AgVic Talk podcast series

This pilot podcast series delivers knowledge and information in a format that suits the way farmers and agricultural professionals work and live today.

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Podcast series

Each episode covers contemporary problems and solutions including bushfire recovery, drought and dry seasonal conditions, weather and climate, as well as some fantastic inspiring stories from young farmers.

All information included in our episodes is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on-farm.

Season one:

Episode 11: Balancing location, variability and optimum capacity with Brett Findlay

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Managing a dairy of 400 head is a big enough task in itself. However, it becomes even more so when you're in a location that makes it too expensive to freight feed in. So you have to grow everything yourself. A location that also sees your property split in two by river. That's the life of Brett Findlay, who's a dairy farmer near Corryong, in the Northeast of Victoria. And he joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Brett, thanks for your time.

Brett Findlay:

It's a pleasure to be here Drew.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you farm on a unique property. You're near Corryong, but you actually straddle the border, I understand.

Brett Findlay:

That's right. Yes.

Drew Radford:

How does that work?

Brett Findlay:

Most of the time, it's not a big issue. The New South Wales part of the property is effectively a little piece of Victoria that just pokes out across the river. During the COVID lock downs it has been quite interesting dealing with that. At one stage, technically we had to pick which staff member could go and get the cows in, in the afternoon. Because, not everyone was allowed across the border.

Drew Radford:

The fact that the border is a river is problematic unless you've got a bridge, surely?

Brett Findlay:

Yes, we built a bridge back in 1996 and that was money well spent. Otherwise, it would be quite difficult to utilise that country across in New South Wales for grazing on a regular basis.

Drew Radford:

Brett, dairying is in your blood. Your dad was a dairy farmer, was this his piece of land to start with?

Brett Findlay:

My great, great Grandfather actually bought "Towong Run", which was all the Victorian side of our valley, back in 1860. But then the family lost the place and my great Grandfather retained a chunk of it next door to where we farm now. My Grandfather bought the original block in 1939, it was an ex soldier settler block from World War I. And then during Dad's time on the farm, he was a pretty aggressive purchaser of land. And he built up about 400 acres, about 160 hectares at home where we milk. And another 900 acres on the other side of Corryong, which we use as an out paddock area.

Drew Radford:

That's a remarkable family history in that area, and being like most farmers, you've probably got fairly detailed weather records that date back, do you?

Brett Findlay:

Reasonably, yes.

Drew Radford:

Are they the sorts of things you occasionally glance at and say, "Well, it's not quite like what we used to get."?

Brett Findlay:

Where we are here, we get a fair bit of variability, both between and within seasons. So it is part and parcel of managing a farm in the Northeast that you've got to be prepared for things to be good or bad and, and farm accordingly.

Drew Radford:

We'll drill down into that a little bit more in a moment, Brett. But the dairy property you have, how many are you milking to start with?

Brett Findlay:

We regard 380 as about Par. So we've actually got a few more in, we're just over 400 at the moment. Generally, about 380 is about optimum numbers.

Drew Radford:

From what I understand, you're very focused on producing your own fodder.

Brett Findlay:

That's probably a typical Northeast trait. We like to be pretty self-sufficient in forage. We're a long way from most places and truck drivers don't generally like driving over the big hills, they charge us extra. So yes, the more self-sufficient we can be in forage, the better off we are.

Drew Radford:

Brett, is irrigation a very important part of making sure that you're able to produce that feed?

Brett Findlay:

We have a small amount of irrigation, we get a pivot that irrigates about 40 hectares and traveling irrigators that do about another 25. But the majority of the farm is rain fed and we can't irrigate it.

Drew Radford:

Growing as much as you can, whenever you can. But what about storing it? It is silage part of the process for you?

Brett Findlay:

We make a lot of silage. We tend to do round bales, mostly because the majority of my silage is made on the out paddock area and carted 20kms home to feed to the dairy herd. We've played around with pit silage, but transporting it is very problematic and the bales just work better for us. The downside there is we've got a limit on our storage time. We can only store for about two years. We have, on occasion, buried round bales in pits. The country on the out paddock is not very good for pits. It's decomposed granite country and they leak very badly. So, you're only going to get pretty degraded fibre out of the pits. But if you're in the middle of a drought and fibre prices have gone through the roof, you're paying through the nose for hay, it's worth having it.

Drew Radford:

Brett, if you're trying to grow as much as you can, I imagine nitrogen is pretty important to your farming process.

Brett Findlay:

Absolutely. We find nitrogen gives us very good value. I've always been an aggressive seeker of information and a lot of the time you find stuff that's interesting. And other times it's like, "Yes, well I've heard this before." And then occasionally someone's lips will open and some nugget will drop out. And I can vividly remember our consultant saying to us, "Why do you use all the nitrogen in the Spring? Why don't you use it through the Winter and grow the grass and feed it directly?" And that was probably one of the big steps forward we made during the farming career. Is we're probably less inclined to use nitrogen to grow more silage. We're trying to grow more grass through that... If we've got moisture and we've got a chance to grow some grass, let's give it every chance to grow, by providing it with some nitrogen.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you said you're an aggressive seeker of information. I was reading through one of the case studies that was done with you. And I was actually quite surprised at the list of apps you are constantly trolling through to seek weather information.

Brett Findlay:

Most of our profit is derived from growing grass and getting it down a cows throat, turning into milk. That's the most profitable thing we can do on our farm. So reading the weather and working with the weather and making the best use of the conditions is a big part of that. So, yes when I open my browser, most of the favorites in the bookmark bar are weather sites and I'm on there on a virtually daily basis. Watching what's going on and trying to pick, do I need to order some more nitrogen? We get most of our nitrogen in 8 tonne bins. So there's a bit of planning ahead. You need to ring up a few days in advance and make sure it's there on farm when you need to be putting it out.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned earlier, increasingly trying to manage around more frequent dry seasons or more extreme dry seasons. So I imagine nitrogen and growing as much as you can is part of that, but what else are you doing to try and do with that Brett?

Brett Findlay:

Plenty of silage, for those times when we just can’t grow it. We also feed a fair bit of grain in the bale to the dairy cows, it's variable. We tend to peak during the Winter when we've got large numbers in and growths slow. Between grain and silage, irrigation gives us another string to our bow. Particularly early in the Autumn, if we can get pastures up and running or keep them running through the Summer and have them ready to go in the Autumn. The other thing we do is... I always like to know what the next group of culls are. If I've got to sell 20 cows, which ones are they? We herd test 7 or 8 times a year. I like to know, they're the next group that are probably not quite there yet. We've got grass and we can keep feeding them, well good. But if things start to tighten up, they'd be the first ones to go. And after that... When you sell those, you start looking for the next lot.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you said irrigation is not a huge component, but you do, do a bit. And I understand that's quite a bit of work that's actually involved in making that work for you. Are you're looking at trying to change your irrigation set up to be more effective and less work involved?

Brett Findlay:

The topography limits our options for irrigating. So the pivots are very time efficient. I can irrigate for the day in about 20 minutes. Drive over there, start it, stops on a timer. If I want to do more, the traveling irrigators I can put on probably not quite enough water for a great deal of work. And we've been looking at changing that system, perhaps to fixed or big gun sprinklers. So they fixed risers with movable heads. There's a fairly significant capital outlay in that. And also a fair bit of time involved in doing it. We've been meaning to do that project for the last two Summers. And with the fires last year, and then this year we get caught up with a project at the dairy and there's only so much you can manage to do in the off season. So it hasn't quite happened yet.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you mentioned the fires there. Obviously, a traumatic thing to go through, that's an understatement and you had experienced some losses, but has that brought any changes to the way you're running the property?

Brett Findlay:

Probably not a whole lot. One thing we did see back in the millennium drought years. 2006 -2007, was a really bad year for us. And I saw some farmers who, for the next 10 years or so, they farmed for 2006. But we never had that season again. So you've got to take into account your farm for average conditions and then you have a plan for dealing with the variations on that. So the bush fire was quite traumatic and disruptive, but it's 56 years or something since it happened last time, it may be less time until it happens again. But from a management point of view, there's a limited amount we can do to protect ourselves against that.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you made a really good point there about farming for previous conditions. You talked about herd management there and looking at culling and also trying to keep your feed up to as great an extent as you can. But is there anything else that you're constantly keeping an eye on to try and be that step ahead, rather than managing for the year that's been?

Brett Findlay:

I try and keep an eye on what's going on with markets and what the price is likely to be. That's obviously a factor in the economics of producing marginal milk and more milk from supplementary food. We've tried to refine our system to work, as well as we can get it to work, with the conditions that we generally face.

Brett Findlay:

As a species where we're inclined to look at maximum settings as being the best thing, but actually on a farm what you're looking for is optimum settings. What's about the right cow number? What's about the right feeding rate? Let's sit somewhere there and then move a little bit, depending on the conditions. If we've got a low milk price and high feed inputs, we'll probably milk a few less cows. Get rid of those choppers a bit earlier. What we've seen in the last couple of years is probably the opposite, where we've got good seasonal conditions, relatively low grain prices and a good milk price.

Brett Findlay:

Last Spring, after the fires, we'd lost a few cows with mastitis and various things, through the disruption of the fires. And we did look pretty hard at buying some cows, but we figured by the time we got them into the herd and up and running, we probably weren't going to see a lot of benefits. And we had a lot of heifers coming in this Autumn. So we knew we'd be back up to the numbers by now. We suffered a little bit for production for that reason through last Spring, but we thought it was the best choice to make under the circumstances.

Drew Radford:

Brett, I do understand one of the things the fires did bring into focus was electricity, power management. You were without power for a while, and running a dairy and dealing with 400 cows, power is pretty important I would imagine.

Brett Findlay:

That was a bit of a challenge. Even though we have two of the largest power stations in Australia, just over the hill. Literally just in the next valley and the next valley over after that, Murray 1 and Murray 2. So even though we're quite close to those power stations, we have no direct connection with them. We're on the end of a long transmission line, so blackouts are a bit of a feature of life up here. Most people have got a generator at the dairy for backup power. So yes, that proved to be really crucial during the fires. We had 13 days without power and there were people who went for twice that long. The house was less well set up. So yeah, we have looked at our options. We're looking at solar and a Tesla battery on the house. But the Chief Financial Officer is not overly excited by that project yet. So we haven't quite got that one up and running.

Drew Radford:

Longer term then Brett, are you're looking at renewables just for the house? Or would that be something you would consider across the operation, or is that just too big a scale at this point?

Brett Findlay:

One of our dilemmas is power for the irrigation. So that consumes quite a lot of power. The problem is, with spray irrigation, the time when you're going to generate the most power is also the least efficient time to be actually utilising that for irrigation. The heat of the afternoon, when you've got high evaporation rates. That's the dilemma. And the moment... Battery capacity is quite expensive, you're looking at about a $1,000 a kilowatt hour. Generating the power, storing it, and then utilising it overnight is not really economic. Houses are relatively straightforward, they don't use that much electricity in the scheme of things. It's those bigger scale, the irrigation. And if we're moving to a carbon neutral future, how we provide that mobile power for tractors and vehicles, that's probably one of our bigger dilemmas.

Drew Radford:

Looking down the road to the future, do you see any major differences to the way you're running things now say compared to maybe in 10 years’ time?

Brett Findlay:

It's a case of taking it as it comes. We'd like to think that we're going to give our kids a chance to take over the farm one day. But my wife and I met relatively late in life, so we're facing that issue of a fairly large intergenerational gap. And we're becoming more dependent on employed labor, which is not ideal. That's something we've got to face in the future, I'm not sure what we're going to do, going down that path.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like a difficult thing that you're managing is as you get older and working out where the farm is actually going. What would you like to see though in terms of production on the property? Do you see any greater changes in, you mentioned carbon neutrality, but there seems to be a long way to go there and you're also focusing on even planting more trees just to try and provide more shade I understand?

Brett Findlay:

The trees are a work in progress, we'd probably like to plant more than we have so far, but that's one thing that I look at when we're looking at carbon neutrality. Access to that technology to get us from where we are now, to being carbon neutral. The path ahead is not always clear as to how that's all going to fit together. In terms of productivity, we've sort of reached that steady state. We've been running for about the last 8 years on a pretty similar level of production.

Brett Findlay:

We had an interesting experience about 15 years ago, we had the opportunity to join a discussion group, about a 100kms away, that was very long established. They had been meeting every 2 months over a period of perhaps 20 years. So they had a very good idea of how their farms ran physically, but they also did business analysis, so they understood one another's farms, physically and financially.

Brett Findlay:

We pretty quickly saw the similarities, they'd worked at what worked for conditions that were similar to ours. Trying to get as much grass down the cows throat as possible. We aim about 3 tonnes of dry matter per cow, per year. About 2 tonnes of grain and a tonne of dry matter of silage. And that produces high 500 kilos per cow. By running a modest stocking rate and not pushing too hard and having a reasonably high level per cow production, you've got the ability there to absorb bad seasons. You can always... You're not pushing the limit on cow numbers. You can take a bit of a hit for a per cow production without really disrupting the system too much. That showed us where we could go and move more towards that model over time.

Drew Radford:

Brett Findlay, you've done a remarkable job there building the property to where it is. And I really liked the description of optimum capacity. All the best for the road ahead and thank you for your time in joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Brett Findlay:

No worries Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria. Authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 10: Challenging seasons drive on-farm change with Chris Nixon

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

What do you do when the land your family has been farming for generations, is hit by the longest drought on record? It was something Chris Nixon was forced to confront when his reliable country in East Gippsland recently experienced a prolonged drought, which also included their driest year on record. To find out how he dealt with it, and the long-term changes it's brought for running the property, he joins me in the AgVic Talk's studio. Chris, thanks for your time.

Chris Nixon:

My pleasure, Drew. I hope we enjoy the talk.

