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Growers weigh high cost of inputs with new season promise

Craig and Fiona Marshall run a mixed-farming enterprise at Rennie in the NSW Southern Riverina.
Photo: Rob Lacey

Growers weigh high cost of inputs with new season promise

Craig and Fiona Marshall run a mixed-farming enterprise at Rennie in the NSW Southern Riverina.
Photo: Rob Lacey

Each year GroundCover™ follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the cropping season. In this first instalment for 2022, Melissa Marino introduces this year’s participants.

New South Wales

Fiona and Craig Marshall run Bull Plain Farms at Rennie in the NSW Southern Riverina. Main enterprises are dryland wheat, barley and canola, with some oats, lupins and mixed-species pasture for 2200 crossbred ewes that represent 10 per cent of the business.

Average annual rainfall: 450 millimetres (predominantly winter but appears to be changing)

Farm size: Several properties within a 20-kilometre radius, totalling 2200 hectares plus 1300ha of leased country.

Professional advice: Elders Yarrawonga agronomist Matt Coffey, Agripath Tamworth business consultants Jasmine Whitten and Simon Fritsch

Memberships: Riverine Plains Farming Systems Group (where Fiona is deputy chair), Ag EDGE farm business management, NSW Farmers

Key changes: Variable-rate lime and gypsum based on soil mapping has seen much more consistent yields across the paddocks. We are part of the GRDC HYC initiative – a fantastic learning experience, picking one paddock to push and paying particular attention to its agronomy. Off-farm, we have bought a truck and employed a driver to ensure inputs get to our farm on time and we can deliver our grain.

2022 goals: To improve our profitability with careful management of inputs and increased attention to business management and agronomy. And being flexible enough to change management to suit the year, which is the hardest part of all. We aim for consistent improvement, including in our workplace for our employees, making sure it’s safe for the whole team and that everybody’s happy in their job.

Challenges and opportunities: We are in a changing climate with more rainfall over summer and less in winter, bringing both challenges and opportunities. Summer rain sets us up for the beginning of the (winter grain) season with a full profile of moisture but promotes summer weeds. If we don’t manage them, their seeding could provide problems for years, but there are trafficability challenges in the wet. Huge input prices are a challenge, but we’re not going to cut back our starter fertiliser. And we’ve seen an increase in mouse numbers, so that’s something to watch again.

R&D wishlist: Finding local alternatives to imported fertiliser inputs and research into alternative uses for our grain – like energy production. It would be great to rely less on our export/import market. Plus, more HYC research, because it inspires us to push harder and pay finer attention to the detail that might bring more profitability. And we’re really interested in work being done with biologicals to make nutrients in the soil more available to plants, such as research on the root/soil interface.

Queensland

Luke and Sophie Bradley, with Luke’s parents Peter and Kerrie, crop dryland sorghum, wheat, barley and chickpeas at Orion in the Springsure district of Queensland’s central highlands. About 300 kilometres towards the coast in the Boyne Valley, they grow irrigated mungbeans, corn and hay. They also run 370 beef cattle.

Average annual rainfall: 841mm Boyne Valley; 634mm Orion (significantly less over past 10 years)

Farm size: 5900ha (4100ha dryland, 200ha irrigated)

Professional advice: Agripath consultants, agronomists, accountant, Vanderfield precision agriculture team, direct advice from researchers

Memberships: Grain Growers Ltd, Nuffield Australia, Northern Farming Systems, Monto Growers Group

Key changes: We invested in the Boyne Valley in 2018 to spread risk, converting three dairy farms to grain production. With below-average rainfall at Orion over the past four years, it’s provided some security and kept things ticking over. With high input costs we have shifted to a higher percentage of pulses. We have increased livestock and growing fallow area from 10 to 15 per cent to about 25 per cent. We’ve also returned to contracting as we crawl out of drought, harvesting in NSW to keep cash flow positive.

2022 goals: You’ve got to think outside the box. Our long-term goal is to continue to expand our business, so you can’t keep saying ‘it just hasn’t rained’. You’ve got to change the model a bit to make sure you’re in control. Normally we’re focused on big sorghum crops – applying lots of nutrition – but this year we’re looking at diversification, and risk and debt reduction opposed to productivity. The second-hand machinery market is strong so we’re selling some to pay down debt. At Boyne Valley we’ll continue improving the irrigation system.

Challenges and opportunities: Recent conditions have gone from worse to worse. Outside of irrigation, our 2018 summer crop was the last to turn a profit. We’re working closely with agronomists, sampling and selecting the best fields to suit individual crops. With high input costs, conservative budgeting could mean you miss out on top-end yields if you don’t have the right field selection. At Boyne Valley we took grass country and turned it into cultivation so there’s more weeds than we’d like and we’re dealing with insect pressures that we’re handling differently through IPM strategies. We’ve also been involved with Farmers2Founders, looking to value-add by developing a popped sorghum product similar to popcorn.

