Farms: Yambocully and Undabri
Region: Goondiwindi, Queensland
Commodities: Cotton, dryland cropping, cattle
Farming area: 5000 and 10,000 hectares
Rainfall: 600 mm average per year
Phone: 0409 904 500
"I've learnt to just sit back and be patient and let the soil profile fill itself. Don't cultivate or plough – just be able to take advantage of that next planting opportunity. My overheads have reduced significantly just by doing that."
Hear what Nigel has to say about:
- Managing neighbouring farms
- Soil health - where it all starts
- Growing conditions for cotton
- Using weather forecasts and seasonal outlooks
- Sourcing irrigation water
- Storing irrigation water on farm
- Planning the irrigation around allocations
- Predicting when to irrigate and how much
- Improving the irrigation systems to use less water
- Moving to no-till to conserve soil moisture
- Growing cover crops to increase infiltration
- Pre-empting an El Niño
- Using less water to grow cotton
- Making the most of water stored on farm
- Planting dryland crops only with a full soil water profile
- Being conservative with planting rates for dryland crops
- Planting dryland crops earlier
- Rotating cotton with other crops every year
- Managing paddocks with different water-holding capability
- Minimising compaction of the soil
- A ‘double-skip’ cotton lesson - check the seasonal outlook
- Learning from other farmers
My grandparents grew up around the Dubbo/Dunedoo area and farmed there for a number of years. My parents, Peter and Kerry, came up to the Goondiwindi area share-farming and bought their first property in the district in 1979. They started the family farming business, which I am now involved in with my two older brothers, Simon and Brett. Together, we own three properties, and I look after Yambocully.
My wife, Vanessa, and I moved to Yambocully in 2006, and we now have three great children: Harriet, Will and Henry. We love the Goondiwindi district, and we enjoy raising a family on a farm.
Since 2014, I’ve also been looking after the neighbouring property, Undabri, which is owned by a Chinese investment group.
The two properties total 15,000 hectares. They're mixed farming properties, both with irrigation and dryland cropping, and both with cattle grazing.
Irrigated cotton is the predominant crop. Undabri has 1000 hectares of irrigated cropping land, and Yambocully has 900 hectares. On average, we try to grow around 1000 hectares between both places each year.
There’s roughly 5000 hectares of dryland cropping between the two places. On average we try to grow 3000 to 4000 hectares of dryland crops per year, predominantly cereal crops - wheat, barley - and chickpeas and faba beans as well.
The cattle operation is designed purely to utilise country that is not good for farming. Undabri runs roughly 1000 head of Angus breeders, and Yambocully runs about 130 head.
I kind of run the two farms separately but, the properties being next-door neighbours, I make similar management decisions for them both.
We're on the Macintyre River floodplain here. It's a heavy clay soil, so it has its challenges once it gets wet, but it has really good moisture-holding capacity. When it's drying out and cracking over and sealing the soil surface up, establishing crops is very challenging.
The local area we're in receives around 600 mm of rain annually.
In the last 3 to 4 years, since I did a Nuffield scholarship on nitrogen-use efficiency, my business philosophy on farming has changed dramatically.
At the start of the scholarship, I was looking at technology and different application methods and different products and saying, ‘Okay, this is going to be the next best thing. It'll be so easy just to do that and get the biggest gains out of the farming systems’.
During the scholarship, I got challenged a lot on that. It left me thinking whether I was doing the right things.
I soon learnt that to get the best nitrogen-use efficiency the whole system needs to be in balance.
It starts with soil health, which has a big relationship to moisture-holding capability. To get soil health right, you need to improve carbon levels, improve the organic matter. Once you do that, then all the efficiencies will start happening. You'll increase your moisture-holding capability, you'll increase your nitrogen-use efficiency, and hopefully you’ll have a happier plant. High yields with less inputs - that's the key.
Seeing the farmers that have been doing it around the world for the last 20 to 30 years has given me a lot of confidence. Two or three years ago, before the scholarship, I would have told you no way could it be done.
But change can happen - you just have to make it happen to get things done.
