‘Sleeves-up’ management puts confidence into 2016

Each year, Ground Cover follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the winter cropping season. It is a chance to observe modern growers at work as they plan and adjust to a season’s challenges and opportunities. In this first instalment in the 2016 series, we introduce this year’s participants

Peter Jackson and wife Janice farm three properties with sons Brad and Phil, their wives Jenna and Ashlee and grandchildren Kayla, Riley, Lilly, Jamie, Isaac and Isabelle at Gurley in north-western New South Wales. They crop wheat, canola, barley, linseed and chickpeas in a 100 per cent cropping operation.

3 men and a young boy stand in front of farm machinery facing the camera

(From left) Brad, Phil, Isaac and Peter Jackson, and Rusty. The Jacksons’ philosophy is one of continuous incremental improvement by focusing on small gains to be made in rotations, timing and management decisions.

PHOTO: Janice Jackson

Average annual rainfall: 600 millimetres
Farm size: 1750 hectares
Use of professional advice: accountant, agronomist
Memberships: Conservation Farmers Inc, NSW Farmers

Key recent changes: We have just purchased a new 600ha property, which will require a slightly different rotation to what we are using on our existing properties. We have also purchased a new Boss 12-metre planter, which arrived in January. We renovated the tramlines after the wet year we had last year.

Goals for 2016: We will try to consolidate the new block into our operations. We also have some areas of capital investment to address waterlogging – draining low points and getting some laser levelling done. We have extensive plans for one property where we lost a substantial amount of crop due to waterlogging in 2015, but this work will be weather-dependent. Getting our rotations in the best order is another goal.

Challenges and opportunities: Group A and glyphosate-resistant barnyard grass is an ongoing challenge. We are having some success with double knock but we need to stay on top of it. As far as opportunities go, we are aiming for some seed production to add some extra value to our crops. And we’ll look at timing and management. Every year we try to tweak our management decisions to get those small gains, such as we have done with early sowing. There’s a higher risk of frost but you have to take emotion out of the decision-making process and run the numbers, and the numbers show that there are big yield gains to be made by sowing early.

R&D wish list: Interconnectedness with hardware and software. I’d like to see standards in connectivity so all our programs can interface easily.

Alistair and Simone Murdoch farm with son Charlie, and Alistair’s parents Gordon and Geraldine, at Kooloonong in north-western Victoria. They crop wheat, barley, canola and a variety of pulses, depending on the season and soils. They also run a feedlot for fat lamb production over summer and autumn.

Average annual rainfall: 330mm
Farm size: 6000ha
Use of professional advice: accountant, agronomist and business consultant (Alistair is a former consultant.)
Memberships: Birchip Cropping Group, Victorian No-Till Farmers Association, Victorian Farmers Federation, Kooloonong Landcare Group

Key recent changes: I am doing an executive development program through Rabobank and transitioning from an operational role into a more strategic role. Following a review of our business, we decided to diversify and increase cashflow by establishing a fat lamb feedlot to utilise grain. Prior to that we had no sheep for eight years. We are using soil moisture probes to better manage inputs. We recently purchased an additional 1000ha and we are in the process of transitioning that country into our existing operations. We have also made a labour adjustment in the past couple of years by offering traineeships to international workers.

Goals: Our goal for 2016 is to continue improving our current business model – looking at how we can achieve more efficiencies. The past 18 months have been about consolidation. However, we are currently developing a new strategic plan and a key focus for this year is to have this fully implemented. 2016 is focused on getting the little things right; I want to keep improving our timing – tweaking the crop rotation to suit the logistics. This may involve growing some hay, sowing pulses earlier or later, and so on, because we are fairly stretched with infrastructure and labour.

Challenges and opportunities: The challenge is to keep our timing to best-management practice, executing everything to plan. This is sometimes difficult because our machinery doesn’t match the scale since we bought the additional land, but we also don’t want to take on more debt at this stage. Maintaining residue is also a challenge in the lighter soils and low-rainfall environment in which we operate. But if we get a wetter season, it’s also an opportunity for better soil health and less erosion.

