James Walker

Farm: 'Camden Park' 

Region: Longreach, central western Queensland

Commodity: Meat and wool sheep, agistment cattle, hay

Farming area: 18,000 acres (7300 hectares)

Rainfall: average 150—380 mm per year

Email: james.jumbuck@bigpond.com

Phone: 07 4658 2141, 0428 583 336

 

We need to be continually reviewing the forecasts just to see where the options are. By understanding climate patterns around Australia, we can diversify our strategies to capture the rainfall profile of different areas.

James Walker profile 

 

Hear what James has to say about:

Kelpie logo Watch: The resilience of Mitchell grass

 

Running livestock in Australia’s most highly variable rainfall area

‘Camden Park’ is 10 kilometres to the east of Longreach. It’s a sheep - meat and wool - and beef cattle operation, and we also specialise in hay production.  

Because Australia is the most highly variable rainfall continent in the world, and Longreach is the most highly variable rainfall area within Australia, the way we manage our production system is very important.

Traditionally, we get about 17–18 inches (about 450 mm) of rainfall a year here, but that can vary a lot – from 40 inches (1000 mm) down to 5 inches (127 mm)  in the years I’ve experienced. 

This means that one year we can have an abundance of feed, while the next year we’ll have limited amounts. 

We get frosts here too, and heavy frosts can create significant problems.

Then there’s the effect of excessive heat. In 2013, we had 10 consecutive days in excess of 40 °C, which really affected our grass quality. If we had a month of that kind of heat, the grass would have no nutritional value at all.

James Walker drought

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Replacing cattle with sheep on the basis of forecasts

In late 2012, we decided to sell all our cattle – a decision we made based on some early forecasting from POAMA modelling [POAMA is the Bureau of Meteorology’s seasonal climate prediction system], and also because we understood the national herd was at its record highest. 

For our region, POAMA was in a neutral pattern with no strong conviction either way for rainfall. If it became a positive pattern, that would be fine, but I need to make decisions based on what I’m seeing at the moment.

Because it was neutral, the potential downside was quite significant: you could run out of feed and grass and water very quickly.

We also knew that if the forecast was realised, there would be a flood of cattle on the market, forcing prices down, and there’d be potential for capital erosion in the value of our property.  

So we sold all our cattle and bought sheep instead. Sheep are less vulnerable to market collapse, especially the wool component. We have since built their numbers to 22,000 head.  

As it turned out, during the wet season of 2012/13, we had 4 storms cross over the area, and we achieved above average rainfall for our property, while the rest of Queensland missed out. 

When cattle prices slumped in 2013, we went back to buy cattle at good value, and had the offer of 4000 weaner cattle at $1.20/ kg, with deferred payment for 12 months. But we decided to decline the offer, based on the May 2013 POAMA forecast. 

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Selling property on the basis of seasonal forecasts

We decided to put our second property, ‘Wakefield’, up for sale in 2013. Since the forecasts weren’t great, we considered that this was the best thing to do with ample feed in the middle of a widespread drought. It sold within 8 days.

By that stage, we’d developed ‘Wakefield’ into a really well reticulated operation. We had 63 km of 75-mm poly piping on the property, delivering something like a quarter or third of a megalitre to livestock daily. 

We had trough pads and the water infrastructure absolutely set, and we had all the vulnerable environmental areas fenced off. 

But, ultimately, I think what sold ‘Wakefield’ was the abundance of grass.  

Our understanding of the financial impact and the seasonal forecast made the decision to liquidate the ‘Wakefield’ asset and keep ‘Camden Park’ very easy. It means we can bridge back into another opportunity when it arises. We have already been looking at properties in other rainfall areas in a joint venture capacity.  

We need to be continually reviewing the forecasts just to see where the options are. By understanding climate patterns around Australia we can diversify our strategies to capture the rainfall profile of different areas. 

That’s why I urge people to stay engaged with the progress of the farmers in the Climate Champion program. Understanding the climatic principles surrounding your farming system will be one of your most critical performance drivers.

James Walker drought-2

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Making the most of the grass that’s there

At ‘Camden Park’ in early 2013, because the POAMA forecast was quite limited, we decided to make the most of the grass that still remained. 