R&D wishlist: The GRDC farming systems work is a good insight into profitability, so we would welcome its expansion to more sites to gauge a better understanding of local climate impact. Also, we’d like legume varieties such as soybeans and lentils developed for greater geographical tolerance. Sorghum is a major crop here, so we’d like to see work aligning our product better with existing and new markets.

South Australia

Robert and Courtney Pocock farm with Robert’s parents Bruce and Gaye at Lameroo in the southern Mallee. They grow wheat, barley, lupins, hay and vetch, and perennial pastures of lucerne and veldt grass for 1900 ewes including 700 stud ewes.

Average annual rainfall: 340mm

Farm size: 3200ha

Professional advice: Elders agronomist Craig Bell

Memberships: Mallee Sustainable Farming

Key changes: Edge-row seeding in non-wetting sands, and over the past two to three years ameliorating soil through clay spreading and delving. In our 12-metre controlled-traffic system we are returning to variable-rate nitrogen and phosphorus due to higher input prices and for more targeted results in our improved soils.

2022 goals: We have leased a 400ha block with a long history of pasture and want it up and running as soon as possible, so we’ll plant Clearfield barley to clean it up. We will continue our soil amelioration program, delving and claying, and tackle an explosion of barley grass. Very low opening rains last year meant a lot of pre-emergent herbicide didn’t work.

Challenges and opportunities: The 2021 drought brought our third-lowest growing season rainfall on record. Battling non-wetting sands and a changing weed spectrum will continue. And, of course, we’ll be dealing with high inputs costs. We’ll look at sowing nitrogen-fixating legumes and medic-based pastures to reduce the nitrogen need and help lower grass numbers. Plus, we have been trialling a prototype ‘plough and sow’ machine (developed with GRDC, Mallee Sustainable Farming, the University of Adelaide and manufacturer John Shearer) for dual soil amelioration and sowing. We may use that or a deep ripping-style machine.

R&D wishlist: We need to become more sustainable with nitrogen, water and phosphorus. It’s easy to think about growing bigger crops with higher inputs, but with limited and expensive resources we need greater efficiency to grow bigger crops without increasing inputs. We’ve had massive productivity gains on our constrained soils, but there’s still more to be done. In a wetter year, I’d like to help our sandier soil, while I’d like more from our heavier, shallower soils in a drier year. We don’t farm in a beautiful environment with 340mm of rainfall every year – it's either 450mm or 180mm.

We also contend with frost, so we are conservative with our seeding date. Increased frost tolerance would allow us to sow earlier and increase our yield potential. And I’d like more nitrogen-fixating break crops for sandy soils. We’re a bit stuck with lupins and vetch and a lack of ground cover causes erosion.

Tasmania

John Heard manages a family farm south of Cressy in the northern midlands, integrating crops and livestock. They grow dryland wheat, barley and canola, and irrigated peas, hemp, ryegrass, chicory and beetroot seed. They have 5000 breeding ewes, 230 breeding cows and trade fat lambs.

Average annual rainfall: 650mm (ranging between 850mm and 420mm)

Farm size: 1500ha (65 per cent livestock and 35 per cent cropping)

Professional advice: Agronomists, accountants, drainage consultant

Memberships: Primary Employers Tasmania, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, Tasmanian Hemp Association, Southern Farming Systems

Key changes: In the five years that I’ve managed the enterprise, we’ve invested in irrigation efficiency upgrades, replacing hard hose with pivot irrigation and building more laneways and drainage. We’ve also invested in grain storage, handling and drying facilities for small grain production.

2022 goals: We need to ensure our infrastructure around our expanded pivot irrigation – drainage, laneway access and fencing – is up to scratch. It will be a big year for drainage works. We’ll also focus more on soil amelioration techniques and long-term structure maintenance.

Challenges and opportunities: We’re looking down the barrel with high fertiliser prices, but I think the supply chain is going to be our hardest issue – from getting supplies in, to getting our product out. Disruptions caused by COVID-19 affect everything from staff to transport. Abattoirs and mid-way processors have been shut down because of positive cases. All those issues can line up and crunch the business, so we need to be conscious of them and manage accordingly.

Opportunities: We have a fantastic opportunity to adopt more agtech to increase efficiencies – around labour, water efficiencies and marketing. We are now yield mapping, which is highlighting opportunities for variable-rate fertiliser and water application. With prices remaining high, we hope to see compounded savings this season by adopting this technology.

