Brothers Grant and Troy Keating work to their individual stregnths to tackle the increasing soil challenges present on their Australian family farm. Kate Dowler finds out more about why they are at the mercy of an unpredictable climate.
Brothers Grant and Troy Keating are combining their cropping and sheep production skills to put their large scale farm in Victoria, Western Australia, on a secure footing for the future.
The Keatings’ grandparents bought the original family farm in 1908 and today Grant and his wife Emily, Troy and his wife Ebony, and the brothers’ parents, Ann and Neville, run the 1,400-hectare (3,459-acre) operation at Werneth, Cressy and Lismore.
The mixed farming enterprise in Victoria produces winter cereal and oilseed rape crops alongside Merino sheep, which graze outdoors.
They have recently changed their farming practices from traditional harvesting methods, where most of the stubbles are cut down and burned, towards a no-till system, as Grant explains.
"This approach means more stubble material is left standing in the paddock, after harvest, which helps hold the fragile soils together and boost organic matter and water retention."
The brothers have also ceased ploughing their paddocks in preparation for sowing, instead now sowing directly into the stubbles.
Both brothers embarked on off-farm careers to give them ‘something to fall back on’, before returning home to pursue their core passion. Grant spent six years as an Air Force aircraft mechanic, while Troy worked as a diesel mechanic.
While Grant takes the cropping lead, Troy is in charge of the livestock and sheep fit in with the cropping, grazing winter crops and using stubbles.
This symbiotic relationship – spreading production and income risks – is matched only by the brothers’ straightforward approach to sharing jobs on the farm.
“We’re working towards the same goal, we have to make it work and get on well,” says Grant.
The brothers, who are both members and sit on the committee of VicNoTill – one of the largest soil-conservation groups in Australia, place detailed emphasis on the cultivation of their soil – a complicated task thanks to the unpredictability of the region’s rainfall, the average of which is 500mm to 620mm each year.
And while the recent move to farming focused on soil conservation required different machinery, the changeover cost has been minimal, thanks to the brothers’ mechanical expertise.
This year they have planted faba beans, barley, wheat, oats and about canola (see panel).
“We’re heavy on canola this year due to the wet sowing time — we couldn’t get other crops in,” explains Grant.
One paddock was not sown at all and we hope to sow it in spring."
Canola normally yields 2.5 tonnes/ha in their region, wheat returns 5-7t/ha, oats 5t/ha and faba beans 2.5-3.5t/ha.
The Keatings’ calendar year begins with harvest finishing up in summer.
“If we get summer rains we will sow cover crops to improve soil health and stop soil blowing in dry months if you don’t have paddock cover, as it can here,” he adds.
This year he sowed 100ha to a mix of eight species and next year plans to increase that to 400ha.
These crops can be sprayed, grazed or sown into, which reduced the risk of problems created by wet conditions. A quarter of the farm has its soils tested annually and the Keatings have started pH mapping.
“Mapping pH has shown us pH can vary within a paddock from 6.5 to 4.5,” he explains. "This change had led to better crop root growth and helped correct the soil’s pH to a level where plants thrived, instead of struggled to grow."
Chicken manure had been used as fertiliser but was labour-intensive and, as its popularity increased, so did its cost. Now, conventional synthetic MAP and ureas are used.
Underfoot, soil quality is improving thanks to many new practices the young farmers are employing.
They have recently moved from a tyne to disc seeder to retain stubble and reduce damage to soils, and improve water-holding capacity.
They are also applying lime at variable rates to reduce costs and reverse soil acidification. The pair also do as much work as they can themselves without contractors
Grant and Troy went from using a tyne to disc seeder and controlled traffic farming two years ago.
Grant explains: "Controlled traffic farming is when all the machinery runs on the same tracks with nine metre or 27m spacing. Therefore, the soil is only compacted – damaging soil health – by the machinery underneath those tracks.
"Conventional farming does not constraint machinery movements to these tracks and therefore, soil across a paddock is compacted."
The switch was made to retain stubble and preserve the 10-20cm (4-8in) of topsoil while reducing compaction and slashing fuel and labour costs.
“It can turn into a dust bowl in summer, so we wanted to move away from that," he adds. "The stubble protects the soil from the weather; from blowing away in the wind."
The Keatings hope no-till methods lead to an improvement in soil structure and health, producing improved water-holding capacity.
The risk in their region is if bulky winter crops hit a dry spring and they run out of water, failing to produce a good grain quality.
“We’ve had a couple of neighbours using disc seeders for quite a while, but what convinced me is one day I jumped the fence into the neighbour’s to have a look at their crops compared to ours,” Troy recalls.
“I pulled up a plant in our paddock, the plant snapped off. But in his I pulled the roots and all out because he had these much softer soils. Ours were all compacted.
“He had been retaining his stubble and using controlled traffic and that just showed me the real difference it was making to plant and soil health.”
Changing over machinery was not costly and they even pocketed some money from selling the tyne seeder.
“It makes crop preparation a lot simpler,” he said. “We used to spend weeks burning stubbles, and we don’t have to rush.”
Neville and Troy run the sheep and cross 1,200 medium-frame Merino ewes to Inverbrackie Border Leicesters.
Accounting for 25 per cent of the overall business, the flock run on permanent phalaris and clover pastures and stubbles.
Troy says: "Crossing Merinos, known for their high quality wool, and Border Leicesters, a large frame, meat sheep with reasonable wool quality, means we produce offspring which have good meat and wool-producing characteristics."
Their 550 first-cross ewes are mated to Gemini White Suffolks, and ewe lambs and lambing is at 130-140 per cent. This year ewe lambs scanned 138 per cent in-lamb.
Lambing starts in mid-July to allow lambs to be finished on summer green feed at the target rate of 400g a day and are sold over-the-hooks to Australian Lamb Company at 24-28kg in December. Prices of AUS520-630c/kg ( carcase weight were achieved last year.
"We believe the sheep spread the risk and provide another source of income. In years when the crops may suffer from unfavourable weather conditions, or poor grain prices, we have the sheep income to fall back on."
Troy is using electronic ID tags and is collecting information about multiple births, with the hope of using that to select ewes in future.
“The increasing amount of technology in sheep production is exciting. It has a bit to go to catch up to what’s used in cropping now,” he says.
For farmers like Grant and Troy, achieving high crop yields and lambing percentages goes a long way towards running a profitable farming business in southern Australia.
But they are cognisant of the fact their seasons can be harsh and much of their success long-term will depend on the quality and health of their fragile soils.
"For that reason, we have changed our practices to reduce the impact we have on our soil, and we are seeing benefits from that," Grant says.
And while they remain dedicated farmers, they also strive to strike a reasonable work/life balance.
"Our respective family and social lives are important and we have time out on a few summer weekends," says Troy. "Our plan going forward with the farm is to get better at what we do."