Sorghum venture tests northern promise

Aerial view of silage stacks

Silage stacks cut from forage sorghum grown on ‘Strathmore’ and used for finishing prime cattle.

Key points

  • Scott Harris’s ‘Strathmore’ in north-west Queensland is pushing the region’s cropping potential
  • Grain and forage sorghum cropping on the property is rapidly expanding
  • Increased local grain productivity is seen as the key to also lifting beef production 

For enterprises such as Scott Harris’s 931,000-hectare property ‘Strathmore’, near Croydon, Queensland, the comparative isolation is being overcome by marketing the grain to help expand local beef production. There is also potential to export grain through the port of Townsville.

‘Strathmore’, which is larger than many southern shires, has average annual rainfall ranging from 650 to 800 millimetres. Most rain falls from November to April and Bureau of Meteorology data shows rainfall over the past 30 years has been reliably as good as or better than much of southern Australia.

Soils vary but much of the current and potential cropping area is loam with a loam to clay subsoil with reasonable water-holding properties.

The property is not dissimilar to the cropping conditions at Kununurra in Western Australia’s Ord River district and, similarly, irrigation is considered a future option for summer crop varieties grown in winter.

Image of Scott and Harry Harris

Scott and Harry Harris on ‘Strathmore’ checking mid-winter 2014 forage sorghum regrowth after cutting for silage and summer grazing.

PHOTO: Bob Freebairn

Mr Harris explains that while the property has traditionally been based on livestock, “several thousand” hectares were sown to grain sorghum in 2014, achieving an average yield of 2.5 tonnes/ha, with some areas reaching 5t/ha.

Ongoing costs of production for grain sorghum are similar or potentially lower than those in more traditional cropping areas, at least initially while in-crop weed control and fertiliser costs are lower. Mr Harris expects long-term viability will be similar to other growing regions, although he believes operational scale will favour northern growers.

Profit drivers, he says, are much the same as elsewhere: scale of operation, input costs, average yield and grain prices. As northern agriculture expands as a whole, including feedlots and the trend towards more supplementary feeding, he expects local demand for grain sorghum to keep rising – in addition to export options.

The medium-term plan is to expand cropping to 10,000ha, in keeping with new environmental guidelines developed by the state government for cropping in the region.

Soil erosion can be an issue, as it is everywhere; however, sound management (for example, zero-till) can minimise these risks. Flooding risk also has to be managed, as is the case in many Queensland and northern New South Wales agricultural areas.

Mr Harris says marketing ‘Strathmore’ grain sorghum is not as daunting as one might expect for such a remote area because some grain is retained on-farm for supplementary feeding, and more will be needed as a feedlot is developed. The rest of the crop is sold to buyers on the Atherton Tablelands.

‘Strathmore’ business and finance manager Peter Anderson says that, while still a considerable distance away, they are closer than the Atherton’s traditional Central Queensland suppliers.

As production expands on ‘Strathmore’ and other northern properties, Mr Anderson and Mr Harris expect that grain not required for expanding local feedlots will be exported via Townsville.

Since Mr Harris bought Strathmore 11 years ago, cattle numbers on the property have been increased by 40 per cent to 35,000 breeders. Mr Harris continues this expansion, aiming for 50,000 Brahman and Droughtmaster cow units, and crop production will be crucial to achieving this.

Several thousand hectares are now sown to hybrid forage sorghums, which have yielded in excess of 10t/ha of dry matter. Some is harvested as silage and used to finish sale animals, although most is used for grazing over summer, autumn and winter.

Feedlot

Scott Harris also plans to establish a feedlot with an annual throughput of 25,000 to 30,000 head. Irrigation and dryland cropping will be the key feed sources.

With improved pasture management, combined with fodder crops and lot feeding, he envisages that it will be possible to improve animal turn-off weights combined with selling at an earlier age and better quality.

The cropping expansion is also delivering valuable side benefits such as weed control – the cropping operations help to provide management options for local weeds such as rubber vine, Chinee apple and Parkinsonia.

Mr Harris has been involved in northern agriculture all his working life, beginning on the family property ‘Gogo’ station, at Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberly, before buying ‘Strathmore’.

His vision is to be a part of the profitable development of northern agriculture. He has spent his entire adulthood working in the north and has a strong belief in this part of Australia’s food-growing potential, despite its geographic challenges.

He says the challenge is to adapt appropriate technologies to the region and draw on the experience built up in areas such as the Ord River agricultural district. It is this experience in particular that he says convinces him that his ‘Strathmore’ venture will succeed.

More information:

Peter Anderson

tssmaize@bigpond.com.au

Bob Freebairn
0428 752 149
robert.freebairn@bigpond.com

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