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ON THE RAIL WITH: Lachlan Caldwell

Agronomist Lachlan Caldwell has achieved return on investment from incepting precision agriculture applications in his own farming enterprise southwest of Young. His practical knowledge and extensive research both locally and globally was also pivotal in building Delta’s precision agriculture programs. He explains what drives his passion for the industry and why he’s been keen to share his skills with fellow growers.

Just like his own fond memories of spending time amongst livestock or being on the tractor with his own father, fourth generation farmer Lachlan Caldwell is creating the same family scenes with his wife Amanda and his young children, Zara and Rohan.

The countryside surrounding Caldwell Farms is steeped in an impressive family history and Lachlan’s enterprise encompasses 1,680 hectares of land. The mix of granite and clay loam soils in addition to the relatively reliable winter rain and soft finishing springs enable high yielding long season crops and perennial grass and legume pastures to lay foundation to the mixed enterprise farming system.

The operation incorporates a commercial cattle herd, with up to 300 Angus breeders each year, a Merino enterprise with 1,900 to 2,000 self-replacing high fertility ewes, and a first-cross Poll Dorset flock for the cull Merino ewe complement. The cropping enterprise totalling 806ha of wheat, barley, canola and undersown paddocks adds another dimension and contributes to the pasture improvement programs.

Lachlan and his father Norman began the succession planning process on the farm around 7 years ago, and he was jointly managing the enterprise, until Norman sadly passed away in 2015. Since then, Lachlan has taken on the role of managing director of the operations and his mother Frances remains a silent partner. Their farm manager oversees the day-to-day farm work and coordinates a team of seasonal workers to assist in busy times. There is also a farm advisory board including Lachlan, Amanda and Frances, two key financial advisors, and an independent representative whose knowledge extends across an array of agricultural industries, all assisting to remove some of the invested emotion in the strategic decision making process.

“I’m very numbers and efficiency focused, so I’m constantly looking at the enterprise in make-up, costings and profitability, and understanding where we need to be making any changes to increase our productivity at the other end,” Lachlan says.

“We need to invest a lot of time and energy on particularly where our livestock enterprise needs to go and the goals to get there. There is an evolving management plan for the livestock enterprises focused on fertility and nutrition from a pasture base or supplementary base to provide the nutrition to allow the genes in those animals to express their capability which is in turn driving production and profitability.”

Lachlan went on to explain the history to his foray into precision agriculture. It was seven years ago that it became evident production in his cropping paddocks was inconsistent. When his contract harvester was updated to show yield mapping information the data was also identifying a variation in crop growth, so Lachlan started to investigate if this could be managed to a degree.

“In our landscape we’ve got two clear soil types and it became quickly evident that those two soil types were behaving differently in terms of nutrient availability and supply, and plant available water capacity, and that in turn was driving different yields across those soil types. That started my spatial interest in agronomy or precision ag to look at those areas that may be underperforming and ask the question of whether we could lift their profitability or if that’s not the case, look at the higher producing areas and see if we could push them a little bit further,” he recalls.

So, Lachlan started a variable rate strategy program on his own property seven years ago. Since then he has been applying as many nutrients as possible in a variable rate way according to where they could get the best return. “Since then our yields have increased, but more importantly our level of profitability and return on investment in those cropping paddocks has stabilised and improved, so it’s been worthwhile economically,” he says.

“We’re applying all variable rate lime, sulphur, and nitrogen. Sadly, we can’t variable rate our phosphorus at sowing time yet, as we need to upgrade our air cart to do that. I’m in the same boat as many of my clients in that I have to spend a bit of money to realise the benefits of the whole system, and can rationalise the investment decision when we do pull the trigger. We’re doing variable rate application on wheat, barley and canola, and we’re hopeful to start variable rate phosphorus application on our pastures very soon as well.”

Whilst taking on the family enterprise wasn’t something that was ever forced upon him by his parents, it was something he admits he was likely destined to do, but only after he’d travelled “filling my toolbox with skills and capabilities and gaining an understanding of the world of business”.

And travel he did, and continues to do.

After finishing secondary school in Sydney, Lachlan participated in an exchange program to Canada which afforded him much more than just an extension of his farming knowledge.

“What I had anticipated and hoped to learn from that was to excel my level of independence and self-confidence, throwing myself in the deep end on the other side of the world and away from my comfort zone, growing not only my hands-on capability of ag machinery that I had grown accustomed to naturally, but really to take responsibility and ownership of my decisions and in communicating with people,” Lachlan recalls.

