Baptism of fire turns to water

24 Apr, 2013 02:00 AM
With recorded-breaking March rainfall on the property, it's all hands on deck for the 2013 season. Todd Guest (left), prepares for the mandatory spraying program while his parents Joanne and Ian Guest plan other management decisions which hopefully will result in a good year for cropping and their livestock.
With recorded-breaking March rainfall on the property, it's all hands on deck for the 2013 season. Todd Guest (left), prepares for the mandatory spraying program while his parents Joanne and Ian Guest plan other management decisions which hopefully will result in a good year for cropping and their livestock.

IT didn't take long for Ian Guest to receive his proverbial baptism of fire farming at Salmon Gums.

Entering the industry in 1984 after his school years and taking over the farm in 1989 - which turned out to be a good year - he hit a brick wall in 1990 after buying sheep at high prices and watching the collapse of the wool price.

It was a sort of perverse welcome to the roller coaster ride of farming.

The ups came back again through 1992 to 2007 before that familiar gut-wrenching feeling returned as Mother Nature seemed to almost purposely choose the years to turn on the tap.

Rain could turn to fairy showers, if you were lucky - providing a string of poor cropping and stocking years mixed with some highs when it felt good to be on the farm.

But there's also a resignation that if you're a farmer, you cop what you cop and you play the cards you're dealt.

This year the cards could contain some Aces for Gums farmers.

When I caught up with a happier Ian, his smiling wife Joanne and enthusiastic son Todd earlier this month, Ian readily rattled off the rainfall recordings for the farm - 65mm in November, 36mm between December and February and then 169mm in March.

The family has a set cropping program of 3600ha, comprising 2000ha of wheat, 1200ha of barley and 400ha of canola. They also run 2000 Dorper ewes.

"It was our wettest March since records began in 1926," he said. "So far we've got 270mm which is the most meaningful rain we've had since 2007.

"Last year we only got between 88mm and 109mm for our growing season rainfall but we had nothing underneath.

"So to get rain this early is so good because we rely on subsoil moisture to add to our growing season rainfall.

"We had a horrible year last year with wheat yielding between 300kg/ha and 1.8t/ha and canola at 400kg/ha outyielded the barley."

In fact the last five years have been some of the hardest Ian has experienced with his family in a generation.

"We copped a frost in that wet 2007 and finished with an average crop," Ian said. "Then it was five years of all below-average crop yields where wheat averaged 0.65t/ha while our budgets were set at 1.4t/ha," Ian said.

"The sheep compensated a bit for that and at one stage we were getting $100 a head for our lambs so that cushioned the blows a bit."

Last year, for the first time, Ian withdrew Farm Managed Deposits for cash flow.

"Ironically in such a bad year we ended up paying tax," he said with a grin.

So getting off the canvas for 2013 and being confronted by a dry February would have felt like bracing for more blows.

Throughout the Wheatbelt it would have triggered a few sleepless nights for many farmers who forward sold their wheat.

But Ian says thoughts of what might have been have been dispelled, for the moment, by the March rain events.

"We've sold 85 per cent of our wheat so hopefully we'll be okay," he said.

"We normally start the program around May and we won't need more than 10mm to start."

With warm soil conditions, spraying becomes the focus but with the advantage of sheep there's increased flexibility.

"Right now the weedy paddocks become sheep paddocks in what is a flexible rotation program," Ian said. "At other times later in the year we will spray-graze some paddocks to meet our feed requirements for the sheep while preparing paddocks for crop the next year."

For now, it's a time to take a breather from the hard years and soak in the relief that Ian describes as his major feeling now the rain has come.

"Yeah it's just relief," he said. "Hopefully we'll have a good year and it gives us a chance to improve our equity position to feel a bit safer. "So debt reduction will be on the agenda, once we're in a position to do that."

One bumper season would be a great help towards that goal or a run of three average seasons.

"A bumper season also can mean a bumper tax year but it would help get us back to where we were before the run of bad years," Ian said.

This year's crop will go in as cheaply as possible without cutting too many corners.

"We're not lacking in any farm practices to get the crop in and our machinery, while getting older, is still going okay," Ian said.

"Ideally you would like to think a couple of good years would put us in a position to look at upgrading equipment but for now we'll get by."

Upgrading to a new header would be nice along with a self-propelled boomsprayer but the income has to there for that to happen.

Also on the wish list is a desire to move into a Controlled Traffic Farming system but with obvious capital expenditure, fuzzy tramlines maybe the first step.

"We'll still keep everything flexible," Ian said. "Some areas will remain total crop, like on our best sandier country and we can full cultivate where the sheep have been when we want to.

"We don't do it (cultivate) often but generally where it's needed pre-seeding, we'll have no hesitation."

Deep tillage is not an option on the mainly sand-over-clay country where generally there is no response to deep tilling.

But there will be plenty of response with abundant subsoil moisture.

This year, you wouldn't be dead for quids, farming at the Gums.

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30/04/2013 9:22:35 AM, on Farm Weekly

Good luck to you and all in your area it is a tough area to farm in and I take my hat off to you all. To those who like to diss farmers just remember it may be them today but your turn will come.


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