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Harnessing rainfall a key goal for growers

Matt and Rachel Hinkley farm in a high-rainfall zone in south-western Victoria.
Photo: William Hinkley

Each year, GroundCover follows a group of growers from across Australia as they manage the winter cropping season. In the first instalment for 2021, Melissa Marino introduces this year's participants.

New South Wales

Stuart McDonald and Ellen Downes run a mixed-farming enterprise at Canowindra in central-western NSW. They grow wheat, canola, chickpeas and barley and are moving to a more diverse system with lupins, oats and multi-species forage crops. They have self-replacing Merino ewes and a small herd of stud Illawarra dairy cows.

Average annual rainfall: 650 millimetres (330mm in 2019; 920mm in 2020)

Farm size: 1400 hectares (1100ha cropping; 300ha pasture)

Professional advice: Agronomist, soil scientist, Agripath benchmarking

Memberships: NSW Farmers Association, Farmlink, Vic No-till, GRDC National Variety Trials committee, Rabobank client council, Mid-Lachlan Landcare Soils for Future program, AgEDGE Farm Business management

Key changes: We had an established system for many years but are now addressing its limitations. After Nuffield Scholarship travel in 2018-19 we changed from a minimum-till wheat/canola rotation with tynes to a zero-till disc system, broadening our program with chickpeas and barley. I’m not sold on barley yet but pulses have a fit. There are legacy effects, but we’re not just doing it to have wonderfully healthy soil. They have to stack up and be profitable along the way.

2021 goals: To better utilise rain as it falls, optimise nitrogen management and incorporate some trade livestock into our cropping program to turn forage into dollars and improve soil. We want more precision ag, so we’ll look at soil tests and yield data from 2020 to make informed decisions.

Challenges and opportunities: Turning rainfall into money is a challenge and an opportunity. You want to utilise everything that falls and this is where ground cover is king, maximising water infiltration. We need to set ourselves up so when it rains we capture and utilise it. We’re starting at the basics with ground cover and the disc system, then introducing other elements – multi-species forage, trade animals and pulses to improve soil health.

There’s compaction issues and acidity at depth in the area so that’s a challenge going to no-till. A one-off ripping and lime incorporation is the quickest fix here.

R&D wishlist: To have a greater understanding of soil biology and impact of inputs. How do we get to that point where we’re actually improving the soil function through biology and reduced inputs while producing a good return?

Queensland

Jake and Felicity Hamilton, along with Jake’s father Scott, run Krui Pastoral Co, west of Condamine in southern Queensland. Main outputs are winter grain crops – wheat, chickpeas, barley and faba beans.

Average annual rainfall: 573mm

Farm size: 5800ha across two properties, including 4700ha of dryland cultivation with the remainder light-to-medium-density timber shade lines and some grass country.

Professional advice: Accountancy, legal, bank manager

Memberships: Grain Growers Association

Key changes: In the past five years we have invested heavily in water management. We have been working on a long-term plan to level our large amount of black soil melon hole country and contour our more-sloped red soil creek country.

2021 goals: We are building contour banks and repairing gully erosion from years of unmanaged rainfall, hoping to have most completed before planting in April. Good rainfall events have started to build a soil moisture profile. Hopefully this keeps up for an average or better winter crop season. We plan to trial variable-rate soil ameliorant products on fields we have levelled to try and rectify any compaction and sodicity issues arising from the levelling process. Summer should see us begin a long-term program of deep application of fertiliser to address stratification issues.

Challenges and opportunities: Trade volatility between Australia and China makes us keenly aware that there may be some issues with the availability and price of chemicals, and some grain markets will likely be affected. We will have to see how this plays out. Fewer cattle available to local feedlots compared to previous years will likely see us delivering some of our products further afield, which will add to freight costs. A decent season offers the opportunity to further solidify our long-term rotation and integrated weed management plan to continue to reduce our weed seed bank.

