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
Phone: 08 9652 9042
Losing the autumn rains has had a significant effect on our farming practices.There is an urgency to our cropping that was not there before.
See what John has to say about:
- Learning farming on the job
- How autumn rainfall is disappearing
- Replacing sheep with hay
- Sowing dry
- Holding soil moisture with no-till practices
- Managing non-wetting soils
- Sowing shorter-season crop varieties
- Shifting the lambing to coincide with the feed
- Getting more and more frosts
- Controlling weeds and diseases by using rotations
- Using weather forecasts to adjust cropping plans
- Reacting to changing circumstances with a simple approach
I was working in London, as an accountant in 1992 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 (3200 hectares) 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.
Our district has lost the soaking autumn rains that were a feature of our first years on the farm.
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.
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.
A typical autumn back in the 90s was a week of wet conditions—but there has been a significant reduction in rainfall through the autumn.
The last 5 years (2008–12) in particular have been dramatically dry.
We rely on fronts and north-west cloud-band events to get any significant rainfall. When they line up at the same time, we can do well out of them.
But the fronts just aren’t making it here. The whole wheat belt’s seeing the same thing.
Autumns have sort of disappeared, in terms of rain.
What the climate scientists were telling us seems to be happening. It’s getting drier and warmer. And that’s what they’re telling us is going to happen more and more.
Over the past 5 years, people have slowly started to accept that we are in a different climate. It’s not just a short-term cycle; it could be a long-term change. And we’ve got to adjust and farm accordingly.
Losing the autumn rains has had a significant effect on our farming practices.
I think everybody around here is looking at things the same way, trying to get crops established earlier, and adjusting livestock numbers and lambing times.
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, 4000 sheep graze where 8000 formerly ran.
In those seasons where we’ve got rid of stock, we’ve tended to grow hay.
The theory is if it doesn’t rain here—we’re quite close to the coast and a fair way south in terms of the wheat belt—then the rest of the wheat belt’s going to be having a lot less rain. And so that hopefully means there’s going to be demand for hay and prices are going to be reasonable.
For the first time this year (2012) we’ve sowed probably 75% of our program dry.
We got into a situation where you get past certain dates and you say: “Right. Well it hasn’t rained by now and we probably want to wheat up on that first rain event to take advantage of the season length”.
If we’re not able to get a crop in before 10 June in a wet soil, we’ll start sowing dry. The yield penalties post that date are pretty high.
And with the hotter springs the penalty for sowing late is becoming higher, so it’s almost sowing by the calendar. Almost.
Of course if it doesn’t rain right through the season, then dry seeding is the wrong decision. But generally we’ll bank on getting a rain at some stage. It gets a bit nerve-wracking as the season goes on.
The absence of reliable autumn rains also places more pressure on rain-dependent operations, like spraying or applications of urea.
If we know that there is rain coming, we can try to fertilise ahead of that. But, where years ago we might have had 8 rain events, now we might get a couple.
There is an urgency to our cropping that was not there before.
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.
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.
So we started to 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 made the country more viable to crop. Stabilising the soils has made a huge difference to our productivity.
But now we’re turning all that around because we’ve got non-wetting soil issues.
One of the biggest challenges we are 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 at 10–15 centimetres 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’s expensive, but the results are encouraging. we’re finding we don’t need to apply clay on some of the soils; we can just spade and get the same results.
We are also trialling a spray-on wetting product which has given us some very good results on some soils. But it’s fairly costly.
The drier starts are exacerbating the problem with non-wetting soils. So everybody’s trying different things: spreading clay and incorporating it, mouldboard ploughing, and spading.
Mouldboard ploughing is just using a traditional big old plough to invert the soil. It brings the clay to the surface and, hopefully, buries the non-wetting soil along with weed seeds.
We’re having terrific results from mouldboard ploughing in terms of getting the soils to wet up.
But you’re pretty prone to erosion for the first 12 months after you do it. If you get a big rainfall event on top of it, it can cause a few issues.