And if you want to go chasing ideas and become a better farmer, you have to be challenged.
I want to prove it to myself now. So far, it's looking pretty exciting. Hopefully, it's the way to the future.
Cotton is a desert plant, so it grows in summer. We normally plant in October and harvest in April. The strong growing months are December through to February. That's when it needs the most irrigation or rainfall to produce the highest yielding crop.
Cotton grows on a day-degrees scenario. It needs about 1800 day degrees to fully mature. So the temperature needs to be above 14 degrees and below 40 degrees to accumulate that number of growing day degrees.
If the temperature is in the 30s, you accumulate the day degrees quickly. But if you get too many extreme hot days or too many cold days, it will take longer for the plant to mature.
The most useful forecast for me, especially for the cotton, is the 7-day rainfall forecast. I use it to decide when to irrigate, when not to irrigate.
The seasonal outlook is useful when we’re trying to budget how much water we're going to use.
How hot the season's going to be is also very important, so we can compensate for the hot days. If we know it's going to be a mild summer, we’ll expect to use less water but hope to grow a much better crop out of it.
For planting, we’re looking as far out as the 6-month or 3-month outlook and then just watching it. If we want to plant, we can plant within 24 hours. But, from a management point of view, it's much better to make that decision early and make a better decision.
Since joining the former MCV Climate Champion program, I was looking at the different modelling systems scientists are using to produce forecasts.
I really enjoy CottonInfo, which has a really good weather summary put out by the cotton industry fortnightly. They go through each forecasting model - your POAMA [the Bureau of Meteorology’s Predictive Ocean Atmosphere Model for Australia], your European model, your Japanese model, your US model - and summarise it to give us a snapshot, taking bits and pieces from each one, and then focusing on what the temperatures are doing in the ocean and looking at the indicators to help us make better informed decisions.
I also look at the Climate Kelpie website, at all the different resources we've got there. It's really opening my eyes up.
The local radar is vital, particularly when we're irrigating. It is very hard to forecast storms but it's great to know if a big storm is coming across, so we can be prepared early. We'll need to stop irrigating and shut everything down, because you don't want too much water in the crop. Storms generally happen at night and, because we are irrigating 24 hours a day, we might have to go down at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning to shut the water off so that everything's got time to drain off before the storm hits. I'd much prefer to know the forecast and turn the water off earlier.
We’re on the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin system. The Macintyre River, which we source our river irrigation water from, flows into the Barwon River, which then turns into the Darling River.
This district uses two government dams on the Macintyre River. We’ve got Glenlyon, which is on the Queensland side of the river, and Pindari on the New South Wales side.
There are 2 types of irrigation licence: supplemented and unsupplemented.
The supplemented irrigation licence holder is able to hold water in the dam. You’re allocated a percentage of your entitlement each year. It’s a very well-organised, very calculated process. The state department calculates daily what water is coming down, how much they're releasing, and what the loss percentages are to get it down to the river system.
The unsupplemented licence is what we call a water-harvesting licence. Once the river gets to a certain height or certain volume inflow, we're allowed to take a percentage of water from the river. You've only got a certain period of time to pump that water. If you don’t, it's just kept in the system or they can sell it on the open market or do a temporary transfer.
Both licences are very seasonal because, obviously, you're relying on catchment rainfall, from the Great Dividing Range.
In the Murray-Darling Basin Plan due to be released in 2019, they're looking at taking a percentage of water to keep a sustainable flow through the basins. At the moment, we're looking at what effect it's going to have on our licence capability. We have to look at water buybacks or irrigation efficiency schemes to deliver water back to the federal government.
In a perfect world, you could keep all your water up in the catchment dams and bring it down as required and pump directly onto the paddocks.
That's what we saw in the lower Murray-Darling Basin, where the irrigators were able to put water straight onto the paddocks because they've got such large catchment dams, and the infrastructure is capable of doing it.
Here, to bring enough water down you'd create a flood because everyone would want to irrigate at the same time. The infrastructure's not in place.
We store water in an open earth dam. It’s a big surface area, so we lose a lot through evaporation and seepage. The more wind you get, the more waves you're creating and the more seepage loss.
