Ground Cover South : Ground Cover 070 September-October 2007 - South
Cereals gaining ground in Tasmanian mixed enterprise BY MELISSA MARINO n Back in the mid-1990s, a young farming team of three couples faced a stark choice: expand or face being swallowed themselves. The team, brothers Michael and Bill Chilvers and their wives Fiona and Jill, sister Jo and her husband Rob Bradley, had taken on the Chilvers’ family plot at Nile in north-east Tasmania. It was 800 hectares of “undeveloped, difficult, duplex soils”. So, as pivot irrigators began to sweep across the landscape, allowing the broadacring of smaller farms, the six began buying undeveloped grazing land and transforming it into what has become a dynamic 3100-hectare enterprise. Today the enterprise, Starston Farms, comprises numerous plots across a geographic area of about 100 square kilometres. It covers diverse landscapes to create a true mixed enterprise that includes cereals, horticulture and livestock. It also employs three people in addition to the family. Rob Bradley says the mixed business is typical of farming in the district. This diversity, dictated by small plots, varying soils, climate, market demand and mixed growing opportunities, is both a blessing and a curse. It gives the partners plenty of options, but also requires flexibility, careful monitoring and an active, engaged approach. There is no time for settling into a routine. “Sometimes we dream of being Western Australian wheat farmers where you sow, then you get your rig out and spray, then get out your harvester, and then go to the beach,” Rob says. While the region’s “remarkably consistent” annual rainfall of about 550 millimetres may seem to those in drier climates to provide an easy ride, it cannot be viewed in isolation, says Bill, who has a Master’s degree in soil and irrigation. “In the moist, cool environment, you’d think there should be massive yields, but it just never seems to work out that way,” he says. “There’s too much variation in the soils and landscape. We’re always trying to grow on bigger blocks and simplify things, but this variation means we have a lot of little paddocks and every one has its different management regime.” Rob says a mosaic of different soil types means that while it may be too wet to plant in one paddock of heavier clay soil, they could be sowing a kilometre away in sandy loam. “So we battle with a big variance in soil types, but in other ways it’s good because it gives you options,” he says. Depending on conditions, the team changes rotations and cropping systems each year, alternating between onions, carrots, barley, canola, faba beans, wheat and poppies, to name a few crop options. “People ask ‘What’s your rotation?’, but it depends on the rainfall as to what crop goes in where,” Michael says. “All the spring crops are shuffled around according to what dries out first and how wet it’s been.” Jo Bradley adds: “Every year you’re juggling. Nothing’s set, nothing’s known. Every paddock, every year, every crop has about five variables.” But while they are responsive and flexible, the partners have an overriding direction and strategy that has steadily steered their enterprise towards increasing their percentage of cereals. It is a strategy that is unusual for the area, but one that they believe will bring substantial benefits, as was demonstrated last year. In 2006, despite being hit by frosts and drought, the crops could still be cut for hay, enabling them to still meet their budget. “Our irrigated cereals were about 15 to 18 tonnes per hectare of dry matter,” Rob says. “We’ve never been big on hay and silage and suddenly we’re cutting 400ha. We had 20 customers instead of two and 15 different truck operators.” Overall, Starston Farms runs an 1800ha cropping program, with 1000ha irrigated and 800ha of traditional dryland rotating wheat, canola and barley. While frosts destroyed much of their dryland crops in 2006, the partners are again aiming for an average of about 5t/ha this season. What really stood out in 2006, Michael says, was the resilience of the barley. It survived the frost that wiped out a crop of wheat alongside it and continued to yield quite well, up to 6t/ ha. “If you sit down and do the gross margin, the dryland crop never shines as being anything great, but they’re simple and they’re easy and you can do a lot of them cheaply,” Rob says. Commanding higher returns is the irrigation program, which has traditionally seen cereals give way to more valuable horticultural crops such as onions and, more recently, carrots. But the partners say a 9.6t/ ha average return from TeesdaleA over 40ha in 2006 has shown that irrigated wheat can compete in the irrigation system. “I think it will certainly be something we do more of,” Rob says. “It breaks the rotation on our irrigated horticultural crops and builds organic matter. If grain prices stay where they are it’s a nice return per hectare.” Also part of the irrigation program is 80ha of dual-purpose wheat that, due to the region’s long season, is sown in February, grazed with lambs six weeks later until September, locked up and then harvested in December or January. Under pivot, the partners are aiming for a 10t/ha return this season. “When you consider the income from grain, lamb finishes and straw, you’ve got quite a lot,” Rob says. “It’s a 12-month crop and it’s easy. You sow it once and the rest is just spray rig or lambs.” The long growing season, dictated by the low-evaporation environment characterised by low temperatures, provides greater recovery times, flexibility and multiple income streams, but on the flipside it also means there is more time for things to go wrong. Crops are exposed to the elements for longer, including frosts and excessive rain causing waterlogging – just two of the big challenges in the region – and solutions are not straightforward. For example, although using raised beds may seem a relatively simple answer to combat waterlogging, at Starston Farms it is problematic because of their horticultural crops, including peas and poppies, which cannot be harvested on beds. Other challenges include rusts and fungus-related diseases that thrive in the low- evaporative environment. Handling stubble in the moist conditions is also difficult, and the partners have found they have had to burn or bale most of their straw or be ‘caned’ by slugs. “We’ve generally had big stubble loads and there’s the problem with slugs and the quantity of material in this cool, moist environment,” Michael says. “Stubble is fantastic for us, we want to keep as much as we can, but it’s also a curse.” For grains, the partners apply minimum till, and find that a disc drill works well in the early months of the year but is ineffective in the moist, cold conditions. This year, they sowed with a disc drill and tyne drill using a Flexi-Coil seeder with super-seeder points, to create some tilth and open up the ground. “We’re trying to take the best of the minimum-till technology and the broadacre technologies that are on the mainland and adapt them to our environment and system,” Rob says. More information: Rob Bradley, email@example.com On-farm feature GROUND COVER SEPTEMBER -- OCTOBER 2007 8 Unlike many cereal enterprises in Australia, which are defined by large broadacre plots and tested by dry conditions, growers in the low-evaporation zone in Tasmania's midlands face their own unique challenges PHOTO: MELISSA MARINO (From left) Rob Bradley, Michael Chilvers and Bill Chilvers at their property in Longford, Tasmania.
Ground Cover 069 July-August 2007 - South
Ground Cover 071 November-December 2007 - South