Drew Radford:

I have absolutely no doubt we will, Chris. Now, first of all, describe where do you farm?

Chris Nixon:

I farm on the Snowy River flats in Orbost, in far East Gippsland. So we're about 400, not quite 400 kms from Melbourne towards Mallacoota.

Drew Radford:

So, I could imagine that would be pretty much prime country really, wouldn't it?

Chris Nixon:

The Snowy River flats is considered the third most fertile river flats in the world behind the Amazon and the Nile Delta, so it's pretty spectacular, but unfortunately there's not much of it. So, very tightly held in the district, but we're not far from the coast. We're only four kms from the coast and the mountains are behind us. So, surrounded by national parks, we're in a beautiful end of the world.

Drew Radford:

Now you said they're very tightly held. I understand your family's got a long history in that region.

Chris Nixon:

Yes, we settled here in the 1880s, so we've been here a very long time. I'm the fifth generation and it looks like I've got the sixth generation coming behind me.

Drew Radford:

And Chris, mainly dairy, or is it a combination for you?

Chris Nixon:

We run 500 dairy cows, milk 500 dairy cows, but we also have a substantial beef holding, which we run on behalf of my family and my wife's family. The beef operations is about four times the size of the dairy.

Drew Radford:

So in regards to the dairy then, Chris, in that part of the world, are you able to grow most of your feed?

Chris Nixon:

The only feed we do not grow, except for times of drought, and we've had plenty of those in the last few years, is grain. We import all our grain. Freight costs are horrendous. It's 50 or 60 bucks from Melbourne and depending how far it's come to get to Melbourne, it's a lot of money. But we grow all our own silage. We grow a lot of maize silage, grass silage, oaten silage and we are pretty well self-sufficient in silage and hay in most years, other than drought years.

Drew Radford:

I want to drill down into that silage stuff in a minute. But you mentioned, you grow it, except in drought years. You have had pretty much three tough years, haven't you? Some of the worst on record, if not the worst.

Chris Nixon:

Definitely one of the longest droughts on record and the first year was the driest year on record. We only had 400 mm of rain for the entire year. In a normal year, we get 800 mm of rain. So it was nearly three and a half years before it started raining in March, April last year. So yeah, very tough period of time.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like a great understatement, Chris. So how do you then go about managing that? If buying feed in is so expensive, and you can't grow what you need, what's your next step?

Chris Nixon:

We did things slightly different to most people. We decided to cull cow numbers. So we'd calve about 500 cows down. We would then work out what the season looked like, how many cows we could run. So in that first drought year, we only ran 400 cows. I did try selling a few cows, older cows and a few stale cows and carry-overs and stuff and bought a few in, but they didn't last under the scenario. And they all disappeared out of the herd within two years. So that was a bit of a disaster for me, but so we calved 500 cows down. We decided we can milk 400 cows and we'd just sell the other hundred cows. So we culled most of them. It really did clean out the herd for a lot of things. We've dramatically changed how we run our herd since the drought started. And we used the opportunity of destocking to get rid of a lot of problem cows.

Drew Radford:

So in some ways that sounds like you've reassessed the way you run the property now, as opposed to running it for maximum. Is it more of an optimum setup? Or-

Chris Nixon:

That's probably a good call. The advantage of calving the 500 cows down, was that we could get our 200 odd heifers every year. You don't need much feed to grow a heifer on. So we grew out 200 heifers every year. So that's how we maintained our 500 cows, by the time you get a few empties and whatever. We did a few things. Any cow that got mastitis more than twice, was sold. Any cow that got lame and she had bad feet, she was sold. Any cow that didn't get in calf was sold. Now the last one has been a big game changer for us because we fell into the trap of carrying carry-over cows, the old extended lactation theory. They got pregnant. They came into the herd the following season, two years down the track, and we were slowly building infertility into the herd.

Chris Nixon:

So what this drought has done, we have actually reduced our joining of the dairy cows now to eight weeks, which is very short. And our six week in calf rate is 65%. That only leaves another two weeks for the bulls to work, and we have been getting some quite high empty rates at 24%. Now that sounds like a disaster, but when you've got 200 heifers coming in, it all works out quite nicely. So we're putting maximum pressure on fertility and making sure that we've only got highly fertile cows in the herd.

Drew Radford:

And at that level of 400, even with the dry years, you were pretty much self-sustainable with your own feed supplies?

Chris Nixon:

Yes. We do have a 80 acre fodder block about 10 km away from the dairy. Under irrigation, we grow maize silage and oaten silage.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned irrigation there, Chris, but I was reading, you had to put bores in, so that you actually had stock water. Is that a first for you during that period?

Chris Nixon:

No. The bores have already been here, but they collapsed under the long dry period and they were old and we had to upgrade it. The dairy itself doesn't have access to river water, so we can't pump water out of the river on a regular basis. We can't irrigate from the river on the dairy. So that's why it was important for us to get a block where we could get access to irrigation water, and grow some feed.

Drew Radford:

Chris, you're talking there about silage and how important fodder obviously is, but I'd imagine it became even more of a precious commodity during that dry time. I understand you put in a feed pad to try and deal with that and get maximum results. How did that work?

Chris Nixon:

A fellow dairy farmer in Orbost had built a feed pad out of what we call GEOHEX, which is a polycarbonate type product, comes in about half metre long sheet, and his was going for about seven years. So we followed that plan. We built a feed pad that can carry 500 cows with concrete troughs and this GEOHEX down on the ground and using really fine gravel, or in our case, crushed rock to fill it all up. It's into its third season now. It's been a wonderful addition to the farm because during those dry years, we had to make sure we was using every skerrick of silage that we were feeding out. And we just didn't quite appreciate the losses that we were getting just traditionally feeding it out in the paddock. So we saved a lot of feeding, we estimated that we probably nearly paid for it in the first 12 months in the amount of silage we saved feeding out.

Drew Radford:

Yeah, I was reading, it was about a third, you reckon you've saved. That's a dramatic amount of feed.

Chris Nixon:

Probably not quite such a high amount when it's really, really dry. But in the wet years, when it's wet, like at the moment it's really wet, they're not walking that silage into the ground and packing it all up. So the savings is enormous, yes.

Drew Radford:

And there's a great video too. I've actually seen that online. It's only about a minute long, of the construction of that. It looks really simple, but incredibly effective.

Chris Nixon:

Where we built the feed pad, it was just south of the dairy, the country there, it's on peak country and it's moved. So because of the GEOHEX, it's not concrete, it hasn't cracked or broken up. It's held up to it really, really well. So yeah, it's been a wonderful addition and we had 174 mm of rain last week and the farm's probably two thirds under water. So at the moment it's the only thing that the cows are really getting, so it's fantastic.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like you've been through really both sides of the swing of the pendulum over the last few years. You talked in detail there about how you're managing your herd now. Have you got any other strategies in place for dealing with those extreme variations in climate, particularly drier years in the years ahead?

Chris Nixon:

Well, it's just being able to make a decision and run with it. One of the biggest advantages we had in the drought was that we decided to de-stock relatively early. It was only mid-autumn, April, and we just said, "We can't go on like this." And we made the decision to start selling cattle. And we sold a lot of cattle that year. In the beef herd, we sold nearly 50 per cent of the beef herd at that point in time. And we sold a good 25 per cent of the dairy cows at that point in time. Now we could have got a late autumn break and we could have done lots of things, but we decided to sell. The long-term rain forecast wasn't looking that flash, so we sold. And that took so much pressure off what fodder reserves we had. We could extend through until the harvest off the fodder block later that year.

Chris Nixon:

So, it really did save us a lot of thing and that was the flexibility of it. So I've learnt that if we farm to what available fodder supplies we have, we don't have to buy too much in, other than grain, we can still turn a profit, just watching our costs, being careful, you can still turn a profit. And we have learnt that through these three and a half years of drought.

Drew Radford:

So Chris, almost from, well, not quite bust to boom, in regards to the rain, I understand you've now got more grass almost, that you know what to do with.

Chris Nixon:

Well, we did have until this week where we had 174 mm of rain just in the last few days. So it's all semi-flooded, but the last 12 months was a boom. And it's reflected that in our production has gone through the roof. We're probably up nearly 30 per cent for the year, year on year. So it's wonderful. And the tight calving pattern and all those things that were instigated during the drought, are really starting to pay dividends.

Chris Nixon:

I'll go back to the fertility one. Our heifers that calved this year were the first line of heifers that came through this tight joining period. And while the herd had 24 per cent empty, our first calf heifers only had 17 per cent empty on an eight week joining period. So, we're starting to see some real gains in fertility now. We're four, coming up to five years into this tight calving pattern. We don't have to hang on to those cows with bad feet. We don't have to hang on to those cows with bad udders. We can get rid of them because we've got the numbers flowing through the system and it just makes life so easy.

Drew Radford:

Chris Nixon, thanks so much for your time. And so very pleased that you've had a welcome reprieve from those three exceptionally dry years.

Drew Radford:

If you want to find out more about how Chris has dealt with the varying climate over those years, and also running his farm now, subscribe to Milking the Weather.

Drew Radford:

For now, though, Chris Nixon, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Chris Nixon:

My pleasure, Drew, anytime.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating, and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government, Melbourne.

Episode 9: Dealing with stress during difficult times with David Cherry

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

It's been a difficult year for many farming communities. Some have had to deal with everything from drought, fire, right through to the pandemic. The physical impacts of these are often easy to see. However, the mental effects on those living through it are not always so easy to detect. Recognizing those and dealing with them is important for not only your own mental health, but also ensuring that you're in the best position to make good decisions for yourself, your business and also your loved ones. David Cherry is a psychologist with over 35 years’ experience. 25 of those have been spent practicing in the agricultural sector. He's recently been running a series of workshops to help regional Victorians deal with challenging times. He joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. David, thanks for your time.

David Cherry:

Thank you.

Drew Radford:

David, we can usually see the impacts of flood, drought, fire and so on, what is harder to tell though is how challenging times affect the individual in terms of their mental health. What signs should people be aware of?

David Cherry:

The things that people should look out for in themselves are loss of energy, worry, sometimes quick mood changes. It might be anger. It might be feeling tearful or crying. It might be using alcohol to a greater level than they might've done in the past or using it too much against their own interests, and also possibly being inclined to make poor decisions and impulsive decisions. So they'd be some of the things that I would think about that a person would look for in themselves and indeed look for those same sorts of things in others.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned there David impulsive decisions and often mental health particularly with blokes is pushed away in the corner, but poor decision-making impacting on your business. That's a really tangible thing that I imagine a lot of people could relate to and understand, but not until it's pointed out to them like this in regards to mental health.

David Cherry:

Absolutely, okay. So, you made some really interesting points there. So people under stress and people who may be experiencing poor mental health are inclined to make, or sometimes make poor decisions against their own interests. You made that important point. And the other thing I just want to add too what might lead you to be concerned about your own mental health is if other people express concern about you. So, I would always encourage people to listen to others. So, if other people express concern that perhaps you need some assistance, I'd always encourage people to pay attention to that.

Drew Radford:

David, you've mentioned a range of things to be on the lookout, but what about those broader things that we talk about like anxiety and depression?

David Cherry:

Sure. If an individual feels that they are anxious a lot of the time, if they're worried a lot of the time, if they feel depressed or miserable or low in energy, I always encourage people to seek assistance and they might seek assistance through their GP, their local community health centre. So, you may be aware that at the moment, individuals are able to access up to 20 sessions with a psychologist through their GP after they got a mental health plan. And as I understand it, that help or assistance can be provided remotely.

Drew Radford:

David, what about another thing to be on the lookout for, is poor sleep an indicator that maybe something else is going on for you?

David Cherry:

Absolutely. So look, it's interesting that you mentioned sleep because sleep, as you would know, is an important pillar of health and I'd encourage anybody who experiences a sleep difficulty any time in their life to get assistance sooner rather than later. So what I mean by sleep difficulty is having difficulty getting off to sleep, having difficulty remaining asleep or awaking and not feeling refreshed. So many sleep difficulties can be assisted or improved or changed quite quickly. And as you've said, Drew, sometimes poor sleep is an indicator of poor mental health or may contribute to poor mental health. So always encourage people as soon as they experienced any sort of sleep difficulty, get assisted sooner rather than later. And it could be through a GP, it could be by approaching a counsellor or a psychologist.

Drew Radford:

David, you mentioned their sleep being an important pillar of mental health. What are some other things that people can do to maintain their mental health and look after themselves on that front?

David Cherry:

Things that assist all of us in maintaining good mental health are social connection, time with others. Ideally, we'll all have at least one person in our lives that we can talk to about things that worry and upset us. So, that's one important thing that contributes to mental health. Second thing is getting regular exercise and you may be aware that with increased mechanisation in the agricultural sector, that some people are getting far less exercise than they might've done in the past. So, getting enough exercise, that's really, really important.

Another really important thing is getting regular physical check-ups, including regular dental check-ups. They're some of the things I'd say. In addition to that, ideally all of us has at least one activity that completely absorbs us and relaxes us and might take us away from our daily worries. It could be gardening, it could be swimming, it could be spending time with friends. Any sort of activity that completely absorbs you. Crafts are also really useful for many people. So, these are some of the things that are really important for people. Another really important thing, which is easy for nearly everybody in the agricultural sector, is time in the outdoors and being in the sun and being in nature. Those things are really, really important.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned there David, the importance of absolving yourself in an activity and also the importance of actually social interaction can be often difficult. The social interaction part though for primary producers and it requires really that extra step.

David Cherry:

I think many people, primary producers, work very long hours because they're committed to their business. They're committed to looking after their families. They're committed to their communities. And that may mean that sometimes they don't look after themselves as well as they could. So, taking time for yourself and connecting with others is an important part of looking after yourself so that you can continue to contribute to the wider community and run your business as effectively as possible. Taking time for yourself is really, really important, both for yourself and also to help you continue to make your contribution to others, family members and the wider community.