The cotton industry continues to invest a substantial amount of money to look at ways to limit evaporation on the open-surface storages.
Planning your irrigation is very difficult with the supplemented water because it depends on rainfall in the catchment. Every 3 months, your allocation percentage is calculated for the next period.
During the wet years of 2011 and 2012, we were at 100 per cent allocation. But then 2013 came along and if you’d used your full allocation in those years, it was back to 5 or 10 per cent.
So, at ‘Yambocully’ we went from growing 500 hectares of cotton in 2012/13 and 2013/14 to growing no cotton in 2014/15. And we're only growing 50 hectares in 2015/16. That's how quickly it can change.
In the local area, we went from growing about 50,000 hectares of irrigated cotton in 2014/15 back to growing 12,000 hectares this year [2015/16]. It has a dramatic effect on the community.
If you've got unused allocation, you can carry that over a number of years. The downside of that is, if it rains and the catchment fills up again, you've only got a limited allocation. You have to use it at some point and, when you do, you're just hoping that you'll get rainfall to top that allocation back up again.
In this area, the price of water is around $2000 dollars a megalitre. At the moment, we're seeing probably a 40 per cent reliability of supply. It's a very big financial asset to be holding for that sort of reliability.
From a management perspective, if we've got water up in a catchment dam, and we work out how much cotton we want to grow, we have to look at the climatic conditions and say, ‘Okay, how much rainfall are we going to get during the summer period?’
A lot of growers now are just planning on the basis of the water they’ve got, in the catchment dam or on farm, and are not taking any rainfall forecast into consideration whatsoever. They’ve been used to having to irrigate to get the crops through. And with farming you're putting all the input cost upfront, so you've already spent the money on the crop. The last thing you want to do is cut the crop short and get a huge downgrade because it didn’t rain.
At Yambocully, we've got about 5000 megalitres of on-farm storage. We’re now budgeting about 11 or 12 megalitres of water to grow one hectare of cotton, so we're capable of growing around 400 hectares of cotton without any in-crop rainfall. That's the decision we have to make at the time.
In November 2014, we had very little irrigation water up in the catchment dam so we decided to not plant cotton because it is a high risk crop. In January we planted sorghum, which we were able to irrigate. We irrigated our winter crops as well.
Typically you would need to pre-irrigate cotton paddocks and then plant, or some farmers will plant dry and then water up. That way the plants start growing on a full moisture profile.
Then, on average, we do around 10 to 12 irrigations per summer, starting from October and finishing the last irrigation in February.
Around that January to February period, where the crop’s at its peak growth demand, we'll be irrigating every 7 to 10 days. A cotton plant can use up to an average of 14 to 15 mm of moisture per day. We put on around 40 to 50 mm of water per irrigation event.
We're using capacitance probes, or C-probes, to see how much moisture is in the soil.
We're also using an evapotranspiration model to try to calculate how much water the plants are using and expiring. There's a lot of technology now trying to help us predict when to irrigate. It's pretty exciting times. It makes us much more efficient if we're irrigating the crops at the right times and not over-irrigating or under-irrigating. It's very difficult to manage properly because you’re trying to keep the plant happy and healthy, and give it as much moisture as it needs, but you don't want to over-irrigate it or waterlog it, because then you'll reduce the yield potential very quickly.
If we know we've got a heatwave coming in the next 3 or 4 days, we might irrigate earlier to compensate for the hot days expected. If there’s a big storm forecast in the next 2 or 3 days, we won’t irrigate because cotton doesn't like waterlogging. If cotton is underwater or sitting in water for more than 48 hours, you'll actually kill the plants.
In most cases, irrigation paddocks are laser-levelled or GPS-levelled to lay out a slope and would be protected inside a levy bank. I've got good drainage, but in a big storm event you could end up with too much rain or irrigation water in one area; and if the dam's full, you haven't got anywhere else for the water to go but on the paddock.
In 2011, we had 14 inches [355 mm] over a 24-hour period. The water didn't have anywhere to go, so it just backed up into the fields. Unfortunately, it cost us a lot of money in the yield downgrade.
