Bruce Saxton

Region: North-east Victoria/south-east New South Wales

Commodity: Small-seed crops, vegetable seeds, summer crops and beef cattle

Farming area: 1300 hectares

Rainfall: 900 mm average per year

Email: saxto@bigpond.com

 

Bruce managed a small-seed cropping and agistment operation from early 2002 until mid-2014. We interviewed him in July 2010, June 2013, and updated his profile in July 2015.

 

As we expect more variability with our changing climate, the answer has to be partly in staying flexible, planning against various scenarios and then close attention to various trigger points as the season progresses. Staying alert to indicators of soil moisture and forecast probabilities in seasonal outlooks: it can be a very dynamic situation. You cannot say: ‘We can’t plan because things might change’. You need to plan but be flexible so you can respond to a situation.

I believe the future of a lot of the farming in Australia will be closely reliant on accurate medium- to long-term seasonal forecasting. Our cost of production is heavily impacted, even with existing climate variability, compared to competing international areas. Forecasting is becoming increasingly important in assisting farmers to make sound business decisions in times of escalating and variable production costs.

Climate Champion Bruce Saxton

 

See what Bruce has to say about:

 

 

Producing seeds, cattle and cereals

The property I’m on here specialises in small-seed production. The property is about 1400 hectares and we crop 700 hectares. I manage the farm for a partnership.

We focus on seed production: mostly pasture and turf seeds. In the partnership I work for there is a long history of experience in grass-seed production.

The area we farm in is well suited to some forms of grass-seed and small-seed production because of high rainfall and relatively soft finishes. We irrigate 100 hectares, on average, to finish winter crops and water our summer crops.

Soil types vary widely here from granite-based, clay–loam slopes to river flats which are silt to clay loam with gravel subsoil. About 20 per cent of the cropped area is granite hill country; the balance is river flats.

A lot of our land is just a few metres over the river-fed watertable so, with a good soil, it can be very productive. The more sandy deposits with a higher proportion of gravels tend to have quiet low pH and, with their low water-holding potential and extreme acidity issues, this can present some issues supporting late-finishing crops.

We have also done vegetable-seed production and cereal seeds, but we concentrate predominantly on grass seed.

Summer cropping can also play a part, depending on circumstance. We might grow crops such as buckwheat, millet, maize and—if the opportunity presents—forage crops for local livestock markets.

We also run cattle, which are mostly agistment cattle; this offers us the flexibility to fit with the cycle of our cropping program.

We graze the crop stubbles heavily; some crops are perennial and if they are summer active this also adds to the seasonal nature of feed supply.

By using this approach, we make sure stock numbers are optimised for the feed available in the paddocks. We feel agistment can be economically comparable to owning our own stock.

Bruce fits agistment cattle into the cycle of his cropping program.

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Climate variability in our region

Climate and rainfall vary a lot through the valleys here, ranging from 700 mm to 1000 mm. Where I am is a rainfall zone of about 850 mm average of winter-dominant rainfall, although we haven't had that very often in the 10 years we’ve been here.

In the past decade, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of extreme heat events in spring when we are trying to finish crops. Autumns have always been considered quite variable with unreliable autumn-break rains.

But during the last three years [2010-13], we’ve had autumn breaks in February. Because we’re in a low evaporation area with low wind, we can sometimes hold a late-February autumn break through.

This year’s [2013] is a perfect example. It was very dry through March and April with rain in early March. I think on the whole we can expect less reliable autumns and hotter finishes and so we’ll have to watch closely how that governs our crop mix in the future.

The later-finishing crops don’t cope with heat and moisture stress at the same time; one exacerbates the other. I suspect we’ll be tending to grow shorter season winter crops and will focus more on summer crops.

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Building resilience to climate variability

In relation to climate variability and change, the issue that I see threatening our industry is that the cost of inputs is increasing and our margins are getting narrower and narrower.

As the cost of those variable inputs increases, you’re much more exposed if the season turns against you.

The valleys around Corryong experience quite variable rainfall.