Drew Radford:

That's such an interesting way to actually look at it and a logical way to look at it, David Cherry, because usually it's sort of, put up the shutters and all I'm ok, but actually now I'm not being effective in all these other areas that are important to me if I'm not looking after myself.

David Cherry:

Absolutely.

Drew Radford:

David, we often see people that we are concerned about. We go “Well, maybe things aren't going so well for you” or wonder if they're not going so well for an individual. How should you go about dealing with that?

David Cherry:

I think it's important that people are prepared to say to somebody that they may know that they're concerned about just to simply ask them how they're going. And then if the person says, "Well, I'm not going all that well," or say something, "Really worried about this,' it's just to learn what the person's concerns are and possibly suggest that they might seek assistance with that concern professionally, either from a GP, either if it's financial issues from the rural financial counsellor community health centre. So finding out what a person's concerns are and then suggesting that they seek assistance and doing it tactfully.

And the way you might do that tactfully, is rather than say, "Look, I think you need to go here and get this." You might say, "Well, I know other people who've had these concerns or these worries and they have been helped by going here and doing this.” So rather than saying, "So, you need to do that," you might tell, "I know of other people who've had these concerns and they have been helped by doing this."

Another important thing is that the language that you use when you're discussing another person's concern is important. Some people are happy to discuss feeling stressed, but they're not happy to discuss feeling anxious or depressed. So, you might say, "Look, many people are stressed in these times because it's difficult, they have been helped by going here." I wonder if that might be useful to you. So being tactful and being mindful of the language that may be acceptable to the other person, I think is important.

Drew Radford:

David, any tips then on how people can look after themselves during tough times when they're feeling stressed?

David Cherry:

One way that people may be able to help themselves is to use the difficult time to develop themselves, to develop their self-awareness and to develop new thinking skills and new behaviour skills. For example, for people who may be anxious, it's important to become aware of when your anxiety may be building so that you can take steps to reduce your anxiety. For example, by examining your thinking and changing it where possible to reduce your anxiety. I'd always encourage people, if they're going to learn new skills, to do this with the support of others. For some people, anxiety can be reduced by adopting new behaviours. For example, by meditating regularly. Another way people can help themselves, ideally with the support of others, is to learn new thinking skills and it might be important for some people who are depressed to learn to be less self-demanding and possibly less demanding of others. Another important new behave that people may be adopt, in particular for those people who are depressed and or anxious can be spending time with others or spending time engaged in enjoyable activities. And a really good resource for people who want to develop their own awareness, their self-awareness or develop new thinking skills or new behaviour skills is the Beyond Blue website.

Drew Radford:

David, some great insights there for dealing with difficult times. Thank you so much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

David Cherry:

Thank you.

Drew Radford:

If this podcast has brought out any difficult emotions for you, please find someone you can talk to or call the Beyond Blue service on 1300224636, MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or Lifeline on 131114.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscriber wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with you friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 8: Maintaining ground cover to secure sandy topsoil with Ron Hards

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Imagine farming on some of the most fragile land in the State and being able to say, after the worst rainfall figures on record a mere 25% of your 250 ml average, that you harvested a viable crop from 50% of your farm seeded area. And a further 25% was used as fodder. It's the remarkable story of Ron and Nick Hards, who farm in the Millewa at Yurara in the Northwest corner of the State and key to their success has been passionately protecting their topsoil. Ron Hards joined me in the Ag Vic talks studio and told me his journey into topsoil preservation began with switching to no till farming.

Ron Hards:

We had a fairly good long progression into no-till. We tried to reduce tillage for start with chisel ploughs and prickle chains and sowing on 14 inch spacings and that sort of thing. But only on cereals, we didn't venture into legumes at that stage, it was something that not very many people had done. We started off there probably 30 years ago, Drew doing that. We progressed through that and we did a lot of trips, with the Landcare Group, did a lot of trips through into South Australian and southern Victoria, where they were using no-till knife points and press wheels. And we started to get itchy feet, if you like, we could see how they were doing it, the reduction in bare fallows and stuff like that. It became very attractive to us.

Ron Hards:

So in about 2002, we actually changed our machinery. We thought there's no point in half doing it, we would change our machinery and make at work. At the same time, we employed an agronomist. We were sick of dust, bare fallows, erosion, and basically driving tractors. Because when you're doing a reasonable amount of tillage and bare fallows you were just finished one run and you just go back and start again. It really was extremely expensive and it wasn't getting us anywhere. So, we changed to no-till, and that of course involves boom sprays and chemicals.

Drew Radford:

So, did you see results change pretty much overnight, Ron? Was it a seasonal change or did you have to tough it out for a few seasons to start to see the benefit?

Ron Hards:

Yeah, look, we did Drew. It took a while. I think the soil's actually got to change with you. It does certainly change, become more friable. It certainly absorbs moisture better. You can see a thunderstorm goes through and there'll be water all over the stubble and within an hour so it's all gone. It's just soaks straight in and you don't have puddles in your paddock and water doesn't run like it used to. It changed the composition of the soil and certainly opened it up and it lets the moisture in right where it falls, which is a great advantage, I think.

Ron Hards:

And I'd think probably three or four years, we could see the difference. We could see the crops were improving and our control of weeds and what have you was getting better. I suppose we concentrated mainly on cereals for about seven or eight years. We had a little go at canola for three years. The inputs in this district were about the same as anywhere else, but the outputs are certainly less. So the profits weren't there with canola, so we dropped that out of the system and moved into vetch and peas and chickpeas and lentils and what have you to get the rotation a bit longer and open up our farming practices. We often do a fair bit of hay as I said.

Drew Radford:

So, in terms of the results that you are getting Ron, you've had a couple of the driest seasons ever on record. And from what I understand, you were able to harvest a viable crop from about 50% of your seeded area and further 25% was used as fodder. Could you have imagined those sorts of results 30 years ago before you changed your farming practices?

Ron Hards:

No, no Drew, I went through the 82 drought and know exactly what that sort of situation was. And I think actually the drought last year was probably worse, lower rainfall of what was in 82 when we virtually got nothing in that year, so a lot of crop didn't even come up in 1982. I think we harvest a little bit of seed off one paddock. Whereas last year it was the driest on record, as I said, and one paddock actually went 1.4 tonnes to the hectare of wheat. We did harvest some barley and some oats, but aren't even patches on the paddock. There was flats that didn't have anything on them. It was covered, but no viable crops.

Ron Hards:

And then we used a lot of the vetch and other product for fodder with the sheep. So certainly we had a little bit of drift on the paddocks, but they never actually scoured out. There was enough root matter under the vetch crop to actually hold the soil pretty well in place, even though there was some dust coming off of it, it wasn't doing any great damage to the soil. So we were pretty happy with last year and that was the biggest test we'd ever had since we started no-till.

Drew Radford:

No-till seems to be the foundation of all of this, Ron, but you seem to have some fairly firm rules about how you run the property these days to make sure that you can deal with drought. Maintaining ground covers, obviously part of that whole equation there but beyond that, you also have a fairly fixed plan. What are some of the key parts of the plan? Because I understand sowing early to deal with wind is really important, isn't it?

Ron Hards:

Yeah. I think so. Look, we sit down in January with our agronomist and do a paddock plan and that's after a visit straight after harvest. We certainly inspect all the paddocks then, but January is the main time, we do the paddock plan and endeavour to set out what we're going to do for the season with that visit. Weed populations in paddocks, count and previous crops and the rotations and so forth. And we set up a system from January through, the seasons through the year, of what we're going to sow where. In which paddocks and what the rotation is going to be.

Ron Hards:

And if you've got a plan like that, it makes it fairly easy to make snap decisions at the time when you're going through the seeding process, you know where you're going and what you're doing. And I think it helps knowing, by having that plan and trying to stick as closely as we can to it. We did change a little bit in the drought. We actually dropped two or three paddocks off altogether and didn't sow them. And starting seeding, we usually start late March with sowing vetch and fodders and just work through without too many stops. It makes it easy to run the program when you've got a plan set out.

Drew Radford:

Ron, I understand one of the other things that you've done in terms of protecting your ground cover is actually just slow down on your property in terms of vehicle speed.

Ron Hards:

Yeah, I think any form of cultivation needs to be done at a reasonably slow pace. 10 to 12 Ks seems to be an ideal speed. It doesn't shatter the soil so much and certainly with no-till knife points and press wheels, you need to be going at this speed that way you don't throw soil too far because the soil carries the chemicals with it too. And you'll end up with chemicals on top of your seed in the next row and that's something we need to avoid. So that speed is around about where we sit all the time. We've only got one pass a year with the seeder and we normally sow between the rows as well. So, I try not to interfere with last year's stubble. So your crop actually comes up and is protected between last year's stubble rows and with no-till knife points and press wheels and with guidance we've got these days, so, it makes it pretty easy to do that. And I think that that helps too.

Drew Radford:

I understand sheep are also part of your mix but it's also, I imagine a fine line in terms of how long you keep them on a paddock when things are marginal?

Ron Hards:

It is Drew, and I think that's one of the little mistakes we made last year. We left sheep in a paddock for probably only a couple of days too long, but it did make it a bit more vulnerable and we lost a little bit of soil, but in normal terms we run the sheep very conservatively over the stubble paddocks. Usually we buy in lambs in September, October and run through until Autumn the following year. So, they're not here consistently, but there is a fine line between stock and cropping and you're trying to do what we're doing and we're cropping most of the farm. You've just got to make full use of your containment areas. And that means a little bit of hand feeding in the containment areas. But I think it pays in the long run if you can containment feed for a couple of months of the year and maintain all your ground cover and your paddocks and get the crops up and moving without any haircuts with sand moving. I think you're far better off.

Drew Radford:

That requires very close monitoring then Ron, if you're talking literally a couple of days, the difference between damage to the top soil and getting the sheep off?

Ron Hards:

Well, it was Drew. There was actually some quite good feed on a couple of sand rises and the sheep insisted on staying down in the flats where obviously the feed was sweeter. And I thought, I'll just give them a couple more days and they'll clean those rises up, get the seeds off and so forth, but they didn't. They decided where they want to go, I can't make them go where they don't. And yeah, so it was a mistake. But it was a mistake you learn by.

Drew Radford:

Ron in terms of weed control, as part of your plan, how does that work?

Ron Hards:

Look it's very important. That's probably one of the main things with the rotations Drew is to maintain your weed control. Grasses are a curse right throughout any cropping area. And if you can keep those grasses under control in your legume phases, and sometimes we might run two legumes in a row, peas and vetch or, peas and lentils or whatever, however we do it to get two grass control phases in your legume crops before you get back into cereals. At the moment, we've got a couple of paddocks that are under a four year break. So we'll have peas and then we might follow those with vetch and possibly then, you might go to another, even two vetch crops in a row and then an oat and hay crop that you can spray out before you cut it and get the weeds in. So, you get your four year break in that way.

Ron Hards:

So it's a fairly intensive system and monitoring is a big thing. We probably monitor weeds in paddocks three or four times a year and make sure that we know what we've got and it doesn't take very much grass in one year if you let it seed and let it go through and do another crop. It's very quick to take over and so you've got to watch it very closely and make sure you've got it under control.

Drew Radford:

Ron, you touched on rotations a bit, but how important has it been in terms of getting nitrogen levels up since turning to no-till farming?

Ron Hards:

Yeah, it just an added benefit though I think from no till where all the legumes you put in a really good dose of natural nitrogen into the soil and you can certainly see the benefits in the following crops especially when you go back to cereals. You know I think its invaluable the fact you can do that absolutely free, just transitioning nitrogen from the air into the soil. It is great.

Drew Radford:

Your move to no-till and preserving your topsoil has been a big learning curve, who has helped you in that process?

Ron Hards:

There has been several things as I said earlier, we did a lot of trips into South Australia with the Landcare groups looking at what farmers were doing in other places. But, in the last twenty years there has been a huge amount of research gone on in the Mallee. Mallee Sustainable Farming with the three states involved, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales has been extremely important, not only their research, but their extension that we can see what we need to do. And also with the help from the Department of Ag in Victoria and the CSIRO have been extremely important as well. I think these three organisations certainly need some accolades for getting us to where we have got.

Drew Radford:

Ron, you talk of losing topsoil is not only damaging for your productivity, but also for your own wellbeing. What do you mean by that?

Ron Hards:

Oh, look, there's nothing worse than sitting inside or in the shed on a windy day and watch your paddocks go past. It's pretty distressing. I think the last year where we've seen dust storms go through the Mallee, particularly in our area here in the Millewa and Mildura was getting pretty fed up with it actually. Because normally your strongest winds are from the South and South West and in the West and they're right in line for it. So, Mildura was blacked out a couple of days. Doesn't do your image much good when you go to town next time, tell them where you come from. So, I think, we owe it to everybody to make sure that we try and keep things where they are and you can't grow crops on soil if it's gone. I think that's the most important, most valuable asset that you've got is your soil and the top 10 cm is probably the most important part of your farm and if it blows away, well, you start from scratch again and it takes a long time to get that country back, if ever, if you take that top soil off.

Drew Radford:

Ron, it sounds like you're doing a fabulous job with you and your son, Nick, keeping your topsoil in place. Thank you ever so much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Ron Hards:

Thanks Drew, appreciate your time.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 7: Managing through dry seasons is all about preparation with Peter Young

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew:

Most farmers at one stage or another contend with dry seasons and drought. How they cope though often comes down to being prepared and awareness for the support systems that can be accessed to help them through. That was the case for second generation Gippsland farmer Peter Young, who produces wool, lamb and beef on their 550-hectare farm at Briagolong, some 60 kilometres west of Bairnsdale. After three tough years, there've finally been some good rains and things are looking up for Peter, who now joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Peter, thanks for your time.

Peter Young:

My pleasure.

