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Thursday, 10 February 2022

The right data drives farm business success

The North East Catchment Management Authority is undertaking a number of case studies, demonstrating how leading farmers from North East Victoria are managing the risks associated with climate change. The Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is working with the region’s farmers to determine how the use of climate projections supports their farm management. This project is supported by North East Catchment Management Authority, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

Andrew Russell is a partner in a Rutherglen family farming operation driven by data.

This data covers the full gamut of the seed production and farming businesses - weather records, trial results, seed quality specifications, soil information - are all important to decisions made every day and across seasons.

Mr Russell said weather data collected on his property was now proving so valuable he expected to install one or two more weather stations on farm to support predicting and managing climate change variability.

“We have a baseline. Instead of trying to catch rainbows we set rotations and we will modify that if the Bureau says there is a higher probability of a dry year, a drought year or a wet year,” he said.

“At the start of 2021 our rotation was fixed. Normally we have 35pc of our cropping in canola but we could see canola prices rising; they were predicting a good year so we lifted our canola which has helped our rotations. We took that opportunity and it has come to fruition.

“In managing climate variability, one of the very first things you need to be is agile; agile with your decision making and agile with your operations.

“And that’s where your data comes in. You have the resource. That’s not to say that gut feel doesn’t still play a big role and that’s where the older generations come in.

Mr Russell said one important focus was effectively utliising information provided by the data collected.

“You can have too much data and that convolutes things. Collecting the data and using it in a fashion that’s going to mean something is most important,” he says.

“I’m very glad we started collecting data early, as far back as 2000. One of the first things we implemented was a computer platform to record yields and inputs. We have since tried to be really strong in authenticating the data that we collect.”

Baker Seeds and Lilliput Ag are part of a wider family business operated by Ashley and Pam Fraser; and Andrew and Sue Russell.

Pam and Sue are the daughters of Geoff Baker, who was in partnership with his two brothers in a business established by their father in 1965.

Mr Russell made his foray into broadacre agriculture when he arrived at Rutherglen with his wife Sue following the death of her grandfather.

“Sue and I found ourselves in a place we didn’t expect and could see the opportunity so we decided to stay, with some encouragement from her parents.”

Mr Russell decided he needed to broaden his education. He did a Certificate IV in Agriculture at the local TAFE and then completed an Advanced Diploma in Agriculture and a Diploma in Farm Business Management alongside brother-in-law Ashley.

He said surrounding themselves with skilled and knowledgeable staff, as well as taking on board information from the researchers at the local Rutherglen Research Station and local field days helped fine-tune his own skills in financial and farm management.

“I was working with Baker Seeds half the time and on the farm half the time. I fairly quickly took a financial management role on the farm and looked after the production for the cleaning plant for the seed business,” he said.

“I liaised with the growers and a lot of seed people, seed agronomists. It was a good learning opportunity, particularly with some of those production managers from the leading seed companies. There were a lot of assessments out in the paddocks which gave us the opportunity to look at the variables in what we do and there are heaps.”

Putting in demonstration trials for the seed business offered the opportunity to understand the research challenges. They bought an old plot seeder, employed a former trial manager from the research station and began undertaking the trials themselves.

“I was immersed in what he could teach me about running a trial site and having it statistically strong so we could get good information,” Mr Russell said.

“We just thought we would put plots in the ground. What we found after the first couple of years is that people really wanted that information so the pressure was on us to make it statistically robust.

“We were able to take more observations – quite accurate information – including flowering times and growth stages. We gained support from the seed networks because they were interested and began co-investing with us.

“It went very quickly from a backyard job to understanding research characteristics; being able to replicate reality, take data from trials and have it linked to broadacre.”

When the Russells and Frasers joined the Baker business, Mr Russell said his father-in-law Geoff and Geoff’s brother Ken had a lot of historical production data “in their heads” and in about 1000 notebooks held in a file drawer.

“That information was reasonably hard to extract. I felt a need to formalise it and they were keen.

Now the business collects data including full quality specifications for seed which is sampled and re-tested if it is has been in storage for a period of time and potentially compromised by weather.

They were also early adopters of sowing and yield data on farm to manage variability across their paddocks. Mr Russell said significant financial investment has been made over 25 years taking the farming guidance operation from sub-metre accuracy to 20mm accuracy.

The next step will be 3D technology that will provide even greater topographical accuracy.

“We have had the capacity to vary our sowing rate for a long time but we haven’t done so yet because we have fairly small paddocks compared with other areas,” Mr Russell said.

“We are getting to a point where we will implement that. Our thought process has been to lift our fertility, whether it is lime, gypsum, P or N; lift the whole paddock to a high level and maintain it and start vari-rating then.”

In the past six years, Mr Russell said the business had collected regional weather information at a macro-level; supplementing data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology with weather station collection points at Rutherglen Research Station, and two others on-farm including one supported by Riverine Plains.

“We do use a lot of historical data and data given to us. We put in two additional stations because what we knew is that we are spread out and the weather events have now become more isolated and more intense,” he said.

“What we see on one part of the farm we often don’t see on another part. The biggest driver for the stations has been our spraying so we could have accurate spraying records and we could see what was happening before travelling 20 or 30km out to go spraying. If the wind is stronger out there for example, then today’s not the day to spray.”

Mr Russell said learning from other farmers, through forums such as Riverine Plains, Ag EDGE and even social media had proven one of the most valuable resources.

“In the decision making process, one of the strongest things we have to maintain and bolster is the ability to consult with our peers.

“In coming together you may instantly have 500 years of experience. People have seen different things based upon where they are and the crops they grew.

“The best part of the Ag EDGE farm business network has been being accountable to others related to your business acumen. But the soft side or personal focus has been a massive support for partners and other family members who might not be part of the farming business. Their level of understanding improves and it often takes away a lot of the anxiety about issues such as debt.”

“There is a huge amount of trust shared between the farming families involved in these networks.”

Mr and Mrs Russell have begun the conversations around succession planning for the next generation – their son and daughter -both at university and both with an ongoing interest in the family business that includes their aunt and uncle and their children.

“We need to talk to them now and have them as part of the decision making. We need to get the succession right and the business structure right because we are in a partnership, that will provide the next generation with the ability to work together or work apart,” he said.

“In my mind, in order to stay resilient, profitable and sustainable, we need to embrace change. We need to farm sustainably. We need to do what we can practically to reduce emissions, be part of the solution and not the problem.

“We have changed our business model and incorporated more livestock. We are focused on soil health so we can potentially mitigate pests and nurture beneficial insects instead of spraying for everything.

“We want to hand over our land in better condition than when we got it and also hand over a business that is not set to fail.

“We want to give our kids something they can run with and I hope they can. It’s taken three generations before us to get to this place. It would be good to see the fourth come through and then the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.”

 

Pic 1: Sue and Andrew Russell in a canola crop they have grown.

Pic 2: Andrew Russell pictured on farm at Rutherglen.

Pic 3: Andrew Russell and his son James who is completing agriculture studies at CSU Wagga.

 

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