Kym Fromm

Region: Orroroo, Flinders Ranges, South Australia

Commodity: Wheat, barley, sheep

Farming area: 2030 hectares

Rainfall: 350 mm average

Email: fromms@bigpond.com

Phone: 08 8658 1183

 

I try to have a flexible, cheap, fairly robust system that can be in good-enough shape to take advantage of good years that come along. But if we keep getting these record hot years then, because of where we are, pastoral country will encroach into our cropping land. It’ll completely change the way we farm. I think the sooner we start thinking about that, the better.

Kym Fromm

 

See what Kym has to say about:

 

Farming large non-arable areas on the edge of Goyder’s line

I’m a third-generation farmer. I came back to the farm in 1976 after being at Roseworthy Agricultural College, and worked for my parents. In those days, if you had 1500 acres, you could make a good living.

I’ve got 5000 acres [2030 hectares] in various blocks around Orroroo. 3000 acres [1214 hectares] of that is arable for cropping: 1500 acres of that is usually used for wheat and barley, and the other 1500 acres for pasture (barley or vetch for grazing). I can have up to 3000 sheep at any one time.

Yet, I’m only making the equivalent standard of living as my parents did - it’s getting tougher and tougher.

Because we live in the Flinders Ranges we’ve got a fair bit of non-arable area, so we always have to have sheep in our rotation. If we were to rely totally on cropping, we’d lose too much money. We need the stock to even things out.

Regarding cropping, we make more money out of wheat and barley. I grow vetch just for grazing; it fits in well with the system that I’ve got and it’s simple.

Kym Fromm stock

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Changes in rainfall, breaks and heatwaves

Our April-October rainfall, which is our growing-season rainfall, has gone from 280 mm to about 210 mm, and it’s unreliable. That has big implications for our cropping program - it can reduce our potential yield from three down to two tonnes per hectare.

I think there’s a general trend that the summers and springs are getting hotter. We’re having record hot years.

The last couple of years, we’ve had a couple of early breaks in April and then we’ve had bad finishes.

When we’re farming right on the edge, those hotter springs shorten our season and limit our yields because you need a nice, soft spring to get your yield to increase.

If finishes are going to be sharper and quicker, then that’s really going to affect us.

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Spring is make or break time for Orroroo grain growers

Spring is our million-dollar question. I really need to know what the spring is going to do - that’s the money part of the season, really.

In the winter, the plant’s small and has a very small moisture requirement. Spring is the real crunch time. You can have everything looking magnificent, but then have it go pear-shaped in the spring.

Last year [2014], for instance, we had a really wet start to the spring and I bought urea with the thought of increasing my wheat yield, because the soil had a full moisture profile.

But when the rainfall stopped suddenly, I thought it was too risky to put the urea on. We ended up having one of the worst springs ever.

I thought I’d done the right thing but, in hindsight, perhaps I should have put on more nitrogen because protein levels in the wheat were so low.

I want to go back to the drawing board to try and hone my expenses, to maximise yields in the good years. This is why spring is the million-dollar question, and the hardest thing to predict.

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Decision-making strategies: moving fast and delaying expenses

If you’re a low-rainfall farmer, you’ve got to make snap decisions and be able to adapt very quickly. It’s a bit different if you’re in a high-rainfall situation and you know that you’re going to get rain.

If you’re in a high-input scenario but it’s not working out - for instance, if you are continuous cropping - then you can go backwards really quickly. If the current scenario is not making you money, you have to change really quickly.

I look at every forecast that’s available and develop a bit of a feeling of how I reckon that season is going to go, and then move from there. But I don’t make all the decisions up-front - I adjust it as the season’s changing.

Kym Fromm's grain silos

 

I try to leave our decision-making for expenses as late as possible so that I’ve got the flexibility later on in the year.

That’s the beauty of no-till cropping, because I can decide not to crop a paddock. If I’d cultivated that paddock then I would be committed to putting a crop in on it. But if I no-till it and the only cultivation it gets is the seeding one, and it looks as though the year is going to be bad, I can cut back on my cropping fairly easily and not be committed so much.