Drew:

Peter, you and your family have been farming in that part of the world for some time. How long exactly?

Peter Young:

Dad took possession of this property on the 1st of October 1950.

Drew:

So in that time, you've probably seen quite a few variations in seasons.

Peter Young:

Yes, we've seen the whole lot, I reckon.

Drew:

So dry seasons weren't particularly uncommon for want of a better term.

Peter Young:

They're nothing new.

Drew:

But three years ago you had more of an extreme one, from what I understand.

Peter Young:

In the three years up until end of January this year, it would have to be the worst one we've had.

Drew:

What did you actually see Peter, in terms of declining rainfall?

Peter Young:

Down to less than half. The major bit was that it was in dribs and drabs that were never enough to get anything going. So it was very difficult to grow a fodder crop or grow any grass because you might get 10 or 15 mills and then nothing for another three weeks when the ground's already dry.

Drew:

What sort of impact then did that have on your operation? You've got 550 hectares there with a lot of animals on it. What was the impact on you?

Peter Young:

Initially, we had enough fodder in reserve, but it meant over time that we had to continue to sell livestock and continue to buy feed.

Drew:

So how much livestock did you end up having to sell off Peter?

Peter Young:

We got rid of one third of our sheep and three quarters of our cattle.

Drew:

They're fairly significant numbers.

Peter Young:

Yes. It has a pretty big impact on the bottom line, I know that, especially when you're buying feed at the same time.

Drew:

During that time, did you and your wife Alison start thinking about, well, okay, how are we going to manage this if this continues on?

Peter Young:

Yeah, we sure did. One of the best bits of advice I received was to actually make a decision. It doesn't matter if you change it later, but if you make the decision, for example, to sell a mob of sheep at the end of October, you always felt a lot better because you had actually made a decision. Putting it off and hoping and all those things didn't help at all. But to actually make a decision and say, right, it's now end of September, if it hasn't rained within the month, significant rain within the month, X number of sheep are on the truck. And that's what we were able to do. Still didn't want to do it, but at least you'd made a decision and you stop worrying about it.

Drew:

But also, did you look beyond that in terms of what other assistance you might be able to get to help you keep on going or even modify the property to deal with dry conditions?

Peter Young:

Well, initially the first assistance that was available was the farm household assistance, but more pertinent to the longer term was some of the resilience assistance that was available, things like stock containment areas, water reticulation, things like that.

Drew:

Were they difficult processes to go through Peter? And also something unusual for you to go through too, because had you ever needed to seek that sort of assistance in the past?

Peter Young:

Well, no, we hadn't. The hardest part initially was with the farm household assistance FHA, getting all the required information together, it was quite extensive. Later on when the systems got themselves sorted out, it was a lot simpler to apply for help or to ask for help. By the time we got to the resilience grants, it was relatively straight forward.

Drew:

I understand Alison, your wife had a big part in terms of working through some of those processes.

Peter Young:

Yep. She's the one that understands that a lot better than me. And I'm sure there's a lot of wives who do the same thing as part of a partnership.

Drew:

Outside of that too, what about Rural Finance? Were they able to help you work your way through these processes as well?

Peter Young:

Rural Finance were excellent in their assistance for some of the support programs, like the emergency water grants and things like that, they were really good.

Drew:

So Peter, in terms of the Victorian Government drought support, what did you do to try and help set up the property better to cope with the ongoing dry conditions?

Peter Young:

Although we have good water here, we ended up with about, I think a dozen dams that were empty. We had them cleaned out, took the opportunity to clean them out. So that was part of it, so that they would actually hold more water in the future. And we also put in that extra water bore and integrated reticulation scheme so that we can put water into dams, water into troughs. The water bores are connected and then the stock containment areas were able to hang off the side of that as well, with good water in there.

Drew:

So Peter, in terms of moving ahead, if the conditions had remained dry, would have you been able to continue farming at your de-stock level with these modifications?

Peter Young:

Well, they certainly would have helped because at the time it was looking dry. We've still got the extra fodder that we bought over the summer, but we haven't had to use it yet. So, if we were preparing for another, at least six months at the time that we received some long-awaited rain, shall we say.

Drew:

I imagine that would have been a significant change for you. I mean, it's an obvious thing to say, but how did that make you feel going from feeding and constantly planning to deal with dry conditions, how did that affect you personally?

Peter Young:

I guess there were several effects. One, a great relief. At last, it's rained. The paddocks aren't brown and dusty. They've now got a little bit of green on them. Once we had sufficient feed to put the stock back out on the paddocks, the thing that took me a little while to adjust to was this fact of, I don't have to spend half a day, every day feeding livestock. So, the pressure was off, but you had to decide what you were going to do. I know that sounds ridiculous, but when the drought was on, you knew what you had to do every day. Once we weren't doing that, it took a while to adjust to say, Well, I'll need to repair that fence or do this job or do that job. So mentally, that was a bit of a shift.

Drew:

Have you been able to connect though with your community as much? You would have been hoping for the relief that the rain brought and maybe that would bring some sort of sense of normality, but now we’ve got the current situation and also your broader community recovering from bushfires. So, I imagine things at present aren’t quite what you may have imagined them to have been when you got past the drought.

Peter Young:

Yes. One of the changes I noticed during the drought was even though everybody was flat out doing what they had to do to survive, every now and then you'd get a random phone call from somebody just to say, "How are you going?" Previous to that, we would be just busy doing whatever and we'd meet at workshops or other organisational meetings of any kind, have a quick conversation then, but because we're all so busy, I noticed and I tried to do it myself, ring somebody just, "Oh, I better ring Billy Blogs, see how he's going." So that was one significant change. And now with the coronavirus of course, well, there's no face to face contact, so the telephone's still pretty important and meetings on Zoom are good, but they're not quite the same.

Drew:

No, it's not the same as that face to face contact at all, Peter. And I understand also you used to open your property up for field day type events as well. So, you're not getting that interaction either I'd imagine.

Peter Young:

No, no. And nor are the people who would often attend those field days, discussion groups, whatever. And I was happy to share what we do in the way of, oh, well we put in a bit of summer crop or a bit of this or a bit of that, trying to generate some feed for the stock. Happy to share what we learnt and pick the brains of others and put it all together, hopefully.

Drew:

In terms of sharing what you have learnt over the last few years, if there was a key message or two to somebody listening to this, going through similar, tough, dry times, what would a key bit of advice be Peter?

Peter Young:

Keep talking, make that phone call. Even if you're not feeling that flash, find out how your neighbour’s going. And if he's a good listener, he'll pick up that things aren't going too well for yourself. So, it's an opportunity to download. And also, there's plenty of professional help, either medical, financial, planning and counselling type things, if you feel you need it. One of the things I guess has changed is that it's not weak. It's not a negative thing to ask for help. It can still be difficult.

Drew:

Well Peter, it sounds like asking for help has been absolutely crucial for you setting your property up for a future to continue on following 70 years now in that patch of land.

Peter Young:

That's right. Yeah. Be a bit negative, we're better prepared for the next drought. We will have another drought. That's the thing, Drew. Even though we've got a fantastic season at the moment, all the water holes are full. The grass is growing, the sheep are fat and the cattle. It's now that we need to prepare for the next drought, and we will have one, I guarantee it.

Drew:

Peter Young, it sounds like you've been on a very significant journey over the last three years. And it sounds like you are well and truly prepared for another drought. Let's both hope that that's a very long way away. Thank you ever so much for your time in joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Peter Young:

My pleasure Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria

Episode 6: Using soil moisture monitoring to help manage seasonal risk with Dale Boyd and Bec Marshall

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Should I apply fertilizer or not? If so, how much? They're questions all producers face. But, imagine having detailed, real-time soil moisture analysis at your fingertips, that gives you insight to if your crop is readily going to take up that fertilizer, or not. For over a decade, a number of soil moisture probes across Victoria, have been gathering that sort of information, to help give farmers confidence in their decision making. To find out how it all works, I'm joined in the AgVic Talk Studio, by Dale Boyd, Seasonal Risk Agronomist with Agriculture Victoria. Dale, thanks for your time.

Dale Boyd:

Thanks Drew.

Drew Radford:

Dale, what is the Soil Moisture Monitoring Network?

Dale Boyd:

The network is what Agriculture Victoria set up as technology in 2010, to see if we could assist dryland farming systems to understand the seasons better, with soil moisture probes. Now, climate change and extreme seasonal variation have been very challenging for farmers to manage, but we just thought by putting in this technology in the ground, farmers then would have a way of measuring it, and if they can measure it, then they can start to manage the variations that we do see in year to year with rainfall.

Drew Radford:

In terms of the monitoring, is that monitored across a range of depths or is it just a standard depth in the soil that the monitoring's done?

Dale Boyd:

One of the critical components to the success of the Agriculture Victoria Network is that, 10 years ago, technology being well-established and utlised in irrigation environments, but not so much in dryland, where we couldn't apply water, so our strategy was to put these moisture probes down deep into the profile. Our form of measurement is to measure from 30 centimetres down to a metre, and with sensors every 10 centimetres, which gives us a good resolution of what's happening down through that soil profile.

Dale Boyd:

The other advantage with the position of that probe down deep is that, with cropping systems, there's the annual sowing of the crop, where you're looking to sow over the top of the probe. So, it's representative with a good plant population similar to the rest of the paddock. So, by having that probe down so deep, the sowing tines can safely go across the monitoring point, without damaging the probe or the cable itself.

Dale Boyd:

It's good to really emphasize that it's a deep soil moisture that we're really looking to track, because between zero and 30 centimetres, it can fluctuate pretty dynamically. But, it's about this time of the year, September, where those deeper soil moisture reserves are so critical to get us through, and get those yields that might've been set up through that winter period.

Drew Radford:

Is that a real-time feed?

Dale Boyd:

Yes, it is. We're getting data recorded every hour, and then the upload of the data from the paddock occurs on an hourly basis as well, providing we can get a solid mobile network communication connection. Every hour, which is fantastic. It's not only good for soil moisture, but also rainfall. We match up a rain gauge with the monitoring point, with the moisture probe. I think that's been a bit of an eyeopener as well, to be able to get the hour by hour recordings of rainfall. We can actually determine rates of infiltration with the intensity of rain. Generally, the rain's been pretty steady, but some events, particularly in summer, they can get up to 25 mm, even a bit greater in that hour period. Some of these soils probably struggled to take in that amount of rainfall within that hourly period, but it's a good measurement point.

Drew Radford:

That's a lot of data coming in very quickly, real-time analysis. Does the data ever surprise you?

Dale Boyd:

Initially. Everyone was pretty surprised how effective some of these crops were at extracting deep soil moisture. Probably in the past, things might've been underestimated in terms of soil moisture conditions, and that's probably due to just those shallow assessments, that might've been done with a shovel. So, by having this real-time measurement, or certainly being able to observe at certain points of time moisture getting down, right down to depths, a metre potentially even more in those really wet years. But, when we've got a great biomass of crop growing above that soil surface, we've also got that pump happening with that well-developed root system. I think that's been a real eye opener.

Dale Boyd:

The other thing that can surprise people is, just the effect of cutting crops for hay. We do find that the crops can be using moisture quite well during that day period. Then, from the remote assessments of the data, I can actually pick up to the hour, of when the crop was actually cut, because when the leaf area is removed, the crop stops photosynthesizing, stopped using water, and it's just quite a dramatic change. Some of the farmers have been a bit surprised how I've been able to remotely assess what they were doing on farm.

Dale Boyd:

There's a few other things, that certainly they've been eye opening, particularly summer weed escapes, and just the damage they can do in terms of quickly extracting moisture, and down to depths as well. Really, this is all the deep moisture that you'd really like to conserve, and have for the following winter crop, and not lose that through summer weeds. So, there's been a lot of learnings and probably a few eye opening experiences along the way.

Drew Radford:

You said you started this in 2010, so you've got a decade's worth of data. What time of the year then is soil moisture monitoring most useful, in terms of the data?

Dale Boyd:

That's certainly a long data set, and it's probably shown that the information is quite informative in all parts of the season, but when we've worked with the farmers and industry, and determined what they thought the most useful part of when they could examine the data, it was identified as spring. Personally I think early winter can provide some early guidance on how the season's progressing, and then moving into spring then, we have obviously seen it being quite dynamic, that if you've got crops with yield potential, they will certainly use a lot of water if it's stored in those deeper levels, within the soil profile.

Drew Radford:

Okay. Well then, how do producers actually apply that information, in terms of the monitoring data you've got?

Dale Boyd:

For the farmers and the producers to best utilise, the soil moisture probes, it's really about understanding the seasonal conditions for that reference point.

Dale Boyd:

So, the thresholds are the upper limits of the outmost maximum capacity that those soils can hold, and then also the lower limits. So, how dry those soils can actually be dried down to, with crop growth and development, which generally gets to those lower limits in that spring period.

Drew Radford:

A person with firsthand experience with those limits, is Bec Marshall. She and her husband Ash, run a cropping farm at Normanville in Mallee country, about 60 kilometres from Kerang. They've been using the soil moisture monitoring information for nearly a decade.

Bec Marshall:

We really use it to help us make major decisions during our growing season, and even pre-growing season pre-sowing the crop. It's probably one of the big confidence givers.

Drew Radford:

What information from it are you getting, that gives you confidence?

Bec Marshall:

Just a really good snapshot of actually what moisture we have stored in our profile, which then we can sort of translate across to what sort of yield potential we might already have, the potential going into the season with our crops. That can really provide a lot of confidence around rotation going forward, how hard to push things in terms of nitrogen inputs especially.

Drew Radford:

How long have you been using soil moisture information in your business?

Bec Marshall:

I think maybe it was 2011 or so. There's actually been a local probe installed in our area, just in our neighbours farm at Normanville, and Ash and I really started following that from the start, and using that information to provide confidence with what we were doing here. Then, I suppose maybe three years ago, we went and started installing our own moisture probes set ups on our own farm, just so we could get that really fine-tuned advice for us.

