Peter Holding

Region: Harden / Cootamundra / Rye Park, South West Slopes, New South Wales

Commodity: Wheat, canola, legumes, merino sheep, lambs

Farming area: 1600 hectares 

Rainfall: 200–600 mm per year

Email: peter.holding@bigpond.com

Phone: 02 6386 2020, 0409 049 477

 

When I think about our successes in climate-related decisions, I think there is no silver bullet. I think the way forward is to keep trying new practices, keep your eyes open, look at all the research and have a go.

Peter Holding portrait 1

 

See what Peter has to say about:

 Watch: On the need for innovation in sheep farming

 

Adjusting the mix of cropping and sheep 

We're on the south-west slopes of Harden, in southern New South Wales. My family has been here since 1929. My great-grandfather came down the highway from Sydney and didn’t go any farther.

We're a mixed farming operation. We grow canola and wheat, and run sheep for wool and lambs. We also have a lamb fattening shed business. 

We own 600 hectares in Harden and lease another 1000 hectares in Cootamundra, which is about 50 kilometres further east. I keep the nucleus flock for breeding rams, and we run all the commercial ewes out at Rye Park.

We crop about 950 hectares; half is canola and half is wheat. We use a little bit of land for growing fava beans for the lamb feedlot, but that's variable year to year. 

The reason we lease a proportion of our cropping land is to increase efficiencies and balance out the cost of bigger equipment. It has allowed us to expand our size without buying more land.

The mix here of cropping to sheep has changed.

We always had about 30 per cent of the land for cropping and 70 per cent for sheep, which would have been normal for the mid-1980s. In the 1990s we had about 50/50 cropping/sheep. As sheep prices have suffered and cropping prices are reasonable, we have moved more into cropping and now we are about 60/40 cropping/sheep, though it changes every year. 

The wool market is improving again and there is money in sheep. Sheep are more consistent money, while cropping is risky business. I’m inclined to think we are likely to go back more to sheep soon.

Peter Holding with dogs

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Getting used to drier winters and springs

There’s no irrigation here; we rely on rainfall. We have a bore, good dams and access to the town water supply if worst comes to worst. 

This is south-west slopes country. Normally we have a mild spring, but winters are cold and we get a lot of frosts.

Rainfall used to be spread evenly throughout the year but the consistency has disappeared—it’s become drier in winter and spring. The wettest months now are usually January and July.

We had two dry periods over an 8-year period with a really severe drought in the middle, instead of the 12- or 18-month drought we would usually get in this area. I don't think anybody had ever seen 8 years of dry weather like this before.

There is no doubt the weather is changing. It’s becoming more extreme. And whether that's climate change or variability, it really doesn't matter—we've got to deal with the outcomes, not with what we think it is. 

Winters tend to be milder; not as wet or as cold. My son James is 30 and he has never seen a cold winter like we used to get in the 1960s and 70s. That has disappeared. 

Frosts are becoming more severe and more frequent. 

What has happened is exactly what the scientists have been saying will happen. Climate change is here now, it is not something happening in 2050, when we will be unlikely to still be able to farm.

If you listen to the scientists, there's more heat in the atmosphere, so we're getting more energy in the system, which is driving the storms harder and faster. The wet comes all at once and you get floods, and then it dries out and you've got a drought. So we've got to learn how to conserve what we get when we get it. 

We need to help speed up people’s search for information on how to manage climate risk in their area. For example, Climate Kelpie will explain terms and lead you to more information about what other farmers are doing to manage their farms in a changing climate. Then you can make up your own mind about it. 

To manage for climate variability in farming you have to try to reduce your risk or shift debt, which is why I am looking more at lambs. A person with a high debt level has to keep making money. If I have a bad year, I am just working to pay money to the banks.

Peter Holding Harden NSW

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Monitoring soil moisture for better decision making

Through Landcare, we have put in soil moisture meters a few kilometres apart, and I have got farmers to cooperate and we now have moisture meters from Cowra to Lockhart. There are 4–5 in Harden Shire and I have 2 here. 

