With significant yield variation across paddocks and inconsistent rainfall in Kooloonong in Victoria’s Mallee region, Alistair Murdoch has constantly been adopting new technologies and innovations to drive profitability in his family’s farming enterprise. Rosie O’Keeffe discovers how a wealth of knowledge and agronomy experience ensures maximum productivity is achieved year after year.
Photography I Jane McLean
Alistair Murdoch has always identified big business opportunities in farming.
Whilst like many others who have grown up amongst the day-to-day operations, driving a header at harvest and working long hours in between other employment opportunities as an agronomist, he recalls that his motivation was always to develop a broad knowledge of farming operations through various experiences. He has taken further opportunities to add assets and innovate, adopting new technologies and exploring emerging farming practices.
The Murdoch family farms a total of 7,100 hectares of arable land which comprises a combination of owned and contracted properties.
There is a cereal crop rotation of wheat and barley (65 per cent) and pulses of grain legume, lentils, chickpeas, lupins and faba beans (35 per cent).
“The current system is no till farming and stubble retention, allowing a lot more predictability in our yields. We use controlled traffic and we do a lot of precision agriculture practices with variable rate spreading,” Alistair explains.
“We find this lends itself favourably to our soil types and average annual rainfall of 325mm. We have a dune swail land formation in the hills and flat areas, so the yield potential varies dramatically on those different soil types. This year within a paddock we could have up to 300 per cent yield variability from the lowest to the highest, so managing these inputs is critical so we aren’t capping the yield in the good areas and overspending in the poor areas.”
Alistair takes a short break from the day’s operations at the family property at Kooloonong, located 80km north west of Swan Hill along the Murray River to explain his family’s passion for the local region, not just in agriculture, but in being actively involved in the community.
Alistair’s grandfather first moved to the region in 1927 after having farmed at Mildura. His great grandfather had also been a farmer, and Alistair says there is a similar history of farming documented in his mother’s ancestry too.
Whilst since 2004, Alistair has owned and managed his own properties, he returned to full-time farming and involvement in the family enterprise in 2010 after having studied at boarding school, completed a Bachelor of Applied Science at Melbourne University, Dookie campus, and being employed for a short time for chemical company Bayer, travelling overseas, and then working for a number of years as an agronomy consultant at North West Ag Services and then AGRIvision.
“I was lucky to have gained such a practical knowledge while working in agronomy, consulting was instrumental in learning more about the processes involved in decision making, gaining more analytical skills in business management, and creating a wider network of contacts,” Alistair says.
With the joint family farming venture Carinya Ag Enterprises under management with his parents Gordon and Geraldine Murdoch and his wife Simone, and children Charles, 8, Bede, 5, and Eleanor, 3, also involved, Alistair now focuses not just on overseeing the day-to-day operations, but he says its integral to the success of the enterprise to focus on clear processes and roles within the business to and build on the current structure for the future.
“It’s been important in our enterprise, and I think it’s important in many farming businesses now with so many large assets under management, to have clear structures within the organisation. I think one of the challenges in our business and others will also be experiencing similar, is that we are all under resourced and the main responsibilities and accountabilities can fall on just one to two people.
“As I’ve been involved in the management of the business I have certainly taken more of an interest in how we can evolve and grow the enterprise – that’s where I get a lot of ongoing energy and motivation from too.
“I’ve always been curious coming into agriculture from a science perspective, so being able to understand the production side of things too and looking at different farms I think has been really beneficial.
“I remember loving helping my father on the farm and I was fascinated with jumping in the ute with the agronomists when they would visit as part of their advisory.”
Today, Alistair is involved in the day-to-day operations and manages the spraying and seeding, while at harvest time, he drives the header and manages the logistics.
Gordon is still involved in the operation and there is one full-time farm worker employed and one full-time truck driver, with seasonal labour used throughout the year.
“One of the conversations we are having at the moment is surrounding labour and clear systems to train people quickly and having clear processes they can understand,” Alistair says.
He had believed that the model used from a labour perspective was a resilient one, until the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the availability of international workers.
“We had been calling upon international trainees, through agricultural agencies, usually workers mechanically trained or with farming experience… Our business was focused on training and development and having standard operating procedures… We wanted people who were wanting to learn and grow and who can process information quickly and embrace their role and create a niche within the business.
“Typically it would be Danish or Swiss workers… That was the model up until early 2020, and when Coronavirus hit, we have had to rely more on local university students or family members.
“I think we will look at more business administration and management going forward too, developing and overseeing operating procedures and more human resource practices and compliance to free me up to be more creative in the practical farming side of the business and growing the scope of the business and the agronomics.”
The Murdoch family has traditionally been actively involved in the community at a local and industry level whether it be on committees of sporting clubs to the current roles that Alistair has on the local Landcare group and regional GRDC advisory committee.
Alistair has used variable rate seeding in applications since 2007 and variable rate spreading systems and top dressing nitrogen was introduced into the cropping operations in 2011.
“We are doing a lot of deep ripping of the lighter soils in the variable rate seeding. Plant establishment can be challenging, so variable rate seeding definitely helped crop emergence in the lighter soils.
As previously mentioned, the yield capacity of some paddocks can vary by up to 300 per cent, so trying to supply the right amount of nutrients to the right zone rather than over allocate the zones with enough nitrogen that might be there already has been important.”
When I speak to Alistair, the property had experienced well below average rainfall for the season, so expectations are lower than usual for yields and frost events have also been challenging in recent years.
“There is a strong focus in the commodity game, we have to be a low cost producer per tonne of grain and one of the easiest ways is to have the efficiencies in the operation. Timing is critical in terms of potential. In utilising labour better, having good size machinery and by running a reasonable scale, we can invest in maintaining a lot of the latest technology and keep improving water use efficiency for productivity gains,” Alistair explains. He says an 80 foot seeder is used for sowing, an 160 foot sprayer, and Alistair is also currently planning on using a shielded spraying system to utilise over summer for weed control. It is also a shield system that can be used in-crop for cereals to remove weeds growing inter-row.
“Grain marketing is really important whether using pools as a benchmark… We store a lot of grain on-farm too…
“We have a focus on cost and profit per tonne, our operational equipment, financial costs and structures, efficiencies and using agronomy and technology with the latest varieties and farming practices all combine for us to extract as many gains as possible.
“We’ve had a large focus on water use efficiency and converting rainfall into grain, but outside the production season from November to April we often utilise some of the crop residue and stubbles for grazing livestock too.
“We built our own feedlot 5 to 6 years ago so we often transition those sheep in the feedlot and utilise seconds grain to increase their live weight to when we sell them in the winter period.”
Alistair believes the future is a bright one, especially as he continues to grow the enterprise.
“I do feel that we need to be continuing to try new things, which is also why I have been involved in trials to gain an insight into different technologies, practices or varieties that we may not have had information that is relevant to our specific area or farm business.”