Tools of the trader

Grain trading experience helps reduce risks for Wimmera couple

Grower Stories
Tim and Julia Hausler in "a belter of a barley crop" at their Warracknabeal property in Victoria in September 2019. PHOTO Andrew Cooke

Tim and Julia Hausler in "a belter of a barley crop" at their Warracknabeal property in Victoria in September 2019. PHOTO Andrew Cooke

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Victorian growers Tim and Julia Hausler put grain trading experience and skills to work in managing risk and strengthening their business

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SNAPSHOT

  • Growers: Tim and Julia Hausler
  • Location: Warracknabeal, Victoria
  • Property size: about 3000 hectares, including 200ha leased
  • Average annual rainfall: 392 millimetres
  • Soil types: mixed, including Mallee loam, sand, black soil, red rises
  • Soil pH: 8.8 average
  • Crops: wheat, barley, canola, lentils, vetch hay
  • Livestock: fattening 400 to 600 store lambs on stubble

In 2009, Tim and Julia Hausler decided they needed a comprehensive, long-term business plan to future-proof their Warracknabeal, Victoria, grain business.

As part of an overhaul of their operations, the couple identified a need to increase their land holding, regularly upgrade machinery including harvesters and boomsprays, and boost on-farm storage.

The resulting increase in silo storage - the Hauslers aim to eventually be able to store at least one-third of their annual production - has enabled the business to take advantage of Julia's unique skills and experience as a grain accumulator and agricultural economist.

While Tim runs the on-farm operations with one full-time staff member, Julia manages logistics, contracts and other back office systems for a business that sells wheat, barley, canola and lentils year-round.

Tim is a fifth-generation Wimmera grain grower. He prides himself on meticulous preparation and planning, and regularly undertakes study courses to keep his skills and knowledge up to date.

Julia was working as a grain accumulator in Horsham, helping growers understand marketing decision-making and forward selling, when the pair met about 20 years ago.

As part of her job with Cargill, Julia was travelling extensively, talking to growers, agronomists and other marketers across Victoria and South Australia. She now has a deep knowledge of agricultural policy and is a board member of GrainGrowers, as well as being on the research committee of the Birchip Cropping Group.

She has also completed an Australian Rural Leadership Program course and is chair of the board of the local health network - Rural Northwest Health.

Julia says that 2009 was a watershed year for the 'Batchica West' farm business, despite still being in drought. "We made a conscious decision that over the next 10 years we were going to accelerate our capacity to store grain, improve on-farm infrastructure including machinery sheds and rotate machinery at least twice," she says. "We just decided that we needed a detailed strategic plan for where we were going and how we wanted it to look."

Her knowledge of grain trading and logistics enable the couple to minimise income volatility and manage risk. "We manage logistical risk, production risk and financial risk," she says.

"We aim to take the cyclical boom-bust nature out of our program. You need to take the pressure off selling everything at harvest, to give yourself time to look for price opportunities."

With its mixed soil types, the Hauslers' property is a strong candidate for precision agriculture. They practice minimum tillage and stubble retention to protect their soils and retain moisture, with one-pass, prescription inter-row seeding.

Chemical fallow and rotation are an important part of the schedule. Moisture retention has meant that in dry years, such as 2018-19, they were able to produce viable crops. "We are not at the forefront of adopting new technology, but I would say we are in the first 10 per cent," Tim says.

"I like to be on the front foot. If there's a weed, insect or disease problem, I want to be aware of it as it is developing rather than just deal with the consequences.

"Knowing that we have different soil types within paddocks, we treat different parts of the paddock differently and tweak our operations for different subsets."

A lack of reliability with annual rainfall is the farm's biggest challenge, Tim says.

"But compared to the drought year in 1994, where we harvested virtually nothing, we are definitely producing more in dry years because of modern farming practices. We are not wasting the rain that falls, like we used to."

He sees this success story replicated across most of the Wimmera. "Farmers in this area are really adaptable. We are constantly changing and I think the area is going ahead with its ability to grow more grain in lower-rainfall years, while this year is proving that we are better able to take advantage of the higher-rainfall years," Tim says.

The couple benchmark their business every year with agribusiness consultant Rural Directions to check on their financial stability and sustainability. They also engage a broker for help with contracts and price alerts, plus an agronomist from AgriVision in Swan Hill, Tim Pohlner.

Boosting their capacity to store grain in silos has helped the Hauslers minimise income volatility and manage risk. PHOTO Andrew Cooke

Boosting their capacity to store grain in silos has helped the Hauslers minimise income volatility and manage risk. PHOTO Andrew Cooke

"We recognise the things that we can do really well ourselves, within our business, and we concentrate on doing those. The things that we don't necessarily do well, or that require validation or support, we are more than happy to find the right people and bring them in," Julia says. "When we know there are things we need help with, we look to find the right people, and we are happy to pay for that help.

"External people can challenge your thinking or methodology. You may or may not come to an agreement, but it's good to be constantly tweaking and looking for things you can do better.

"We are constantly learning. We are learning about storing plant-available water; we are learning about unlocking nitrogen; about keeping as much stubble as you can on the ground to protect the soil. It is up to us to make sure that we attend (off-farm) things like field days and read widely so that we keep learning."

Tim says imidazolinone-tolerant barley and lentils have been a big game-changer for the business, along with other new tools and research outcomes.

"Also, GRDC and Birchip Cropping Group did a lot of work on summer rainfall and weeds - that's been a game-changer," he says. "That's why we are growing crops in low-rainfall years. As soon as we get rain, the summer weeds come up. If you spray them and manage them, the water stays there."

The Hauslers are anticipating excellent production in 2019-20 on the back of 153 millimetres of summer rainfall and 197mm from April to September (compared to 123mm last year).

While growers in NSW and Queensland are enduring a prolonged drought, the Wimmera is expecting potential record production this year. "Our average yields for wheat and barley are 3.7 tonnes per hectare and 3.5t/ha respectively, but this year we are hoping to hit 5t/ha at least," Tim says.

Early in 2019, Julia travelled to South-East Asia with the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre to talk to buyers and learn about grain markets. "The visits were to discuss Australian wheat quality and functionality for South-East Asian flour millers. I presented to our customers on growing and delivering wheat quality from our farm. What I saw highlighted the fact that, as growers, if we don't grow the right product, or if we don't have the right channels to get it to the customer, then we will struggle to sell our product."

More information: Tim and Julia Hausler, batchicawest@bigpond.com

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