Efficiency push unearths hidden profitability
For the Nolan family near Roma in south-west Queensland, the downward trend in grain commodity prices over the past 10 years has led, conversely, to a major lift in the productivity of their 6000-hectare mixed-farming operation.
Shaun Nolan says diminishing market returns were the catalyst for major changes to their farm management, aimed mostly at efficiency improvements. These have not only countered the erosion of prices, but also lifted the business’s productivity to the point where net farm income has doubled.
“Without the moves to finetune efficiency in grain, forage and beef cattle production in the past decade, I doubt our family would still be farming today,” Shaun says bluntly.
Streamlining their operations using a mix of new technology, infrastructure and practices has helped the Nolans to remain viable, and increase their business turnover by 150 per cent.
Leaving behind work as an agronomist with Queensland Cotton, Shaun has spearheaded the changes since returning in 2003 to the property he farms with his wife, Amanda, and parents, John and Elizabeth.
The adjustments have included:
- implementing GPS-guided controlled traffic farming (CTF);
- use of cattle manure as an alternative nutrient source;
- investment in new facilities for storing, aerating, drying and loading grain; and
- using agistment to move some cattle off the property.
Storage and drying
Of all the changes, Shaun says outlaying $100,000 on two 200-tonne silos, a Vertec continuous-flow grain dryer and high-flow aerators has provided the greatest return on investment.
Aside from recouping their expenditure in just one year, he says the improved efficiency in grain storage and drying has increased their business bottom line by 60 per cent.
The new equipment means they can take the crop off in wet conditions – optimising use of their header by being able to harvest wet grain in the morning and dry it throughout the day. Shaun says it usually takes about two days to reduce moisture levels by one to two per cent in 200 tonnes of grain using the Vertec dryer.
Having the capacity to dry grain on-farm has, on three occasions in the past two years, given the Nolans the means to avoid price penalties for weather damage to their wheat, sorghum, chickpeas and sunflowers.
Investment in equipment to load dry grain into silo bags has further freed up their new facilities for grain drying.
Shaun estimates that using silo bags to store grain on-farm rather than in the buyer’s warehouse as part of the conventional bulk handling system has saved them about $30/t.
Satellite-guided CTF, introduced in 2005, is another improvement to their cropping program. Yield mapping shows it has resulted in a five per cent yield increase across their grain and forage crops.
Based on an average yield of 2.2t/ha priced at $200/t, Shaun calculates that using precision technology to drive CTF is returning an extra $32/ha from areas that are no longer subjected to soil compaction from wheel tracks.
The findings of both yield mapping and GRDC-supported research on the Nolans’ property has also enabled them to overcome subsoil salts, which were causing a 1t/ha yield penalty in chickpeas.
They now avoid growing the salt-sensitive legume over the five per cent of their property that is characterised by sodic soils.
Manure as a productivity tool
In the meantime they have been working to improve the productivity of sodic country through the application of animal manure to improve soil health and long-term yield potential.
The cumulative benefits of using manure for eight years have allowed the family to reduce artificial fertiliser costs. The gains are particularly noticeable in the years immediately following a manure application.
In the first year after spreading manure, they saved $100/ha on starter fertiliser and urea costs, and in the second year about $50/ha.
Shaun says the effects are particularly notable in forage crops, meaning they can often waive all artificial fertiliser costs for a year after spreading manure.
“The cost of applying animal manure is still $150/ha more than conventional fertilisers, but we recover that cost difference in yield gains,” he says.
The residual benefits of animal manure, which usually last for three years, are generally said to lift grain and forage yields by between 0.5t/ha and 1t/ha. But Shaun says the $300/ha cost of buying, transporting, spreading and incorporating animal manure is a disadvantage that needs weighing up.
While the Nolans would like to increase the frequency of manure applications from once every six years to once every three years, the cost is too high. To apply 5000t of manure is about $150,000.
To minimise the expense of incorporating manure during the fallow period from October to November, they spread manure just before their normal paddock renovation operations, which saves on having to undertake a separate cultivation just for the manure.
Another development that has helped lift their business income and profitability has been to agist part of their herd of Angus and Santa Gertrudis cattle. Agisting cows has had the dual advantage of enabling the Nolans to double their herd from 1000 to 2000 head and achieve better market returns from their on-farm cattle fattening enterprise.
“Not only can we run more stock, but we can also concentrate more on the quality of the finished animals on-farm,” Shaun says.
Shaun says reducing freight costs, which can wipe out a quarter of their annual income, is the next step in the family’s ongoing commitment to improving efficiency.
“About 30 per cent of the value of every tonne of grain or beef that we produce goes into freight, so our long-term goal is to minimise that cost.”
They plan to do this by supplementing cattle feed with more of the forage and grain crops produced on-farm.
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