Episode 7: Mallee Farming AgVic Series | Planning for success during dry times with Chris Hunt
Chris Hunt, Millewa Farmer and MSF Board Member, chats with Drew Radford about robust farming plans and how he adapted his farming practices to overcome the driest conditions on record last year. Chris talks about his planning philosophy from seeding, weed management and rotation, livestock and his golden farming rules.
Check out Chris Hunt’s Case Study here: www.agriculture.vic.gov.au/
INTRO - Welcome to this podcast brought to you by Agriculture Victoria.
- DREW RADFORD - Last year was the driest on record for Millewa farmer Chris Hunt and yet despite the tough conditions, he still managed to harvest over half of his seeded area. It is a result, Chris credits to having robust plans and sticking to them. He joined me in the Agriculture Victoria podcast studio to talk about his planning philosophy.
- CHRIS HUNT - We probably seeded 90% to 95% of our cropping plan, which was about 95% of our program. But of that, there's hay crops, fodder crops and legumes, grain legumes, as well as, cereal grain in that, yeah. None of the high crops made it, we ended up grazing what was viable to graze due to the season. The oats for hay never made it, they were harvested for seed and yeah and then all the grains, the grain legumes, which was only field peas due to the dry were grazed in the end cause I, yeah, it was just never going to get there as a grain crop. But yeah, basically every paddock saw the header, not the whole paddock um, different soil types, etcetera.
- DREW RADFORD - It’s still a great result though, isn't it? In such a tough year?
- CHRIS HUNT - I think so. Like at the end of the day, we had a lot of country that was pretty erosion prone and if nothing else, we achieved ground cover. At least harvesting something you don't have to go and buy your seeds one thing, but also you do have some cashflow to generate for the year.
- DREW RADFORD- You talk about making a plan, not a decision, what do you mean?
- CHRIS HUNT - Oh, our programs pretty planned out, we sort of try and work around fixed percent, reasonably solid percentages of what our cropping mix will be year to year long term and generally stick to it. If you go changing, we don't change massively, it might be just changing, you know, from one crop type to another. Like it could be just a wheat barley makeup alter, which really doesn't change the rotation long term. Or it could be a paddock of field peas getting changed to vetch or something like that. But yeah, we're trying to avoid the big swings of, you know, going and sowing the whole farm to wheat this year, and then not having anything or any decent paddock set up well to grow wheat on next year
- DREW RADFORD - Is the foundation to that, it's a business, it's not a lifestyle, you're taking the emotion out of it and you've got a business plan around that?
- CHRIS HUNT - It is, pretty much, that's the aim, like, at the end of the day, we're not registered charities and we work too hard to call it a lifestyle, so it has to be a business and driven like any other business.
- DREW RADFORD - So, in terms of some of that planning, let's talk about the start of the season seeding, you don't wait for a break in the season, you've got a plan and you stick to that?
- CHRIS HUNT - Pretty much, yeah, look, we seed by the calendar, so we'll sort of start rolling. Sometimes we're behind cause we're disorganised, but yeah, generally we start rolling and if we start behind, we've got to go hard to get caught up to where we should be. We'll start rolling on vetch very late March, early April and then as you get closer to that magic day of Anzac day, you'll start looking at cereal options, whether it's oats for hay or early wheats or barleys and yeah, just keep crossing paddocks off the list really.
- DREW RADFORD - How did that run last year in that exceptionally dry year?
- CHRIS HUNT - It was a bit curly. The biggest factors that made it curly was we've been trying to grow chickpeas and get the timing right of a decent break to seed them for the rhizobia and the inoculum. We thought we had that sorted, we'd bought dry inoculant so we could dry seed them, but there was a massive issue of the inoculum, so that got taken back and we were at slurry. So that affected our plan a bit, but the rest of it, the cereals and that, we just kept at it, really like I'm just picking out crop types and paddocks to cross off the list. A lot of stuff was pretty erosion prone, but I think the best thing we did was we got it seeded and then when we did get a little rain event, it did start the cover.
- DREW RADFORD - You mentioned earlier about “we maintained ground cover” that's an incredibly important thing when there's been such a big issue of soil erosion?
