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Growing the scope of oats

Alex Davies and Shannen Barrett are examples of millennial growers moving their focus to supply oats to growing health-conscious markets.
Photo: Evan Collis

Porridge, milk, yoghurt, muesli and cosmetics have joined the expanding selection of oat-based products consumed in Shannen Barrett’s and Alex Davies’ house. But they are also gaining a firm foothold in their cropping rotation.

Alex says oats require secure markets to expand their scope in farming systems so he and Shannen are doing their bit as the science underpinning the dietary benefits of oats grows and increases worldwide demand.

The couple farm between York and Beverley, 110 kilometres east of Perth with Alex's family. Alex is the fifth generation to continue the business and the pair have brought a mix of experience to the farming enterprise.

Alex and Shannen met at Curtin University. Shannen was studying environmental science and Alex agricultural science. They apply a solid science and business understanding to the farming operation.

After graduating, Alex worked for the private agricultural research and development company Living Farm, where he gained experience as a research agronomist before returning to the family farm in 2019.

Shannen worked in communications for WA Farmers, the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative, WeedSmart and, more recently, for InterGrain. This combined experience brings further insights into their farming operation.

Although we have a great combined skill, set we still seek expert direction from a combination of consultants across the business, including agronomists, accountants, business advisers and grain marketing.

Alex says it is important to have experts “so you are not left juggling everything”.

Alex and Shannen farm 4500 hectares of arable land, running 2000 Merino ewes on an additional 1000ha. Average annual rainfall is 400 millimetres, but Alex says climate variability is increasing.

The cropping rotation was typically wheat/barley/canola, but for the past five years has included oats, which achieve comparable yields to the other cereals.

“Oats bring flexibility to our farming system,” Alex says. “They are vigorous out of the ground and can handle the wet, cope with frosts and give us an additional market for hay if necessary.”

Shannen says there have been constraints with the number and type of herbicides they can use with oats, but new herbicides are coming on-stream and they have weed destructors fitted to their header, increasing the scope that they see for the crop.

Alex says the driver for crop choice in the business is sustainable gross margin and profitability. “We look to adopt new varieties as they come onstream to boost yields and returns.

Markets for oats can be volatile but are growing and it is great to see what GRDC is doing with new investments to underpin expanding opportunities.

Shannen is looking to do her part for the industry as she undertakes a Nuffield scholarship supported by the Processed Oat Partnership, an industry-led program supported by the Western Australian Government.

She plans to travel overseas to engage with growers, processors and retailers across supply chains to glean information for the Australian industry’s benefit.

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