It’s similar with nitrogen: I don’t want to put that on at seeding. I try to delay that if I can, so if I feel confident about how the spring is going to be, I can put more nitrogen on.

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Sacrificing some yield for more profit

If you have a good year most years, then you can maximise yield and that’s fair enough. But here a magnificent-looking crop in the paddock doesn’t necessarily mean a profitable crop.

I’m trying to maximise profit, which might not actually mean maximising my yield.

Because I make most of my money out of cereals, I previously tried to maximise my cereals. But eventually I got an increase in barley grass [a crop weed on some farms, particularly where 3 or more cereals are sown], didn’t have a legume to put nitrogen in, and so on.

I try to have a flexible, cheap, fairly robust system that can be in good-enough shape to take advantage of good years that come along. In those 20 per cent of good years you make about 80 per cent of your income - but to do that, I’ve got to have a better rotation than just continuous cereals.

Pulses and peas virtually lock in a loss - my long-term average with peas was 3 bags. I tried canola back in the 1990s, but I was measuring yield in kilograms per hectare rather than tonnes per hectare.

It’s too hard to try to chase the good and bad years with your rotation too much. So I’ve gone back to my simple rotation of vetch, wheat, then barley or wheat.

I’ve got a legume in the rotation (vetch) that I know I can make money out of by grazing, and then hopefully I’ve set myself up for a wheat crop and a half-decent barley crop. And I’m still catering for my sheep, which are a very important part of my system.

If I have low costs and a reasonable crop, that’s a profitable crop - and that’s what I’m looking for. I assess myself at the end of the year and say, ‘Could I have done that better?’ I’m starting to notice now that there are limits of what you can do in cost-cutting.

It’s all about having all these things in your tool bag to suit the season that’s thrown at you.

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Timing seeding to balance frost risk but maximise crop yield

The timeliness of seeding is critical.

If you get in early, you have a chance of a good crop; leave it too late and you have very little chance, especially in the situation we’re seeing of rising temperatures.

Most times here, people find it’s worth sowing early and taking the risk of frost damage to maximise their chance of a decent year.

Kym Fromm with farm equipment

 

For instance, one week this year [2015] we had a lot of clear skies and a dry finish. Old blokes have said they’ve never seen anything like it. We were getting –5 °C every night, and it was already freezing by seven o’clock at night.

So by seven o’clock the next morning, the crops had had 12 hours of below zero degrees, and some were completely written off. And they were magnificent crops.

But if you ask those guys now, ‘Would you make the same decision again? Would you sow early with the risk of frost?’, they say they would, because at least they’d given themselves the chance of a good crop.

I was really interested last year [2014] when people were sowing in the middle of April, which would have been a risky option in the past. I thought, ‘Well, they are going to have to get frosted’. But even with a record frost that we had, they still managed to have half-decent crops.

It was interesting because the worst case scenario happened, but it was still the right thing to do.

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Dealing with hard-setting, heavy soils and using no-till

In the Pekina Valley back in the 1940s, people used a fallow/wheat rotation, trying to maximise production in the war effort. We had huge floods. A lot of the topsoil washed off from all that fallowing, and half-filled the Pekina Reservoir with silt.

Researchers found that people had to change their rotations, so they went to a pasture rotation and less fallow. By 1972 there’d hardly been any increase in the level of silt in the reservoir - just by introducing pastures into the rotation. Since then, people cultivate a lot less.

We have a unique situation for Australia here, with heavy soils and a low-rainfall environment. Most times, it’s light soils in a low-rainfall environment.

In lighter soils, the rainfall is more available to the plant. In heavy soils with a high wilting point, we might have, say, 15 per cent moisture in the soil - but none of it is available to the plant, because the clay ‘holds onto’ it.

Hard-setting soils can be a problem. Our soils are fairly shallow and mainly red-brown earth, so they tend to be hard-setting clays or limey grey rises. No-tilling has helped improve the structure of the soil. I’ve no-tilled since 2010 and direct drilled since 1980.

