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Planting for productivity

Slow and steady formula proves one small step in a five-year plan and one giant leap for this North West NSW cropping operation.

Third generation Tulloona farmer, Robert Woods, knows first-hand that life on the land is a marathon, not a sprint. “If the place is left fractionally better each afternoon than it started that morning, then we’re on the right track,” Rob believes. It’s a mantra that takes much patience and dedication, but Rob is comfortable in the fact that farming is not the industry for quick wins. As such, his mixed cropping operations “Limebon” in north west NSW and “Warrabri” just over the border at Toobeah, are strategically planned over a five-year window, prioritising crop rotations and soil regeneration over market chasing. “We have a full schedule of rotations in place and stick to that regardless of the market. There is some flexibility, but we don’t tend to stray any more than 10 per cent outside our nominated area,” Rob explains. Even at the height of the region’s recent ‘wall-to-wall’ chickpea plantings, Rob stood firm. “It was certainly tempting with the prices,” he laughs, “but we knew that while it would have been a huge win over one season, the lack of ground cover after chickpeas, and thus moisture retention capability, would have been detrimental the following season – if there’s no stubble, there’s no point. We work in margins off fields over five years, and it all tends to balance out over that time.” A passion engrained since childhood, Rob believes he was destined to return to the family property, held by his parents, Tony and Sally Woods and grandparents Norman and Nea Woods, before him. And while the transition between generations can be a fraught process, Rob’s return home in 2004 was seamless. His father Tony is still heavily involved, and the success of the operations is no doubt thanks to a relationship based on mutual respect, mateship and a healthy dose of curiosity. “I’m forever grateful to have Dad here as my number one sounding board, those years of experience are invaluable, and in this game a good steady mind is imperative,” Rob reflects. “Dad has always been highly progressive, so thankfully when I came home all the latest systems were in place. We both get excited about the same things and share the same goals, it’s a genuine partnership.” Rob has taken up his father’s gauntlet with pride, and over the past decade has steered the business towards even further innovations and efficiencies.

A move to no-till farming some years ago has, he believes, greatly enhanced the farms’ efficiency. “Here at Tulloona, we’re on heavy black floodplain soil, which has fantastic water holding capacity, and while we have relatively secure rainfall, like everywhere in Australia we do also get certain periods of dry, and sometimes extended dry. No-till and minimum-till farming, in conjunction with our strict cropping rotation has made enormous inroads into our moisture storing capacity. Now, during the dry times, we’re not totally reliant on rainfall.” Receiving an average of 600mm per year, Rob is able to also minimise risk through summer and winter cropping diversification. “We run a winter cropping schedule that includes wheat, barley, chickpeas and faba beans, while summer planting consists of sorghum.” And only the truest of farmer eyes alight describing different stubble varieties. “There’s nothing that compares to barley stubble, it’s beautiful and thick and easily stores moisture, we always sow our chick peas into barley stubble and it’s proven a great formula,” Robert says. Off the back of a dryer than average 2017, the 2018 season already looks promising. Their Toobeah property has enjoyed the lion’s share of summer storms, resulting in a full moisture profile going into planting. “Our fertilizing program is complete so it’s just a case of keeping the paddocks clean of weeds and we’ll be ready to charge come planting time in April.”

On “Limebon” profiles are approximately three quarters full, which Rob acknowledged was “more than enough to plant, but if we could pick up another 40-50mm then we’d be right in the box seat”. Considering the unpredictable nature of each season, Rob and Tony have spent decades putting systems in place to mitigate risk. “Obviously, the geographic spread between Tulloona and Toobeah allows us to spread risk over two regions – that was a specific strategy by my father to allow diversity from our heavy floodplain soil here at Tulloona. Toobeah is in a different rainfall area and consists of Brigalow and Belah loam, and it’s been very fortuitous having both options.” A diversified portfolio, including cattle, off-farm investments and on-farm storage also steadies fluctuations and eases cash flow issues. While working closely with Troy Hunt from WMG Agriservices, Goondiwindi (A Delta Agribusiness company), Rob conducts all the agronomy on the properties himself, and a background in Commerce from the University of New England has played a key role in managing the property for financial stability. However, regardless of strategies in place, Rob acknowledges that moisture is still the leading determinant behind all decision making. “Like everyone, if we only have 15cm of moisture going into planting then there’s a fair chance that crop will fail, or yield low. “We may run that risk if there are other points on the property that are low risk – but we would still never plant to price take, we just don’t think it’s worth it.” The property also takes advantage of beneficial flooding, with the Takenbri, Croppa Creek, Whallan and Mungle systems all running over “Limebon”. “It is a double-edged sword, flooding can cause yield impact, but Australia always dries out, so we are generally price rewarded with a stronger crop the following season.” A nitrogen replacement program, formulated from the previous year’s crop size and selective soil sampling, is another key management component. Effortlessly polite and engaging, with an old-world charm of a genteel farmer – Rob’s easy-going disposition deceives his highly progressive and determined resolve. Regarded as one of the top operators in the industry, recent accolades continue to shine a spotlight on his success.

Having traditionally entered the local North Star/Tulloona crop competitions, in 2017 the Woods’ won the John Woods Memorial Crop Competition – a tribute to Rob’s uncle who was tragically killed in a helicopter accident. The family joined other state finalists through a strict judging process, before being awarded the NSW Award for Farming Excellence. “It was a huge surprise,” Rob reveals. “The award is not just based on yield but farm management, water use efficiency and a range of other criteria.” “It’s an honour, particularly when compared to the southern growers whose yields are far greater than ours, but it was a fantastic opportunity to network with some really inspiring and successful operators,” Rob reflects. John Deere headers and tractors, Goldacres self-propelled sprayers, and Janke parallelogram planters are Rob’s work horses of choice, admitting he’s “always on the lookout for new technology”. “I feel like we’re on the dawn of a new era, autonomous software coupled with the use of cameras and weather stations will be just the start, and it’s a great time to be in the industry.” Not shy of early adoption, the property is fully set up for GPS technology to facilitate inter-row planting. “We sow alternative lines each year by nudging the measurements by about 15cm, it’s better for disease resistance and stubble infiltration and we’ve noticed a huge improvement filling our profiles faster, particularly on the coolabah heavy black country,” Rob explains. It’s these sort of innovations that Rob believes will sustain the industry well into the future. “No doubt we have some challenges ahead, namely due to climate change, but we’ve come so far in the past 20 years and I think we will continue to evolve and combat climatic volatility through precision ag and future technology.” And now with his two sidekicks on the property, wife Amanda and five-year-old daughter Sophia, Robert believes there’s no better time to be in ag. “The fact that Australia, a relatively dry landscape, competes strongly on a world scale is testament enough to our farming practices – we manage for the environment and for cash flow and we do it well. “My vision for agriculture is to see family owned farms growing, intergenerational changeovers taking place and Australia maintaining its strong position as a world leader – I think our future prospects are really positive, it’s a very exciting time to be in the game.”

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