Ground Cover West : Ground Cover 052 October-November 2004 - West
HIGH GRAINS 26 OCTOBER 2004 By FIONA CONROY If you want to make money from merinos then the best bet might be to cash in the livestock, buy some basic machinery and get into cropping. That is certainly the philosophy espoused by western Victorian farmer Andrew Morrison. Mr Morrison is among a wave of farmers, in what used to be a wool industry stronghold, who are cutting back their grazing enterprises and embracing cropping, resulting in a massive land-use change in the area. The change is being driven by economics, technology emerging from locally driven research, and the development of numerous support industries providing everything from contract sowing, cropping and even crop marketing. As a result, the area cropped in southern Victoria has grown from about 75,000 hectares 10 years ago to an estimated 300,000 hectares last season. Of that, 35,000 hectares are on raised beds. Mr Morrison farms 1870ha at Teesdale, near Geelong, and crops a further 1670ha under various lease, share and partnership agreements. His property, Woolbrook, has been in the family since 1910, and as the name would suggest, had traditionally been a specialised wool-producing property until the 1982-83 drought. The drought forced a drop in sheep numbers and was the catalyst for a foray into cropping with a local sharefarmer. "Our first attempt at cropping under shares was very traditional," he says. "It was barley, barley, barley, with some mixed results." Andrew and his father then started a cropping program on Woolbrook themselves, using the advice of local Department of Primary Industry cropping officer Bruce Wightman, and drawing on the experiences of Western Australian farmers who dealt with light soil. "We had a continuous cropping regime with full stubble retention of canola, cereal and lupin and were sowing between 350 to 500 hectares a year for about 15 years," he says. "There were enormous yield variations depending on the season. Barley yields ranged from 0 to 6 tonnes per hectare, with the biggest problems caused by waterlogging in wet years. It was frustrating and high risk. "Our country is very light and averages around 474mm a year in rainfall. Our grazing operation has always been run with low stocking rates because of the tendency of our country to cut out. We persevered with the cropping because the wool gross margins didn't stack up against the cropping in good years." In 1996, Southern Farming Systems (SFS) set up their first trial of raised beds at Gnarwarre, just out of Geelong. Raised beds had the ability to eliminate one of the biggest risks in cropping in southern Victoria -- waterlogging. Mr Morrison was involved in the SFS program and was impressed by the potential. In 1997 he put in 65ha of raised beds as part of the 330ha of SFS satellite trials across the district. "By removing waterlogging we effectively eliminated the unreliable yields and had greater yield security," he says. "When we looked at a sensitivity analysis we realised raised beds, by reducing production risk and allowing greater crop husbandry, had the potential to double our cropping gross margins. "Removing waterlogging meant we could be sure we could spray or apply urea to a crop when it needed to be done, rather than having to wait until we could get on the paddock. Increased confidence in reliable yields allows us to improve our marketing and we now market 80 to 90 percent of our crop, based on a conservative yield, using forward or basis contracts and swaps. "In the past, uncertainty in crop yields meant we were only ever confident to lock in less than half our crops. The greater use of forward contracts should lift our overall average price received by locking in when prices are attractive. "Our cropping gross margins are perhaps up to four times higher that what we could achieve just growing wool." Within 12 months, the initial 65ha of raised beds had jumped to 600 of the 700ha under crop at Woolbrook. Every paddock that was suitable went into beds. The large-scale adoption of raised bed cropping also coincided with farm succession at Woolbrook. "I needed to be in a position where I could buy out my brother and sister if I wanted to continue on the property," Mr Morrison says. "I'm sure there would have been no way I could have been able to borrow money to buy, effectively, two-thirds of the farm unless I could present a case to the bank that I was capable of producing reliable yields and locking into secure prices for crops. "If we hadn't had the raised beds and all the associated management in marketing in place then I believe I wouldn't have been able to contemplate the full purchase and borrowing. "Our confidence in the reliability of crop yields has let us expand our operation through leasing land for cropping. The lease helps assist with the farm purchase." Mr Morrison says he has bought some of his own machinery, "but as cropping has taken off in western Victoria more and more contracting services have become available". "For the lease blocks we use contractors for sowing, agronomy, harvesting, spraying and urea spreading," he says. "It's a complete package for growing crops. If we don't have the expertise or the equipment, we can get someone in who does. It means we can do things that need to be done, when they should be done. "We still run some sheep but wool and sheep prices are vulnerable to price fluctuations. The beauty of cropping is that a farmer can go from grazing sheep to cropping virtually in three months with the help of contractors and an agronomist. "It's easier and more secure than changing from low to high stocking rates in a grazing system which is only possible over the medium term, is high risk, and requires a high level of management." The improved cash flow generated by cropping has also allowed rock clearing on stony barriers covering part of Woolbrook. This has not only improved returns by increasing the arable portion of the property, but has had major ramifications for the control of weeds such as serrated tussock that were difficult to control under grazing. Mr Morrison credits the expansion of cropping in Western Victoria firmly to local research and field days run by SFS and Bruce Wightman from DPI. "Their work was based on a partnership of growers and DPI and has been funded by growers, sponsors and GRDC," he says. "SFS has got farmers involved at all stages. The results were so impressive that SFS has changed our lives and has effectively changed the district's potential and viability." GRDC RESEARCH CODE SFS 00007, program 4 For more information: Col Hacking, SFS, 03 5229 0566, www.sfs.org.au Catching the grain wave Changing the landscape: Andrew Morrison, grazier turned grower.
Ground Cover 053 December-January 2005 - West
Ground Cover 051 August-September 2004 - West