R&D wish list: Productivity of the lighter sands has decreased since the big rainfall event in 2010–11. I’d like to see some information on how we bring these lighter sands back up to their productive capacity; also more research linking crop production capacity to plant-available water, and the ability to link the soil moisture probe readings in to a broader network, such as with neighbours. Rainfall and soil types are very variable across the whole farm.

More pulses suited to a wider variety of soil types would also be good, although I can see there are improved varieties coming down the pipeline. The farm business management information coming out of the GRDC has been great. I’d like to see continuing support of projects through local extension groups, and two-way communication between growers and the GRDC.

Jock McNeil farms at Paruna, South Australia, with parents Ian and Jane, and brother Digby. They crop wheat, barley, rye, vetch, field peas and lupins in a 100 per cent cropping operation.

Average annual rainfall: 275mm
Farm size: 8700ha cropping program
Use of professional advice: soil scientist, agronomist, accountant
Memberships: South Australian No-Till Farmers Association

Key recent changes: The biggest thing for us this year will be incorporating the liquid system on our seeder. We have purchased a dual-liquid delivery system for our 2016 seeding to inject a range of products into the furrow in one pass. This will allows us to add inputs such as trace elements, liquid fertilisers, fungicides and inoculants with greater accuracy, efficiency and efficacy. My thinking behind this is that we have been focusing on replacing nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur, but still mining trace elements. I am hoping a balanced nutrition package early will improve rapid crop growth and establish a more robust root system to handle tougher climatic stresses later in the season, as well as allow us greater flexibility with input costs. 

Goals for 2016: I want to invest in aerated on-farm storage, explore different grain-marketing opportunities for cereals and grain legumes, and improve my knowledge of the soil types we are working with.

Challenges and opportunities: Our main challenge is managing a balanced nutrition package for good crop health and performance. We are in a marginal cropping region with varying soil types, so we have to consider risk and reward. Temperatures in early spring are also frequently challenging, with both frost and heat stress a risk. I would like to trial a part of the program in hay production to see what we can achieve – not only from a gross-margin perspective – but also weed control, as well as risk mitigation against frost and a dry finish.

R&D wish list: Crop varieties and plant breeding are always on the wish list. I would like to see higher yields, disease resistance and chemical tolerance, but I’m not sure if conventional plant breeding methods are enough. I’d like a better understanding of the opportunities and impacts that GM crops would potentially create for growers and consumers. If climate change is going to have as big an impact on the world as forecast, are current plant breeding techniques fast enough? My biggest wish would be frost tolerance, so we could sow earlier without the frost worry. It would allow maximum early growth, increase the water use efficiency of our winter rainfall and finish the crops in cooler temperatures to maximise yield.

Arthur Gearon and wife Nikki farm with parents Paul and Naureen at Chinchilla, Queensland. They grow wheat, barley, chickpeas, sorghum, cotton, mungbeans and also run 100 head of Angus cattle.

Image of chickpea plants

A strong market is increasing the acreage given to chickpeas in 2016.

PHOTO: Brad Collis

Average annual rainfall: 645mm
Farm size: 1500ha
Use of professional advice: retail agronomist, consultant agronomist (for periodic benchmarking), accountant
Memberships: AgForce

Key recent changes: We have swung from an almost entirely cereal-based winter program to a program with a much higher proportion of chickpeas. This was based on wheat and chickpea prices and we plan to stay on this track for the foreseeable future. In late 2015, we also purchased a new 7210 John Deere tractor.

Goals for 2016: Ideally we would like a repeat of 2015, which was a bumper year for chickpeas. We are very focused on weed control, and are using more pre-emergents in our spray program. Crop economics are also a big focus, giving every paddock we plant every opportunity. Given our input costs, we just can’t afford too many average yields.

Challenges and opportunities: Feathertop Rhodes grass has emerged on our farm in the past two years and we are trying to use pre-emergents and crop rotation to keep it out of our paddocks. Fleabane is still an issue, although we are getting on top of it now. Moving to a system that relies heavily on pre-emergents may lock us out of certain options in crop rotations and crop choices, which is new for us. Weather and markets are always challenging. We try to market to risk exposure. If one of our inputs is priced right, we try to buy ahead.

