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Ronald family’s innovative approach to crop growth

The Ronald family has been farming on the Liverpool Plains in northern NSW since the 1880s. Father and son team David and Will, explain to Chris Gillies how they use the latest in technological innovation and trial different crop varieties, showing an ongoing pioneering spirit in their enterprise.

From evolving the family farming operation into a mixed enterprise from its traditional sheep heritage which dates back more than 130 years ago, to being one of the first producers in the area to grow dryland cotton, David Ronald certainly remains at the forefront of agricultural practices. The property “The Point” which he now farms with son Will, is currently planted with both winter and summer crops and has a mixture of black soils and shallower soils that are sown to sorghum in less favourable seasons. Prior to 2009, Will and his father, David, had largely grown sorghum and winter crops such as wheat. Then in 2010, while Will was at Marcus Oldham College, David decided to buck the trend of the local area and try his hand at dryland cotton. Weighing up the economics, they explain that dryland cotton was an attractive crop because of its far stronger returns when compared with sorghum. Will explains that a good year in cotton makes up for the higher costs that go hand in hand with the crop. “I think there will be years when cotton doesn’t stack up, but when you have a good year it absolutely flogs sorghum,” Will believes. It was in 2014 that Will returned to the family farm. He says undertaking formal studies meant that he has been able to take what he learnt and use it to look at the property with fresh eyes. He added to this fresh perspective after leaving college when he worked as an analyst for a couple of years, before spending 12 months as a grain trader. He also comments the experience gave him a different point-of-view in the running of the farm and in particular the importance of investigating grain marketing strategies. As fairly new cotton growers, the long-term crop returns are not yet clear, although since 2010, many others in the area have also decided to add dryland cotton to their rotations. Will and David say the best year since the crop was planted resulted in a harvest of 10 bales per hectare. The yield created a healthy return for the farm, but as always climate and weather is unpredictable and the good year has been offset by others where they’ve broken even. To balance out these returns, sorghum is still planted as a way to hedge against climate risk which has achieved a stronger return in the last few years. The crop requires less water than cotton, and has a broader planting window. Cotton can only be planted up to the end of October, while sorghum can be planted through until Christmas. Will explains that they aim to get at least five bales (per hectare) of cotton and seven tonnes (per hectare) of sorghum to get an acceptable return. He expects they will continue planting sorghum because it is essential to hedge against poor seasons such as those experienced over the last few years. Outside of summer crops, the property has winter crops that are grown under dryland and irrigation. In the past they’ve long fallowed cotton, double cropped wheat back in with mixed results. “Last year we had double cropped wheat, back on cotton that went six tonnes,” Will comments. This year, they double cropped chickpeas as a trial in one paddock, long fallowed others and double cropped wheat into any sloping paddocks which require ground cover to prevent erosion. On the irrigation country they rotate through cotton, to wheat and back to cotton. Using centre pivot irrigation has given the Ronald family some security as they’ve got a permanent water source that ensures they get a return each year. Behind their production is technology that helps them better understand crop health, yield and what the impact decisions they make have on achieving good returns. This use of technology and monitoring has benefited them greatly in making sure they are getting the best bang for their buck.

Will says he and his father like to run informal field trials as a way of improving farm practices and performance. It also helps that they have an agronomist they can trust and who understands their needs. “Having a good agronomist who is up to the speed of what is out there in the industry is important because we don’t have the time to read massive reports,” Will says. These field trials have had the most benefit for the farm by varying the space between cotton rows. Improving row spacing has lifted yield to highs of 10 bales per hectare on dryland. “Initially cotton was grown on 30-inch solid configuration, as that’s what our sorghum planters were based on. Then we moved to 30-inch single skip a couple of years in, however, we are going to 60-inch next year to lower the population further.” Will says 60-inch has been proven to provide yields as high as 9 to 10 bales per hectare on the Darling Downs, but more importantly, has more capability in poorer seasons compared to narrower configurations.

Information sharing is an important part of managing the farm, and so Will and David meet up with other growers in the area. This informal network gives them a chance to find out what other growers are doing and to find out what the results were like. “Aside from the grower group, we also attend field days to see what new technology is becoming available,” Will says. Looking to the season ahead, Will is frank. “It’s a horrible season. Like a lot of growers this year, the ongoing dry conditions have dampened expectations for a decent crop. “We’ve only got half a profile at the moment and need about 70 to 100ml to bring that profile back. It’s not very wise to plant without full profile. Cotton has huge potential upside so we probably will plant some dryland.” But, it’s not all bad news. With an expected stronger sorghum price and their centre pivot irrigation set-up they hope to get a good return from planting sorghum, proving that a decision to mix it up can definitely prove to be a profitable one.

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