Beacon farmers push through harvest

20 Jan, 2018 04:00 AM
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“IT doesn’t matter what you do. If you are a good farmer, bad farmer, whatever, mother nature determines the outcome and that’s a bit depressing, because you like to think you are good at what you do,” said Beacon farmer Rachel Kirby last week.

Ms Kirby, who with husband Ty, is still harvesting on their Beacon property well into January and struggling with what has been a challenging season for them.

“Everyone wants to be doing a good job and you do the absolute best you can, but it doesn’t make any difference,” Ms Kirby said.

Farming on marginal country is a challenge but Mr Kirby said if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t be doing it.

With farms at Beacon and Nyabing, harvest like most other years is a lengthy process.

Last year was the driest year Mr Kirby has seen in his 17 years of farming, with only 169 millimetres recorded at Beacon – starting with 30mm in the first two months and then only 7.5mm from February 21 to July 2.

Mr Kirby said he had endured bad years before, reflecting on 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007 and then again in 2012, but nothing has compared to the dryness of 2017.

The annual rainfall average for Beacon is close to 320mm with 200mm for the growing season, which is significantly higher than the 140mm received in the 2017 growing season for the Kirbys.

Many farmers in the area made the decision early on, when the forecast predicted dry spells, to not put a crop in last year and wait for a better outcome in 2018.

Others made the decision later to spray out crops that had little hope in the effort to maintain their weed control.

“This season we had canola, wheat and barley,” Ms Kirby said.

“We did put some oats in but Ty sprayed that out and he sprayed out most of the canola as well.

“We planned to have more wheat but some paddocks we didn’t put in.”

They have 7700 hectares of land in Beacon, with 6800ha being arable.

Last year they planned to seed 5000ha, although only 4500ha was seeded and of that, only 4000ha was harvested.

Mr Kirby said they lost close to 500ha when they sprayed out their crops early.

He usually starts harvest at the end of October, but not this time around.

“It didn’t rain and the crops didn’t come up, then they eventually came up and there was that later rain, so the poor plants didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing,” Ms Kirby said.

The plants still needed to run the course of their maturity before harvest time, which delayed harvest.

“We are doing something crazy by having two properties and going (harvesting) no matter what,” Ms Kirby said.

Last week she said they still had 2000ha to go, although some crops were not worth harvesting.

Reflecting on when they first got married, Ms Kirby said the first few years were tough and they had to make decisions whether or not to put fertiliser on the crop or leave it in the shed.

“It was a choice to put it on or not, either way you would be going backwards,” she said.

After this response the question was asked why stay in marginal farming land when you could move to Nyabing where rain is more certain?

Ms Kirby’s honest response was she really didn’t know – she said it was to do with the size of the Nyabing property and 2800ha just wasn’t enough.

“It has been the diversity that has been the strength for the business,” she said.

“We have scaled up a bit with buying the truck for transport and a second header.

“The more land you have the more viable it is to have more machinery.”

Although this season has been tough and moving to Nyabing may seem like a good idea, the Kirbys still see the positives of farming in Beacon.

“It has really good margins when it’s good because of the low input, that’s why there are businesses out here basically, because it does work,” Ms Kirby said.

“It’s just a lot more volatile than somewhere like Nyabing.”

The dry winter meant that crops in the area were still immature and the rains that followed in September were still useful to the program.

“The first rain after the dry winter was possibly what saved the season here, because the crops were still so immature that they were able to make use of the rain and grow out their cycle,” she said.

Going into harvest they had high hopes of getting something back from the season although estimates fell dramatically when harvest started.

“When Ty did the yield estimates, he thought some of the better stuff would go a tonne (per hectare) and it was going half that,” Ms Kirby said.

“Everything he thought, we just halved.”

Ms Kirby said paddocks they finished last week had big patches of nothing with the monitor averaging the paddock at 0.1 tonnes per hectare.

“It’s just a bit of a mind game really, the other day they were in the paddock with one header and it took six hours to fill our 18 tonne chaser bin, so that was a bit depressing,” she said.

Other paddocks they didn’t bother harvesting after putting the header in for a poke around and realising it wasn’t worth it.

This year all of their grain from Beacon has gone to Perth or Avon with the local bin shut by the time they returned from Nyabing.

“It’s a new record not to cart any to Beacon, usually we harvest here first before we go south,” Ms Kirby said.

“Perth is a long way to cart the grain, if the crops weren’t so pathetic it would be a problem,” she said.

At dinner time Ms Kirby and daughter Anastasia drive up to the paddock to have dinner with Ty, saying it was important to keep spirits high.

A storm early last week threatened to damage the chances of finishing harvest this month – 29 mm was recorded at the house, accompanied by thunder and lightning that saw them without power for over a day.

It didn’t delay harvest for long, with no rain in the crop they were in, just 5km away.

Every day, since 2013, Ms Kirby has taken a photo of something happening in their lives.