Drew Radford:

Has that made a difference over the last three years, now that you have even more data coming through, to know really what's going on, on your property?

Bec Marshall:

Yeah, I think it has. It's been great for our learning certainly, just to be able to learn what's actually happening in individual paddocks. Our farm is reasonably spread out. We've probably got 20K's difference from top to bottom, North to South sort of thing. So, that does vary quite a bit during the season, and also a range of soil types. So, we've been able to really learn a little bit more about what's happening there, and really get that information that's tailored for us.

Drew Radford:

Okay. So, give me a bit of an example then, in terms of looking at the soil moisture, and then what sort of decision you might make off the back of that?

Bec Marshall:

The major one, well, there's lots that we might make. I guess one of the major ones we looked at this year was our top dressing, how we're applying nitrogen during the growing season to feed the crop. That's where soil moisture has been really handy for us, just having that knowledge of what's actually in the profile. You can actually have quite a dry growing season, not be receiving a lot of in crop rain, but have quite a full profile underneath. Just having the confidence around feeding that crop, to make it reach its full potential, I suppose.

Drew Radford:

So what would actually happen there, Bec? Without that information, would you hold off actually applying the nitrogen, because you're unsure it's dry, and it's not going to be taken up? Is that-

Bec Marshall:

Potentially, you could find yourself in the situation. Without that information to provide the confidence that your crop might actually have a better yield potential than what you're thinking, just based on your current rainfall, yeah. So, you might end up under feeding that crop nitrogen, and it doesn't reach its full potential. So, it can be that real signal, I suppose, to go harder in the right season, or also, it can be the reverse too. If you don't have the moisture in the profile, you could, as often happens in the Mallee, have a really fantastic looking crop early on in the season, and absolutely nothing in the profile, and just also needing to pull things back a little bit and not go too hard. So, there's the reverse here as well, I guess.

Drew Radford:

That is Bec Marshall from Normanville. If you're a producer and you're interested in finding out more about soil moisture monitoring, Dale Boyd says, there's a range of information that's readily available.

Dale Boyd:

Go to the agriculture.vic.gov.au webpage and search for soil moisture monitoring, and you'll come up with all the links and the background description of the Dryland Cropping Program. They've also developed recently, with the assistance of the Dry Seasons Program, a new dashboard. That's on extensionaus.com.au/soilmoisturemonitoring all in one word. That dashboard's been a really great development because, it not only provides an indication of the crop or pasture that's growing, because that obviously has a very big influence on soil moisture increases at the start of the season, but also the rate of depletion that you might see in late winter, and coming into spring.

Dale Boyd:

So it's good to have that description of what's happening, because obviously, these reference points are quite important, and if farmers and industry are going to take more note of them, there's obviously an indication of why they're being depleted at the rate they were, due to what is growing at that reference point. So, both sources have good information.

Drew Radford:

Dale, it's a phenomenal amount of information, and an amazing resource for producers to access. Seasonal Risk Agronomist with Agriculture Victoria, Dale Boyd, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk Studio.

Dale Boyd:

Thank you very much, Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating, and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government, Melbourne.

Episode 5: Balancing wet winters and dairy farming with Craig Dwyer

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

If you mention managing seasonal variability, most people start thinking about strategies to deal with dry times. For some though, the opposite can be the problem, which is the case for dairy farmer Craig Dwyer from Bullaharre, just out of Cobden in South West Victoria. In this location, excessively wet winters can be a real problem when juggling the needs of a dairy herd against maintaining healthy paddocks.

Drew Radford:

To find out more, Craig Dwyer joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Craig, thanks for your time.

Craig Dwyer:

No worries, Drew. Anytime at all.

Drew Radford:

Craig, the focus of our discussion is dealing with seasonal variability, but in terms of seasons, I understand you just had a pretty good one.

Craig Dwyer:

Ah, yeah, we've been pretty handy, given the spring kinder of lasted all the way through until, effectively, New Year. We did dry off a fraction and then had a very, very early break. Yeah, our down period was probably only about six weeks. I would have said last year, combined with a nominally high milk price, was probably one of the best ones we've ever put together.

Drew Radford:

For a lot of producers, the biggest seasonal risk is not enough rain for you though. I understand it's almost the opposite.

Craig Dwyer:

We can get very wet. We are a wet farm. We do have a lot of heavy black flats and a creek running through the middle of the property with kind of around that 850-millimetre rainfall average per year. Yeah. It's a management challenge in a wet winter. The winter we're going through right at the moment, up until this point in time has been very, very kind to us. Given that June was quite dry and July probably... I know others have had it, unfortunately too dry for them, but July's been ideal for us. The only thing that could have made it better was probably a little more sunshine.

Drew Radford:

What do you put in place, Craig, though, to manage the potential of a really wet winter?

Craig Dwyer:

We ensure that we've got enough grass cover on the property before we actually open the farm back up to the milking cows. We try to have grass cover levels at 2,500 kilos of dry matter to the hectare, and then once majority of the farm is at that point, we'll allow the cows to start grazing. Generally, with our calving pattern, we're calving around the 15th of May, so therefore we do sacrifice the cows off into a couple of paddocks to allow that grass cover to get ahead, to give us a feed wedge. Then once that wedge is established, we strip graze them around the farm to keep the rotation as long as possible.

Craig Dwyer:

It's around that 60 odd days before we're back in the same paddock again, which becomes a challenge though, in the middle of winter, when you potentially have to throw open... Most of the farm's divided into 10 acre paddocks, and when it does shockingly wet, we do have to throw the gate open and give them one complete paddock where you'd at least try to get two, if not three feeds out of the one paddock.

Drew Radford:

I understand also, you've been doing quite a bit in terms of pasture management, because it wasn't a dairy farm before, am I correct in that?

Craig Dwyer:

Well, it was a dairy farm through from about the early '80s up until 1999, but a very underdeveloped farm. Let's put it that way. It was just 22 paddocks with 22 dams. No trough infrastructure, or water infrastructure and very minimal lane ways, and that sort of thing. Then it was a beef farm from the late '90s all the way through until we bought it in 2012, but we leased it out for three years before we moved on to it ourselves.

Drew Radford:

So, to cope with the demands of a dairy herd, other than the infrastructure requirements, have you had to do a lot in terms of pasture development to support that herd?

Craig Dwyer:

Yeah. We've renovated virtually the whole place, Drew, back into the more newer varieties of perennial grasses. I'm not a big fan of the annuals, sowing annuals in, and then having to do the same thing again next year, I know you can get bulk feed off it, but I prefer to stick in the perennials, and given our wetter rainfall, or more likelihood of a reliable rainfall here, perennials seem to hang on better, that I've found. Yeah, we've renovated the whole farm over a period of five years, and upped the fertility base too, to support that grass. Yeah, I think we've almost got the place up to the right spec that we need for it to be producing as good as we could possibly get it.

Drew Radford:

Okay. You've got the pasture to a certain level, but you're still dependent upon fodder to a certain amount, aren't you?

Craig Dwyer:

Yeah, we do. We do buy in. We endeavour to cut as much silage as possible off the place, but we do buy in up to about 300 ton of cereal/clover hay that we have with a long-term relationship with a hay grower. Not far down the road for us, reasonably close. We've had that guaranteed for a few years now, so we do have that fodder up our sleeve to manage either a ridiculously wet winter, or a longer dry spell while we're trying to establish that pasture cover over the farm. It kind of swings both ways.

Drew Radford:

Are you having to store that on farm, or have you had to change infrastructure to deal with that?

Craig Dwyer:

We've just built a hay shed in May this year. It was purchased late last year, but unfortunately due to builder commitments and then some wet weather here through the early part of the autumn, we were unable to get it up until middle of May. At which stage the weather had already turned, and the hay that we had purchased this year had to be stored outside, so there wasn't much point putting slightly damaged hay into the new shed and being slightly damp as well. We definitely have upgraded the infrastructure, because it was the one thing that was missing on this farm, was a decent hay shed, and over this coming summer or this coming hay season, we will be reassessing our fodder requirements, and getting probably as much hay into that shed as possible.

Drew Radford:

Craig, in regards to assessing those fodder requirements, what are you actually looking at? I mean, what sort of planning tools, apps, or seasonal forecasts help you make those decisions?

Craig Dwyer:

I've already made decisions on which paddocks will be renovated for this coming spring. We'll put in a fodder rape crop into paddocks that have been either badly damaged by pugging, or have the most tired grass species in them, as in the ones that were probably sown five years ago. If they've got some ongoing issues, either from cricket damage, or pugging, etc, we'll renovate them, so those decisions have already been made for those paddocks that will probably get pulled out of the rotation.

Craig Dwyer:

Then we'll try and get those fodder crops in early to give us a feed wedge, to keep the cows milking through until hopefully at least February. Off some of that green feed, because we do pump our effluent water back over those crops to try and get a potential second, maybe even a third grazing off them. If the season's really kind to us with a little bit of rain fall and not too many stinking hot days, but we will also just bank on buying 200 ton of hay on this farm, pretty much every year without fail. I'd prefer to be over insured on the hay side of things by having that fodder on farm rather than having to go to the hay market, potentially, when everybody else is, if there is a shortfall. Hay in the shed, or hay on farm, we consider money in the bank here. It's plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Drew Radford:

Is that more of a seasonal plan that you've got in place as opposed to looking at seasonal forecasts and thinking, "Oh, maybe I need a bigger buffer, or even a smaller buffer"?

Craig Dwyer:

I do look at the forecasts potentially for the seasons coming. I did note the BOM this year predicted a very, very wet winter. That didn't eventuate here, thankfully, for a wet farm like ours. Yeah, I don't put a 100% faith in them. As I said, we will get as much fodder on farm as we can, and as our cashflow allows, anyway, and given that this hay shed is now here, and we'll probably try and keep that as full as possible over the journey. This season's shaping up like... The cereal guys up slightly north of us are having a cracking year at this stage, so if that continues, hopefully there'll be a fair bit of hay about, and the price might be back a little. The guys up north, New South Wales and Queensland, they've got some green grass about, so hopefully their requirements for fodder will be less, so the demand may not be there as there has been, but who knows, you throw a bushfire in there and the demand can go through the roof again.

Drew Radford:

Craig, looking further ahead. What plans have you got for your property to try and insulate it as much as possible from the extremes of either seasons?

Craig Dwyer:

Probably the next capital expenditure will be on some drainage, so we can avoid damaging some of that pasture that we're putting into the wetter paddocks. That'll allow us to get a little bit more traffic over those paddocks without doing as much damage. The drier side of things, we have got a lot better at the water storage on farm, given that there was 22 paddocks, 22 dams. There is a reticulated trough system to every paddock. Some of the dams have been cleaned out, so our capacity for storage on farm's a lot better. We've also put culverts in and redirected some drains to ensure that we do catch the surface runoff that we do get. Our effluent side of things, we're using that nutrient base, and the water that comes with that to go back over the fodder rape crops.

Craig Dwyer:

We're setting ourselves up as best we can here. We don't have any irrigation water, or any underground water here, so we're entirely reliant on runoff, so it is a very precious commodity that we have to try and manage better into the future.

Drew Radford:

Craig Dwyer. It sounds like you are doing a very detailed job of managing it, and in the process laying substantial foundations for the future. Thank you very much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Craig Dwyer:

No worries, Drew. Appreciate that. Let's hope the season's favourable for everybody.

Drew Radford:

For more agriculture Victoria information on dealing with climate variability, you can subscribe to both The Break, and the Milking the Weather newsletters. Both of these you can find through the Agriculture Victoria website. Also, you can get in contact with your local dairy extension officer who can direct you to relevant information and advice to help you get started in understanding how your business can adapt to climate variability.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria. Authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 4: Getting a foot in the door using drones on-farm with Clay Gowers

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Imagine having a clear vision for making your farm more productive and less labour intensive, but not having the resources to even let you take the first step in making that happen. That was the story of Clay Gowers. A farmer from Carwarp in North Western, Victoria, who was certain drones could play a big part in improving productivity on their family property. He joined me in the Ag Vic Talk studio to discuss how he's now on the path to making his dream a reality.

Clay Gowers:

At the minute, what we do agronomically is we just drive around the paddock, just visually look and see if we've got an issue with any of the paddocks. I think our agronomists have told us to visually see a difference between that plant and that plant. It has to be a 10% difference and 10% is quite a lot when you start talking yield at the end of the day. So, what my plan would be, would be to fly my drone, be able to map a paddock. You get a bit better of a bird's eye view and you get the paddock as a whole. Whereas when we drive to the paddock, we drive through a bit of a corner or maybe through the middle and then out, you don't get a full idea of what the paddock's doing in every spot as you'd be driving around the paddock all day.

Drew question: So, it’s this ambition for drones that’s led you to apply to a Young Farmers Scholarship. Tell me about why you think then this would be a good fit?

Clay Gowers:

I'd always wanted to learn more about different farming processes. And I suppose I haven't really been able to fund learning different skills and all that sort of stuff. Some of the things you learn cost a little bit of money. So, I haven't probably thought it as a big priority financially. So I haven't sort of taken a step, but being able to get the scholarship has allowed me to take that scholarship money and be able to put it into an area where I'm really interested in, but haven't had the chance to sort of make that leap forward.

Drew Radford:

So, what is it you've put it into?

Clay Gowers:

The scholarship's pretty much broken down into two halves. So, you have up to $5,000 to study and up to $5,000 to implement. So, I've put my studying $5,000 in, which is the Upskill portion, I've put that into drone mapping. So basically, learning how to incorporate drones into the farm, to help map paddocks and gather data. And then the second half of my scholarship will be helping me to fund into a drone. So, it should pay for, I think, two thirds of a agricultural mapping drone, and then I'll fork out the last little bit to sort of help implement that into our farm.