R&D wish list: I would like to see new varieties, particularly in legumes. We have only three varieties of chickpeas and two of mungbeans that we consider, so more options would be very welcome. We need some new varieties, with agronomic packages and disease tolerance that allow us to respond differently according to the season. It would be great to have some new chemistry to combat the glyphosate-resistant weeds coming into our system and I would love to see an alternative to paraquat.

Brothers Will and AG Morrison farm with their father Ian at Cressy, Tasmania. They grow wheat, barley, canola, poppies and canning peas and also run 100 Poll Hereford breeders and 5400 Coopworth ewes.

Average annual rainfall: 520mm
Farm size: 2800ha (1600ha centre-pivot irrigation)
Use of professional advice: accountant, agronomist
Memberships: Southern Farming Systems, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association

Key recent changes: We recently purchased an additional 160ha (irrigated) in between two of our existing farms to improve our economies of scale.

Goals for 2016: We’d like to increase our profits, pay back some principal and improve our efficiencies. We are investing in new technology in the form of remote-controlled irrigation and building some new stock laneways and stockyards.

Challenges and opportunities: Our challenges include systemic downy mildew in the poppies, which has resulted in up to 30 per cent reduction in yields. We are also trying to tackle Group A and B-resistant ryegrass by improving our crop rotations and cutting for hay in the ryegrass paddocks. Our biggest opportunity this year will be capitalising on our large volumes of irrigation water while there are dry conditions around us. Our water has always been very reliable, and we have just finished (in January) a really good harvest, considering how dry it has been. We’d also like to take advantage of improved margins in trading livestock and fodder production.

R&D wish list: I’d like to see practical applications of precision agriculture, integrating soil mapping with machinery.

Photo of Bob Nixon

Kalannie, WA, grower Bob Nixon – 2016 will be a focus on soil health.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Bob Nixon and wife Amanda farm in partnership with brother Daniel and wife Melanie, brother Matthew and parents Robert and Helen at Kalannie in the north-eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia. They crop wheat, barley and canola and run Merino sheep.

Average annual rainfall: 300mm
Farm size: 15,000ha (12,000ha cropped and 3000ha pasture or fallow)
Professional advice: Accountant, consultant.
Membership: Liebe Group, WA No-Tillage Farmers Association, WA Farmers Federation

Key recent changes: We have expanded our business, purchasing lighter soil types that are more forgiving in dry years. We are now at what we judge to be the most efficient size to fully utilise two sets of plant. We have focused on tree, fence and bank removal for weed hygiene, as well as machinery and input efficiency.

Goals for 2016: We plan to sell our sheep as we feel they no longer complement our system and are compromising our cropping program. There’s a need for soft friable soils and cover to aid dry seeding. This is our biggest driver of machinery use and water use efficiency. We hope to purchase a WEEDit or WeedSeeker® to aid in fallow management and summer spraying. We will continue to look at new ways to control costs and continue to focus on soil health with a large lime and gypsum program. Soil acidity continues to be a big issue in the eastern wheatbelt with the high cost of freight. We will try the new lupin variety PBA Jurien after six years without growing grain legumes.

Challenges and opportunities: The increase in seasonal variability and decline in autumn/sowing rainfall will be the continual challenge of farming in a low-rainfall area. We need to find ways to control costs in the fallow phase in a low-yield environment, such as weed-seeking technology. The reduction in the cost of off-patent pesticides has been a big positive. We need to find ways to protect them and extend their effectiveness with the high cost of new chemistry.

R&D wish list: To see Canola National Variety Trials conducted in Agzone 4 – the north-eastern wheat belt. It’s a major omission in variety guides for an area starved of rotational diversity. It would be nice to see more crop sequencing or break crop trials in WA to ground-truth the modelling conducted by Dr Roger Lawes and CSIRO. We are a big believer in the double break on our farm: canola following pasture or fallow. Two years of 100 per cent disease and weed control leading into a low-cost cereal phase.


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