen short.

A significant increase was seen in stubble retention. A Grain & Graze 2 Impact Report surveying 1700 mixed-enterprise growers found they were managing stubble to improve ground cover over an additional 1.7 million hectares of land compared with 2010. There was also significant increase in growers’ levels of confidence in managing stubble to increase ground cover. Nationally, the increase considerably exceeded targets, driven mainly by increases in Western Australia, South Australia and southern New South Wales.

In terms of crop rotations, growers reported sowing an additional 680,000 hectares of perennial legumes to increase fodder, control erosion, improve soil conditions and manage pests. There was a significant increase in legumes sown in northern Victoria and decreases in WA and Eyre Peninsula, SA, which could be the result of market demand or tough seasonal conditions.

Increasing hectares of crops grazed was a target for stock-rate management and while the survey suggested an increase in some areas, nationally targets were not met. One possible reason, Ms Robinson says, is seasonal, with high summer rainfall totals recorded in places. “It may be that there was no need to graze crops because there was plenty of pasture feed,” she says.

Coming off an already high base, targets for growers using soil moisture status in decision-making were exceeded. Adoption of water-management techniques and practices continued to grow and there was a significant increase in soil testing.

Changes in perennial plantings were difficult to detect between years apart from a significant increase in southern Victoria from 2010 to 2013 and a decrease in WA. Growers, however, reported a significant increase in planting perennials on marginal land, suggesting information and knowledge gained through the program has been received.

Finally, targets for the strategic use of livestock to graze weeds for integrated weed management were met both nationally and in all regions, reducing the pressure on chemical control.

In 2013, respondents:

  • were more confident in using non-chemical weed control;
  • thought non-chemical weed control was more appropriate; and
  • said they were more likely to use non-chemical methods in the future than they were in 2010.

Ms Robinson says that despite there being some variation in meeting targets – due largely to seasonal issues – the program has been considered an overall success, heralding many positive changes.

“It was well-planned and targeted, and any program that has almost 20,000 people attending activities you would call a success,” she says. “We are rolling-on many of these themes as we transition to Grain & Graze 3 and welcome people to become involved.”

More information:

Tanya Robinson
02 6166 4500, 
tanya.robinson@grdc.com.au

Cam Nicholson
0417 311 098
nicon@pipeline.com.au

Next:

Spring-sown winter canola performs

Previous:

Early sowing brings gains and challenges

GRDC Project Code SFS00028

Region South, North