With flood-furrow irrigation, you've got a head ditch at one end of the paddock and a tail drain at the other end. Water is siphoned through pipes from the head ditch end and moves through the paddock, feeding the crop, down to the tail drain. It pretty much just floods the soil as it moves down the paddock.
We converted all the flood-furrow irrigation to overhead sprinkler irrigation at Undabri 5 or 6 years ago. We've got a combination of lateral and pivot irrigation systems now, which are more efficient in their use of water.
At Yambocully, we've got a combination of flood-furrow irrigation and also sub-surface drip irrigation. The sub-surface drip irrigation is a tape drip system 30 to 40 cm below the surface.
When I have enough capital behind me, I want to slightly increase the area under drip irrigation and add more overhead sprinklers.
From my experiences, and from being involved in industry programs for the Nuffield scholarship, I’ve found that moisture has been the biggest limiting factor to growing crops and making the business profitable.
We've been very aggressive, extensively using cultivators and tillage to prepare the seed bed for the following crop.
Cotton, in particular, is a perennial plant grown as an annual, so at the end of each harvest we cultivate and till the country. It’s a requirement under the agreement with Monsanto—to grow genetically modified cotton you need to till the soil down to a depth of 10 centimetres after each season. That's to control the pupae of the pests that the genetically modified cottons are designed to kill.
A lot of farmers till extensively: 2 to 3 passes can occur after a harvest to get the seed bed prepared. In that scenario, the soil is left bare and you lose moisture from the soil through evaporation.
Every time you irrigate and then open that soil back up, you're losing moisture.
My farming philosophy is now to introduce a no-till cropping system into an irrigation system, so I can conserve as much moisture as possible. On our dryland farming systems, we've been minimum till for a number of years.
My biggest change has been to increase my stubble and the organic matter in the soil by introducing cover crops in the follow-up period after harvest, particularly during what we call ‘a long fallow’. We might fallow our way out of a winter crop, say winter wheat, harvested in November, and we might fallow that paddock through to the following summer.
I’ll look at planting a cover crop such as barley over that summer period and into that winter period to just hold the ground cover and try to increase rainfall infiltration into the soil and hold the moisture there for longer.
We don't allow it to grow too extensively, maybe for a month, 2 months maximum. Then we spray it out or green manure it in, and hold that stubble on the surface so, when it does rain, we're increasing our moisture infiltration into the soil.
Then we plant our cotton directly into stubble.
Researchers say that 30 per cent ground cover will increase your infiltration rate by about 80 per cent, so it's crucial to make sure every bit of that rainfall gets into the soil through infiltration.
The biggest upside decision I made was to put the whole farm to winter crop in 2015.
The El Niño was building up and we were looking at getting a very dry spring and dry summer again. We had the moisture - we had just finished a wet summer and gone into a wet autumn. Everything had a full moisture profile.
I decided to put the whole farm, every paddock, into some sort of crop, whether it be a cover crop or legume or cereal crop, and utilise that moisture that was available.
It was the right decision because, come September, the rain stopped and it's been a very dry period since.
We were able to plant some cover crops, get them established, and spray them out, so we could plant the irrigated summer crops too.
It’s been a learning curve to look at the seasonal outlook and say, ‘Okay, the El Niño pattern is growing stronger. The likelihood is that the spring/summer period's going to be very dry. Utilise that moisture now; then, when that dry season kicks in, you can pull back and just sit on it’.
That's been a real win, a real lesson.
With the new farming techniques and practices that I'm introducing, I'm hoping to reduce the amount of water I need to grow a hectare of cotton from 11 or 12 megalitres down to 6 to 8 megalitres.
That's just by increasing water retention, having that stubble load, and not opening and drying the soil out so much - just holding that moisture in the soil.
The biggest management decision any irrigator has to make is when to use the irrigation water. If you’re storing it on farm and you've got high evaporation rates over summer, you're going to lose a high percentage of it. You want to be using that water during that period, so you're not losing it in evaporation.