Drew Radford:

Okay. So, you're getting into drones Clay.

Clay Gowers:

Yep.

Drew Radford:

But why do you see drones as an important tool for the future of your farming needs?

Clay Gowers:

So, it's just to get, I suppose, a better view of your paddock as a whole, as most farmers know, no paddock is equal from one side to the other. You've always got dead spots. You've always got hills that are either overproduced or under-produced and they address... I suppose, fertilizer side of things, they're addressed differently. And then I suppose if it comes to infestation of bugs or mice or any other kind of pests, you're able to visually see the damage faster and being able to address it earlier is always going to be a benefit.

Drew Radford:

Are you aware of drones being applied this way in other farming practices?

Clay Gowers:

I have on some small scale. I know that Agriculture Victoria, I believe in the Horsham Research Facility, they are doing tests on crops, but obviously that's a smaller scale. I believe there is a farmer in the Sea Lake, Manangatang area that is doing it. I have to look into that a little bit more, because I really want to go and visit him to sort of see how he's implementing it and how he thinks it works. And I suppose pick his brain of things have worked, things that haven't. But as for large scale, I don't know a lot that's going on in that space. But definitely if anyone, I suppose knows of anything can contact me, I'd definitely be interested in listening to what they got to say and even visiting the farm and I'm eager to learn. And I can see this space being a space that's... it's not going to get smaller. It's going to be one of those things where 10, 15, 20 years, farmers are going to be saying, "When did you get started implementing drones?" Not if you have but when you have.

Drew Radford:

So, you're going to be a bit of a pioneer in this space, in some regards Clay.

Clay Gowers:

That's the sort of the plan. Yeah. I already have a keen interest in drones anyway, but being able to implement this into the farm, it'll be learning from my mistakes and trying to work out well, what can we do better? How can we implement this technology in a easier or user-friendly way? Or I suppose it’s sort of very early stages in drone development in general. And then, yeah, you're trying to apply it into a professional space being in agriculture. There's always going to be some learning points and yeah, ways to drive that technology forward. So, I'm excited to see where it can go.

Drew Radford:

I guess the scholarship then has given you a chance to hyper accelerate your vision and pursue this technology because otherwise what would it have been. A bit of a have a go-show. Go and buy a drone and see what you can do with it. Whereas now you're going to be professionally trained and have the money to buy a piece of equipment that's fit for the task.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, definitely. It's interesting that you sort of bring that up. I actually, previous to even hearing about the scholarship, I remember having a chat to my dad about maybe getting something like this to help with our spraying program. And I jumped online, looked at the price, said, "Yep, no way." And then shut the computer again, even just an entry level ag drone and I just looked at it and I thought I can't afford that, but I don't even know how to use it. I don't know anything about it. So that's going to be more training. And I just remember being overwhelmed the first time I saw the price of some of these ag drones, that can vary from five grand up to 40 grand. So, it was quite overwhelming. And then I suppose when the scholarship came out, I thought, well, why not use this as a chance to learn from people in the industry and try to, I suppose, implement this technology in a way that sort of never been implemented before, so.

Drew Radford:

Clay, you've given a bit of an outline in terms of a bird’s eye view opportunity it's going to give you in terms of looking at your crops and what may be occurring across the entire operation. Have you got a vision for other areas that may lead into for you?

Clay Gowers:

I believe in the short term, the next, let's say 10 years, it will be mainly focused on crop health. So obviously, like I said before, getting that bird's eye vision, being able to scan paddocks for the crops' photosynthesis. So obviously the green scale of the crop. And then obviously that's going to tell us if the plant is sick, if it needs either addressing because... And then finding the reason why it's sick. Could it be pest infestation or nutrients and addressing that issue. So, I believe that in the short term the main focus will be all for crop health and agronomic strategies and all that sort of thing. But I believe the long term will be people talk about drones. The first thing that comes to their mind is something flying in the air. But the definition of a drone is just anything that's unmanned.

Clay Gowers:

People talk about driverless tractors. I know in America they're testing driverless tractors at the minute. The biggest stumbling block is going to be obviously getting that over the line safety wise and OH&S. But I believe the future of farming is going to be more, less physical people in seats and more automated technology to have driverless tractors, driverless sprayers, driverless quad bikes, utes, all that sort of thing. So that then the farmer is more of a management of operations instead of sitting in the seat or having to employ five people to sit in each of these tractors. I think from a future visionary standpoint, I believe that the farmer is going to be more managing these machines and focusing on tasks that require hands, like filling up trucks again, or maintenance for breakdowns and all that sort of thing. I do believe that will be the next push. When that is, whether that's in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, I believe it will be in my lifetime. I'm 27 at the minute so that will be either implemented or not far off being implemented.

Drew Radford:

Clay, as you said, you're only 27, but you're obviously seeing a change in terms of labour being available on properties. Is that part the driver also you think for this need for drone technology? Just simple access to people to do the job.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, potentially. I know we usually employ people for harvest and sometimes for sowing. It is sometimes hard to get some people to say... Especially if they've got part-time job or another job to say, "Come work for us for two months. And then you can go back to your job." Most people don't want to do that. You need to almost find someone who either is looking for a job is only working let's say part-time and they can cut their other job back. So, to find that sort of person who's actually good quality people can be difficult to find because we... As we were running multimillion-dollar machinery, we don't want to just chuck anyone on there that doesn't really know what they're doing. We actually sort of almost filter through people before you even ask them. And then obviously those people are probably qualified or got jobs elsewhere.

Clay Gowers:

So, I don't believe labour acquisition is going to be the driver of it. I think it'll just be technology, making things easier so that you are working smarter. You're not working harder. You're putting your resources where they need to be instead of just sitting in a seat. I find sometimes during harvest and sowing, I'm just sitting there babysitting this machine, making sure that if something goes wrong, I'm on top of it. But 90% of my day is sitting there just watching. And if you could take out that portion and just have a machine that could literally drive itself and then if something goes wrong, it stops. And then you get a notification on your tablet or smartphone or whatever it may be, saying, unit such and such is encountering an error. And then you have to go and obviously solve that error. So, I just think that, that would... It makes you use your time more efficiently instead of sitting in a seat unproductive basically, is sort of my vision on it.

Drew Radford:

So, Clay potentially, is this scholarship putting you on the pathway of where you really think farming is going to be? I mean, your vision is moving farming towards a very high-end technical skill set as well as a high-end agronomic skill set as well.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, definitely. The technology is here now to implement what I'm talking about. It's just got to be, I suppose, trialled and have issues sorted out and then obviously progress. And that period is going to take a long time. Right now, in America, they've got tractors that will drive themselves and you just set up your parameters. Here's the boundary, here's a tree. They'll go around it, not a problem. It's not that will be an implementation. It will be the part that the neighbour worrying about if it's going to drive through his house. It's going to be the safety side of things that will take a long time to get over the line to then start implementing. So, I suppose I've got my scholarship side of things, which is obviously is amazing. And I'm so excited to get started and start flying my drone around and start using it on our farm effectively and being able to make better agronomic decisions faster.

Clay Gowers:

But I can also see this other side of it where the future is going to be so incredibly interesting and the direction that it's going to go, really, it could go anywhere. But where I can see it going is just going to make life a lot easier. It'll be almost the same instance when GPS started being installed on tractors. Some people had them, some people didn't, but the people that did have them, they found the technology useful. They could see how it was saving the money with fuel, with chemicals, with not overlapping. So, they were saving more money and that paid for their unit in return. I can see this as another instance where once you implement it, it will save you more money and it'll pay for itself anyway. And then in 20 years, people will be saying, "It was the best thing I ever did. It saved me money. And when did you get your drone?"

Clay Gowers:

I believe this will be sort of the next step we'll be mapping. And then obviously in the future for the forward, it will be unmanned tractors and sort of progressed in that direction.

Drew Radford:

Well Clay, it's a very exciting future that you envisage. And I think you're probably on track for seeing it become a reality. How far are you through your training now with your scholarship in terms of the first part of the scholarship?

Clay Gowers:

I've pretty much only got one last portion of it. I'm doing my training down in Warrnambool and I've done the... basically the mapping and data gathering side of things. And then the third part is just a more in-depth learning how to fly larger drones and comply with aviation laws and things like that. I haven't been able to do that section of it due to coronavirus. I was pretty much set in to go just before it all started. And then obviously everything's sort of flared up. So that's sort of been put on the pause for the moment. And so once pretty much I can sort of get down to Warrnambool and organize that again, I'll be heading down there. And then once I've ticked that off pretty much, that's my Upskill portion of the scholarship covered. And then the next step will be the invest side of things, which will be where I'll be looking at purchasing an ag specific drone to help with my mapping.

Drew Radford:

Well, I'm sure you've been trolling the internet, looking for the perfect drone. Clay Gowers, thank you very much for joining me in the Ag Vic Talk studio and all the best with the remaining part of your scholarship and the exciting future road that it's going to take you on.

Clay Gowers:

No worries. Thank you, Drew. Thanks for having me on.

Drew Radford:
For more information about the Upskill and Invest Young Farmers Scholarship and other Young Farmer resources visit vic.gov.au/youngfarmers or search Young Farmer Business Network on Facebook.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 3: Spring pasture management of fire affected pastures with Fiona Baker

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Spring is a crucial time for pasture management. What factors, though, should producers consider, if the land was burnt in last summer's fires? There's a range of things to take into account, and a person with experience and insight to this is Agriculture Victoria Livestock Extension Officer Fiona Baker. And she joins me now in the AgVic Talk studio. Fiona, thanks for your time.

Fiona Baker:

Not a problem.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, I'd like to take a bit of a step back. What sort of effects can fire have on pastures? And I imagine there's a range of things to consider, from fire intensity all through to the type of pasture.

Fiona Baker:

Yeah, so the intensity of the burn has a big impact on the potential for pastures to recover down the track. So really hot burns where we see an ash-bed being formed, we basically don't see pastures come back from that at all, and they tend to need to be renovated and started over again. But, generally, what we see on most farming situations is a much lower intensity burn, either a very cool burn or a moderate burn, and where we've got a cool burn going across, we see pretty much the whole pasture recovering. Where we've got a moderate burn going across, we can lose up to 50% of the pasture species out of those areas and they may not grow back, but it really is dependent on the pasture species that are present as well. Are they native pastures? Are they some of our improved pastures, ryegrass, cocksfoot, phalaris? And also the age of the pasture, we've noticed, makes a big difference as well.

Fiona Baker:

So, from the fires that we saw recently over January 2020, we saw that brand new pastures that had been resown the previous year, they were basically less than 12 months old, regardless of the species they generally struggle to come back. And what we saw with well-established pastures that had been there for quite a while, whether they were native pastures or introduced species, so your ryegrasses, cocksfoots, etc. If they were older than 12 months old, we've seen quite good recovery from most of those pastures. So it really does depend on that intensity of burn and the species as well.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, how, then, do the producers know if they actually do need to resow?

Fiona Baker:

One of the best things they can do is just to get out and have a look at those pastures. Have a look about how much bare ground they can actually see in those pastures, because too much bare ground leaves it prone to erosion, but also allows a lot of weed invasion in those pastures. And that's probably the last thing that they want to happen. Post-fires, they often have to bring in quite a lot of feed in terms of hay in particular, and sometimes silage, but hay's a large risk in terms of bringing in weeds, in terms of seeds that might be in that hay itself. So, the more bare ground that they've got in their paddocks where they're feeding hay, the more likely they are to get those weeds up and growing, causing issues down the track.

Fiona Baker:

So if they can have a look in their paddocks and just see how many species that they actually want in their pastures are actually present, versus bare ground, that will give them a fairly good idea.

Drew Radford:

Well, Fiona, drilling down a little bit further then, what's the best way a producer should go about making that assessment to resow?

Fiona Baker:

Getting out and wandering across the paddock. I guess it depends on how big the paddock is. So you can either do it on foot, or you can do it off a bike or a horse. If you're doing it by foot, I tend to do it every 10 or 20 paces, have a look down at the toe of my boot and see what's there. Is it bare ground? Is it a grass that I want growing, or is it a weed? And just making a little mark on a bit of paper in a notebook, or something along those lines, and do that as many times as you can across a paddock. Generally, I like to say do it a minimum of 20 times, ideally 50 times, across the paddock at 50 different spots to do the assessment. And then all you have to do, if you've done it 20 times, is multiply it by five.

Fiona Baker:

If you've done it 50 times, multiply it by two to get a percentage. And that gives you an idea of how much bare ground you've got, or how much of the desired species you've got. If you've got less than 70% of the desired species, so more than 30% bare ground as well, that's probably a trigger to say you possibly need to think about resowing. If you do that assessment in spring, it can be a very good time to do it, and that will give you an idea about whether you really need to have a good look in that autumn period. If you have good rainfall over the spring and early summer months, your desirable species of grasses, in particular, might actually tiller and thicken out in those pastures. Which means, basically, you may not need to resow in the autumn, but if we have a particularly dry spring and summer, those bare patches may actually increase in size and you'll definitely need to do resowing in that autumn period.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, you've talked a little bit about spring there, but what are the key grazing management strategies to think about this spring, following the fires.

Fiona Baker:

It's the common grazing management methods that we use during normal years, regardless of whether there's been a fire or not. Ideally, we want to graze to what we call "leaf stage" as much as possible. So, particularly, our introduced species like ryegrass and cocksfoot and phalaris, they have leaf stages that they prefer to be grazed at to make sure that they stay in the system. Ryegrass prefers to be grazed at two and a half to three leaves. Cocksfoot and phalaris prefer to be grazed at about the four-leaf stage. And if we do this, we actually maximise the amount of leaf we grow, but also the amount of root that's being grown below the soil surface.