The soil moisture meters tell us exactly how many millimetres of water are in the soil. I think this is more accurate than using soil sampling probes. Unlike the meters, soil probes can only tell you how deep the moisture goes, not how wet it is within that depth.

From a farming point of view, you don’t really need a moisture meter in every paddock. We’re not trying to do what the irrigators do and measure exactly how much water is there; a rough idea is enough. I have become so familiar with the readings now that I don’t need to go up and look at them. I know when it gets dry the soil uses 5 ml a day so I can work out when we might run out of moisture.

You can use soil moisture readings to make good decisions about whether to put on more urea, whether to slash for hay or graze it off, whether you can grow a crop all the way to finish or whether you should cut it for hay. 

We can see how the water’s falling or rising after rain, how much run-off there is, and whether the rain has had an impact. 

It just gives us a better understanding of where we are through the season so we can manage the crops better. 

We've also discovered that we can estimate moisture for the paddocks that don't have meters in them. It's not as critical as it would be for an irrigation crop to have exact figures, just as long as we roughly know what the situation is.

When we’re coming up to sowing, soil moisture information will give me some idea of how much moisture is in the soil when I’m sowing dry, so I’ll know how dry it is. It might look dry, but it might not be all that dry further down. From then through to the crop’s finish, soil moisture information will be important because I can see just how likely the crop is to finish. 

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Using soil moisture more efficiently

We learnt an awful lot during the drought, and we got a lot better at managing our moisture, keeping it in the soil, and growing crops. All the water that falls during the summer—which we never used to worry about—it would be enough to get us through a year.

We learnt, for instance, that if we maintained the stubbles and kept them absolutely weed-free, they acted as a groundcover to retain the moisture in the soil and prevent weeds from taking up precious water and nitrogen.  

We are ruthless on summer weeds because what’s happening with climate change is that we’re running into the driest finishes, so by October we’ll need all the moisture we can get. And if you have weeds burning it off and transpiring it, the moisture will disappear, and we won’t have any for the wheat crop.

We cut the worst-affected paddocks to hay and we turn the soil in to mix with the hay, which helps with soil moisture retention.

We have granite soils here at Harden, which only hold 120 mm of water. Out at Cootamundra where the soils are redder they hold 220 mm of water. 

Peter Holding crops and sheep

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Sowing earlier to beat frost stress

Frosts are becoming more severe and more frequent, which is linked to the dry spring. 

Frosts normally come around the middle of September. Last year [2014] we got hit by frosts in July, which we had never heard of before. It wiped out three of our wheat paddocks—cut the stems off at the base and we had to turn this into hay. We’ve never had frosts kill wheat steams in July before.

We didn’t get frosts this year [2015], likely because there wasn't enough moisture around.

To avoid the frosts and the heat stress at the end of the sowing, we are sowing earlier. The risk of frost seems to be about the same no matter when you sow, so we live with that and seek to avoid some of the heat stress.

Dr James Hunt (CSIRO) has done a lot of work on sowing times in the last couple of years. His 2013 research indicates that we might be able to sow a fortnight earlier than we do now, and that we may benefit from up to 0.8 of a tonne of increased yield per hectare.

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Stubble-bashing and direct drilling 

We have a stubble-bashing technique where we bash the straw, break it up into little bits and then sow through it. If you keep the ground covered, you stop everything growing other than the crop you want. Spending a lot less time on the tractor cuts our costs too.

Direct drilling has cut out about 80 per cent of the time that we used to be on the tractor in the paddocks. 

We used to have some problems with seed placement and blockages when we did direct drilling. Our new air seeder has better press wheels, about three times the space of the old shearer, twice the height, and at least double to 2.5 times the capacity, which will take care of our blockages and seed placement issues, as the point design is different.

We sow at 7 in a row space and use a high seeding rate, which creates a dense crop and gets rid of the weeds.