 

The biggest thing we have done to build resilience is to rationalise the crops we’re growing. We no longer grow late-season perennial rye grass for example; it doesn’t cope with the heat in the finish. That’s best left to the more southern latitudes. We’ve found through experience that we can grow fescue competitively in these conditions, so we have been happy to increase our reliance on fescue as part of our seed-production mix.

Our vulnerability is not having a balanced rotation, from an agronomy perspective, that achieves reasonable margins in all crops. We’re in a high overhead, high land value region where we can’t just grow the commodity crops like wheat, oats, barley. So that’s our challenge really; to be able to find break crops that suit agronomically and that can allow us to grow the fescues and so on that still seem to yield well in this hotter environment.

I think through climate change we are going to see increasing intensity of hot days coming out of the western inland at critical times when we are trying to finish crops.

The terms of trade at the moment [for seed] are really quite tough. With the high dollar there is a bit of an oversupply in the market that’s restricting us. I had been trying to get more summer cropping here because we do have water available and the greater return on our water is going to be from summer cropping I think. This will also work well as a break crop rotation to our grass seed crops.

We are growing canola as a seed crop and that’s working well for us. It has a reasonably good return and we can grow it here and offer isolation to companies that are having trouble with growing a seed crop in the main wheat belt.

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Responding to climate variability by staying flexible

If we expect more variability because of climate change, the answer is to stay flexible. You cannot say: ‘We can’t plan because things might change’. You need to plan but be flexible so you can respond to a situation.

There are often certain trigger dates when we can say: ‘We’re going to have to change the way we’re doing things’. I think most farmers are fairly good at this. If you don’t become dynamic or flexible then you’ll suffer.

For example, in a grazing operation, if you don’t get an autumn break by, say, early May—according to your property’s pasture composition—you can say: ‘Well, I know it will be tough this winter’, and prepare. If you’re ready for it, you can minimise the loss and use the opportunities.

Bruce Saxton at Khancoban Station, north-east Victoria

 

What people need to be able to do is to use weather information to help with extra questions such as, ‘What if it’s warmer than normal?’ or ‘What if the spring tapers off as well?’

It’s about being able to respond quickly when you see a scenario develop.

I believe the future of farming in Australia, taking into consideration the existing weather variability, will be closely reliant on accurate medium- to long-term seasonal forecasting.

Forecasting is becoming increasingly important in assisting farmers make sound business decisions in times of escalating production costs.

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Varying crop choice to deal with drier conditions

Crop choice is our primary management decision—according to markets, seasonal expectations and where we’re at agronomically in the paddocks.

One strategy is being able to vary our crop choice. Diversity in our crops has given us a degree of insurance against the variable seasons.

With the winter crops this is largely based on when the crops will mature. At times, we grow 12 or 14 different crops in 1 year. We can then spread our harvest date over a longer period.

Winter crop harvest can last from late November through to early February, then the summer crops will come off during March or April.

We try to get 90-day summer crops to fit in as a double-crop program; however, that requires tight management, a bit of luck, and a summer with enough heat to finish the crop before frost threatens.

We’ve had years where the crops have suffered a lot of stress in November and December and then it’s rained in late December. It was too late for half our crops but it helped the late-finishing crops.

The Saxtons grow as many as 12–14 crops at one time.

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Using forecasting tools to make decisions

It’s a standard catch-cry to have a crack at the weather forecasters, but I think they’re brilliant. We can make quite accurate decisions a week to 10 days in advance now, based on those weather predictions.

But you still have to monitor the weather every day—you can’t just make a decision and then forget about it.

For example, in the past we put off spreading nitrogen because we found out about a serious rain event forecast for in 10 days’ time, and more a few days later. So we didn’t put out nitrogen. It would have been ideal timing to do it, but we would have lost quite a bit of nitrogen into the rivers. So forecasting brings huge benefits.

We’re also now getting some reliability in temperature predictions over a 3-month period. They were quite accurate last year [2010] at forecasting high temperatures in the spring.

