ROWENA’S SHINING LIGHT - A bright future in agriculture for Radford family
Article I Lucy Moore Photography I Jessica Schmierer
Farmers and graziers are regarded as some of the greatest optimists and the Radford family of Rowena, NSW, are no exception.
Now in their second year of decent rainfall since the most recent and well-publicised drought period, the Radfords remain acutely aware of how quickly things can change, and are as they say, making hay while the sun shines.
Chris Radford first moved to the Rowena area in 1989 with his wife Vanessa entering the fray in 1995 and they raised three children, immersing themselves in the community, while enduring challenging early years at “Ibon”.
While the heavens have begun to open more regularly of late, Chris says rainfall deficiencies had long been a significant challenge to the industry and finding ways to account for dry spells has been imperative.
“We grew five good crops in a row up to 2012 after which time we grew nothing again until 2016,” he recalls.
“It was a good crop, followed by no crop at all until last year. I’m a big believer in cycles and hopefully we’re in a wet cycle now and we can put a few together to build our reserves up again so we can handle the next dry time.”
Chris says the key is being profitable in good years and employing better farming techniques for weed control and moisture retention, rather than falling into the trap of complacency.
“We invested in weed seeker technology about 13 years ago and it has had massive benefits for our business in our zero till operation,” he says.
The weed seeker uses sensing technology to selectively target weeds and Chris explains that the money this had saved his business was immeasurable.
“In the drier times we’re not wasting chemical spraying the dirt and it’s a very efficient, cost effective way of controlling weeds,” he says.
“It’s used in conjunction with conventional spray rigs when weeds are more prolific and we find it works really well in our program.”
Chris has been aware of the rate at which farming technologies are evolving and credited his agronomy team for keeping him on the front foot.
“There is actually drone technology becoming available with weed mapping capabilities that we believe are compatible with normal spray rigs, meaning rather than updating to a newer model weed seeker we may be able to use our conventional rigs to spot spray in time,” he says.
“So we’re not rushing in - we have a great agronomy team who keep track of the most cost effective options to ensure we’re as efficient as we can be while keeping our fingers on the pulse.
“That goes for Delta too. We have a long and loyal history with Delta and I’m always able to source the newest seed varieties and chemicals when I need it.”
Chris has almost finished planting 2,500ha of barley, with 2,500ha each of wheat and chickpeas to follow.
Chris has measured 362mm of rain in the year to date and has also received beneficial flood water across his country recently from Thalaba creek and associated channels.
“We’re probably a week late with our planting because it’s been too wet to get on, but it’s a good problem to have. Everyone seems to be getting stuck into it in the area and it looks like we’re going to have a good run for the time being.”
The Radfords also aim to run a 2,000 head self-replacing flock of Merino sheep, however numbers are down to about 1,500 ewes joined this year while they rebuild after the drought.
Chris says the sheep were fed on 150ha of oats with about 7,650ha of farmed country inside the total 11,500ha enterprise.
“The sheep work well alongside the farming as a mixed operation and often complement each other here in our business,” he says.
“We find we can use the sheep in managing our farming country in our summer fallow alongside the weed seeker to get better results. A double knock.
“We also store our own grain to fatten lambs in our feedlot, so they work hand in hand.”
The very flat, black soil plain nature of the landscape had caused some issues with the sheep in wet periods, but Chris hopes a recent purchase of some high country nearby to address the problem.
A rotational cropping system is essential in modern day farming operations in order to beat chemical resistance and disease, and is also a crucial link in the chain for the Radfords mixed cropping and grazing business.
Team this with Vanessa Radford’s ‘LightenUp’ off-farm business and it’s fair to say the couple have their hands full.
Chris says his wife began creating custom lampshades about four years ago when the drought was at its peak.
“It was a creative outlet that kept her mind occupied and helped her deal with the drought. It has been a good thing and it’s far more established now than it was then – it’s fairly humming now.
“Vanessa also handles the bookwork side of the farm business and drives tractors when she needs to. She’s a busy girl but she makes it all work.”
As is often the case in agriculture, the mice plague in NSW has thrown an unexpected curve ball at farmers this year.
Chris believes flood water covering his soils has lessened the severity for his patch, however, those who did not have country go underwater had seen a greater influx of mice.
Unfortunately, Chris and Vanessa notice an increase in mice numbers in the past three weeks and are preparing a course of action.
“We will perimeter bait at planting and fully expect to complete a full round of in-crop baiting in the spring. Hopefully this will be enough to control the problem.
“It’s really just a headache we’re not used to as we find we can make more money out of grain stored on-farm as opposed to just delivering into the system, and now that option may be compromised.”
The Radford farming enterprise has seen considerable expansion since Chris began operating in the Rowena area. Chris recalls a number of strong yielding years among his past 32 years of farming, with 2016 and 2020 standing out.
“Last year we grew over 20,000 tonne of grain on 7,300ha including chickpea, wheat and barley. In 2016 we had similar yields on less acreage, so we’ve had some exceptional years. They’re the ones that keep you going.”
In the 2020 calendar year the Radfords measured 597mm of rain at Rowena – a 450mm to 500mm average rainfall area.
The 362mm in the year to date encouraged a generally positive feel about the coming season.
“It all turns around and we know we get dry times as well as wet times,” Chris says.
“In every dry year we ask ourselves what we can do to be better the next time around. For example, now we have more hay sheds to be better prepared for the next dry spell and we’re constantly trying to improve the show so it’s easier on us next time. You’ve got to be able to ride out the tough times to benefit when the going is good.”
This attitude flowed through to his every day work life where Chris says there is never a dull moment.
“Everything seems to happen at once, but we have a great team helping who realise when ‘it’s on it’s on’ and they work together to make it happen,” he says.
“We’re planting at the moment, I’ve been moving grain out of silo bags and we also have a grader here now grading chickpeas somewhat late due to the wet weather.
“It’s a great industry to be in. It’s all gung-ho if you ask me, there’s always lots happening and progress being made and people will always need food.
“One of the best industries indeed.”