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Budgeting crop yields based on forecast weather and actual soil moisture

Seasonal outlooks can give us a realistic view of what our production ought to be for a season. I’ve found that the rainfall we get determines about half of our yield. Once I have a realistic idea of a normal year’s production, I build budgets around that approximate return for the season that’s predicted.

In our case, with careful summer chemical fallowing and reasonable summer rainfall we can have a full soil-moisture profile at sowing time. Having that can almost guarantee us a 2.5 to 3-tonne wheat yield. 

These higher yields are very much reliant on the in-crop rainfall, especially in spring. So we budget for a yield of about three tonnes and add nitrogen as the crop develops. It’s important for us to keep an eye on seasonal forecasts for the spring, especially for temperature, because that largely determines the final result.

If you work out the soil types and how much fertiliser is used, you can estimate how your crops are progressing on a graph. We get a monthly report on what crops should be like at profit. Now that we’ve tied the moisture meters to our profit, we can increase the accuracy of our estimated year’s profit because we know exactly how much moisture is there, rather than just having to take a guess from the rainfall.

Peter Holding sheep

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Dodging heat and cold stress with an indoor lamb-fattening shed

The year-round indoor lamb-fattening shed is a regular supply of income and a business that grew out of the drought. I can say to someone I can deliver consistently over the year instead of only 3 months a year. 

We were feedlotting lambs outside, but losing too many from heat stress in the summer and mud, disease and cold in the winter.

As our climate changes here, we’ll have hotter summers—over 35°C heat. When it gets too hot lambs stop eating. 

The shed is 15 metres by 25 metres and 5 metres high. The roof angle provides good ventilation and has vents in it as well and a slatted floor. 

Last year the lambs were in here in the heat and it was about 28 degrees, while it was well over 35 to 40 degrees outside.

And even though our winters are generally getting drier, our wet month of July is too wet, muddy and miserable to feed 300 lambs outdoors. Again, the lambs will stop eating. So an indoor lamb-fattening shed is useful in both winter and summer.

The shed also allows us to run more ewes, and to wean the lambs and finish them in the shed. They are in here for about 8 weeks. Then we’ll turn them over. They grow faster in here. They do about 100 grams a day better than they would ever do outside, so that cuts our feed cost, to start with. 

There’s a capital cost of setting it up, but it's all about the margin in the cost of them going in and the cost of them coming out. The cost of grain can go up dramatically in a drought but, usually, if the grain goes up the finished product price will go up as well because there won't be any around. 

It also requires know-how. I’ve seen sheds that are not high enough. This shed is high enough to put a bobcat through it. 

Peter Holding lamb fattening shed

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Managing sheep through drought

We've come a long way with drought management of sheep. As long as you keep the feed up, they normally don't die in a drought. 

There was a time in the '82 drought around here, people were shooting sheep and putting them in a pit because nobody would buy them. They were worthless. I don't think that's likely to happen anymore because I think the pasture management and climate forecasting has come such a long way. 

You can sell maybe 4 or 5 months early before the drought comes. I'm looking at shearing in October. At the end of that, we'll get rid of all the sheep that need to go because I expect it to be very dry in autumn next year [2016] and it won't be a good time to sell, so we'll lighten up now. That gives us flexibility with managing sheep.  

The lamb production system that we're running using the indoor lamb-fattening shed is kind of independent of the weather anyway. If you're trying to fatten lambs outside in the paddock and you hit a drought, you might as well sell them because if they haven't got green feed and lucerne or something decent to grow on, they're never going to fatten. They won't fatten on just straw. That can be risky.

Peter Holding lamb fattening shed

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Using time-controlled grazing to repair country 

We do time-controlled grazing management of our sheep out at Rye Park. The property we lease there is reasonably run-down and over the years has been invaded by woody weeds.

Within the first year of cell grazing, the grass cover has come back to a level where we have some clovers growing and fresh grass, tending to force some of the woody weeds back. The sheep are chewing out the wattles.

