Dodging climate bullets in Bordertown
GroundCover™ Issue: 102 | Author: Aimee Parker
November 2009 is seared into the memories of south-east South Australian growers – especially Bill Hunt from Bordertown.
November 2009 is seared into the memories of south-east South Australian growers – especially Bill Hunt from Bordertown. With grain still in the soft-dough stage after a cool, wet spring, a sudden jump in temperatures from 35°C to 42°C for a fortnight caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to his crops. It was a familiar story across the region.
“It absolutely fried everything on the stick,” says Bill, who manages the 1150-hectare property ‘Nalang’ – which has been in the family for more than 100 years – with his son Ben and their wives Jenny and Joylene.
“The paddock smelt like a bakery. The whole countryside was toasting.
“Just before the heatwave we were told our durum crops would go 7.5 tonnes a hectare. They ended up 3t … of chook feed.”
A more typical year for the Hunts would bring a warm, dry summer and a cool, damp winter, with about 455 millimetres of rain. But climatic variations such as those experienced in 2009, and again in the summer of 2010 with record flooding in January, are becoming increasingly common and require flexibility.
Bill says they dodged another bullet in 2007 when the crops “right on death’s door” in spring were saved by 35mm of rain in November, which turned the season into “a ripper”.
“I don’t know if it’s climate change or climate variability,” Bill says. “But we seem to be getting much more variation than we did in the past.
“Whether the bullets are coming at you from a climate-change gun or a climate-variability gun, if you’ve got your head up when it should be down, you’ll get knocked over either way.”
A key factor in the Hunts’ farming system operation is livestock.
“Sheep add another dimension,” Bill says. As well as cleaning up weeds and stubble, crops that have been ruined by too little or too much rain become a useful resource with sheep.
“The fact that we have always stuck with sheep meant that in the recent boom we have done very well indeed,” Bill says. “Someone said to me, ‘Mate, how can you expect to make money out of sheep when you have to pay $250 for a ewe?’ I said, ‘We were selling them for that!’ Makes a difference.”
Livestock also give the Hunts weed-control flexibility. They have changed their rotation over the years to make better use of available rainfall as and when it falls.
Hay-freezing, fallow and pit silage are important for the way Bill controls ryegrass and conserves water.
“Unlike many of our colleagues, we are rather fond of ryegrass and encourage it in the pasture phase. Back in the olden days we used to be ryegrass Daleks –‘Exterminate, exterminate’ – but exterminating ryegrass is an open invitation for rubbish.”
Bill says that for them, one year of fallow or silage followed by Clearfield® canola cleans up paddocks. “Then when you go back to pasture, plant some of the Italian ryegrasses and you will really see what pasture production is all about,” he says.
For Bill, livestock is the third leg of the farming stool and “like a three-legged stool … take that leg away, and it becomes inherently unstable”.
Adapting to the season
When it comes to climate adaptation, Bill is someone who believes that working with the environment is good for business, with carbon capture and soil sequestration critical components of his family’s farming operations.
“We recycle carbon. We suck it out of the air and turn it into a wheat crop. More carbon means more nitrogen, more nitrogen means more growth, more growth means more carbon. So for years we have invested heavily in good legume pastures and increasing the depth of our topsoil.”
Along with the Hunts’ rotation (which includes barley, milling oats, durum wheat, beans and canola), legume pastures have enabled them to cut nitrogen fertiliser use to low levels.
“That this system gives us a good carbon footprint is quite coincidental,” Bill says.
Minimum-till has also made a big difference to the way the Hunts run their farm, allowing them to maximise water use efficiency and provide extra feed for lambs. In the last year of pasture, hay-freezing prevents weeds setting seed and preserves feed quality.
Although it has reduced weeds at seeding, the Hunts are not entirely convinced about the wisdom of dry seeding unless there is a late break.
“A lot of blokes reckon you ought to have it all in by Anzac Day [25 April], but if you go too early in our country there is a danger of growing hay instead of grain on one hand, and suffering frost damage on the other.” Bill says that some of his best wheat crops (over 6t/ha) have been planted on the first week in July.
‘Nalang’ is on the dry end of the high-rainfall area, or the wet end of the wheat/sheep area, “depending on which way you look at it”, Bill says. He relies completely on natural rainfall to support 1300 South African Merino Mutton x Merino ewes, lambs and a range of grains.
The flexibility in his operation comes from balancing his livestock and cropping area. In a normal year Bill puts 60 per cent of the property under crop and 40 per cent under pasture.
He says the key is the start of the season. “If the season gets off to a bad start we might drop a couple of cropping paddocks and pick them up the next year.”
The Hunts also have a revegetation program at ‘Nalang’. “We don’t actively plant red gums, but occasionally we get a ‘just right’ year for them and they come up in their hundreds along the floodplains of the Nalang Creek.
“It probably only happens maybe four or five times a century, but when it does we just fence the stock off from the seedlings until they are three or four years old, and away they go.”
Bill says the trees are the heart and soul of their farm. He tells his son: “Benny, if you want your great-grandchild to be able to have a picnic under a 100-year-old tree in 100 years’ time, we have got to plant one tomorrow.”
Insights from others
In October 2011, Bill spent a few days on the farm of fellow Climate Champion farmer David Smith in Birchip, western Victoria.
He observed how David runs his sheep and crops in a low-rainfall area. Birchip receives 350mm per year, on average, compared with 440 to 480mm at Bordertown.
Some climate predictions suggest that in 20 years’ time the climate in Bordertown may have shifted to resemble the current climate in Birchip (200 kilometres east of Bordertown).
The visit gave Bill a chance to see how other growers have already successfully adapted to a different set of challenges.
Travelling to different parts of Australia and talking to other growers has been an enjoyable part of the Climate Champion program for Bill. The aim of the program is to get growers talking to other growers about better managing climate variability.
“I had a lot of information about climate models so it was a chance to use some of that information, to get involved and see what others are doing. I’ve modified my farming system and carbon footprint to a large degree, and I’ve met a lot of great people making really good changes to the way they do things.”
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GRDC Project Code EC00003
Region South, National, North, West