Then you have to decide how far forward you're going to carry that water to the next irrigation crop. If you haven't got any cotton in, do you hold that water on-farm until the next summer cotton crop, or do you use it to grow a winter-irrigated crop?
There's a lot of management decisions around weather and what the climate's doing in the next 3 to 6 months.
I'd rather grow an irrigated winter crop than hold the water through the summer, because there's a lot of losses involved with storing water.
When the irrigation systems were developed in the ’80s and ’90s, farmers had the capacity to hold water on farm or just sit on it because, as with a lot of commodities, the price of cotton hadn't increased in that period of time. Growers 30 years ago were getting the same price we're getting today, but the input costs have probably doubled or more. With the gross margin reduced, everything’s just got a lot tighter, so you have to be a lot smarter with your decisions.
Some people now, if they've got allocation water on farm, or if there is a pumping event and they've got no summer crops in, they'll put the water in the open market and sell it to other farmers. Because if you pump the water on farm and you haven't got any crops in, the evaporation losses are just so great that it becomes uneconomical for growers to pump. You're better off selling it and making a small profit rather than holding water, getting losses, and trying to make a profit out of the crop 6 to 12 months later.
On the dryland front, I was always a risk-taker or was aggressive. I’d plant on a 70 per cent moisture profile and hope to get some in-crop rainfall to get the crop through.
About 3 or 4 years ago, I dramatically changed my thoughts on this. From my experience, you can't rely on in-crop rainfall. Now, if I haven't got a full profile, if the moisture is not at 100 per cent, I won't plant any crop in a dryland farming system.
I also learnt during my Nuffield scholarship that if you look after your soil and put a cover crop in, you can utilise the moisture down the track - you don't have to rush in and plant and make a farming decision quickly. You’re better off sitting back and looking at all the options before rushing out and planting every hectare on the farm.
I've reduced planting rates by 10 to 15 per cent. I'm trying to be conservative and make sure I can at least produce a crop with the moisture I've got in the soil rather than trying to rely on in-crop rainfall, even if the outlook looks promising.
On average, we'd sow around 40 kilograms of wheat seed per hectare. Now, I've reduced it back to around 35 to 40 kilograms, because I've realised that by over-seeding you're just putting too much pressure on the system, whether it's a moisture-holding capacity or just to produce a good crop.
Also, if you over-seed and push it too hard, the greater the risk of getting downgraded to a low quality.
I have shifted the planting window forward by about 2 weeks. Rather than waiting until the traditional period of May-June, I'm now planting in April, which I've never done before. We've always had moisture in the ground in that February-April period. Then, we’d come to plant in May-June and the moisture wasn’t there, so we’d missed the window to plant.
I've gone to a strict farming rotation system of high residue crops followed by a legume crop to put nitrogen back into the soil.
On the dryland farming system, I'm looking at a 5-year rotation, starting off with barley, followed by a chickpea or faba bean crop, then a wheat crop, and then a long fallow into a sorghum crop. If we grow wheat for a number of years back to back, crown rot will become a major problem. That's the main reason we grow sorghum.
We've also got nematodes in the soil, so we don't want to grow a crop for too long. I think diversity is the key. The more different crops you've got in any farming system, the healthier the soil will be. And the healthier the soil, the more moisture it will hold.
We’ve seen a lot of farms go back-to-back cotton for 5 to 6 years. We've grown cotton 2 or 3 years back to back. Now, my farming practice is making sure we have cotton in there for only one season
My philosophy now is not to lock any fields into back-to-back cotton. I want to make sure I've got the opportunity to rotate different crops into each field.
I've got a set cropping rotation plan in place, but I have allowed room to make different management decisions at the time based on water availability or even commodity prices. The main thing is getting away from that monoculture of growing cotton back-to-back every year. At the same time, I've hopefully not reduced the area of cotton I'm growing. I'm just increasing the diversity.
My mindset in years past has always been whatever moisture we've got on farm at the time - whether irrigation water or soil moisture - would be dedicated to cotton. If it had a 100 per cent moisture profile, I'd say, ‘Okay, we'll leave that to cotton because I'm a cotton grower’.
