Seed grower unfazed by increased climate variability

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Bruce Saxton from Corryong in north-east Victoria.

- By Sarah Cole

One farmer who isn’t fazed by the decreasing seasonal rainfall and increasing temperatures is Victorian seed producer Bruce Saxton. Bruce produces cereal, pasture and vegetable seed crops, plus runs cattle for the feeder market and has agistment cattle on the property he manages near Corryong in north-east Victoria.

He says the prospect of climate variability actually fits into his farming strategy of being flexible and responsive.

“If we see more variability in our climate because of climate change, the answer for us has to be to stay in a dynamic decision mode and adjust our plans,”

Bruce says. Bruce has contingency plans for when on-farm situations change. This allows him to respond quickly to seasonal variations.

“There’s no excuse to say, ‘We can’t plan because things might change’. It’s a matter of having the contingency plans to act on as soon as you can. Flexibility, in some districts, is more limited, but for us it’s the only answer.

“We have an expectation of what we might do if it’s warmer than normal, or if the spring tapers off. We just overlay climate information on our decisions.”

Bruce partly bases his business management decisions for the property on a broad principle of maintaining an appropriate scale of operation.

For him, this means specialising in seed production, carefully managing machinery costs, reducing overheads and, within reason, planting a variety of crops to spread out harvest dates.

“By carefully managing the scale and specialisation, our overheads have less of an impact on our cost of production and less influence on the business. Trimming costs all the time is a really standard business principle.”

Changing tack 
For the past 10 years, Bruce has made ongoing changes to his cropping and agistment enterprises on the property in the face of warmer weather and more frequent dry finishes.

One such change has been to move towards summer cropping, in step with the increasing exposure to dry finishes and higher temperatures. This has helped Bruce reduce the risk of relying solely on his winter crops.

For Bruce, it is this sort of flexibility that helps to reduce the risks inherent in climate variability: “The margin we’re dealing with is getting narrower. Input costs are rising and have the potential to leave farmers much more exposed if the season turns bad.”

He says if the season doesn’t break by a certain point they change tack. “We can’t afford to dig in and stick to original plans if situations change. For example, some crops will not give an economic yield if we have not been able to sow by the first week of May.

“And for our grazing operation, a later break influences winter feed production. If we don’t get an autumn break by May, we know it is going to be tough on feed availability through the winter.”

From Bruce’s perspective there are predictable outcomes from a late autumn break, and he uses that predictability, and lead time, to plan responses. Knowing, for example, that feed will inevitably be in short supply, destocking becomes an obvious option.

Crop diversity 
Bruce can sometimes grow up to 15 different types of crop in a year and one of his strategies is to pursue staggered maturity dates.

So, for example, in some years his crops have suffered from water stress during November and December, but it has rained in late December – too late for the earlier crops, but a big help to late-finishing crops. It is this sort of diversity that he relies on to insure against tough seasons.

The success or failure of this approach has a lot to do with crop choice, making this one of the most important decisions. The main factors that determine crop choices are markets, the condition of paddocks and the outlook for the season ahead. Sometimes, a crop choice has to be changed quickly – “for example, if a paddock doesn’t come up the way you need it to. As a seed industry we need excellent hygiene. Weed-free paddocks are essential.”

Flexible inputs
With stringent crop choices and with limited control over the effects of finishing season rainfall and heat, Bruce also tempers fertiliser inputs and his expectation of crop yields according to the seasonal conditions.

While crop choice is Bruce’s primary management tool, on shorter time scales it is his inputs that he most carefully manages. Nitrogen application is the most important factor for yields.

“Variable rainfall during finishing and the spread of our varieties means we have to be very flexible with nitrogen. Because the finishing rain determines our yields, we need to be cautious about how much and when we apply nitrogen.

“We take into account the rainfall expectations and soil moisture reserves. For instance, if it’s too wet, there is risk of denitrification and run-off. Or if soil moisture is marginal, we watch forecasts carefully and use soil nitrate tests to determine how much fertiliser is required.”

GRDC Research Code ECO0003

More information: Bruce Saxton, 02 6076 9222, saxto@bigpond.com; www.climatechampions.net.au; www.grdc.com.au/EC00003

GRDC Project Code EC00003

Region South