Mixed farming makes life interesting

03 Feb, 2018 04:00 AM
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SOIL preparation is a top priority for Coomberdale farmers Nicola and Russell Crago, as they manage the effects of rain from the beginning of the year.

The Cragos, along with their three children Jack, (13), Millie, (11) and Sophie (6), manage and operate Trewin, where they balance their time growing grains and hay and producing prime lambs and cattle.

The 2630-hectare farm is spread over two lots with 1214ha at Coomberdale, where the bulk of the Cragos’ cropping operation is, as well as their sheep and most of their cattle.

They also have a 1418ha sand plain block just west of Watheroo where they predominantly run sheep with some cattle and, depending on the season, sometimes grow crops.

The couple has already sprayed for weeds ahead of the 2018 growing season, particularly targeting melons and caltrop but Nicola said the 50 millimetres of rain they received in January will mean further attention to their soil is required.

Caltrop was never an issue for the farm until floods in 1999 which covered all of their paddocks and Nicola said it has been a constant battle since.

The Coomberdale block has blue clay soils which requires them to regularly spread gypsum and lime on a rotational program, as well as manure from their feedlot.

Rather than burning their stubbles, the Cragos plan to incorporate them into the soil with offset discs, which they have found to have significant benefits over the years.

“With our neighbours, we really notice the difference when they haven’t done deep ripping and we have,” Nicola said.

“Putting the stubbles back into the soil has made a big difference and we will continue to do that.”

While trying to prepare their soils for seeding, which the Cragos expect to be towards the end of April, they have also focused on the livestock side of their business.

Continually buying and selling livestock, the Cragos’ sheep program operates with about 1800 to 2000 breeding Merino ewes, which also complement their cropping program.

Nicola said they try to buy as many lambs as possible of any breed – usually about 2000 on top of the lambs they have bred – and finish them off for about 30 days before selling them.

They run about 450 head of cattle at any one time, depending on how many they buy and sell and usually process about 1000 to 1200 head each year.

Their cattle program operates in a similar way to the sheep in that they buy as many cattle as they can for a good price, again with no preference of breed, then they hold them in the feedlot to sell after about 90 days.

“It just depends if opportunities come up, then we might do a bit more and sometimes a bit less,” Nicola said.

“It also depends on the season. When the stations are dry we will run more cattle because they are cheaper and easier to access.

“We get calls from all different places and just put them in the feedlot to finish them off.

“Our bush block west of Watheroo has Tagasaste so sometimes when we buy smaller cattle we put them there to grow for a few months and then bring them to the feedlot to finish them.”

About 10 years ago, the Cragos bred cattle but the couple found it easier to move to the “buy and sell” business model instead.

The couple have found that the most effective method to feed their livestock is with a combination of their own hay and bought-in grain.

“We grow our own hay and straw which goes into the feedlot, but we generally don’t use our own grain as we either buy from CBH or other farmers,” Nicola said.

“People around us usually know we want seconds grain and it works well because that way we are using cheap grain instead of our own good grain.”

The family has always farmed grain and sheep but the cattle enterprise only developed out of Russell’s interest in cattle, which was sparked when he studied at the Muresk Institute.

“When he came back from studying, he started feeding cattle on a very small level and then over about the past 20 years, it’s gotten bigger and bigger so we have about nine or 10 pens being fed from an outside trough,” Nicola said.

To diversify their income even further, the Cragos also produce and cut hay and straw, as well as doing contract hay work for other farms.

Trewin is in its fourth generation as it all began with Russell’s great grandparents Edward and Alice Lang, who came from Capel in the early 1900s and started with 160ha.

The farm was passed onto Victor and Margery Lang before being handed down to their daughter Valma (Russell’s mother) and her husband Percy Crago.

Percy immigrated to Australia from England and not having an agricultural background, he learnt the farming ropes from Valma.

He caught on quickly and even learnt how to shear so he could supplement their income by shearing neighbours’ sheep.

Valma has continued to have a large input in the running of the farm and the two have been farming together for about 60 years.

Percy and Valma became quite progressive and experimental farmers – traits that they passed onto their own son and daughter-in-law.

“We have tried things that haven’t worked but it’s okay to have a failure as long as we gave it a go in the first place,” Nicola said.

For the 2018 season, the couple plan to crop their usual program of barley, wheat, lupins and a little bit of hay at the Watheroo block.

Depending on the seasonal conditions, the Cragos hope to grow canola, which hasn’t been sown for about 18 years.

Their hay production has decreased over the years to allow them to concentrate on their livestock, so now they grow just enough for the feedlot.

Nicola said the biggest benefit of mixed farming is being able to spread risk, which is why they have diversified so much over the years.

“In a dry year when our crops are not fantastic, we can do very well with the cattle and lambs,” she said.

“When it’s dry, cattle are also cheaper so we make better money there and when it’s a higher rainfall year the cattle might not be so cheap but our crops are better and there’s always opportunities with hay.

“On a really good year we can do a fair bit of contract hay baling which is another good source of income.

“I think it’s really good to have your fingers in many pies.”

All farmers are familiar with the frustration of plans going wrong due to issues out of their control, most commonly because of the weather and this is the biggest challenge for the Cragos.

Nicola said the couple manage stress by having a strong partnership to complement each other and that benefits the business.

“Russell manages the farm and I run the finances and also help Russell,” she said.

“We talk everything over together, we’re a team and we make sure we talk to the kids as well and do things around the farm to include them.”

As well as efficiently watering their crops, another major worry for the Coomberdale farmers is managing the heat for their livestock.

“One of the biggest challenges is going to be getting water on our crops and trying to figure out how to grow good crops with less water,” Nicola said.

“The increasing temperatures are concerning for our livestock, so we have been trying to figure out how we could protect them from the sun.”

A job where plans continually change and every day is different to the previous may seem like a daunting job to some but not these farmers.

When asked why she enjoys being a farmer, Nicola said: “No two days are the same and there’s always something going on, so it’s very exciting.”

“You never know what is going to happen next.”

FarmWeekly

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