Now, I'll look at it and say, ‘There's 100 per cent moisture there. Let's go plant something’. It could be a cereal crop; it could be a cover crop just to utilise that moisture saved until the next cotton crop, because I've soon learnt that if you’ve got moisture sitting out there on a bare fallow, you could lose 40 to 50 per cent of that moisture. It's your loss.
And the overheads have actually reduced because in a cotton monoculture system you're so concentrated on getting your whole farm prepared for cotton that it would be ploughed and cultivated and ready to plant cotton; you've had all of the overhead costs, but you might not grow cotton there for 2 to 3 years.
Now, I've learnt to just sit back and be patient and let the soil profile fill itself. Don't cultivate or plough - just be able to take advantage of that next planting opportunity. My overheads have reduced significantly just by doing that.
I’ve changed my mindset from being a cotton farmer to just being a responsible farmer.
Each paddock’s got its own challenges with water-holding capability. Some of our paddocks were about 500 hectares in size, so I've split them - there's just too much variability across the field. I brought them back to a maximum of 200 to 300 hectares, which allows me to rotate different crops in that area at any time.
There's a lot of technology around. You’ve got your EM38 soil survey, which can see what soil types are in the paddock and which ones have the better soil moisture-holding capabilities.
You've also got the NDVI [Normalized Difference Vegetation Index] satellite imagery, which can pick up your vegetation growth in certain areas of the paddock. Where the plant hasn't got as much vegetative growth, there's a stress in the plant. Most likely it'll be either moisture or heat stress affecting their growth, so it's a good way of managing your fields properly.
One of the biggest problems we're facing in cotton farming is compaction of the soil after harvest.
The big new 7760 cotton pickers weigh upwards of 30 tonne. Researchers have found it’s the equivalent of driving a roller up and down the paddock at harvest time. All the good things you try to do can be very quickly undone with one operation.
To keep that compaction limited to one area, I would like to convert the irrigated farming systems from a 2-metre tramline to a 3-metre tramline to match the dryland farming systems.
We’d need to go from 40-inch row spacing for cotton to 30- or 60-inch, so it means a change to all the tools and all the planters to get that done.
Two seasons ago [2013/14], to try to stretch the irrigation water out, I decided to put double-skip cotton in, which is a kind of semi-irrigated crop where you plant two rows of cotton and then skip two rows.
At the time, I didn't look at the outlook properly. I just said, ‘Hopefully, we’ll get some in-crop rainfall’.
We got no rainfall during the season, and I ended up giving the crop three waterings. Each watering probably took 1.5 megalitres of water per hectare, so over 200 hectares it used quite a lot of water. I ended up using nearly double the amount of water that I had budgeted for.
The crop used the moisture it was given because, even with no rainfall, we still yielded 5 bales per hectare.
But I soon discovered that you are losing a lot of moisture between the double skip; there is a lot of area there where the moisture is not being utilised in-crop. What I didn't compensate was for how much water I was going to lose through evaporation and through the bare earth with no plants using it, and with the high temperatures on top oftextalign that.
For the yield and the gross margin result, it was just a bad management decision. I guess that was the decision at the time, and I have learnt from it.
I think if you're going to plant a double-skip irrigated crop, make sure you look at that 3-month seasonal outlook and make sure you have above 80 per cent chance of getting some rainfall during the next three months.
In hindsight, I would just plant 40 or 50 hectares of solid irrigated cotton, and that's what I've done this year because I've got a limited amount of water.
The biggest advantage I saw in the Climate Champion program was increasing my education on climate variability by just talking to other farmers around Australia who have the same issues as I do, and proactively working on it together to find solutions, to make the best management decisions possible.
Too often, you think you're the only one faced with a particular problem. Farmers can be very short-sighted or not look past the farm gates.
Whether it’s man-made or environmental, the climate is changing. There's no point saying that it's not occurring. We can't afford to sit back and wait to see what's going to happen. As a farmer, if you're not evolving and changing all the time, you're just going to be left behind.
Interview date: 16 December 2015
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