I think it will be really useful for farmers to have a wider understanding and knowledge of forecasting tools, and understand how to use them in their own businesses. The tools can help people use the available climatic data—which is based on probabilities—and make meaningful decisions.

For instance, this year [2015], if an El Nino fully develops, there’s 70 per cent chance of drier year - but that still leaves room for an average or wetter year - it doesn’t guarantee a drier year.

 

Bruce attended the 2015 MCV Climate Champion workshop, where the group heard from principal climate scientist at SARDI Dr Peter Hayman. Bruce believes Peter has a useful description of how to think about probabilistic forecasting:

At the MCV workshop, Dr Hayman demonstrated with a raffle-wheel. Spinning the wheel, he explained that our knowledge about climate has increased a lot—that is, getting the pattern of outcomes closer to what happens in the real world—but uncertainty means we randomly land on just one outcome on the wheel, whether that’s wet, dry or in the middle.

 

Understanding probabilities in this way means we should not blame forecasters just because an outcome of randomness gives the less-probable event. This approach helps influence how you’ll build that information into possible scenarios or outlooks for your planning. I think the best way to describe it is to build some hedging into your management decisions, and being poised or ready to activate your ‘plan B’. You can’t do this if you don’t consider the various scenarios and look at how to react if need be.

If we bring that back to the ground and say, ‘From that climate prediction, we can have different expectations of dry-matter production out of our pastures’. We can use that to make better livestock, fodder-conservation and fertiliser decisions.

We spend up to $300 a hectare a year in fertiliser inputs, so that’s 20–30 per cent of the cost of growing a crop. If we can modify those inputs because of our expectations of the season, that can be a big saving.

Bruce says better seasonal information could save some of the cost of fertilising a crop—inputs that make up 20–30 per cent of total costs.

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Understanding our crops by measuring soil conditions

Upper Murray Agribusiness Group [a former community group in Bruce’s area] had set up a monitoring system and website which monitored, gathered and collated weather data from 3 remote weather stations in the surrounding districts.

The weather stations automatically and continually recorded weather data, which was used to assist in many decision-making processes around the farm.

For example, if we think we’ve had a production loss from frost, we can check what the temperatures were at those times. It’s useful to be able to look back at soil temperature and moisture, and minimum and maximum temperatures.

Monitoring soil moisture very accurately and looking at graphs without having to put spears in the ground all the time is very useful, but you still have to go and look at the paddock. It really helps with precise irrigation management and it’s also helped us understand the agronomy of our crops better.

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Building regional resilience to climate change

I was very impressed with the community engagement for the Catchment Action Plan [CAP] that began in 2013, for Murray Local Land Services (formerly Murray Catchment Management Authority).

Although it’s normally very difficult to for all the community members to feel like they had some input across a massive catchment - ranging from up at Kosciusko to the dusty sand hills of western NSW - a big effort was made, and was successful. We used local meetings, mail-outs and the media to reach people.

Climate change rated highly as an issue of concern and interest across the catchment, which surprised me. We’ve had a run of 10 bad years, and everyone is concerned about the increasing variability of the climate.

In the CAP we tried to build in philosophies behind resilience, and we are one of the few CAPs in NSW to include climate adaptation as a key strategy.

My view on that is that every farm, every region and every enterprise is going to have its own way of dealing with variability, and their own unique adaptations.

I think that people need to think about that resilience approach to their enterprises and some will do it through holistic management and reducing inputs and becoming more extensive; and others will do it by diversifying.

Some people might move their enterprises to a different latitude – change their cropping systems to grow early-season crops and to focus on stubble retention so they’ve got greater moisture conservation and the ability to sow earlier.

There’s a whole raft of things that are already being done that might need tweaking or focusing on more.

The CAP will direct funding to programs that might help farmers think about how they can increase their resilience or improve their adaptability to climate change. Learning is a key part of it – giving farmers the tools to tweak their enterprises to cope better.

[You can read the CAP online; PDF, 7.6 MB]

 

Interview dates: July 2010, June 2013; updated July 2015.

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Contact Bruce Saxton

If you have a question for Bruce about any information on this page, please submit it on the form, below.

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