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Multi-skilled team gets the edge on climate

Mark Swift (left) and Bruce Watson, members of an extended family business team of tertiary qualified growers using informed decisions to crop in the volatile rainfall region of Parkes, NSW
Photo: Nicole Baxter


Growers: Bruce, Karina, Jim and Janelle Watson and Mark and Katrina Swift
Location: Tichborne, New South Wales
Farm size: 3700 hectares
Average annual rainfall: 550 millimetres
Soil types: sandy loam
Soil pH: 4.5 to 5.5
Enterprises: cropping only
Crops grown: bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, oats, triticale, canola, linseed, safflower, faba beans, lentils, lupins, chickpeas, sorghum, mungbeans, sesame and dryland cotton.

Cropping in a volatile rainfall area has required the Watson and Swift families to adopt a suite of management tools to optimise their crop production.

“It takes multi-faceted thinking to optimise crop production,” Mark Swift says. “You need to use all the tools at your disposal: crop genetics, machinery, soil moisture, forecasts – for what they are worth – and management. But another important dimension to consider is time.”

The Watson and Swift families operate a grain growing business at Tichborne, near Parkes, NSW, producing a mixture of dryland winter cereals, pulses and oilseeds as well as summer dryland cereals and pulses. The property nominally receives an average annual rainfall of 550 millimetres but it typically ranges from 400 to 800mm.

Multi-skilled team

Mark attributes their ability to deal with this seasonal variability to the combination of skills and experience within the business’ management.

Bruce Watson holds a Bachelor of Agricultural Economics from the University of Sydney and previously worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers in its transfer pricing practice. Bruce’s sister Katrina and her husband Mark hold degrees in agribusiness from Marcus Oldham College. Additionally, Katrina has brought experience in banking and agronomy back to the family business.

Bruce’s wife Karina is a qualified pharmacist and brings detailed attention to the bookkeeping, while parents Jim and Janelle bring the wisdom of years of farming and board experience (Jim) and a degree in agricultural economics (Janelle) to the team.

Both Bruce and Mark received Nuffield Scholarships, a program through which they have honed their leadership and questioning skills. Mark has also taken the Executive Program for Agricultural Producers at Texas A&M in the US. Adding to this, Bruce is a member of the GRDC Northern Panel.

To complement the management team, the business employs two full-time, experienced diesel mechanics, one of whom has been with the family business for nearly 10 years.

The make-up of the management team shows a clear and significant educational investment underwriting the business and this, they say, leads to some robust decision-making.

“We operate on a division of labour,” Mark says. “Bruce looks after the marketing of crops, I focus on machinery, Katrina is the summer crop specialist, Karina looks after administration. Although we have specialised roles, we all have an understanding of each other’s areas so we can step up to cover others if necessary.”

This also enables the specialists to devote time to their part of the business and this improves attention to detail.

Crop genetics

The business originally was a mixed farm and in 2006 mainly cropped wheat and barley. This has changed over the past 15 years as the regional climate has changed and additional skills have been added to the business.

“We are now solely cropping but as the rainfall pattern has changed over time and farming practices improved, we have more scope to add further crop species to our portfolio,” Marks says.

Given the change in farming practices the Watsons and Swifts have moved into summer cropping, which is in its infancy in this region. The business’ summer crop program is managed by Katrina, who spent some time working off-farm as a summer crop agronomist.

“This experience has given me the confidence to seek out information from summer crop experts further north as well as attending accreditation courses for crops like mungbeans and soybeans,” Katrina says.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some great improvements in access to information through online webinars, which are much more accessible for women in cropping businesses who are also juggling child-raising.

“Summer cropping is inherently more risky than winter cropping and timing of management decisions can be critical, but incorporating them into our cropping sequence gives us greater flexibility and improved operational timeliness.

“As we have more diversity in our cropping system, we have more tools to deal with herbicide resistant weeds and can deal with mice and insect pressure better by having the flexibility of several sowing windows.”

The Watsons and Swifts use several varieties of cereal and canola with different phenology to assist in spreading sowing dates. However, they prefer to have a number of pulse types in their portfolio rather than several varieties of each.

“Pulses are more risky to market, so you need to plan over time … better to hedge your bets with a number of different types like faba beans, lupins and chickpeas than use several varieties of one species,” Bruce says.

“Drought towards the end of the winter crop cycle is a consideration and sowing times for all crops and varieties need to be considered, with this timeframe restriction top of mind.”

Precision planting

The Watsons and Swifts have been precision planting most of their crops since 2016.

“Our equipment choice is vital to set crops up at sowing for maximum yield,” Mark says. “We use an Excel Agriculture double-disc planter matched with a Bourgault air cart to establish our cereal crops on 25-centimetre rows and use the same disc planter on 50cm row spacings with precision planting gear for break crops.

“We sow row-on-row and are able to do this due to low disease pressure from our diverse crop rotation. This results in rapid root growth as the germinating crops follow old root channels where there is a high concentration of nutrients and biological activity.”

Mark says precision planting is not for the faint-hearted as it adds a great deal of logistical effort between crops and varieties, and growers need to have an eye for detail.

“Precision planting, however, presents many benefits including significant savings on seed and – for example – in canola, reduced disease pressure as there is more airflow through the plants. Additionally, canola plants will branch and flower more if they have access to more moisture within the season.”

More information: Mark Swift, 0429 890 160,

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