From this she has created scrap books of photos describing the day and life of the Beacon farmers.

“If I wasn’t happy I would be crying,” she said in regards to the year they have had.

Ms Kirby met her future husband in 1991 when they were both studying Agricultural Science at The University of WA.

As third-year students they found a common interest in agriculture, with Mr Kirby focused more on plant science.

With parents from Nyabing, Ms Kirby took a livestock approach, completing her doctorate in Wool Science.

Her parents sold off two of their neighbouring farms when they retired, leaving the original 2800ha block in Nyabing that the Kirbys now lease.

One day they hope to take ownersip of that farm which calls for different farming techniques used in Beacon.

Mr Kirby grew up on the Beacon farm and returned to the farm after his agriculture degree.

He worked as an agronomist for Landmark before he worked privately then returning full-time to the farm.

Sun Valley farm was bought in 1949 when his grandfather came out from England.

Mr Kirby’s sister lived on the farm next door which the Kirby family bought in the 1980s and named Sun Valley Too.

The north block that lays separately from the farm is called Sun Valley North.

“When Ty’s parents retired and moved to Two Rocks they put a sign on their front gate says Sun Valley West, so it’s all connected,” Ms Kirby said.

Last year the Kirbys cropped the 2800ha at Nyabing with 50 per cent canola and 25pc each of barley and wheat.

With two farms Mr Kirby has to make decisions in regards to when he moves to each property – this year leaving the Beacon farm 80pc seeded before packing up and moving to Nyabing.

Ms Kirby said that with two properties they put a lot more crop in, as they had to dry seed in Beacon so they could make it down to Nyabing, unlike others who have the time to wait for the rain.

In 2009 they sold the last of their sheep and focused on cropping.

“Dad had a lot of sheep down in Nyabing, although he never judged us that we wanted to do things differently, he was at peace with his decision to finish farming,” Ms Kirby said.

She said they now have a low loader to move their machinery 450 kilometres south.

“It takes about five days to shift the five loads of everything that needs to go back and forth,” Ms Kirby said

“It’s just the right distance for a day trip and I wouldn’t want to be any further.”

Although Nyabing had its own challenges last year with rainfall often stopping them, Ms Kirby said it seemed to rain every Monday.

“One of the reasons that our seasons is going so late was the rain down south.

“After the first few rains we got going after a day or so, but the last rain held us up for quite a few days with cooler weather.”

Ms Kirby said over the five years they have never had a year where both farms have been fantastic, with either drought, frost or rain – nothing seems to be just right.

“Having the diversity definiely spreads our risk for sure,” she said.

“It’s hard work to travel, but it’s an income and as much as we are still harvesting, at least it’s grain into the bins”

Nyabing seems to gets attacked by frost and in a few good years Beacon has been the better-performing farm.

2017 was the worst year according to the locals in the Beacon community, with some referencing the worst year prior as 1969.

Ms Kirby said the season has been pretty depressing for the area and was making all new kind of records with rainfall and grain production.

“People around here were selling off sheep at a great rate or they didn’t put a crop in at all,” she said.

“Everyone had a different strategy because it was unknown territory.

“Beacon is very erratic, the highs aren’t really that high and the lows can be very, very low, like this season.”

English backpacker Rod Philips, 18, has spent the past few months working for the Kirbys.

His description of Beacon was “hot, dry and vast” which doesn’t seem like an exaggeration.

Beacon is isolated with Mukinbudin 70 kilometres away and Merredin another 75km on top of that.

“We are protected by distance a little bit so most people support the local shop and the community,” Ms Kirby said.

In 1998 the local shop was up for sale and it didn’t look like selling so the community all chipped in and bought the co-op.

“We employ a manager and that makes people more loyal as well, because they have a stake in the business,” Ms Kirby said.

Her daughter Anastasia had the luxury of growing up in Beacon, with a small local primary school and a sports club.

Ms Kirby said it was a different upbringing, with her daughter being comfortable talking to both adults and small children from a young age.

“That’s just what you get when you come from a small country town,” she said.

An important factor in the Beacon community is sport, with hockey, football and netball the main codes.

Mr Kirby retired from football last year so up until last year they both played sports, with Ms Kirby saying participation was an important thing in regional areas.

She is also a councillor on the Mt Marshall Shire and was president for a few years.

“The two communities in the Shire (Beacon and Bencubbin) are quite individual and different,” Ms Kirby said.

“I thought both being small towns we would be similar, learning otherwise while being on the council.”

Unlike Beacon, Bencubbin’s local businesses can feel the strain of living within 100km of Merredin.

Ms Kirby said Bencubbin was that little bit closer so the people were getting drawn to the bigger centres for most of their needs.

“Some of those differences makes Beacon a bit more mentally remote, and distance as well.

“Although they have the same struggles of a small town.

“On a year like this we need a good sense of community where everyone sticks together.”

FarmWeekly

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