That's definitely something we'll continue to do. The poorer the country, the more need there is to do it, I'd say.

We are ruthless on summer weeds. The main thing is to stop them using moisture and secondly to stop them using nitrogen. 

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Running a business that's flexible, low cost and integrated

We believe our business stands up best using the three 'legs' of keeping it flexible, low cost and integrated. I think those concepts give us immense resilience.

For example, I think you need a pulse crop to increase soil nitrogen, but if you don't have it integrated you have to sell those pulses on the open market, and up until 2013 they've been of minimal value. We have just [2015] moved over to fava beans from lupins and they make up about 25–30 per cent of our crops. We use fava beans in the feedlot or to feed our ewes to increase lambing. The excess we sell.

What has changed is the need to try to expand our farm area over different climate types. If it's raining in Wagga, it may not be raining here.

Having leased country scattered within 1.5 hours of where we live works for me. It's not actually in different climate zones, but different things happen in different areas. You might get a storm somewhere which you don't get elsewhere.

It is important to spend a lot of time watching markets and trying to work out whether to forward sell or not. We normally do. I haven't forward sold anything this year [2015]. It looks like the canola is going to be pretty good. Wheat is suffering a bit at the moment, but if the dollar floor will suddenly start to fall away for all sorts of reasons, then that'll help us.

Staying diverse with complementary crops for all seasons and multiple commodities is important today in managing for climate variability. 

I think we got through the millennium drought of the north-east thanks to the sheep income, because the cropping income wasn't so brilliant. We've got our balance a bit too far on the cropping side now. That's going to work well for us this year [2015], but it may not work well for us next year. We've just got to keep working at it. 

Having sheep and stock in your farming system acts as a sort of shock absorber for whatever the climate has to throw at you.

Peter Holding canola

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Using weather forecasts

We use a lot of weather-forecasting tools. The Bureau of Meteorology is pretty accurate with its 4-day forecasts now. We look at the radar when we’re harvesting—it tells us within half an hour if it’s going to rain here.

I always look at the Bureau’s 6-day forecast.

And I look at the Indian Ocean Dipole outlook. The Bureau’s Indian Ocean Dipole webpage has helped me understand how it works. That’s important to me because most of our good winter and spring rain comes across from Broome.

There are a lot of weather tools now that weren’t available 20 years ago. POAMA is a brilliant tool for farmers. It is a trial, but it needs be made more accessible to farmers.

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Combining app outputs with personal knowledge

I use a few apps. Most apps are models, not 100 per cent accurate, but better than a gut feeling or no knowledge at all. I take them, use them, and then blend it in with my own knowledge of what I think happens on my farm. Chances are that I'll come up with a better decision than if I had none of that knowledge at all.

I use the CliMate app. The first couple of months of using it, I'd been running it to find out what the likelihood was of getting two inches of rain between January and May for sowing. The probability was 98 per cent and we ended up with 3.5 inches, so it was pretty accurate for me.

Another good one is the CropMate VarietyChooser. You can call up all the different crops for chickpeas, wheat, lupins, etc., and then get all the varieties that meet your criteria for different diseases, zones, and so on. There might be 100-odd wheat varieties out there, but after you put in your criteria, you might end up with only 2 or 3. It makes selecting a wheat a hell of a lot simpler than trying to read through all the data yourself. 

I also use Yield Prophet.

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Benefits of the Climate Champion program

The Climate Champion program is the best program I have been involved with during my time with agriculture. I’ve seen different ways of doing things and we are having a broad impact on the community. 

The ability to mix with people who are inventive and have different ideas across industries is great. We meet quality people from government and research. 

The program has provided leadership across the country. If I stand up and make comments at a meeting, it can turn the meeting around and people change their minds. Climate Champion farmers can speak the local lingo and we can translate what scientists are saying.

 

Interview dates: July 2010, February 2013 and September 2015

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Contact Peter Holding

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