John Scotney

Farm: 'Warialda'

Region: West Midlands, 2.5 hours north of Perth

Commodities: Wheat, barley, canola, lambs, hay

Farming area: 3200 hectares

Rainfall: 300–650 mm per year

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Phone: 08 9652 9042

 

If you know that there is rain coming, we can try to fertilise ahead of that. Years ago, we might have previously had 8 of those rain events; now we might get a couple. There is an urgency to our cropping that was not there before.

The simplicity of our approach gives us the room to react to new circumstances: drier autumns, non-wetting soils. We have learned to respond quickly to any opportunities that come along.

 

John and Emma Scotney on their farm at Badgingarra, two and a half hours north of Perth.

 

See what John has to say about:

 

Learning farming on the job

I was working in London, as an accountant, 18 years ago when the phone call came through. It was my father, who farmed the wheat belt at Piawaning in Western Australia. He said, ‘I bought a property in Badgingarra. If you’re interested in farming you’d better come home.’

So I came back. My father had bought 3000 acres at Badgingarra. It was a mixed farm, focused on lamb production, wheat and lupins.

Our farm is 8000 acres of rolling country 2.5 hours north of Perth, 70 kilometres in from the sea.

I basically learnt on the job. I think with farming you don’t really learn anything until you have to do it for yourself. Once my wife, Emma, and I were independent of my family’s operation, that is when we really started looking hard at what we were doing and how we were doing it, to make it work.

When we started, livestock production was the focus in the Badgingarra district. Like everyone else, we focused mainly on fat lamb and wether production, as well as growing lupins and wheat in rotation.

When things settled down and we had time to take stock of things, we saw we would need to do things differently.

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How autumn rainfall has dropped since 2000

Our district has lost the soaking autumn rains that were a feature of our first years on the farm. The biggest changes have been in the last 5 years. The beginning of the autumn rain season has become noticeably drier.

A typical autumn back then was a week of wet conditions—but there has been a significant reduction in rainfall through the autumn.

The average rainfall since 1962 was about 550 mm for this area. But our typical annual rainfall is now about 450 mm, and the rain is usually in quick, intense events.

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Coping with the loss of autumn rains

Losing the autumn rains has had a significant effect on our farming practices. Now, we might take risks with a canola crop by dry-seeding. The absence of reliable autumn rains places more pressure on rain-dependent operations, like spraying or applications of urea.

If you know that there is rain coming, we can try to fertilise ahead of that. Years ago, we might have previously had 8 of those rain events; now we might get a couple. There is an urgency to our cropping that was not there before.

Dry conditions make sheep tough to run. Like other farmers in the district, we offloaded big numbers of sheep and replaced them with crops. Now, 3000 sheep graze where 8000 formerly ran.

What we now pay more attention to is looking at how much yield we can get from the available rainfall. That is a more meaningful indicator for us.

 

There is variability in soils on the Scotney farm. Here John stands in a pit of loamy soil about 5 metres deep.

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Holding soil moisture with no-till practices

When we started here, we initially ran a minimum-till system, working the soil when we put the crop in. Our biggest problems were getting the crop in before it got too wet, and combating crop damage from machine tracks.

Because it has been drier, we have had to think about how to conserve soil moisture. We now use no-till practices to do that. The soil holds more moisture, and because the deep blade system does not disturb the soil, trafficability isn’t a problem anymore.

No-till makes the country more viable to crop.

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Controlling weeds and diseases by using rotations

We introduced a new 5-year crop rotation system: 2 years of pasture with fat lambs and merino lambs, followed by annual crops of canola, wheat and barley. We run sheep on one-third of the property. The crops are normally one-third each of the remainder: canola, wheat and barley.

There are synergies right through the system because canola is beneficial for the wheat. Canola provides a good disease break and weed control for following wheat crop. Barley grows well after wheat and gives better weed-control options in the third year of the cropping rotation.

Canola was a pretty new crop when we started farming, and it really changed cropping in this area. Growing canola meant we could control root disease and get on top of weeds—for example, water weeds.

A barley-to-pasture rotation is good because barley germinates with the pasture, and that is great feed for the ewes. The pasture phase also provides a disease break, a weed break, and nitrogen for the following canola crop.

 

 

John introduced canola as part of a 5-year rotation.

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Managing a new problem: non-wetting soils

One of the biggest challenges we are currently facing was completely unexpected: the problem of non-wetting soils.

It is quite baffling to go out on the paddock after an inch of rain and be able to pick up topsoil that is still dry. It will be wet underneath and in the top half centimetre, but the middle is completely dry. The change in climate and loss of autumn rain exacerbates this problem.

I have experimented with a number of solutions, with some success.

There is claying, which is finding suitable clay, digging it up, spreading it over the soil, and incorporating it into the surface.

It is even better if we combine claying with spading, which means rotary-hoeing the top 30 centimetres of the soil to bring clay upwards and move the dry topsoil down.

It is expensive, but the results are encouraging and I expect a return on the investment in 1 or 2 year’s worth of cropping. We are also trialling a spray-on product which has given us some very good results.

 

John treats his non-wetting soils by adding clay and spading it into the surface of the paddocks.

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Using forecasts to plan our cropping and farming

In terms of forecasts, we look at all the models that we can find. I look at them all first thing in the morning and see which ones agree—I make a best guess out of those forecasts. If the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecasts agree as well, that gives me even more confidence. We plan our weeks around 10-day forecasts.

I make adjustments to our cropping plans according to the forecasts. The forecasts have improved over the years—for instance, in 2006, when we put in crops and still managed to get a good yield.

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Reacting to changing circumstances with a simple approach

We have had to make changes to our farming strategy over the last 18 years. Climate has been a big factor in changing farming patterns in the district. The lower rainfall has encouraged people to take up zero-till and steadily move from sheep to cropping.

Our strategy, a 5-yearly rotation of crops and livestock, has been tested by these changing circumstances. It is good that we have built-in flexibility—this lets us vary our plans according to commodity prices and the outlook for rain.

The simplicity of our approach gives us the room to react to new circumstances: drier autumns and non-wetting soils. We have learned to respond quickly to any opportunities that come along.

 

Interview date: 18 August 2010

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