Seasonal Success - Prospect Summer 21/22

 

With significant yield variation across paddocks and inconsistent rainfall in Kooloonong in Victoria’s Mallee region, Alistair Murdoch has constantly been adopting new technologies and innovations to drive profitability in his family’s farming enterprise. Rosie O’Keeffe discovers how a wealth of knowledge and agronomy experience ensures maximum productivity is achieved year after year.

Photography I Jane McLean

 

Today, Alistair is involved in the day-to-day operations and manages the spraying and seeding, while at harvest time, he drives the header and manages the logistics.

Gordon is still involved in the operation and there is one full-time farm worker employed and one full-time truck driver, with seasonal labour used throughout the year.

“One of the conversations we are having at the moment is surrounding labour and clear systems to train people quickly and having clear processes they can understand,” Alistair says.

He had believed that the model used from a labour perspective was a resilient one, until the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the availability of international workers.

“We had been calling upon international trainees, through agricultural agencies, usually workers mechanically trained or with farming experience… Our business was focused on training and development and having standard operating procedures… We wanted people who were wanting to learn and grow and who can process information quickly and embrace their role and create a niche within the business.

“Typically it would be Danish or Swiss workers… That was the model up until early 2020, and when Coronavirus hit, we have had to rely more on local university students or family members.

“I think we will look at more business administration and management going forward too, developing and overseeing operating procedures and more human resource practices and compliance to free me up to be more creative in the practical farming side of the business and growing the scope of the business and the agronomics.”

The Murdoch family has traditionally been actively involved in the community at a local and industry level whether it be on committees of sporting clubs to the current roles that Alistair has on the local Landcare group and regional GRDC advisory committee.

Alistair has used variable rate seeding in applications since 2007 and variable rate spreading systems and top dressing nitrogen was introduced into the cropping operations in 2011.

“We are doing a lot of deep ripping of the lighter soils in the variable rate seeding. Plant establishment can be challenging, so variable rate seeding definitely helped crop emergence in the lighter soils.

As previously mentioned, the yield capacity of some paddocks can vary by up to 300 per cent, so trying to supply the right amount of nutrients to the right zone rather than over allocate the zones with enough nitrogen that might be there already has been important.”

When I speak to Alistair, the property had experienced well below average rainfall for the season, so expectations are lower than usual for yields and frost events have also been challenging in recent years.

“There is a strong focus in the commodity game, we have to be a low cost producer per tonne of grain and one of the easiest ways is to have the efficiencies in the operation. Timing is critical in terms of potential. In utilising labour better, having good size machinery and by running a reasonable scale, we can invest in maintaining a lot of the latest technology and keep improving water use efficiency for productivity gains,” Alistair explains. He says an 80 foot seeder is used for sowing, an 160 foot sprayer, and Alistair is also currently planning on using a shielded spraying system to utilise over summer for weed control. It is also a shield system that can be used in-crop for cereals to remove weeds growing inter-row.

“Grain marketing is really important whether using pools as a benchmark… We store a lot of grain on-farm too…

“We have a focus on cost and profit per tonne, our operational equipment, financial costs and structures, efficiencies and using agronomy and technology with the latest varieties and farming practices all combine for us to extract as many gains as possible.

“We’ve had a large focus on water use efficiency and converting rainfall into grain, but outside the production season from November to April we often utilise some of the crop residue and stubbles for grazing livestock too.

“We built our own feedlot 5 to 6 years ago so we often transition those sheep in the feedlot and utilise seconds grain to increase their live weight to when we sell them in the winter period.”

Alistair believes the future is a bright one, especially as he continues to grow the enterprise.

“I do feel that we need to be continuing to try new things, which is also why I have been involved in trials to gain an insight into different technologies, practices or varieties that we may not have had information that is relevant to our specific area or farm business.”

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