R&D wish list: Hopefully in the near future we will see an autonomous AI-driven optical sprayer, which will help drastically reduce chemical application and herbicide resistance. Since John Deere’s acquisition of Blue River Technology several years ago, we have been waiting to see what their version of an optical sprayer will look like. Also, is there any chance the BOM could improve their weather forecasting accuracy?

South Australia

Grant and Jodie, and Ben and Sarah Pontifex run Pontifex Farming across three properties: one at Paskeville on the Yorke Peninsula growing wheat, barley, lentils, oaten hay and faba beans, and two on Kangaroo Island (KI) growing broad beans, canola, wheat and barley.

Average annual rainfall: 375mm Paskeville; 600mm KI.

Farm size: 6800ha split between three properties.

Professional advice: Grain marketer, agronomist, soil scientist, tax accountant

Memberships: South Australian No-Till Farmers Association, Society of Precision Agriculture Australia, Paskeville Agricultural Bureau, Nuffield Australia South Australian committee.

Key changes: We bought a plane and are sowing all our crops on KI with it. Then we cover them over with a Kelly disc chain. My father still flies a little plane, which carts us back and forth between the properties, but we employ a spray pilot to do all our seeding, spreading and spraying on KI. It’s fast and efficient and stops us getting bogged in winter. There’s zero row spacing so you get a lot more weed competition. At Paskeville we introduced a stripper front to keep more stubble standing to hold more moisture. And we’re using a reefinator on rocks.

2021 goals: To continue to refine our management system involving the plane on KI and improve water use efficiency and nutrient use efficiency at Paskeville, where water is limited. There’s not a lot of commonality between the two locations but that’s good because in a dry season we have really good crops on KI and in wet seasons we have really good crops at Paskeville.

Challenges and opportunities: The biggest challenges every year are time management, staff and keeping a positive cash flow. We’ll look to optimise the season and build up the farm with assets. Marketing grain throughout the year is always an opportunity. We are directors in Kangaroo Island Pure Grain – a packing and export facility in Port Adelaide for our KI grain. We sell to New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, all over – and we’re always looking to find more markets and value-add the grain we produce.

R&D wishlist: I’d love to see more government support for R&D, especially for domestic and international marketing to promote how safe, clean and sustainable our production systems are. My 2018 Nuffield topic was on regenerative agriculture, improving carbon in soils and profitably cover cropping, so I’d like further research on biology and how we can farm with more biological systems rather than chemicals.

Victoria

Matt and Rachel Hinkley run Hinkley Farming at Derrinallum, in a high-rainfall zone in south-western Victoria. They grow canola, wheat, barley, some beans and hay and trade prime lambs over summer.

Average annual rainfall: 607mm (414mm growing season)

Farm size: 1600ha under production

Professional advice: Accountant, agronomist, bank manager, several sources of market intelligence

Memberships: Southern Farming Systems, VFF Grains Group, grain marketing subscriptions

Key changes: We bought the farm in 2004 and transformed it – levelling the ground, installing tracks, raised beds and drainage networks. Both past agronomists, we were aware of the potential for top-end yields in the HRZ. We knew we were going to have enough moisture; it was just a matter of managing the excess. We recently consolidated, selling two external blocks and buying two neighbouring properties so all our land is within seven kilometres of our sheds and silos. This allows for more thorough oversight and improves timeliness and ease of operations.

2021 goals: We want to incorporate phosphorus and possibly other nutrients into our existing lime and gypsum variable-rate program. We’re structuring a more comprehensive testing program to keep better track of soil nutrient levels. We will also continue to improve our extensive drainage system.

Challenges and opportunities: Low interest rates and favourable current and future pricing of our commodities pose a lot of opportunities for businesses like ours to continue to steam ahead. We are involved in swaps – derivatives or futures trading – through our bank and it’s a big part of our business.  We spend time grain marketing as it can add a lot of value. We will continue to look for expansion opportunities close to home but the rising cost of quality farmland in HRZs may pose challenges.

