Grain & Graze a winner in the HRZ

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Image of Cam Nicholson

Grain & Graze project coordinator Cam Nicholson.

PHOTO: Alistair Lawson, AgCommunicators

Opportunistic dual-purpose crops sown after summer rainfall events could prove to be a valuable addition to the feedbase and bottom line for mixed-farming enterprises in southern Australia’s high-rainfall zone (HRZ).

As part of the GRDC-funded Grain & Graze program, it has been found that due to the low water-holding capacity of soils in southern Victoria, a lot of summer rainfall is lost to capillary rise. This happens when the suction caused by dry air at the soil surface draws soil water out of the pore spaces.  

Soil moisture probe data from a Grain & Graze grazing trial at Lake Bolac, conducted from late 2010 to early 2014, suggests that even with stubble cover and very good weed control, soil moisture is still lost from the soil surface.

“Unlike in the low-rainfall zone, where there are different soil types with better water-holding capacity and stored soil moisture is king, for us in southern Victoria we normally end up with a full moisture profile by the end of August,” project coordinator and Geelong-based consultant Cam Nicholson says.

“The idea of going into a season with a half-full moisture profile has limited value in the HRZ because we will fill the bucket anyway. This year we’re fully saturated at the start of spring.”

Since its inception in 2003, the Grain & Graze program has yielded a number of learnings for mixed farmers to consider when planting and grazing dual-purpose crops.

The project has focused on different areas in its three phases, with a common theme of helping growers understand how crops and livestock can fit together in a system.

“The upshot of the optimum mix of crops and livestock is dependent on how much risk the farmers want to take on and their preference for livestock compared to cropping,” Mr Nicholson says.

“There are a whole lot of personal factors and risk-assessment factors at play as opposed to just a gross-margin comparison.”

Mr Nicholson says one of the biggest learnings applicable to growers in southern Victoria is choosing the right varieties with strong winter vernalisation, to enable earlier sowing and recovery to minimise any yield losses from grazing.

“What was learnt in phase two of Grain & Graze was that with new varieties and earlier sowing, it allowed us to think differently that we could run more stock,” he says.

“Instead of having a short window in winter for grazing, we can actually graze earlier because we can sow earlier. As soon as you change the stocking rate it makes a difference to the bottom line.

“The challenge is trying to change that mindset where growers are used to sowing in late April or early May, to potentially sowing a winter wheat or winter canola in March or at the start of April on the back of an early rain, which growers wouldn’t have thought of doing before.”

Mr Nicholson points to the example of some growers in the HRZ earlier this year who sowed winter canola and winter wheat on the back of heavy rainfall in February.

“Even though we had a late autumn break with a dry March and early April, those growers had feed to graze when no one else did because they sowed those crops early,” he says. “Once they got the autumn break they had two months of feed ahead of them because they had rested their pastures.

“That’s the shift in thinking we need to be able to achieve.”

For Mr Nicholson, it has been the factors around decision-making that have been his biggest learnings from the Grain & Graze program.

“We’ve never really been taught the theory or process behind what’s involved in making a good decision and how we think through it,” he says. “That’s a new area we’re uncovering as we head along and there is a lot more to learn in that space.

“We have got to see it from a lot of perspectives. Growers naturally gravitate to a decision that suits their personality but that doesn’t always lead to the best decision. I think that’s an area where the more we get into it, the more opportunity it provides, not just for mixed farming but all farming systems.

“Farmers have never been taught to make decisions – they are made on the basis of head, heart and gut. So many of their decisions are being made by rules of thumb carried between generations, and beliefs and values that may be biting us, and missing opportunities that aren’t best practice or as good as they could be because that’s what we are defaulting to.”

More information:

Cam Nicholson, Nicon Rural Services,
0417 311 098,
cam@niconrural.com.au  

Farm Decision Making – GRDC booklet;

Grain & Graze

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GRDC Project Code SFS00018

Region South