COULD it be a case of ‘Back to the Future’?
That is the almost inescapable conclusion you draw after visiting The University of WA’s (UWA) ‘Ridgefield’ farm at Pingelly.
The central focus of the farm is its Future Farm 2050 Project, which by definition is a mixed-farming enterprise – a tried and trusted system that bank managers urged their clients to continue in the latter half of last century.
Yes, old is new again.
But UWA researchers are armed with a lot more technology today than what existed when clover-ley farming was king.
In essence, the Future Farm 2050 Project aims to imagine the best-practice farm of 2050, and build and manage it now.
According to the university, by 2050, 50 per cent more people will need to be fed and clothed – a major problem.
At ‘Ridgefield’, a multi-disciplinary approach is being taken, aiming for a sustainable and profitable farming system.
It embraces crop science, livestock science, resource economics, architecture and landscape architecture, electronic engineering, solar energy, water management, animal and plant ecology.
And this is how the ‘Back to the Future’ approach will become a ‘This is the Future’ reality.
It is conceivable with UWA’s resources, linked to the wider industry, that the Future Farm 2050 Project will develop not only best practice farming but also world-leading.
For example, it is not too far a stretch to envision UWA’s engineering division developing autonomous vehicles.
And it already has been made known that local and overseas students are welcome to work on the farm as part of their studies.
The farm is embracing a clean, green, ethical (CGE) concept to drive UWA’s teaching and research in animal production systems for sheep (meat and wool).
And cropping systems, primarily for the production of wheat and canola, will integrate information on climate, soil, crop biology and pests (insects, diseases, weeds).
The lucky farm manager is an enthusiastic Steve Wainewright.
He considers himself fortunate to be on the ‘wave of a lifetime’, overseeing the 1600 hectare enterprise of duplex loams, sandy and red country, which carries a 3600 self-replacing Merino flock and involves a 300ha canola-wheat-oats cropping program rotated with pasture legume crops.
Steve is from a south west Victorian farm at Winchelsea and holds a Bachelor in Agriculture and a Research Masters in Animal Science.
Initially he came to WA with his geologist wife Raquel to work for Rio Tinto, being involved in pivot irrigation for hay production.
When the farm manager’s position was advertised in 2012, he jumped at the chance to return to agriculture.
“It was a perfect combination of being able to farm again and be involved in field-based R&D,” he said.
“And it’s exciting to be part of what essentially is an evolving farm.
“We only started the cropping component two years ago and we’re essentially dealing with a clean slate.
“There are no rules and no maps at the moment, it’s just finding a balance between the science and the practical to get best-fit rotations.
“We’ve got an RTK base station and three weather stations and we’re involved with the Department of Agriculture and Food’s eConnected Grainbelt project.
“This is an example of some of the synergies we are building within the industry, involving visionaries, peer reviews and experts to assess a variety of ideas.
“We are collaborating with Ausplow Farming Systems using an Ausplow DBS trial precision seeder for our crop establishment and we will work with Ausplow in future trial work.
“At this stage it’s all about assessing ideas and what we would like to implement within the guidelines of the Future Farm 2050 Project.
“As manager, I’m a sort of drafting gate for a lot of information and I’ve got a fair input, but overall it remains a collaborative effort within the university.”
On the livestock side there are two major sheep projects.
A national Lambing Density project, funded by the Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) is currently quantifying the impacts of mob size and stocking rate on lamb survival on 70 commercial farms throughout southern Australia.
Preliminary findings suggest both higher mob sizes and stocking rates decrease lamb survival.
The work at Ridgefield, which is part of a PhD undertaken by Amy Lockwood, Murdoch University, has investigated whether higher mob sizes are associated with greater interference at lambing from other ewes and lambs, and subsequently poorer lamb survival.
The survival of twin lambs to marking was compared for mobs of 55 versus 210 ewes and related to visual observations on ewe-lamb behaviour, interference events during mid-lambing, and the cause and magnitude of lamb mortality.
The other project relates to Merino Lifetime Productivity.
AWI and the Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association (AMSEA) have teamed up to deliver the Merino Lifetime Productivity Project (MLPP).
The project offers a unique and exciting opportunity to evaluate lifetime Merino productivity including the relationship between lamb and wool production, how to best select for lifetime productivity and the role that genetics plays in generating lifetime returns.
Five independent sites located throughout Australia will be involved in collecting and recording this data.
The sites will operate like standard sire evaluation sites – following the rigorous and independently-assessed, measured and visual assessment protocols.
‘Ridgefield’ is one of the sites and 15 sires are used and each allocated to 90 ewes.
The progeny from the 2016 and 2017-drop are followed and will have data collected throughout their lifetime
The project has been designed to answer many questions frequently discussed in the Merino industry.
What is the impact of selecting for growth, reproduction and carcase traits on Merino lifetime productivity?
Why do some animals consistently perform year in and year out while others fade with time?
Are there any factors that might help to better predict superior lifetime performance?
And can animals selected at very young ages have superior lifetime productivity?
‘Ridgefield’ is also involved in various other projects (in combination with the commercial farm).
“We do a lot of collaborative work with DAFWA, Murdoch, CSIRO and internally at UWA,” Steve said.
“We are also a host site for a number of private industry research projects.”
Another Back to the Future paradigm is soil.
“We’re renovating about 100ha every year and direct seeding pasture and legume-based varieties as well as chemical manipulation to build soil structure,” Steve said.
“It’s more of a mosaic approach which also includes liming and soil testing, but it’s done within cost restraints.
“I think we have an opportunity here to embrace industry best practice while realising there are no magic bullets.
“The pleasing aspect is that the Future Farm 2050 Project is about as hands-on as you can get with research and development.”