Insurance and flexibility underpin resilience strategy
GroundCover™ Issue: 138 January - February 2019 | Author:Clarisa Collis
The drought affecting much of the grainbelt in southern and eastern Australia has earned plenty of headlines, but for grain growers on the ground it is all about management - putting into practice hard-earned experience, research, and fall-back agronomy and systems that ensure cropping programs can rebound the moment the dry cycle turns.
In a tale of resilience, Victorian growers Bernard and Simone Lindsay practise the art and science of planning and marshalling farm business resources as part of a multifaceted strategy to fortify their 3200-hectare property against recurrent dry seasons.
At Lah, about 10 kilometres south-east of Brim, in the northern Wimmera region, the couple’s strategy stands on flexibility in their grain and hay enterprises, a transition to controlled-traffic farming (CTF), in part to improve moisture management, and multi-peril crop insurance.
Bernard says the twin-catalyst for implementing multi-peril crop insurance in 2015 was a pattern of below-average rainfall conditions, persisting before and during a consolidation phase following farm business expansion.
The Lindsays built a new farmhouse and acquired 1200ha of additional leased land between 2010 and 2013, which led to a ‘risk-averse’ attitude to farm business management, further entrenched by a spate of dry seasons in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2014, 2015 and 2018.
“We’ve been affected by dry seasonal conditions in three of the past five years, with just 139 millimetres of growing-season rainfall in 2014, 130mm in 2015 and 125mm in 2018,” Bernard says.
“We’ve used multi-peril crop insurance to protect ourselves from this dry pattern, and reduce risk in the expansion phase. Initially we thought we would just use multi-peril crop insurance as a buffer to get through a bad year, but now it’s budgeted into the business and we are reluctant to remove it.”
Tracking its benefits through the prolonged dry conditions last year, the family’s gross income-based policy covered 55 per cent of their total annual expected revenue. This means they could be paid for lost income as a consequence of the dry season or other natural perils, such as frost, wind or disease. But Bernard adds that while the policy covered 55 per cent of total expected revenue, they chose to retain 25 per cent of the total revenue risk themselves, known as ‘risk retention’, so they were actually only eligible to be paid 30 per cent of total expected revenue under the insurance policy.
These figures are based on an insurance cost of $18.47/ha across 2906ha of the farm’s 2018 cropping country sown to wheat, barley, canola, lentils, vetch and oats.
Bernard says the farm business information and records, such as long-term average yields, that Horsham-based insurance company SureSeason Australia used to fix the insurance policy terms were also used to inform another component of their strategy for dry season management – the decision to bale crops for hay or harvest them for grain in 2018.
Owners: Bernard and Simone Lindsay Location: Lah, Victoria Farm area: 3200 hectares owned, share-farmed and leased, 2800ha cropping Average annual rainfall: 340 millimetres (250mm growing season) Soil types: sandy loam, clay loam Soil pH: 7 to 9 Crops grown: wheat, barley, canola, lentils, vetch, faba beans, oats Sheep enterprise: 650 Merino ewes
By examining farm data, including 2018 crop samples, Bernard together with ORM senior business consultant David Smith and and SureSeason national business manager Brendan Reinheimer estimated that cutting part of the farm’s cropping program for hay, instead of harvesting it for grain, could secure an extra $150 to $225/ha.
Their calculations showed the Lindsays’ wheat and barley crops were likely to yield 2 to 2.5t/ha of hay. Priced at about $300/t, this meant hay would earn a gross figure of between $600 and $675/ha. Even after deducting $100/ha for cutting, baling and carting, the cereal hay would return a gross margin of between $500 and $575/ha.
By comparison, their estimate for wheat and barley grain was about 1t/ha, earning about $350/t.
But because the profitability of hay was based on crop biomass, only about a third was cut.
“There wasn’t enough bulk or biomass in about 60 per cent of our crops, so it wasn’t cost-effective to cut them for hay,” Bernard says.
The family has also transitioned to CTF on their Wimmera property in the past two years to help conserve increasingly elusive soil moisture and reduce soil compaction by confining all farm machinery to matching wheel tracks.
Bernard says the move to CTF farming practices saw them invest in a disc-seeding machine in 2017, matched to their new 3m-wheel track system, which allows them to better conserve soil moisture by reducing soil disturbance at seeding and retaining more stubble compared with a tyne-seeding machine.
Using the new single-disc seeder, less prone to disrupting and damaging brittle soil in dry conditions, the Lindsays were able to finish dry-sowing their crops earlier, in late May, instead of early June, in the 2018 season.
“Getting our crops in earlier meant our crops received every drop of rain that fell in such a dry season.”
For instance, of the rain received on the family’s farm last year, totalling 152mm (at the time of writing), about 22mm was received three days after they finished sowing their cropping program on 26 May.
“That rain made an incredible difference in terms of getting our crops going,” Bernard says.
He says the family’s Merino sheep enterprise is another facet of their management strategy that provides vital cash flow in dry seasons. Helping to protect dry, fragile soils across cropping paddocks from wind erosion caused by grazing, the Lindsays confine their sheep to ‘stock containment areas’ in low-rainfall conditions.