R&D wishlist: The continuation of R&D into the high-rainfall zone cropping system to increase yields and maximise our water use efficiency on dryland areas is very important. Given the diversity of our business and fluctuating feed availability, R&D into obtaining high grain yields under dual-purpose (graze and grain) systems would be fantastic.

Victoria

Ben and Karli Findlay farm at Weatherboard, north-west of Ballarat at an elevation of 400 to 700 metres in an area subject to cool conditions, high rainfall and wind. They grow wheat, canola and faba beans and graze first-cross breeding ewes.

Average annual rainfall: 690mm

Farm size: 500ha

Professional advice: Charles Edmonston at BFB

Memberships: GRDC, Southern Farming Systems, Farming Ahead

Key changes: Refining timeliness – whether it’s sowing dates, fungicide application or harvest – has been a big deal. We’ve increased to four precise fungicide applications. We’ve researched nitrogen timing on wheat and canola to maximise yield and improve harvestability. In canola, we were applying nitrogen earlier and producing too much biomass, but now we’re better at getting more grain and less bulk.We’ve also changed plant density. We’ve gone from 70 to 80 canola plants per square metre down to 20 to 30 for massive improvement. Yields have increased with Pioneer Clearfield canola varieties, and, as part of the GRDC Hyper Yielding Cereals (HYC) initiative, Accroc wheat. The HYC has been very helpful and informative for wheat.

2022 goals: To implement variable-rate fertiliser properly across the property using a combination of harvest yield maps, EM38 (electromagnetic) soil mapping, normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery and paddock history.

Challenges and opportunities: In our high-rainfall area, we have good yields but the inputs are massive, so the high price of fertiliser really hurts. Turning a profit with wheat will be a hell of a challenge – eight tonnes/ha might be our break-even yield. Nitrogen timing will be very important. We’ll aim high on canola to maximise yield, but with wheat we’ll be looking to make ends meet rather than targeting the moon.

R&D wishlist: Getting relevant information on optimal sowing dates, nitrogen timing and plant densities is a challenge. We’re a unique area; a British-born agronomist we work with calls it Little Britain. It’s quite similar to their climate, so our needs are very specific.

A proper tool to measure biomass at key growth stages in canola is definitely needed. There’s not really a way to measure it apart from walking in the paddock and estimating.

I would also like to see some work around frost management and mitigation, or tolerant varieties.

Western Australia

Andrew and Marie Fowler, with Andrew’s brother Simon and sister-in-law Robyn, run a mixed operation across a number of locations between Condingup near the south-east coast and Beaumont 45km inland. They grow canola, wheat, barley, vetch, serradella and ryegrass pasture and run 24,000 Merino ewes and 2400 Angus breeding cows.

Farm size: More than 20,000ha

Average annual rainfall: 425mm (Beaumont); 600mm (Condingup)

Professional advice: Agronomists, strategic accountant, grain marketing consultants, farm management business consultant

Memberships: WAFarmers, South East Premium Wheat Growers Association, ASHEEP

Key changes: We’re following up extensive soil amelioration work – deep ripping, lime, gypsum, clay spreading and drainage – by upping the ante with crop inputs. It’s a strategic change inspired by Nick Poole’s HYC projects. We’re now 100 per cent hybrid canola and use a lot of fungicides and fertiliser to maximise potential. Our five-year wheat average has lifted by 1t/ha. Understanding amelioration gave us the confidence to push the crop input level. We’re also a couple of years into a 10-year program to convert some large blue gum plantations back into arable farmland.

2022 goals: As always, to try and execute to maximise our potential from the season, whatever that brings. We’ll be dealing with volatile markets, but we can only control what we can.

Challenges and opportunities: There are challenges on many fronts. Fertiliser pricing is in new territory and constraints in manufacturing globally and freight is having an impact on the availability of machinery and parts. But if grain prices stay really high, it could be another wonderful year. It’s probably a matter of making sure you’re covering off everything and being prepared. A strength of our business is its diversity and spread. There’s a range of soil types from typical Esperance sandplain to deep non-wetting sand, areas of low acidity that require lime, through to heavy hard-setting clays. Some areas get quite wet and other parts are exposed to frost and a dry finish. There’s always something to improve on.

R&D wishlist: We’d like to see more work around the high-yielding packages so we can more fully understand how to maximise potential across our range of rainfall and soil types.The approach is exciting, but involves a much higher cost structure, so we need to understand the risk and have confidence in the payback of potential yield to get that balance right – not leaving too much on the table or pushing too hard. Part of it is genetics, where there’s been great strides, but a lot is in management practice, particularly around disease and nutrition.

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