Rolling the dice along Goyder's Line

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- Alison Binney
Econnect Communication

Kym Fromm farms both wheat and sheep in the southern Flinders Ranges, less than two kilometres south of Goyder's Line in South Australia

Wheat-and-sheep farmer Kym Fromm lives at Orroroo in the southern Flinders Ranges, less than two kilometres south of Goyder’s Line in South Australia.

“In the past, especially when things are a bit tough, that line really shows up,” says Kym, who is a third-generation farmer on his low-rainfall property.

“You can have stark differences in rainfall within a relatively short distance and you can see the changes in vegetation very easily.”

George Goyder, surveyor-general for SA in the 19th century, demarcated the line based on observations of rainfall and vegetation. To plant crops north of this line, according to Goyder, would not be viable.

To make ends meet in such a marginal rainfall location, Kym and his wife Simone farm both wheat and sheep on approximately 2050 hectares split across Goyder’s Line.

“We grow mainly wheat and barley because they are the only crops that we can make money out of,” Kym says.

“Being on the edge of the pastoral country, any rise in temperature is very important to us. Our growing season ends when the hot north winds come down off the pastoral country.”

In survival mode

Heading into 2012, the Fromms say they are still very much in survival mode after a devastating decade between 2001 and 2011.

“2001 was a fantastic year. We had good prices and good yields. But since then, 2002 to 2004 were all droughts,” says Kym.

“2005 was alright, but the grain price was terrible so no one made any money. Then 2006 to 2008 were droughts. 2009 was looking really good and then we had record high temperatures in November.

“The hot north winds came and that – as far as I’m aware – was the hottest November heatwave ever recorded,” he says.

“2011 was a disappointing year, with below-average prices, quality and yields. Our grain freight is nearly $40 per tonne and with wheat prices hovering around $200/t it is hard to get ahead.

“We just can’t seem to crack that decent year and cropping is an expensive prospect.”

Kym has always said that if he could get a decent year he would like to go back to a more sheep-oriented farm where, he believes, the risk is lower and he can control ground cover a lot better.

For this year, Kym says he will be cropping less and sowing more pastures for sheep. With rotational grazing and electric fencing, he aims to use the pasture as efficiently as possible.

But he is still waiting for that good year: “I’ve got to keep rolling the dice with the cropping.”

Flexible rotations to reduce risk

Juggling risk is something that Kym has learnt over his years farming on Goyder’s Line.

For such a low-rainfall area, his ‘holy grail’ of management strategies is to make the most of the good years and minimise the impact of the bad years.

He uses a rotational system based on thirds: one-third main crop, one-third pasture and one-third either pasture or crop.

“We sow it all and we might put our sheep on it. Then, if it looks like being a good year, we take the sheep off and reap that third. That way at least we’ve got two-thirds for farming crop. If it’s a bad year, we’ve virtually got two-thirds pasture,” Kym says. “I like the flexibility of those sorts of rotations.”

While strategies can mitigate risk, Kym still likens his business to gambling: “There are a lot of similarities between gambling and farming in a low-rainfall district. The worst thing that can happen to a gambler is if they have one big win and then they spend all those years trying to get that next big win.”

Watching for seasonal patterns

For Kym, spring is the ‘money’ time of the season. To plan for spring, he looks for patterns in seasonal predictions using information about climate drivers such as the Indian Ocean Dipole, the Southern Oscillation Index and predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology.

“There is very little reliable information at the start of the year as to what is going to happen in spring,” Kym says.

“I try to base my decisions on what I am observing, such as soil moisture, from February onwards and the likelihood of an early break to the season.

“I sow the crop with adequate nutrition and add more as the season progresses and if conditions continue to be favourable. I am prepared to ‘shut up shop’ if the season turns bad,” he says.

“Shorter-term predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology and various international sites tend to be more accurate than longer-term predictions, so these can be used to plan for the immediate future as the season progresses.”

Sticking with no-till

The Fromms’ land is hilly, so cultivating the soil less reduces erosion. Kym also recognises that every time he works his soil he is losing soil moisture.

“I’ve been no-tilling with narrow points for about seven or eight years now. With our erosive country, I find that it is best.”

“I noticed a very rapid improvement in soil structure within a few years of no-tilling. Also, because we have heavy red soils, they have a lower water-infiltration rate. So anything we can do to increase that infiltration rate and allow more water to soak into the ground is good. I think that’s where no-till farming helps.

“From a sustainability point of view, I’m sticking with the no-till because I can see that it is more likely to succeed in the long run.”

Learning from other low-rainfall producers

Kym sees networking with other low-rainfall farmers as another means to farming successfully on Goyder’s Line.

“When I was inaugural chairman of the Upper North Farming Systems Group, it struck me that we have a number of regions on the edge of the cropping country all dealing with exactly the same problems.” Kym says.

“We link in with other low-rainfall groups such as the Central West Farming Systems group in Condobolin, NSW; the Mallee Sustainable Farming in Mildura, Victoria; and the Eyre Peninsula Farming Systems group here in SA. We all get together every year and coordinate our research.

“It’s really good to be able to see low-rainfall farmers in other districts, and it’s amazing how many of the same things come up.

“But in some ways you can have different solutions. Seeing different research gives you a bit of enthusiasm to say, ‘Well, perhaps I could try this on my place’.”

SNAPSHOT

Growers: Kym and Simone Fromm
Region: Orroroo, South Australia
Commodity: Wheat and sheep
Farming area: 2050 hectares
Annual rainfall: 350mm average

Climate champions

The GRDC’s Climate Champions program provides early access to research assessing the impact of climate variability in different agricultural regions and helps growers adapt their production systems. Participants have been selected for their willingness to learn more about the influences of climate variability and to provide leadership to other farmers by sharing their experiences and what they have learnt.


GRDC Research Code EC00003


More information:

Kym Fromm,
08 8658 1183,
fromms@bigpond.com;

Climate Kelpie,
www.climatekelpie.com.au;

Managing Climate website
http://www.managingclimate.gov.au/
Climate Champion book [Download link on Managing Climate website]

GRDC Project Code EC00003

Region South, North, West