Fiona Baker:

This really sets that plant up to be in your system long-term. If we keep coming back and grazing those plants too quickly and too early, and they don't get out to that leaf stage, we actually damage the root system underneath. They can be prone to being pulled out quite easily, and they also struggle to access moisture deep down in the profile. So, we actually shorten their growing season. Most grass species will actually tiller out, which is making new little plants off to the side of the main parent plant, and this is how our pastures thicken up over time. So, we need light to be able to get down to the base of those plants, to trigger off the tillering process.

Fiona Baker:

But most plants also won't start tillering until they get near that leaf stage for grazing. Ryegrass generally tends not to think too hard about tillering out until it's about that two, two and a half leaf stage. Cocksfoot and phalaris, probably about the three leaf stage before they think about tillering out. Then we want to also make sure we don't graze down too hard. So have the appropriate residuals left behind.

Fiona Baker:

If we graze down below 1000 kilograms of dry matter per hectare, we can actually start to damage the plant itself because it's actually got energy reserves in that last little bit of stubble. As well as energy out of the roots, it uses energy out of that remnant stem, or the residual, to start powering out those first new leaves before they can use the sunlight to capture it. So, when you're thinking about 1000 kilograms of dry matter per hectare, that's just three centimetres in height. If you can leave three centimetres’ residuals behind, that will set the pastures up really well for good, strong, healthy regrowth.

Fiona Baker:

Some of the other things we might need to think about over spring, particularly if we have got some weeds growing in what were those bare patches, is thinking about controlling those weeds with a bit of herbicide. Some weeds can be spray grazed, and that's just where a light application of herbicide is applied. There's usually a withhold period to keep the stock off, which is usually around seven days, and then you can put the stock in to graze the pasture, including those weeds.

Fiona Baker:

I guess, one other one that just sprang to mind, then, is if they do have some annuals or they don't have a lot of stock in their system, they've got some bare open patches, is it might be the kind of year where you might want to let grasses go to seed and drop that seed into the pasture to help thicken it up as well. The majority of thickening up of pasture happens through that tillering process, but recruitment from seed does happen as well. So, it might be one of those years, post-fire, that people might consider doing that.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, you mentioned, there, "post-fire". If farmers are in a position to cut fodder after a fire, what do they need to think about?

Fiona Baker:

Yeah, it's a good one. So where a lot of people may not have bought the normal number of stock back, but if they've had half-decent rainfall which has generated good pasture growth, they might be finding that they've got surplus feed on hand that they want to cut as fodder. In particular, what you really want to think about if you have cut fodder or are going to cut fodder, is as soon as you cut that hay or silage off those paddocks, is to replace the nutrients. Because what we're doing when we take off hay or silage off a paddock, is we're pulling phosphorus, potassium and sulphur out of those paddocks. If we were going to feed the hay and silage straight back onto those paddocks to stock, they recycle those nutrients and replace most of them back, but more often than not we'll cut off one or two paddocks and then feed it out somewhere else.

Fiona Baker:

So we're actually moving those nutrients to another area. If we want those pastures to grow back really strong and healthy, we need to put back that phosphorus, potassium and sulphur. And there's usually about 3 kilos of phosphorus for every one ton of dry matter removed in hay and silage. When we're looking at potassium in hay, there's roughly 15 kilos for every one ton of dry matter removed. So that potassium, in particular, we're removing quite a lot out of the system. We can actually cause a deficiency quite quickly if we don't replace those nutrients. So, it's just something to really think about.

Fiona Baker:

If we want those pastures to recover... They've already been through a very stressful period in terms of being burnt. We just want to make sure that they're well set up, as much as possible, to take into use the rainfall that comes in this autumn period that's coming forwards. Get those pastures really up and firing and growing, ready to have animals brought back into the system.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, looking a little bit further ahead over the horizon. Do people have to wait until autumn to resow?

Fiona Baker:

No, not really. Some people will try spring sowing, particularly of ryegrass, cocksfoot, phalaris. That can be difficult if you think it's going to rain over that late spring and early summer period. You can generally get away with a bit of spring sowing, but what we usually recommend is wait until autumn to resow, because you're more guaranteed a rainfall event to allow germination to happen. If you do need feed going through that spring and summer period, there are other options, such as summer fodder crops like chicory and some of the brassicas. And they can actually be used over that late spring, summer and early autumn period to fill that feed gap. Then, in autumn, you can move into putting in your actual pasture itself, your perennial species. So, there's options to think about, and probably talking to a local seed agronomist is a very good idea. Just to identify which species are best suited for what you're trying to achieve with your animals, as well as what you're trying to achieve in your pasture rotation.

Fiona Baker:

If you've got a lot of bare ground at the moment through this spring period, it probably is advisable to put some sort of fodder crop in. Just so you've got a good ground cover over that summer period to minimize any soil erosion, and then go into your pastures in that autumn period. But if you've got good ground cover already, and you're thinking, "Maybe I don't need a huge flush of feed over summer," you can actually hold off until autumn to do your resowing.

Drew Radford:

Fiona Baker, Agriculture Victoria Livestock Extension Officer. Thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Fiona Baker:

Not a problem. Cheers.

Drew Radford:

For more fire recovery, pastures and feeding livestock information, producers can visit the Agriculture Victoria website.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family. All information is accurate at the time of release.

Speaker 1:

Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 2: Managing a dairy farm in a variable climate with Kevin Fitzsimmons

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Climate variability is an issue for all producers, but when you produce something daily like milk, it becomes a very big focus of your planning. Kevin Fitzsimmons is a dairy farmer for Merrigum in the Northern Irrigation region. His family has farmed there for three generations, but he says since the millennium drought, running profitably has never been more difficult. He joins me in the AgVic Talk studio to discuss how he manages climate variability.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, thanks for your time.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

My pleasure, Drew. Thank you very much.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, you face challenges like never before. Once you were a farmer, now you're a water trader constantly focused on the market. On top of that, you've got a variable climate as well to deal with. Are you still passionate about what you do?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah. Look, I am passionate about it. I actually really love what I do. We have not been on a holiday for three years, but I don't feel like I need to go on a holiday. I get up every morning at four o'clock, seven days a week because I love what I do. To me, I feel like I'm in paradise. And when I say that to people, they sort of look at me a bit strange, but maybe it's just because it's what I've always done. It's what I know. And I don't know any different, I guess. Although I had worked off farm years and years ago, but I really genuinely love what I do. I love my cows and I like to look after them as best I can.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

It is hard when you've got to make those decisions. Well, we've never let the cows go without, so I've never had hungry cows. We've always gone and bought the feed or bought the water or done things to feed and look after them. So, yeah, it's just what I love to do.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, for those that don't work in the industry, they probably think that because you're on irrigated land, you wouldn't have to worry too much about climate variation. That though is a fair way from the reality though, isn't it?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah, it is. Basically, we have our water allocation, but we really need double the amount of water that we need to farm profitably. So, we've got to go into the temporary market and buy that water. At a certain point, that water becomes too expensive to make a profit out of. So, we've then got to obviously, to buy grain or hay and those costs have been high as well but get a better return out of that than the price of water.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

One mega litre will roughly grow you a ton of food and at 5-$600 a megalitre, it's too high when you can buy grain around 400 or hay at 350, a ton, dollars a ton, that represents a better value. It's still not economical, but to try and get through as best we can. That's how we've dealt with it and going forward, hopefully, water price will come down, but with the water market, water prices seem to be continually high and that's a concern going forward. So, unless we have a wet year, but the next year could be dry again. And then all of a sudden, it's back up again.

Drew Radford:

So you're constantly juggling, Kevin, then really in regards to how much water can you afford or have access to, to water your land. And look, for those that don't understand, you're not just watering pasture and keeping it green to graze cows on, you're actually growing pasture and stocking fodder away. Aren't you?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah. We are, and we've actually changed the composition of what we grow. We don't grow as much pasture now because of the cost of water, cost of putting it on in the summertime when there's so much evaporation and productivity drops off, as far as growth rates go. It's just not economic to put it on. So, we're probably changing to more crops and growing more annuals which is shaftal and ryegrass, things like that, which we water in the autumn. So, we've got feed through winter and probably takes two, maybe three watering’s in the autumn. And then it might take another couple of watering’s in the spring time to finish off depending on whether we get spring rain.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that could be a maximum of six watering’s on those annual pastures where, as summer pasture, it could be anything between 15 to 20 irrigations and you don't get that much more tonnage of feed. So things have changed because of the water situation of how we operate. And we adjust our numbers as to what we can feed and cost, obviously that drives either profit or reducing the loss that you're going to make that year.

Drew Radford:

So what other things are you doing, Kevin to try and constantly juggle, I guess the cost of water against what the climate is actually doing, because you're looking to the skies to try and bring you, I suppose, cheaper water for want of a better description. What other things are you implementing on your property to try and deal with variation of climate and access to water?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Well, what we've just done in the last four or five months, we've installed a pipe and riser system. So that eliminates well evaporation, seepage, so all our water is now piped around the farm. And that was put in place, obviously with the rationalisation of the irrigation system and the modernisation. We've got rid of open channels, Goulburn Murray Water have rationalized some channels on our farm, and they gain the water savings. So, there's a saving there and they we're able to incentivise us, I guess, to put in a pipe and riser system. We had to put in some cash ourselves but in the long run, obviously that's increased our efficiency. Haven't actually used it yet. The system will start operating again, 15th of August is when the system opens up again, the irrigation season.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

But yeah, the results are...and I have actually used, we had a recycle system I need to move water from one into the others that we were going to run out of water at the dairy and that we're able to run water from one dam to another that had water in it. So, they had water at the dairy site which I could never, ever do before. So, it's worked really well that way. And obviously I can water paddocks more efficiently. I can get the water on quicker. I've got a higher flow rates and the water will come on instantaneously on those paddocks. Whereas before I'd probably have to wait three or four hours for the channel to fill up before I could get water onto those paddocks.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's where we're heading now. And the water savings on that, well, we haven't monitored that yet but on other sites that have had them in, the water savings there have been quite impressive. So, we're hopeful that that's going to make us more efficient, more profitable going forward. And obviously for the next generation and the generations after we can keep staying here.

Drew Radford:

I get the impression Kevin, that a lot of your work is actually about debt management and also borderline being a stock broker or water broker?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

You're dead right. It's definitely been since the millennium drought about debt management. I suppose prior to 2000, things just ticked over from one year to the next and it was pretty easy, but it has been about managing that debt and trying to find... every year has been different, I guess, because our biggest inputs, obviously, our grain, hay and water. And we look at those each year and try to manage that and see what the season is going to do.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

We obviously monitor what the Bureau are forecasting and if they're forecasting like they have in the past, El Nino’s, we know water prices are going to be dear so we try and lock in our hay early so that we've got that there, so we're not exposed to the water market. So, we're always looking probably six months in advance to seeing what we can plan, how we can get through it for that next six months. And that's how we're managing it. It is a juggling act and it has been for quite a few years. So, we'll just see how it all pans out now that we've modernised our operation here. And we're also leasing land, so it can grow, be more self-sufficient and grow more feed. And we do all our own hay. So, we're trying to be as self-sufficient as we can and not being exposed to those markets where prices can just crucify you really, I guess.

Drew Radford:

I understand also, you've changed your watering regime in terms of trying to get a different root growth happening with some of your pasture. What was your aim there and what did you do and what have you achieved?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

I guess we always have topped in the past and that keeps the plant at a certain height. Last year, because we knew we were going to run out of water because we were putting the pipe and riser in, we didn't top. Basically, what happens on top of the ground, happens below the ground. But we made the decision that we're going to have a compromise and have a bit more growth on top and a higher residual that will keep the moisture high. You're not going to get the evaporation. So, it stretched out our watering. And also, the roots obviously are forced to go down to chase that moisture as well and that worked pretty well. Obviously, when we put the pipe and riser in, we weren't able to irrigate the whole farm went dry. And we bought a heap of food back last spring because we knew that was going to happen.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

But in the past, that is what we've done. Yeah. We tried to keep that residual a lot higher than what is normal in normal happens. So yeah, it's a lot of experimenting I guess, and trying to work out as things change from season to season. And as I said, we look six months ahead and try and forecast and see what's going to happen for that season. And then we'll make our plan accordingly.

Drew Radford:

So Kevin, what other things have you done in terms of changing infrastructure around your property to try and deal with hot weather and variation or excessive wet?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

In 2016, we had a very wet year, which we hadn't experienced for a while. And we sacrificed paddocks, and we just had hay rings in paddocks, and we wasted a lot of feed. I said, "I'm not doing that again." We had an area where we built a recycled dam and there was a bank of dirt there and it was built up, but it hadn't been gravelled or anything and probably a hectare in size. So we ended up graveling all of that, about 6 inches of gravel over it. And we put hay rings set up on that. The cows will come off the dairy and they'll go straight onto the pad and get feed off there. And it's just made things more efficient. And even when we have had a wet period they've gone on there. There's minimal damage to the paddocks, they're not getting plugged up. We can grow better quality feed on those paddocks that aren't out of production because they had been wrecked and ruining the soil structure.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's been a big saving there and we're obviously not wasting the feed either. As far as, we put shade cloth on the dairy. We used to have a lot of problems obviously here in the Goulburn Valley and in Australia in particular, I guess. We're exposed to the sun. We used to have a lot of cows that... When I say a lot, probably one or two every few years that would go down with, get severe sunburn. So yeah, we put that on there. The cows coming into dairy even on really hot days and it creates its own breeze under the shade cloth, the temperature is so much cooler. And the cows come in there and they're not panting or anything like that, they're calm.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's made a huge difference as well. We're always looking for what's best for the cow, how she can be as comfortable as she can. And also it's a workplace thing as well. So, there are things that we've implemented and quite happy with how that's worked out.

