Better management practices key to a more profitable farm

Australian claypan
Dense, Australian claypan - just one of the challenges that farmers face in making a productive business
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Bruce Gardiner is a lecturer at University of New England in Armidale. For the past 19 years he's offered free farm planning seminars through Conservation Farmers Inc. to help agricultural producers gain important skills in farm management. 

Rather than relying on the idea that increased production translates to increased profit, Gardiner stresses that better management practice is the most effective strategy in achieving a profitable farm. Studies show that despite Australian farms doubling their productivity over the past 45 years, in some areas only 15 percent of farms are making a profit. At the same time, the cost of production has almost doubled but the value of the resulting product has dropped. The solution to this problem, Gardiner contends, lies in farmers adopting more efficient management strategies.

Conservation Farmers Inc.'s seminar program is one of many run by Australian and overseas organisations for farmers wanting to learn management skills.

Graham and Cathy Finlayson are examples: they're farmers who've moved forward, after struggling with unproductive conditions, to become the owners of a profitable and dynamic business. The Finlaysons achieved this turnaround not just by diversifying their farming business but by studying and adopting more effective management practices. Graham now mentors other farmers in the region through Western CMA sponsorship, helping them to better manage the various problems they face.

In 1999, Graham and Cathy bought their 7,000-hectare grazing property in Bokhara Plains; they were the fifth set of owners in 50 years. The property, largely covered in claypan, is situated in central north New South Wales, where unreliable rains provide the greatest challenge to graziers.

Initially, Graham worked away from the farm doing shearing work and other jobs, and Cathy worked in a nearby town. The few head of sheep the farm could support usually needed pulling out of boggy ground tanks every summer, and were far from providing the family with a viable source of income.

Frustrated and unhappy with the situation, Graham felt that there must be some way of improving the land without drastically altering it. He started reading up on holistic methods of restoring degraded soil and became excited about the prospect of improving their land.

Graham noticed that where the former owners had conducted earthworks to build ponds, native plants had regrown in areas where the clay had been disturbed. So Graham and Cathy invited local graziers to agist stock on their land. As the Finlaysons rotated them around the property, the cattle broke up the claypan with their hoofprints.        

Regrowth happened fairly quickly, with the first species of plants to colonise, copper burr (Sclerolaena spp.), followed shortly by various native grasses that soon became well established.

Graham completed an RCA Grazing for Profit course and joined the Executive Link Program for the next four years. He also joined a WEST2000 Plus program known as Enterprise Based Conservation (EBC), which gave him the financial assistance to enable the Finlaysons to build much-needed infrastructure on the property - and also meant committing to a five-year conservation management agreement. 

With financial assistance from the EBC, Graham was able to fence off ground tanks to stop livestock from getting bogged. So that he could control stock movement more effectively, he fenced off access to the two rivers that pass through the property and, as an alternative watering system, installed pumps and PVC piping that ran from the river to watering tanks. The Finlaysons also made a yearly pasture management plan and used it to decide when, where and how often to move stock around to take best advantage of the conditions.

They then obtained grants that allowed them to begin renovating the shearing sheds on the property as farm-stay accommodation. This now provides them with extra income in the dry season and has increased the on-farm assets.

The methods adopted by the Finlaysons to improve the claypan soils on their property, improve grassland where it was already established and allow the grass to recuperate by controlling stock movement have paid off with increases in carrying capacity from 56DSE/ha/100mm to 80DSE/ha/100mm. Their involvement in the mentoring program has helped them build relationships with local farmers, while the farm-stay accommodation provides welcome 'droughtproofing' as well as opportunities to connect with the public.   

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