R&D wishlist: Cutting-edge R&D is critical for the improvement in yields and profitability of farms like ours. The continued development of canola, wheat and barley varieties suitable for HRZs is important to us. We would like to see more research directed to HRZs and more tangible research outcomes. We hope for continued investment into fungicides and disease management strategies for our varieties.

Jim and Kate Heal with their sons

Jim and Kate Heal overlooking their farm with sons Lachlan and Harrison. Photo: Jim Heal

Western Australia

Jim and Kate Heal farm at Three Springs, south of Geraldton. They crop wheat, lupins, barley and canola, with 20 per cent of their land used for pasture for 2500 self-replacing Merino ewes.

Average annual rainfall: 390mm (326mm growing-season)

Farm size: 5225ha

Professional advice: Farm business consultant, grain marketing consultant, financial adviser, accountant, agronomist, sheep classer

Memberships: West Midlands Group, Kondinin Group

Key changes: In the past couple of years we’ve started a soil amelioration program through spading and a bit of mouldboarding, deep ripping and reefinating to combat the non-wetting soils, hard pans and rocky gravel ridges. Amelioration is helping the soil become like a nice wet sponge to hold the moisture. And we’ve been planting fodder crops to get more feed on the ground for our sheep.

2021 goals: Work/life balance: spending time with family and kids is one of the first priorities. But also to keep improving our soil types in the environment we’re given each year. We have a water use efficiency target of 20 kilograms of grain per millimetre per hectare of rainfall. Hopefully with the soil amelioration program we’ll get close.

Challenges and opportunities: Weather variability, non-wetting soils and blue lupins are our challenges. Most can be managed through sowing timing, soil amelioration, new varieties and new chemistry. I’m seeing opportunities with livestock with the fodder crops and September-sown sorghum to improve pastures. That’s helping our sheep enterprise and making use of poorer soil types that are no good for cropping. In winter we use those paddocks for grazing and then in summer the sheep move happily onto the stubbles and it just complements our system. They’re our little weed seekers.

R&D wishlist: A herbicide that knocks out blue lupins in white lupins. White lupins are quite a big part (25 to 45 per cent) of our cropping program and are great for returning nitrogen into the soil and grazing, so not having a safe chemical option to control blue lupins is quite costly to our yields and business.

Tasmania

Leigh and Alana Elphinstone farm with Leigh’s parents Craigie and Jean at Sisters Creek on Tasmania’s north-west coast. They grow wheat, potatoes, poppies, onions and ryegrass pasture for 600 beef cattle and agisted dairy cows.

Average annual rainfall: 1200mm

Farm size: 390ha, plus 35ha leased for potato production

Professional advice: Agronomist, accountant

Memberships: Kondinin Group, Boat Harbour Discussion Group

Key changes: We have doubled the amount of grain we grow in the past four years after local header contractor Mike Nicholls established a grain pool to supply some big dairy farmers. It’s given us confidence to grow more grain because you know you are going to have a sale. It’s always been a battle to get moisture levels below 13 per cent but he’s set up a grain dryer to ensure we meet buyers’ specs. We’ve saved costs introducing GPS systems on all our tractors over the past six years.

2021 goals: We always want to be more profitable, so we’ll look to keep inputs down or increase yields. We’re also looking at better varieties to achieve these outcomes.

Challenges and opportunities: Getting enough labour is always a challenge, whether it’s full-time staff or seasonal labour when you need more hands. And since COVID-19 it’s even harder. There are opportunities for less labour-intensive irrigation systems as funds allow you to invest. We are hard-hose irrigators, which takes a bit of work so we’ll look to introduce more computerised systems with linears and pivots.

R&D wishlist: Probably more region-specific R&D on varieties and fungicides, helping to keep our costs down. There’s not heaps of grain by volume grown on the coast so there’s not much R&D based on our climate, but we have a lot of potential. Last year we had a small paddock that did over 13t/ha. For agriculture to keep moving forward and to be sustainable we need R&D because farmers can’t do it alone.

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