Making hay out of drought
In the midst of the Millennium Drought, Victorian grain and livestock farmers Julia and Tim Hausler were figuring out how to build up their business again.
When the Millennium Drought did break at the end of 2010, the much-needed rain soon turned to flood. Heavy rains fell in December 2010 and January 2011. The waters isolated the Hausler farm and farmhouse for a week.
“Droughts end with floods,” Julia said. She adds that not much can prepare a farm for flood, but, “you can plan for drought better than you can for floods.”
“Though we’re not in drought at the moment, we have been previously,” Julia said. “And we are now better positioned for the next one.”
This year, all of their crops will be taken through for harvest: vetch for hay, and lentils, canola, wheat and barley for grain. The Hauslers also fatten lambs over the summer months.
Having overcome drought, she knows that with climate change in the mix, droughts will come again. To stay operational in times of drought and in recovery, she says smart farming methods are essential.
A family business
She didn’t always work on the land—she was an economist previously. But Tim, her husband, is a fifth-generation grain and livestock farmer.
They married in 2000 and Julia joined the family business in Warracknabeal, just north of Horsham in the Wimmera region.
Julia says bringing her skills into the business was an easy alignment. However, the timing of the partnership couldn’t have been better: for the next 10 years the couple tweaked their operations as they weathered the drought. And they also developed a long-term plan to future-proof their business.
CSIRO Agriculture and Food Deputy Director Dr Michael Robertson says smart and evolving farm management is key to success, especially in times of drought and the subsequent recovery.
“Two farms side-by-side can be the same size and have the same crops but completely different outcomes,” he said.
“One might be failing while the other thrives. It really comes down to how the farm is managed.”
Only two years between 2001–2010 reached average rainfall on the Hausler property. “Our biggest challenge is that we rely on water,” Julia said. “And by water, I mean rainfall because we don’t have irrigation.”
After feeling like they were standing still as a business, she and Tim adopted a number of strategies to better survive future dry and lean years. The decision to change how they operate has now borne benefits for their farm.
1. Take care of the soil
“One of our biggest challenges is learning how to manage soil moisture,” Julia said.
She and Tim say local farming systems groups are invaluable on this front.
By spraying and managing weeds immediately after summer rains, soils can still retain the moisture for bigger crop yields.
Tim was also an early adopter of gypsum, a soft mineral fertiliser and soil conditioner. Having started 30 years ago, Tim has since turned heavy clays into user-friendly soil. Julia says this set the farm up well.
“Tim and his family were right into precision agriculture by doing visual assessments of the land,” Julia said. “They were already using practices before they were widely adopted.”
The intimate first-hand knowledge of their land meant the Hauslers were able to build up poorer problem areas over time and monitor the changes in crop production.
2. Rotate crops
To exit the Millennium Drought on the front foot, Julia says they concentrated on smoothing out the challenges and fluctuations going forward.
Dr Robertson said CSIRO has done considerable work exploring the benefits of crop rotations.
“Particularly, how the role of crops such as canola, grain legumes and lucerne can improve soil fertility and reduce diseases and weeds,” he said.
“We are strong on crop rotation,” Julia said. “We don’t know which crops will grow well until we’re well into the season, so we set the soils up nicely with both legumes and cereal grains.”
3. Extend the selling window
Risk management is also a CSIRO farming research area, and the Hauslers are proving its practicality.
They started investing in better infrastructure: sheds, to keep their machinery and hay out of the weather. In addition, they boosted their on-site storage via silos with the aim of storing at least a third of their annual grain production.
Julia says they have now extended their crop-selling window to 18-months. This puts her and Tim in a position to participate in more price opportunities.
“With increased storage on the farm, we can take the seasonality out of selling and instead respond to demand at any time of the year,” Julia said.
“By smoothing out the cash flow you’re protected in the good years but can help yourself in lean years. We aren’t forced to sell at harvest time, especially if prices are falling.”
Then in those lean years, when costs are still high but income is less than nil, the farmers have access to what they’ve saved.
“It gives us greater control over the market.”
A successful agricultural sector is essential to Australian society and its economy. The nation’s farmers produce almost 93 percent of Australia’s daily domestic food supply. The gross value of Australian farm production in 2016–17 was $60 billion. However, outputs are threatened by drought.
While many innovations are developed overseas, Dr Robertson said Australia is also investing in new technology to lift productivity.
“Our most exciting new tool is the eShepherd®. This is controlling livestock without the need for fences,” he says.
Dr Robertson adds that CSIRO is working with the GRDC to develop more drought-resilient crops.
“We’re also exploring crops for new market opportunities such as new grains for healthy food products, and new oils from canola. These will bring price premiums for growers,” he said.
Julia says while their business methods won’t suit everyone’s farming operations, she and Tim are constantly learning and sharing what works.
“We’ll continue to explore new methods and practices by working closely with those who can help develop and deliver these to farmers,” Julia said.
“Together we can all ensure the future of agriculture in Australia is not only sustainable, but successful. Even in difficult times.”