GOING against the grain may end up being Green Range farmer Jeremy Walker's calling card as he shifts his focus, looking to become a year-long farmer and not driven by the seasons.
After another soaking this year Mr Walker has bitten the bullet and invested in a centre pivot irrigation system, a key step in a broader plan to be less reliant on the seasons and operate an integrated farming system.
His Great Southern farm, as of late November, had received 880 millimetres of rain for the year, well up on the 550mm last year and the annual average of 575mm.
He farms on 2100 hectares of arable land, which is predominantly flat and from one side of his property to the other, rainfall can vary by to 80mm.
To help soak up some of this year's and most likely future rainfall, he has installed a centre pivot irrigation system that made its first operational circle a couple of days before Christmas.
This system will form a crucial element in a shift of farming practices as he seeks to manipulate the feed curve, creating a year-long pasture and delay the start of his lambing.
"The irrigation came about because 2016 and 2017 were very wet and all my lakes filled up on the farm," Mr Walker said.
"At the time I probably wasn't brave enough to pull the trigger on anything, but then in 2018 when we were having a terrible dry start, we had all this water sitting in lakes everywhere and I thought, what a waste, we have all this water, wind and dust storms and no feed, wouldn't it be great if we could use it.
"I thought next time we have a big wet I'll look at it more seriously, then that happened this year, so I started doing the sums on it."
Mr Walker worked out that evaporation on the lakes happened gradually and there was a huge potential for greater catchment to go into his lakes.
With the main lake a substantial 65ha, he figured he could come close to paying off the irrigation unit over just a few years, so decided to make it happen.
On the property waterlogging is often Mr Walker's biggest constraint and coincidentally on the flip side, water security is also his greatest hesitation with the irrigation system.
"We still get years when we have dry drams and because we are so flat if it doesn't rain to the point of run off then we don't get water going anywhere, we don't have this perfect hill catchment or anything else, we need it to flood to fill the dams and lakes," he said.
"The past 10 years of history say we are going to get that, but it might not always be the case.
"We have six lakes on the farm that would be above 15ha, so we've got other areas we can pump from if we need to.
"I am looking into linking them up, as well as potentially looking underground, as supply is pretty good there, so hopefully utilising those systems will mitigate any risk."
Under the pivot Mr Walker wants a grazing system, so has planted 70ha of pallaton raphno, a forage brassica, with perennial clover under that to try to fix some nitrogen in the irrigated paddock.
Even though this crop will be the highest input, according to his sums, it will also be the highest output, so Mr Walker believes it is a good first option to trial under the new irrigation system.
Always taking a positive approach, as many farmers do, each challenging year provides an opportunity to learn that he knows will make him "so much better for it" but hasn't made this year an enjoyable one.
His crop this year has suffered and having sprayed-out a portion of his program, he is expecting to only bring in 300 kilograms per seeded hectare of canola.
"If it's a really wet year - and this has been the third wet year expected to be above 900mm in the past six years - I suspect we will be around the 300kg mark on canola," Mr Walker said.
"It's either above 1.8 tonnes or 300kg or below, you put it all in at the start of the year and hope for the best."
Because of this unpredictability of the seasons, he operates with a more sheep dominant program, this year consisting of a 60 per cent sheep and 40pc cropping split.
To date his greatest learning is to stay focused on his environment and not try to get too caught up on what everyone else is doing.
"We'll have more sheep next year, about 70pc," he said.
"When you're not succeeding in something you need to pivot, crops can be brilliant here, but it seems to be brilliant or terrible, there is no happy medium."
He is also working with the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Stirlings To Coast and Nutrien Ag Solutions to trial alternate options on the back of a waterlogged year.
The trials include forage options all the way through to various summer grains and even hemp.
"Hopefully the trial will help people make good decisions and even make money on the back of a wet year," Mr Walker said.
"If you have a waterlogged paddock, you can look at all the late spring sowing options."
While the trials being implemented on dry land and under the centre pivot are exciting, Mr Walker is looking forward to having what he calls a "wet feedlot".
"My main focus is for it to continue to be a grazing system, basically by planting more summer crops and putting in this irrigation that allows us to shift our lambing back," he said.
"Then we are lambing onto better feed and we're joining ewes at a time where they conceive and ovulate better, lambing down into the top of the feed curve rather than lambing down into the feed glut.
"We were lambing into early winter so we've shifted back and can lamb into the peak of feed, therefore getting more lambs on ground."
With a reasonably long season typical of the region, most farmers in the area like to finish their lambing early, but Mr Walker's strategic move sees his finishing time occur at the price peak where there are not a lot of lambs, opposed to the typical time, where prices are low and abattoirs are full.
"We're trying to provide a product at a time of year when there's not as much of that product," he said.
"I did some calculations and just by shifting the finish time there's about $70,000 to $80,000 just in price difference."
By allowing Mr Walker to change his cropping and lambing schedules the centre pirvot system makes him less reliant on the seasons.
"It will allow us to diversify and have feed when we don't normally have feed," he said
"I'm excited to continue to shift our focus, the summer forage cropping we've been doing for a few years now, steadily growing it more and more.
"I feel like I'm starting to get my head around trying to do it well and it's very much evolving.
"It's going to be a different system but I think it's going to work for our unique environment down here."
Beyond the irrigated paddocks he will continue to choose crops based around his livestock, stating that if things go well he might "lock up and try to get some cream off it'" but otherwise not relying on it as a grain crop only.
"That side for me is enjoyable because I love the marrying of sheep and crops, how you can tie them together," he said.
"I feel with our environment that we have a pretty good opportunity to do that side of things quite well."
Mr Walker is passionate about staying in his own lane and not comparing yourself to what everyone else is doing.
"I think that's what makes good farmers, people who go, OK well that works for my property, but it might not work for anyone else," he said.
"That's the point I've gotten too, I realise that even people close to us have a very different environment.
"I'm probably one of the further south croppers and one of the highest rainfall croppers in this area and I've got to realise and treat myself like that, not just do what they are all doing because what they're doing might be working for them, but it doesn't seem to be working for me."
Mr Walker has only been back on his family farm for 10 years and only cropping for the past seven.
Living on the property until he was 11-years-old, Mr Walker's dad, Geoff Walker and granddad, John Walker, were sheep focused, before leasing the farm out for blue gums.
With the forestry company going bankrupt, John and Geoff asked Mr Walker if he would be interested in returning to farm the property.
"Both my dad and granddad were more sheep focused and have always warned me it's more of a stock block, which is some advice I am now taking," Mr Walker said.
With not a lot of funds to start with Mr Walker described the process as a "crawl before you can walk, before you can jog" situation, clearing land themselves slowly and gradually building cash flow.
Although the past 10 years have brought some tough years, the centre pivot and adapting of his farming practice is giving Mr Walker a renewed sense of optimism and he is excited about the future of his farm.
"It's a bit different and it's a bit quirky I suppose, but I just think it could have a lot of potential and the moment you stop having a crack is the moment you go backwards." he said.
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