Lifting profit to cut risk

Adding sheep to the mix reduced risk for Culcairn farmer

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Culcairn farmer, Murray Scholz, has a companion crop grazing strategy, using a mix of vetch, grazing wheat, tillage radish and purple top turnip.

Culcairn farmer, Murray Scholz, has a companion crop grazing strategy, using a mix of vetch, grazing wheat, tillage radish and purple top turnip.

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Companion cropping increases dry matter during winter

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For Culcairn farmer, Murray Scholz, the introduction of sheep to his cattle and cropping enterprise had clear risk management benefits - the one catch was how to ramp up dry matter production through winter to make it pay.

The former Nuffield Scholarship recipient and keynote speaker at the upcoming Graham Centre Livestock Forum, said increasing profit while decreasing risk should be an aim for every farmer.

This had become a key factor in his decision to introduce sheep five years ago.

"We were looking at taking some of the risk factors out of cropping, things like frost events and the low profitability and variability in legumes," Mr Scholz said.

Mr Scholz said being able to graze winter crops with sheep formed part of their decision.

"We didn't want to graze crops with cattle because our country gets really wet, cattle in wet cultivated soil is not a good combination," Mr Scholz said.

"That's why the sheep fitted in better because it let us grow dual-purpose crops like the canola and winter wheat."

Introducing sheep also allowed them to combat rye grass herbicide resistance.

"We'd been continuous cropping since the early '80s so we'd been dealing with herbicide resistance for a long time and while we were managing it, it was a lot of hard work and it impacted profitability," Mr Scholz said.

"By bringing the sheep in we could put in a grazing fallow, utilise that paddock for a very low risk, low cost option while fixing the rye grass problem.

"Turning a problem into a profit is always a good thing."

In 2015 the Scholzes brought in 400 first-cross ewes that they crossed with a terminal sire.

"We wanted something simple because learning the management of a new enterprise, the less complexity the better," Mr Scholz said.

They now run 1400 ewes, lambing in June to fit in with feed availability and cropping workloads.

The lambs are turned off from October to the end of the January and are sold directly to processors or through the Wagga Saleyards.

Agronomist, Greg Condon said companion crops can be a low-risk break crop option for mixed farmers.

Agronomist, Greg Condon said companion crops can be a low-risk break crop option for mixed farmers.

Mr Scholz said it was adding companion cropping to their grazing strategy that allowed them to increase stocking rates.

He said they started with a mix of tillage radish and grazing wheat.

"We saw people getting a lot higher dry matter production during winter with companion cropping and it also leads to less metabolic issues," Mr Scholz said.

This year they decided to add purple top crop turnip and vetch into the mix.

"It does add cost to it but we're getting the dividends back now with that extra feed in the middle of winter when pasture growth is slow," Mr Scholz said.

The rate of growth had also kept up with the stocking rate.

"We're stocking at 50 DSE to the hectare and they're (the sheep) slowly gaining on it, but only just," Mr Scholz said.

The sheep quickly learning what to do with the root crops.

"They learn to pull the tillage radish and the turnips out of the ground to eat them," Mr Scholz said.

He said companion cropping also allowed them to lock up their pastures.

"We're going to be go back into our pastures in August with a lot more feed than we would normally have," Mr Scholz said.

The Scholzs' companion cropping has been guided by Grassroots agronomist, Greg Condon.

Mr Condon said for mixed farmers, companion crops were a low risk alternative to legume or oilseed break crops like lupin, faba beans and canola.

"The root crops give an opportunity to improve your soil structure and you still have the option to plant a different crop the next year," Mr Condon said.

"The most important plants in the mix are the vetch and cereal crops, they do the majority of the work but the tillage radish and purple top turnips have livestock nutrition and soil benefits."

He said vetch was the most expensive part, especially this year with seed costs impacted by the dry season.

But he believed the benefits to the system outweighed the investment.

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