He then went on to study a Bachelor of Business, majoring in agriculture and agronomy, at the University of Sydney in Orange, gathering skills in human resources, networking, risk management, trading, an overall business approach, and also travelled to North America before taking on a graduate agronomy role at Lachlan Fertilizers at Grenfell, which has given him an indirect association with Delta Ag spanning 12 years.

“The agronomy wasn’t something I set out to do, but I decided to further my capability realising that it was a key piece of the puzzle to grow my skill-set for my own farming business and work with a lot of different farming clients along the way, and that has now grown into a long lasting relationship with Delta,” he says, adding that he’s been fortunate to have had the best of both worlds with his on-farm involvement and agronomic advisory role.

And these two worlds continue to collide, with a new focus of his agronomy centring on precision agriculture practices and Delta’s ventures in this area – engaging with clients, creating awareness and helping them understand and adopt the processes now in place and where the return on investment can be.

“The clients I’m dealing with seem to value that I have also developed this mindset from my own farm. There’s a concrete reason I’m sitting down and building programs with them. It’s ground truth advice that’s having a direct impact on their business, and to quote some of them ‘an absolute no brainer’. Once we’re empowered with the tools in our precision ag tool box to help do the right agronomy in the right part of the paddock and get better outcomes, there’s no way you’d go back to a blanket standard approach,” he states.

Lachlan travelled internationally before working extensively with the Delta management team on developing usable precision ag solutions for farming clients. “I’ve been very fortunate to have had a strong level of influence in that strategy and I couldn’t be happier to have an ongoing involvement with the operation of Delta’s precision ag ventures,” he says.

“What I was doing at home within our business was manually doing all the variable rate calculations and prescription map creations with a proprietary program on my computer,” he says, also explaining the limited industry support he had when he was introducing the variable rate system on his farm in the early years.

“Since the inception of Delta’s Precision Ag Unit, Caldwell Farms has completely moved into that space to simplify and automate a quick turnaround and decision making. It’s absolutely complemented by default what I was setting out to do myself.

“I really enjoy doing the precision ag at home and I’ve got an enormous passion for the potential of the system and in experiencing the outcomes this can create. To help add value into the operations of Delta’s clients is immensely satisfying and I’m proud I can have some positive impact in that avenue especially while this is so new.”

Lachlan believes the increase in accessibility of technology, particularly satellite imagery, is allowing efficient data management and turnaround, which minimises losses and also allows for better decision making.

“I think for farm business operators out there looking to manage their risks in dry seasons while at the same time capitalise on the opportunities in very good years when they come around, the whole precision application of nutrition and agronomy using an integrated PA system enables that completely. Along the way it’s going to increase return on investment and it drives profitability and allows those businesses to be more competitive in terms of expansion,” he says.

“The days of applying one decision to a paddock and shutting the gate and walking away are not an efficient means of managing that farm. The times are changing and obviously higher input costs do have an ability to push people into this by default. The way of doing agronomy and farming is changing and certainly these tools and strategies are absolutely allowing more empowerment, and I think removing some of the emotion and guesswork of the decisions we are making. They are more based on data and science which is going to improve our end result.”

Whilst he is often on the road liaising with clients from as far as Narrabri and Trangie, or travelling globally to learn more about the innovations surrounding precision agriculture, home is certainly where Lachlan’s heart is, and he continues to balance his time between his advisory commitments, managing his large farming enterprise, and enjoying family time.

“It does take a lot of planning to be able to work with Delta and run a large farming business, and plenty of people have asked me why I don’t just go farming full-time, and I could, we’ve got enough scale to certainly enable that, but I have a huge passion and interest to help other farmers and maximise the uptake of Delta’s precision agriculture programs.”

He’s equally excited to continue growing precision agriculture practice on his own farm.

“I like to think that when Zara and Rohan may or may not decide to become involved, we’ve got a well-oiled machine that’s growing and operating very efficiently.”

And when Lachlan isn’t liaising to a grower about new precision ag strategies, incepting new processes on his own farm, or creating precious family moments with his children and wife Amanda, you may even catch him sneaking away for a weekend taking to the slopes at Perisher or Thredbo as he catches some downtime during these upcoming colder months. Or, as he jokes, if finances (and time) permit, a trip to one of the renowned snowfields in Europe or North America could definitely be beckoning…

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