The Land

Soil, sustainability, and a shed: Investing in the next generation

Grant Ross, his son Bradley and grandchildren. The shed features a girder truss for easy access of large machinery
Grant Ross, his son Bradley and grandchildren. The shed features a girder truss for easy access of large machinery

This story in partnership with Entegra Signature Structures.

Grant Ross farms for the future. The investments he and his family make into their mixed farming business are underpinned by long-term thinking.

Twenty years ago, he and wife Anthea chose to move their South Australian farm away from a reliance on urea, opting for trace minerals to improve the health and sustainability of their soils.

Now, the export hay and grain crops at their Emu Downs property in the state's Mid North not only cope better with frosts, but worms have also returned to their soil and the ground is less compacted.

More recently, Grant and Anthea - who now farm with their son Bradley, his wife Bronwen and their children Charlie 12, Marissa 10 and Jobe 5 - have built an Entegra shed.

Their 40 metre by 21m structure will protect their export hay from the elements and also double as machinery storage.

Building a shed and changing their fertiliser regime are both future-focused business decisions, set to ultimately benefit the next generation.

And that's how Grant and Anthea like it.

This year, they have a shed full of export oaten hay destined for the Japanese dairy market and their grain crops that were largely unaffected by late season frosts thanks to their "natural" approach to farming. An approach that they believe will ensure sustainable farming of their family business for many years to come.

The Ross family's hay will sit in their new shed for a while yet, but that's perfectly fine, according to Grant.

"Building a hay shed with Entegra, we are gaining $30 a tonne in hay storage," Grant said. "Putting up a hay shed is like an investment over a four-or-five-year period, and it will most probably pay for itself.

"If we carted it straight down to our exporters' depot from the paddock, we would be getting $30 a tonne less than what we would by storing in the shed."

This hay, stored in the Entegra shed, remained dry during harvest and Grant was optimistic this would help secure premium quality pricing.

While he knows export market customers like to purchase hay based on its appearance, Grant is equally as focused on its nutritional profile and likes to study feed tests.

Testing for accuracy

Grant believes feed tests may hold the key to understanding the effect of the trace minerals on their oaten hay and could help deliver a premium price.

His theory was first put to the test a few years ago, when the Ross family sold some of its rain-affected hay to a local sheep producer. That same sheep producer also purchased hay from a farmer that uses urea.

"Their sheep hardly touched that hay [with urea] had big rank stems, whereas ours had the same amount of rain on it - it had that blackish look about it - but they never left anything behind," Grant said.

"It goes to prove the quality of our hay was just that much better, the sheep ate all of it. That's why I'm interested in feed testing. If we do sell hay domestically, we will be able to advertise and say we have got a feed test on it and people buying it will know exactly what they are getting."

The Ross family crops 1619 hectares, spread evenly between the black heavy clay and red clay loam soils of their home property at Emu Downs and the sandier country of Waikerie, on the Murray River, about 130 kilometres away.

Cropping two properties spreads their seasonal risk, while complementing their grain and hay production with 900 ewes and a pig carting business ensures income diversification.

In early November, the Ross family hadn't started their grain harvest. Their crop was still green - but it looked healthy, according to Grant.

A month earlier, the South Australian Government forecast the state was on track to deliver its most valuable grain harvest on record with an estimated $2.8 billion farmgate value.

This price forecast was for a 7.98 million tonne crop, close to the 10-year average of 8 million tonnes.

In September, ABARES had forecast Australian grain growers would deliver the third largest crop on record at 54.8 million tonnes.

Building soil health for the future

A trace mineral "natural" drench is administered to their sheep flock and Grant said it's helped the animals move from dry to green feed without any scouring issues.

But soil health has been the true beneficiary of the Ross family's "nutritional" approach to farming, a practice they adopted two decades ago.

"We had noticed over the years, the way we were farming, our soil wasn't getting any better - it was probably sort of going downhill," Grant said.

"We've been continually cropping for 20 years now and the soil structure, yields and condition of the soil is most probably better than it's ever been... it's definitely paying off."

The Rosses spray trace minerals onto their paddocks and use natural fertiliser and seed dressing supplied by Western Australian company Hi-Tech Ag Solutions which now also operates in South Australia.

Grant said it was the "high sugars" in his grain and hay crops - a result of the trace minerals and natural fertiliser - that protected them from localised frost damage in October.

Trace elements, natural seed dressing and applying pig manure to paddocks every three years will also shelter the Ross family from recent fertiliser price hikes.

Grant was confident they'd be able to maintain the high phosphorus and nitrogen levels built-up in the soil, thanks to their focus on soil nutrition.

Persistence pays-off

It took a few years of applying trace minerals and natural fertiliser for noticeable changes in the farm's soil health, according to Grant.

"We'd think to ourselves 'are we doing the right thing? It wasn't costing us anymore to farm that way, so we continued," he said.

"Then there was a time where we could dig-up our soil, being heavy clay, it was normally like cement, and you'd need a crowbar to get into it. But then it then it became more friable and now it's easier seeding and we have worm life back. That's the most important thing. We could never find a worm 15 to 20 years ago, but now you can dig-up anywhere and find worms and that's a good sign."

(Entegra is currently offering clients complimentary FeedTests kits with every new hay shed purchase. Conditions apply. For more information visit the Entegra website.)

Making the most of machinery investments

Sheltering their export hay from the weather was the primary purpose of the Ross family's new Entegra shed, but its design flexibility provides space to shelter valuable machinery as well.

One end of the 40 metre by 21 metre shed has been built with a large girder truss replacing an internal post to provide enough space to store an air seeder and header.

"I'm one of those farmers that hates seeing machinery perish in the weather," Grant said. "As much as sheds cost these days, I just feel we have to have everything undercover.

"It adds value to machinery, if you are looking for second-hand machinery, you can always tell machinery has been looked after better because it has been shedded."

This story in partnership with Entegra Signature Structures.