Farming career an education in persistence
Manager: Jock McNeil
Location: Loxton, South Australia
Area cropped (2015): 8500 hectares
Rotations: 65 per cent cereals (wheat, barley, rye); 35 per cent vetch, field peas, lupins
Average annual rainfall: 275 millimetres
Soil types: deep sands, sand over clay, red loam flats
One man’s pasture is another man’s weed and when the McNeil family bought three central-Mallee sheep properties in Loxton, South Australia, in 2003 to provide an opportunity for sons Jock and Digby to eventually return home and farm, pasture was the mainstay of the dominant enterprise: sheep.
Then the sons returned, and cropping was their objective. In a story familiar to many, those pastures became weeds – and an ongoing challenge.
When Jock joined the family business in 2009, 70 per cent of the farms were pasture. In the push towards continuous cropping, the family sold off the livestock, pulled out the fences and began an ambitious weed-control program to transform a pastoral landscape into a productive, profitable cropping regime.
Weed control in this region, with its variable soils and 275-millimetre annual rainfall, is the critical strategy that determines cropping viability. For the McNeils, it is a strategy built around summer weed control for moisture conservation, astute rotations and tactical spraying. In five years it has enabled them to lift average wheat yields from a meagre 0.65 tonnes/ha to a healthy (given the low rainfall and challenging finishes) 1.6t/ha.
It has been an unceasing – and continuing – education. For example, Jock tried chemical fallowing but found summer weed control very challenging. With nitrogen and moisture reserves loaded in the soil and no competition, weeds would just get a free run, resulting in endless spray operations. Another downside to the fallow, from a grass-break perspective, is that a percentage of brome grass would sit dormant and not germinate until the soil was disturbed the following season with the seeder.
Now Jock is trialling alternative rotations and actually reducing cereals from 60 to 65 per cent of the farm to 55 per cent this year to increase the area sown to break crops. In 2014 he planted vetch, field peas and lupins for the first time (on 25 per cent of the property) to fix nitrogen and provide a grass break. The remaining non-cereal area was sown to canola.
Purchasing a WEEDit spot sprayer has enabled cost-effective, targeted weed control with one main blanket spray and targeted follow-up.
“It depends on summer rain, but on average we now spray as low as 10 per cent per pass of the farm and some years it’s down to four per cent,” Jock says. “A full pass can cost up to about $100,000 in chemicals and we could do up to three sprays in a wet summer, so the spot sprayer has definitely paid for itself.”
The WEEDit has cut water usage and idle time on the tractor by reducing tank fills from 80 to 130 (depending on the blanket application water rate) down to six to 10 fills for WEEDit to cover the whole farm at 100 litres/ha.
The McNeils tow the WEEDit with a John Deere 8310R at 18 kilometres per hour. There is one sensor per metre on the boom, each controlling five nozzles.
Infra-red cameras detect chlorophyll in the leaves of weeds and target spray.
Jock is now on his second unit, and has added a second tank so pre-emergent chemicals can be applied while spot spraying in the same pass to further save on knockdown costs.
High stubble can interfere with the cameras and the miss rate (from misfiring or undetected weeds) is about one per cent if the application coverage is 10 per cent. If a paddock’s weed burden is 30 per cent or more, Jock will blanket spray.
“I am also exploring other weed control methods such as windrow burning and, in the future, a weed-seed destruction unit behind the header to retain crop residue. Our system is currently chemical-reliant and the pressure we are putting on the chemistry is not sustainable.”
While seasons can be variable (growing-season rainfall ranges from 65 to more than 200mm), temperature at both ends of the spectrum is the real challenge, with spring able to deliver either frost or damaging heat.
“The crops were unbelievable in 2013 but we had three or four days of 28°C to 29°C with strong north winds in the last week of August and it just cooked them, halving our expected yield,” Jock says. “In 2014 we again had great crop potential, but at the start of August, frosts for a week to the severity of –4°C caused a lot of damage.”
He sows early if moisture is present, starting with break crops any time in April and cereals after 20 to 25 April, extending into May. This seeks to maximise the yield potential from winter rainfall and cooler growing conditions and spread the risk posed either by frost or hot northerly winds.
The soil is mostly productive mid-slope sand over clay, but about a quarter of the area is deep sand with poor water-holding capacity and, in the worst places, is non-wetting.
“I would like to have a fixed rotation, but it is challenging because of soil variability,” Jock says. “Canola is good in the deep sands as it can get the tap root into subsoil reserves. Rye is also productive and barley is performing OK, but wheat performs poorly when put under stress.”
Jock hopes this poor performance can be corrected to some extent through continuous no-till cropping and brown manuring vetch crops to gradually increase organic matter.
“Paddock performance has improved out of sight but I’m still looking to reach that next level. Hopefully we can gain a bit extra through improved management of the deep sands. I’m also hoping that by adding legumes into the rotation the following cereal crop will give us an extra 200 to 500kg/ha in average yield and take the risk and pressure out of applying urea in marginal conditions.”
Jock has his sights firmly set on expansion: “We’ve come a long way in five years in terms of crop performance but I think our next stage of progression might be a bit steadier. We have gradually been setting the business up with spare capacity in our plant for further cropping expansion, which is our family’s main goal.”
The McNeils run three headers and two chaser bins to get the crop off quickly so they can begin summer spraying immediately after harvest. They cart their own grain and fertiliser to control freight costs and the family has a full-time employee and seasonal staff for harvest. Jock feels they have enough existing capacity to manage up to another 4000ha without compromising the cropping program to the point of lessening crop performance as a result of poor timing.
At just 24, Jock has a reasoned perspective on his future in the industry: “Apart from variable seasons and ongoing management issues, our biggest challenge is cost of production against current commodity prices. We are simply not being paid enough per tonne to match our increasing costs.
“An average to below-average yield at average prices just doesn’t cut it anymore to survive long term. I don’t think it matters where you farm, everyone who is cropping is targeting the high-end yields to boost an extra bottom-line dollar, but it is requiring a greater investment and added risk.
“It is no surprise the average age of Australian growers is increasing as there is not a huge incentive in the current times for the next generation to take over when the margins in the average season are not there.
“I have asked myself if agriculture is for me as I ride the ups and downs of farming, but I have a great passion for farming and believe that where there is a will there is a way.
“We are constantly thrown challenges as growers but there is opportunity somewhere if willing to adapt. I want to find the balance where the family farm can be viable for the long-term future without compromising on sustainability and quality of production.”
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