- CHRIS HUNT - Yeah, look, we're not immune to it, we've had more country than we'd like erode the last two dry years, but it hasn't shifted massive amounts of dirt where we have had the erosion. But I think the biggest thing is when you haven't got ground cover yet, you don't let the surface get too fine, so what's the point of grazing in a paddock that's got nothing on it anyway? All you're doing is turning it to powder so it blows easier, instead it blows a little bit. But also, when things aren't ideal in terms of ground cover and erosion, it was actually pretty phenomenal, I reckon the result we got by altering our seeding speed. You know, instead of sowing oats because of no pre-emergent chemical considerations at 12km, we came back to 8km and just not powdering the country as bad and just making it rough, clods, farrows, ridges just to help resist the wind and it meant those little seedlings could get away when they got those little rain events eventually.
- DREW RADFORD - What about your planning in regards to weed management?
- CHRIS HUNT - We've got a set of rotation guidelines via our agronomist/consultant, we tweak each year a little bit.
- DREW RADFORD - So, what are some of those guidelines? What are those rotation guidelines?
- CHRIS HUNT - Well, some of the guidelines, like we'll pick out country that will have a particular weed target and we'll set out a plan of a four year strategy on how we're going to tackle it. Whether it's chasing barley grass and what we'll do to get them barley grass numbers down, so they're not a factor in making the decisions moving forward. And some of it could be that we don't grow cereal hay where we've got barley grass numbers, cause cereal hays renowned as good grass control for Rye grass, but it's renowned for building barley grass numbers.
- DREW RADFORD - Is there any other points in that particular rotation plan?
- CHRIS HUNT - Yeah, pretty much, like cereals, so wheat, barley, and oaten hay, we only ever seed them on fallow or on legume stubbles. As a rule, just trying to set up our cash crops to be in the best scenario they can to generate cash, I guess.
- DREW RADFORD - In terms of your plans, are they something that you're constantly reviewing?
- CHRIS HUNT - I guess you're always looking at what you do, because you can always do something better. You know, you've always made a bad decision and if you haven't made a bad decision, you need to find a better critic. But, realistically, you know, we have a drive around with our agronomist once a year in late Winter/early Spring and that's aimed around weeds. But also, you're getting an idea of performance of paddocks and what's happening. From that we'll do a planning session around what's going where the next year, generally that's done before harvest, so we've got a fair idea that we need to keep X amount of this seed or that seed at harvest for the following year. And when we do that, you need to be critical and you want, you know, you're paying an agronomist for advice, so you don't want them to be all warm and fuzzy. You want them to be pretty hard on what you're doing and be critical and pushing you, but yeah, generally we're just working on building the plan.
- DREW RADFORD - You run livestock, is that a similar planning process for you?
- CHRIS HUNT - I guess it is, but we're a lot newer, we always traditionally ran a small mob of breeder cattle, we've got out of breeder cattle quite a while ago and we were trading some cattle. But when we added some country a few year ago, we did that with the plan of also adding sheep to our business. Mainly to manage some variable soil types etcetera and give us rotational options. But we've got the plan around sheep, we prefer to use containment feeding early, especially as the season's meant to be braking. If it does rain to really let your feed get away, let your paddocks get covered and then graze it instead of chasing it as it's coming up and then the poor little plants don't build that leaf area to then, you know, photosynthesize to get the roots to grow.
- DREW RADFORD - My understanding is you've got a few golden rules, can you share a couple of those with us?
- CHRIS HUNT - Well, pretty much you need to look after your lighter soil types, they're your most productive. So, you know you want to manage them so they can produce for you and really, they're your year in year out where you can build your averages in your yields. We just maximize them in terms of fertility, timing and, yeah, so they can produce. Try and use harvest and grazing management when you need to, to maximize ground cover. You know, we were caught out in 2018 harvesting legumes after heavy steel roller was pretty effective at getting the crop but left us pretty exposed. You know, last year we harvested wheat stubble's quite high on a paddock just so it gave us options for grazing. Yeah, also, just around your pre-emergent chem, be very mindful if the paddock's erosion prone and what damage that can cause to your emerging crop. You can always drop it off that part of the paddock if you need to like get the paddock hill covered before, you know, and it might have broadleaf weeds, but sort of the results better than it not being covered.
- DREW RADFORD - All of this Chris, to me says your main golden rule is have a plan.
- CHRIS HUNT - Pretty much. Yeah. If you've got a plan, you sort of can work for what you're doing and if you need to change things, you've got to change things. But due to having a plan, you're mindful of the full effect of a change on your business.
- DREW RADFORD Chris Hunt, Farmer from Millewa, all the best for the season ahead and thank you for joining me in the Agriculture Victoria podcast studio.
- CHRIS HUNT - No worries. Thank you.