Nuffield Australia 2014 Scholar
Managing risk when constrained by climate
The need for techniques to improve grain yields and manage costs in the face of a drying climate is common to many areas around the world, but in the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia it is even more critical with its comparably low rainfall and yields.
2014 Nuffield Scholar Bob Nixon has looked into ways of reducing risk in the cropping system focusing on adding low risk crop diversity, as well as techniques to manage costs and lower the break-even yield.
“A 10-15 per cent decline in winter rainfall and an increase in seasonal variability has created serious challenges for farm businesses in the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia (WA),” Mr Nixon said.
“On many Eastern Wheatbelt farms, the ten-year wheat average has dropped 250kg/ha since the end of the 1990’s,” Mr Nixon said.
“Crop rotation and diversity are powerful tools in managing cereal production costs because they lower disease and weed burdens in a paddock whilst enhancing cereal yields. In the Eastern Wheatbelt, canola has replaced legumes as the main rotation crop due to factors like the soils high salinity, acidity, sodicity and the current dry and variable climate.”
Mr Nixon and his family operate a 18,500 ha broadacre cropping and sheep property near Kalannie, in the Central Wheatbelt. The operation consists of wheat, barley and canola and are currently selling their Merino sheep enterprise. Mr Nixon’s scholarship was supported by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
For his studies, Mr Nixon travelled to Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Kenya and Italy and he has concluded that crop rotation is essential to maintaining crop yields.
Mr Nixon recommends growers in the Eastern Wheatbelt adopt several strategies in their farm management plans.
“Break crop strategies where growers are combining a chemical fallow and improved oilseed traits will underpin ongoing success in the Eastern Wheatbelt.
“Lighter soil types play a larger role in generating profit in drier years. It is important to cost-effectively fix soil constraints like pH to maximise their production.”
“There is also a need to retain ground cover to protect soil and keep it soft and friable to support dry seeding, so the use of livestock should be evaluated. Dry seeding is the main driver of improved machinery and water use efficiency in the Eastern Wheatbelt.”
“The agricultural industry needs to focus on up-skilling management and employee capacity to manage economies of scale. As farm size increases, so must the capability to pay attention to detail with management becoming the limiting factor.
“Without significant government subsidisation, multi-peril crop insurance will struggle to gain widespread grower adoption, so growers should focus on other ways to manage risk.”
Mr Nixon says that business diversification and value adding are difficult to achieve in the Eastern Wheatbelt due to lack of water, high labour costs and limited product range for value adding.
“We have no choice but to rise to the challenge to be the most efficient, lowest cost producers in the world with the flexibility to adapt to change,” he said.
“High input costs will most likely be here to stay so the goal is to achieve the same yield with more efficient use of inputs.”
Nuffield Australia 2014 Scholar
Nuffield scholar and Victorian dairy farmer Aubrey Pellett believes robotics – beyond anything currently seen in Australia – can improve the productivity, profitability and lifestyle of dairy farmers across Australia.
In addressing agriculture’s perennial question of how to make more from less, he says technology, data and research need to be given priority.
Mr Pellett’s 2014 Nuffield Scholarship allowed him to investigate how to improve productivity for Australian pasture based dairy farming. His report outlines the findings from his two year scholarship to investigate how to improve productivity for Australian pasture based dairy farming.
“Recently, robotic rotary milking systems have been introduced overseas that can significantly boost labour productivity. Their high system capacity is well suited to Australia’s pasture based grazing systems, allowing one supervisor to milk 500 cows in a batch fashion,” he said.
“What’s so appealing is that adoption of this technology would require minimal farm or production system change, while providing physical relief and rich information at the cow level.
“Robotics tailored to the dairy farm environment have the potential to offset the big challenges facing Australia’s dairy industry, namely increasing farm and herd sizes, scarcity of labour, and complex production systems.”
Mr Pellett said the increasing use of other technologies overseas linked into a robotic batch milking system, sometimes called ‘precision dairy’, could provide additional productivity benefits such as increased pasture and animal yield, and reduced costs through better targeted inputs.
“An example I saw on a farm in Sweden, called the ‘herd navigator’ (not currently for sale in Australia), automatically takes milk samples throughout a cow’s lactation allowing you to identify her cycle, when she’s in calf, or identify any health events early.
“Scientists are also developing algorithms to identify the link between a cow’s behaviour and subsequent animal health and fertility events.
“Sensors, soon to come onto the market, are at what I call the first iPhone stage, with lots of development and capability to come, but they are a good example of the burgeoning technology Australian farmers can investigate.”
Mr Pellett says the capacity to capture and analyse farm data also provides the opportunity to consolidate this information into a data co-op, owned by farmers.
The 2014 scholar says his research shows there is great opportunity for the Australian industry to refocus research and development activities, taking the lead from other countries.
“My research findings backed my early thinking that by focusing on annual profit, our industry can tend to lose the opportunity to build longer term productivity gains into our businesses.
“For Australia to enjoy full benefits, investment needs to be made to ensure the nature of our grazing system is considered, perhaps through collaboration with other grazing focused countries.
“For a variety of reasons, dairy as an industry has really failed to achieve the growth margins it might otherwise had,” he said.
“Although the development of precision dairy technology is in its infancy, decisions based on real time cow and paddock information can increase yield, reduce costly inputs, improve animal welfare, and enable farmers to focus on decision making rather than task completion.
“After my extensive international travel through parts of Asia, Europe, the United States and New Zealand I strongly believe we can achieve these gains with greater investment in technology and its support systems.”