We put agistment cattle on the property for 20 weeks – 5000 head instead of the usual 800 – just to capture the benefit of that grass and the protein-energy levels when they were at their highest, in line with good grazing principles.  

We let the cattle eat it down to a certain level – about 2 hand-fists above the ground – and then took all the livestock off while we still had good ground cover, to maintain soil structure. 

We knew, if it did rain, then we’d be able to capitalise and the grass could respond a lot quicker.  

The cattle also spread a lot more manure around, which helps improve the organic matter within the soil.  

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Redesigning the production system after every drought

Instead of having a repeatable production system, we recreate ours every time it rains because, following a drought, we have to restock and start again. 

Every time we restart, we’re targeting the most sustainable and profitable enterprise.    

I don’t think you can really have a repeatable production system in an arid or semi arid environment with variable rainfall – that is more a European style of farming. All the modelling suggests it won’t work. 

What we need here is opportunistic and adaptable grazing – stocking your grass or baling it, or whatever you can do – while always preserving the integrity of the soil and the plant species. 

It’s about spreading the risk, mitigating. By having an awareness of climatic patterns, seasonal forecasting and the long-term climatic change of weather patterns, you can approach production a lot differently. 

Based on the forecasts at the moment [October 2015], it looks like the El Niño will be here next year as well, so we’re looking at another year of similar impact. This means we still need to look at other opportunities to bring firepower to our enterprise, so that when it does rain we can take advantage of it and not be hindered by an inability to make those investments in key areas.   

You’ve just got to be flexible and make hay whilst the sun shines, as it were. 

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Mitchell grass

 

Preserving the grass in the best condition possible

It’s been about two and a half years since we destocked at ‘Camden Park’, and we’ve still got ground cover. 

A lot of the grass has died but the root structure might still be holding a little bit of life. So if it does rain we might get a bit of a kick and it’ll start growing from there – instead of starting from seed – which is optimal for getting back into production as soon as possible.  

We’ve still got tussocks above the ground and usually their height is reflected below the ground in the rootstock. If your grass is quite high, the rootstock should be as well. But, likewise, if it gets really short, then you’ve got a short rootstock, and when it rains it takes a lot longer to get that leaf growth happening. 

Traditionally, this is a land of drought and flooding rain, so we’d like to try and avoid the floods and get enough rain to build that grass stock back up delicately. If we then need a lot of rain down the track, we’ll have enough grass available to shield any soil erosion. 

We’ve also been trying to make the tussocks a lot denser than normal, bringing them in closer together so they protect the soil a lot better. That is a function of grazing techniques.

The better we can preserve the grass the better we can respond to drought or rain, and that’s the opportunity that we’ve got here. It’s our attempt at managing the drought situation. 

We’re quite proud of how the paddocks are now and, according to our departmental grass scientist, our grass is in the best condition it can be. 

 

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Diversifying into tourism

At ‘Camden Park’, we’ve looked at different strategies, including diversifying out to different rainfall areas. 

My brother likes hospitality so he is doing quite a bit of tourism now here on the property. He’s quite good at keeping our activity levels up during the drought – shifting our focus from livestock to people.  

He does bus tours, self-drive tours, and dinners as well, and they’re a great educational opportunity. If we can show people what we do out here, and what the systems are like and what the lifestyle’s like, we can show the city how we address drought and our level of resilience. 

Even more importantly, it shows them that grazing management is far more sophisticated than is sometimes communicated. 

Longreach is such an iconic spot and visitors are really interested in the way we manage our production system in Australia’s most highly variable rainfall region. We’ve been excited to see that people appreciate the opportunity to see our approach.

James Walker tourism

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Looking outside of agriculture for solutions 

In 2014, I invited the Australian business community and some highly regarded thought leaders to Longreach for the CEO Outback Business Summit. We looked for solutions to pull a drought-affected beef enterprise out of trouble.

We are now acting on those ideas as part of Agrihive and have had some major investors backing our approach to creating new opportunities for farmers globally.

Profit underpins sustainable agriculture, so unless we can improve the terms of trade for farming there will always be a strain on the environment, on the people, and on their economic performance.

If producers can penetrate the value chain more easily, I think that makes everything else a lot easier. 

James Walker tourism 2

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Interview date: April 2013, updated October 2015

 

Contact James Walker

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