When we do get a rain it tends to be a sharp, short, harsh event. Not that we’re knocking it back; we’ll take it any way it comes. But what we find now is that we’re exposed to gully erosion, even in dry years were we spade or plough.
We haven’t had to deal with gully erosion for a long time because we’ve been no tilling. So we’re just working our way around these things. You take a bit of pain for a bit of gain.
With the general drying trend, we’re looking at shorter-season crops and delayed planting.
Traditionally in this area we’d be a mid- to long-season variety. We’re probably tending more towards short- to mid-term varieties now, just because we’re dealing with a later start and sometimes an earlier finish.
We had a great finish last year (2011); it carried right on through to October. But what the scientists are telling us—and it seems to be happening—is that we’ll get higher spring-time temperatures.
When you’re finishing crops off, they might still have moisture and the ability to carry on for every other reason. But if you get a couple of 35 or 40 degree days, that’s the end of it.
This area’s traditionally been an autumn lambing area, and the majority of people would still be in that mode.
But quite a few people are shifting to later winter lambing, say July/August, because if the break’s not coming until June you’re not really getting any feed bulk until the beginning of August.
And then you’re hand feeding ewes and lambs.
That means a lot of mismothering (losing lambs) because they’re travelling to water and travelling to feed. Merinos are not particularly good mothers.
Frost used to be a pretty rare event in this area. But we probably had 15 or 20 frosts in the last few weeks (July 2012).
In a traditional winter day, where you got a westerly flow and a bit of rain coming through, we don’t get cold night-time temperatures. But when we get the highs and the easterlies, we get very, very cold nights.
Scientists are telling us the same thing—that we can expect more frosts.
With the frosts and the lack of autumn rains, pasture growth rates have been dismal. So, a couple of times in the last few years we’ve had to feed the ewes right through until almost August.
And, really, August we think of as our spring time; you hope to have a reasonable base of pasture by then.
We have a 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—canola, wheat and barley—are normally one-third each of the remainder.
There are synergies right through the system because canola is beneficial for the wheat. Canola provides a good disease break and weed control for the 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.
Forecasting is a fascinating area, and it’s so important to us as a decision-making tool.
We plan our weeks around 10-day forecasts. I make adjustments to our cropping plans according to the forecasts.
We are always looking for new programs and models that work.
If it’s not raining, I look at about 7 or 8 different models until I find one I like—one that gives you some hope that something’s coming.
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.
For this area, a few models seem to work better than the others.
The GFS, Global Forecast System, is one. It's 7-day map representation is generally pretty good.
The BOM 4-day forecast is very good. Compared to 10 years ago, it’s so much more accurate. You can pretty much rubber stamp them when they come through, that that’s pretty much what’s going to happen.
We also look at the 7-day consensus forecast from Australian Weather News, which I think uses all the 9 models that BOM uses. It gives a percentage of the models that are predicting rain for the week ahead. It’s less reliable as you get further out because not all the models predict out to 7 days. But at 3, 4, 5 days out, the accuracy is better.
Centrala, a German web service, is a 9-day map representation. It tends to be a bit iffy for here but it gives you an idea further out what might be coming. You might be able to see that there’s a front towards the end of the week or a tropical cloud band.
Seasonal outlooks – we’ve got used to the fact now that they can change pretty quickly. I guess we’re aware of the limitations that they’re dealing with. They are getting a little better. It’s something you don’t put a big stock in, but is there at the back of your mind when you’re making fertiliser decisions or stocking decisions.
There’s a lot more monitoring going on in the Indian Ocean now and that’s going to be really good for accuracy of forecasts for WA in particular.
POAMA is pretty good for the guys south of Perth but it tends not to be a good predictor for our area because we’ve a combination of northwest cloud band, tropical cloud band, middle level disturbing events and winter fronts.
We have had to make changes to our farming strategy over the last 20 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—it 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, hotter spring days, more frosts and non-wetting soils.
We have learned to respond quickly to any opportunities that come along.
Interview date: 18 August 2010 and 1 August 2012
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