Kym Fromm crop in rows

 

We don’t overcultivate our soils now. Instead of an overcultivated paddock turning to soup in rain, it handles the rain a lot better. It’s even a lot less time and labour. It works really well. I don’t think I’m taking even a slight yield loss - I think I’m yielding at least as well as if I was conventionally farming.

But there are implications. If you’re cultivating the soil, you’re burning up your bacteria and you’re releasing nitrogen, which your crops need in the soil. So I’ve got to be able to make sure that my nutrition is right for my no-till farming so I can grow crops equivalent to conventional.

The only time my soil is exposed now is after seeding, after I’ve gone through with narrow points. As long as you don’t get a heavy rain, there’s a lot less erosion, and I’m noticing now that my run-off is relatively clear.

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Adapting regardless of ideas about climate variability or change

I think people here are very in tune with the climate, and see and react to it.

We’re right on the edge of the pastoral country. But if we keep getting these record hot years then, because of where we are, pastoral country will encroach into our cropping land.

It’ll completely change the way we farm. So we’re right on the ‘front’ of climate change, the way I see it.

If we get these hotter temperatures - those hot north winds that come down and blow in the spring, off pastoral country, and burn all our crops off - if that’s going to happen earlier and earlier, then somehow we’ve got to adapt to that.

We’ve got to be constantly saying to ourselves, ‘Well, how is this going to affect us in the future?’

Even if you don’t believe that climate change is going to happen, I think we’ve still got to have a plan for the scenario that it might. And I think the sooner we start thinking about that, the better.

But people here are already making changes and adapting. That gives me a fair bit of hope for the future - that we’ll be able to somehow work out a way of making a living.

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Using short- and long-term forecasts plus gut feel

From seasonal forecasts, I want to know what the spring is going to do. That’s the money part of the season, really. Other than that, you only need to get a crop in and going. If they could ever predict springs, that would be the ultimate forecast as far as I’m concerned.

But the people who rely solely on a seasonal forecast can come unstuck. If predictions are for a good year and it ends up being a bad year, then you’ve lost a heap more money.

I think you’re better off trying to get an opinion from as many sources as possible, and try to adjust it to the way you feel the season is going. I look at El Niño predictions and the Indian Ocean Dipole.

As for shorter term forecasts, there wouldn’t be too many days during the cropping season that I wouldn’t be checking the weather and seeing what the latest outlook is a week ahead, or what they think will happen in the next month. For example, if you’re looking to incorporate urea, then you’re looking for the next rain events to come along.

If we had better reception, I’d be keen to use apps on my phone such as the CliMate app [note: CliMate is also available on the web].

Susan Carn [fellow former MCV Climate Champion farmer at Quorn] has done quite a lot of work understanding the Indian Ocean Dipole. She puts out a newsletter from time to time [see Weather Watch at Bestprac for Susan's articles].

Kym Fromm on top of hill

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Talking to Upper North farmers in the same situation

I’m with the Upper North Farming Systems Group - a low-rainfall farming group.

The idea was to build our own group in the upper north that can deal with heavy soils and a low-rainfall environment. We’ve got our own issues, so we need to have trials and information to help us best maximise profits.

You get to talk to other people who are in the same situation as you, and we’re trying all different things. It will be a good source of information for us to build on, especially for our younger farmers.

If you live in this country, you’ve got to be able to be flexible and tough. Right across the Central West to the Mallee, from the Eyre Peninsula, low-rainfall farmers have a sense of humour and are willing to take the good with the bad.

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Getting information straight from scientists

The Climate Champion program was a really good opportunity for us to get the information that we need, and to bring that back to our farmer groups. I think it was really important in the situation and location that we are in, right on the edge of the cropping district.

The beauty of the group was that we could get cutting-edge, good information. It was the perfect opportunity to get it straight from the scientists to the grass roots, without that normal filtering-down effect that might take two or three years.

It was great to be able to have a conversation with people in different industries and understand how climate affects them as well, whether they be grape growers or beekeepers.

Sign saying Fromm Road

 

Interview dates: June 2010, August 2012, February 2015

 

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Contact Kym Fromm

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