Drew Radford:

You've got a lot going on with your property in terms of juggling water and pasture and growth and running a dairy full time as well. What about calving, have you changed that around at all to try and spread the workload across the year?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yes, we have actually. When my parents were running it, we were just a spring calving herd. When I took over probably 30 years ago now, we went to spring and autumn. And we have, probably the last 15 years ago, we actually went to three times a year calving. So every four months, we calve and a lot of that came about, I guess, through fertility of cows. Initially with spring calving, if you didn't get a cow in calf, she had to be a really good cow to milk through for another 12 months, otherwise we would lose our cow, just send her to the abattoirs. And to me that wasn't profitable. So that's why we went to autumn calving.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So it was a six month interval calving, obviously the same problem. The cow had to be good enough to carry through for another six months to get back in calf again for the next cycle. And the industry is addressing that fertility now through selecting for high fertility bulls and we've been on that program now for the last three years. And that has made a big difference as well to getting cows in calf. We have a short calving period of six weeks at each joining. Whereas in the past, in the spring time calving, we'd join for three months. So, you'd be calving for three months. So, it was a long drawn out affair.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So, by going to three times a year calving and having shorter calving intervals, it has evened the workload out because you're not going flat out at one particular point in time. So yeah, one calving will come along, we will rear those calves and they'll be out through the system before the next one comes along. We're not overburdened with a heap of calves at one particular time. It just evens a work load out for everybody.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, you mentioned, you're always looking to the future and trying to plan ahead. What sort of tools are you using to do that, apps and websites and information?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

We do a lot with... Always looking at the forecast and whatever information we can get through Dairy Australia. They put out a lot of information. There is a lot of information out there if you want to go and look for it to plan ahead. It's very good information that you can make decisions around. And at the end of the day, every farm is different, I guess. And you take out the information that you want, that suits you and your operation, obviously we're a family farm. There are bigger operations out there as well, which would have different structures. We're trying to keep our operation as simple as we possibly can. And that suits us. It's intensive enough the way it is and enough pressure, the way it is with what's happening with climate change and the Murray–Darling basin and everything else. So, we just try to keep that as simple as we can without complicating it too much.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like you are really focused on setting the property up to continue on for the next generation and for your son to stay firmly at the helm.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah, well, we are. My parents set it up for us and I'm eternally grateful for them. And I want to be able to do the same for my son and have a farm that is sustainable going forward. To me, it's a legacy. We're obviously trying to make a living out of it as well and survive and be profitable and have a good lifestyle. But we also are thinking of the next generation, as the generation before were thinking of us. So yeah, going forward, it is a priority for us that my son has got a future in the industry and obviously his family, if they decide to come back as well, have a future as well. That's our goal.

Drew Radford:

Well, Kevin Fitzsimmons, it sounds like you are well and truly on the path to achieving that goal. Thank you very much for your time today and joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

My pleasure, Drew. Thank you very much.

Drew Radford:

For more Agriculture Victoria information on dealing with climate variability, you can subscribe to both, The Break and the Milking the Weather newsletters. Both of these you can find through the Agriculture Victoria website. Also, you can get in contact with your local dairy extension officer who can direct you to relevant information and advice to help you get started in understanding how your business can adapt to climate variability.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

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All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

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This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 1: Turn a dream to farm into reality with Sarah McLean

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Trying to get into farming from scratch is not something that happens often these days, as the price of land and equipment is prohibitive to most 20-year-olds. This was exactly the situation faced by Sarah McLean, who grew up in a fifth-generation farming family. She knew the possibility of running the family farm was a long way off, so she left to become a neuropsychologist, a career that would let her start saving for her own property. Along the way, she has pursued every opportunity to help make her dream become a reality, and one of those was successfully applying for the Young Farmers Scholarship. I'm Drew Radford, and Sarah joins me in the Ag Vic Talk studio to discuss pursuing a dream that many would've shied away from.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, thanks for your time.

Sarah McClean:

Thank you, Drew.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, you and your husband, Byron, have done it the hard way to become farmers. There aren't too many people that start from scratch these days.

Sarah McClean:

Yeah, that's right, Drew. I was actually born into a farming family; however, having two siblings, basically I didn't want to wait until any sort of succession plan because I didn't want to farm when I was 60, I wanted to farm when I was young and could still enjoy it. My husband wasn't born into a farming family at all, he actually was born in Geelong, in the middle of town, though he was always interested in farming, so he worked on some local properties and things like that from a young age.

Drew Radford:

But you left the farm to become a psychologist, though, so did you give up that dream at some stage?

Sarah McClean:

I always had the dream, I guess I just didn't really know how to follow that dream and do it when I was young. Everyone said that it's not possible and it costs too much money to buy your land, and then you've got to buy your cattle and machinery, so you can't really set up. Most kids where I grew up, they all left the family farm to get a profession.

Sarah McClean:

I remember when I was really young, a doctor asked me what I wanted to do, just my local GP, and I said I wanted to farm. They said, "Well, how are you going to do that?" I was about 12 at the time, and I said, "Oh, I guess I'll get an education and try and save up a bit of money so I can buy some land." So it was always in the back of my mind, and I always did like psychology as well. I worked with horses, and I think that sort of got me thinking about, I guess, the mind, actions, behaviours and mental state. So, I went to Melbourne and I studied neuropsychology, which was eight years in Melbourne.

Drew Radford:

That’s quite a step away from farming, what was involved in terms of getting you back on the land?

Sarah McClean:

I guess it was always in the back of my mind. As soon as I qualified, I got a job in Warrnambool, that was the closest large centre to where my parents were, to try and get back on the land. Then I guess I was trying to figure out how I was going to buy my first parcel of land. Originally, I was thinking maybe just 20 acres or something so I could have my horses, and then, when I met Byron, he originally wanted to go back and work on a station up at the Kimberley somewhere. As we got talking about different models, he had had the same background as me and said that he always thought that he would never own his own place, because that's what you're told: unless you inherit it, you don't get it. Then we saved hard, we worked hard, and then we managed to buy our first block of 90 acres.

Drew Radford:

That's a long path just to get to your first 90 acres. You've grown it from there, though, haven't you?

Sarah McClean:

We're up to about 700 acres now. We bought 90 acres, and a lot of people said, "Oh, I wouldn't be bothered with 90 acres." We could run 25 cows all year round, and their calves, and sell the calves as weaners, but you still need all your machinery, you still need all your tools, so it's a bit of expense for not much profit, but doing that helped us establish relationships with the bank. Though I'd grown up on a farm, there was actually so much I didn't know about running a business. It's a bit different running it yourself than having mum and dad to lean on and give you guidance of what's happening.

Drew Radford:

So, in regard to the bank, Sarah, and also the knowledge of running the business, is that where applying for the Young Farmers Scholarship comes in for you, to help build that knowledge?

Sarah McClean:

Well, originally, I'd suggested that Byron apply for it. I'm not really sure why I did that, I think it was just the gender stereotype thing. He ran out of time, and I said, "Well, if you're not applying for it, I will." I applied to do a course run by RCS, it was Grazing and Farming for Profit, and it's a pretty broad course. It covers business, land management, and the people aspect of your business. So, I didn't really think I had a lot of chance, because I only had 90 acres, in getting that. I just really hadn't considered myself as a farmer at that stage, I thought it was too small, but it really set the scene in a lot of different interest areas that I have now.

Drew Radford:

Actually, access to the scholarship helped you access doing the course. How else has the scholarship been beneficial?

Sarah McClean:

It's been beneficial in a lot of ways because the course helped me get a real framework in terms of my business, and it also introduced me to land management techniques and looking at soil health rather than just putting stuff on the land because it's what we are told to do. Also, different grazing techniques to get the most out of your land. The other thing that I guess opened my mind up a little bit was the people side of business. We hear a lot about farmers and mental health and people struggling on the land, and there's a bit of a story that goes with farming that, yes, it's tough, yes, it's hard, and you just have to suffer. Where, the courses I did makes you step back and go, "Okay, you've also got to work on your relationship," that's with your family, with yourself, with the land, and I guess be happy farming. It's not a narrative that we often hear in the farming sort of world, is, "Oh, look, they're farming and they're happy," but ultimately we all must love doing it because you wouldn't do the long hours otherwise.

Sarah McClean:

The second part of the scholarship is a infrastructure-type grant. I originally had put in my application that I wanted to do some tree lines and plant trees, which I still am planning to do, but in the more short term, the more pressing issue was to get a new cattle crush. Before the course, I would have said that that was unnecessary because I had an old crush. The head bail didn't even work; it was quite dangerous. I remember at one stage I was quite heavily pregnant with my second child and I was trying to put a fencing post in behind a heifer that was calving when she was having trouble. I had my young daughter on the outside of the yard, just the other side of the crush. Anyway, the heifer kicked the fencing post, knocked me backwards, and briefly knocked me out, and I had a bit of a mark under my chin. From that it gave me a bit of a scare, and I realised probably the biggest risk to my business is me getting injured, and to make sure that I would actually be set up properly and in a more safer way would actually be important in my business, where before I'd said it was probably a bit of a luxury. So, I ended up getting a new cattle crush, which is amazing.

Drew Radford:

So, it's actually sent you down a path of farm safety as well?

Sarah McClean:

Yeah, that's right, and I didn't think about that aspect too much. Obviously, I'm always making sure that my kids are safe, and then, when I realized that, "Hey, if I'm knocked out in the cattle yards, I actually can't keep my kids safe," because my daughter was only 18 months old at the time and while I was alert I could actually watch her and she was quite happily just playing where she was, it was a bit of a wake-up call that the people in your business is probably the most important thing in your business, aside from grazing, and financial, and all the rest.

Drew Radford:

You've got a lot going on, Sarah. You're a mum, you're still practicing as a psychologist, you're trying to build up a farming enterprise. Was taking the scholarship on just a real opportunity, really, to start going down a different path?

Sarah McClean:

With the business that we've got and starting from scratch, you have to invest in yourself. Using the scholarship money, I did the RCS course because otherwise it's hard to justify, when you're trying to start a business, spending that sort of money. Now I see that that would've been the best money I could spend, even if it was my own money, but just getting that money out of your pocket in the first instant is difficult. I've also done a KLR Marketing School. I've recently just done a dog and stock handling school with Neil MacDonald. We're now studying Next Steps, which is like a mentoring program for your business. Some people would say, "Oh, it's just extra time. I don't have time for all that stuff," but if I didn't do that, then it would make my job so much harder and I probably wouldn't, even if I had the opportunities that have come forward...

Sarah McClean:

For example, the biggest part of my farm is actually lease land. There was a lady down the road that was looking to get out of farming, and she saw that I obviously tried to educate myself, I had the background in farming, and was actually doing it on my own. She gave us the opportunity, so credit to her because most farmers who are looking to lease their land would go for, say, an established farmer or a larger company where there's a bit more security. She took a bit of a chance on us because, number one, I guess we'd already shown that we were farming, and, number two, she did want to give the opportunity to a younger person. If you've got young people farming your community, that has flow-on effects for the local school, the kindergarten, the sporting teams, and all the rest, compared to just giving a lease to an already established, usually older farmer within the area.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, your commitment to farming seems to be very, very deep because you're also a member of the Young Farmer Advisory Council as well. What made you pursue that?

Sarah McClean:

I think, basically, because I'd been told that you can't start farming from scratch. I also have an interest in farmer mental health and in sustainable farming practices, and, I think, unless you're involved to some degree or you have some sort of platform to have that voice, that you can't really comment too much about what's going on in politics or what programs are offering or what there is available. Where, if you've actually got that platform to speak your mind, then you can really contribute and help other people and maybe make it a little bit easy for the next lot of farmers that come along as well.

Drew Radford:

Are you continuing on with the council? It sounds like you've got an enormous amount going on in your life as is.

Sarah McClean:

Yes, I'm continuing on in the next term. That's another three-year term. I'm going to be the chair of the next advisory council. I think it's nine members all up for this next term.

Drew Radford:

Congratulations with that and everything else that you've got going on ahead of you. Sarah, how far do you think you are from your dream and becoming a full-time farmer? Back to that question, I guess, that the doctor asked you when you were 12 years old.

Sarah McClean:

To be honest, the progress that we've made since buying that first block has surprised me, it's been a lot quicker, so I'm hoping it's not too long. Obviously, as I said, the biggest part of our business is lease land, so that's a risk to our business because you can lose a lease at any stage. I guess we just need to expand a little bit more to minimize that risk before we can look at doing full-time farming, but hopefully in the next five years.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, lastly, what would you say to somebody who's listening to this and contemplating applying for the scholarship?

Sarah McClean:

I would say don't contemplate, just do it. There's not much to lose in doing it. It takes maybe an hour or two of your time and it can really set you up to do what you love doing. It doesn't matter what level of farming business. Don't be put off if you think that your business is too small or it's just in the ideas phase. Even having it written down, even if you don't get the scholarship, putting your dream down on paper can be of a benefit anyway too.

Drew Radford:

Sarah McLean, you're doing an amazing job of pursuing your dream of being back on the land in between running a farm, being a mum, a neuropsychologist and also Young Farmers Scholarship recipient. Thank you so much for joining me in the Ag Vic Talk studio.

Sarah McClean:

Thank you very much, Drew.

Drew Radford:

For more information about the Upskill and Invest Young Farmers Scholarship and other Young Farmer resources visit vic.gov.au/youngfarmers or search Young Farmer Business Network on Facebook.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk.  For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government-

Introduction with Dougal Purcell

Hello and welcome, I'm Dougal Purcell from Agriculture Victoria. We are really excited to bring you Ag Vic Talk.

In a first for Agriculture Victoria, we bring you this AgVic Talk podcast series. Follow along as we bring you stories, information and advice from around our great state of Victoria. In our first series we will be covering contemporary problems and solutions for bushfire recovery, drought and dry seasonal conditions, weather and climate as well as hearing some fantastic inspiring stories from our young farmers.

For episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Page last updated: 23 Dec 2020