The innovative farming system increasing grain yields during drought

Robin Schafer, John Gladigau and Jonathan Wilson, Bulla Burra

35% Industry wide yield increase contributes to $600 million gross state product.

Bulla Burra in South Australia’s Murray Mallee is redefining family farming through collaboration and innovation.

In 2009, united by a shared vision, old friends and Murray and Mallee farmers Robin Schaefer and John Gladigau decided to form a single farming business and called it: ‘Bulla Burra’.

It was the realisation of the pair’s desire to create a more efficient and profitable farming operation in a low rainfall environment.

Eleven years later Robin now oversees the daily operations as General Manager, while John is the farm’s Business Manager, undertaking the day-to-day business management.

Together, they manage their cropping program, which is spread across 8,500 hectares, including wheat, barley, chickpeas, field peas, lupins and lentils, plus some oats and vetch for hay.

Facing the most difficult period in the collaborative farm’s history

When drought struck South Australia between 2017 to 2019, it was their commitment to innovation that saw them through the most difficult period in the collaborative farm’s history.

“The 2017 growing season rainfall was well below average,” said Robin.

“But it wasn’t just low rainfall we were experiencing - the spring frost smashed us hard too, and exacerbated the low soil moisture.”

In 2018, with no significant increase in rainfall, the state government officially declared South Australia in drought, which continued into 2019.

“We really were recording some of the lowest rainfall on record, paired with frost problems too,” said Robin.

Like many farms across the state, the low rainfall was having a big impact on the farm’s efficiency, yield and bottom dollar.

“As a commodity and export-based business we’re focused on creating scale and high production, while on decreasing costs through efficiencies and good management,” said John.

“But give us one or two really bad years, and that all changes.

Commitment to innovation maximising farm's potential

“Our margins in average years aren’t huge, and become much tighter in droughts, but we managed to achieve good results in a drought situation due to the changes we had made to our farming practices.”

Robin and John devised an integrated agricultural system, incorporating advanced agricultural technologies like no-till farming and deep ripping, as well as innovative marketing strategies.

“No-till farming means we don’t cultivate to control weeds. Instead we use chemicals and other cultural practices, such as narrow wind-row burning to leave stubble cover to protect the soil and minimise erosion.

“This allows us to sow early and sow dry – we can sow by the calendar not the break in the season.

“Historically, without the soil cover that no-till farming provides, we would’ve had to wait until the soil was wet, otherwise the crop would blow away.

"Earlier sowing means we’ve got as much of our crop in as possible when the rain comes and that maximises every drop of moisture to achieve good germination and establishment,” he said.

Dry sowing is also achieved through better weed control using new selective herbicides and a strategic crop rotation program to keep weed seed populations low. Crop nutrition was also a key focus during the drought period.

“Through soil testing we had a better understanding of what the specific crop nutrition requirements were, and this enabled us to have the right fertilisers on hand, to correct deficiencies and maximise plant health.”

The pair also trialled deep ripping, allowing them to unlock moisture bound up in the sub-soil.

Building relationships is at the forefront of the business

As Business Manager, John focuses heavily on building relationships and making strategic decisions around where Bulla Burra’s grain moves during the drought period.

“One thing that I place at the forefront is having strong relationships with our marketers, suppliers and land holders,” he said.

“We see those people as being part of our business, rather than people we use for the business.

“We are also always looking to make strategic marketing decisions around where our grain moves.

“We were fortunate that despite the drought, our grain quality was still magnificent, it didn’t diminish at all.

“We’re situated closer to the east coast domestic market than the rest of South Australia, so we’ve moved grain that way as demand has grown,” he said.

Through tough years there was still grain to sell

Thanks to their efforts, the pair have been “very pleased” with the grain yields over the difficult three-year period, even though increasing cost of production has meant this is not greatly reflected in increased profitability.

“For the rainfall that we had, it's quite outstanding what we were able to achieve,” said Robin.

“Historically, one or two years like 2018 or 2019 would have seen us struggling to get that seed back, but we now have grain to sell.

“Plus, our soil is in good health, so it’s easier for us to bounce back in good years.”

When compared to 1982 and 2002 - drought years with similar levels of low rainfall - John has also been happy with the comparatively strong yields.

“1982 and 2002 had similar rainfall to what we experienced between 2017 and 2019,” he said.

“In 1982 we grew nothing. In 2002, cereal crops yielded 0.1 tonnes/ha or 0.2 tonnes/ha.

“In 2019, with the same rainfall, but utilising conservation farming practices, our cereals were yielding 0.5 tonnes/ha up to 1.5 tonnes/ha, averaging about 0.8 tonnes/ha.

“That's a significant difference with the same rainfall and shows the impact different farming practices can have on yield.”

Revolutionary practices continue to evolve

The newly adapted practice of deep ripping has also made a difference to their yield levels.

“Deep ripping is a bit of a revolution,” said John.

“The deep sand soil types where we deep ripped averaged an additional 0.3 tonnes/ha to 0.6 tonnes/ha in last year’s drought conditions - that's a 25 to 60 per cent yield increase on areas that weren’t deep ripped.

“So we’ll definitely be doing more deep ripping this year.

“If we can access moisture and allow crop roots to penetrate below any restricted layer, that makes a significant difference to our bottom line, it’s an investment in the future.”

Jonathan Wilson from Grain Producers SA said the determination and innovative practices employed by producers across the state during the drought was to be commended.

"The robustness and ability to continue to deliver crops in the face of extremely adverse seasonal conditions is testament to the agronomy, ingenuity and tenacity of growers in SA,” he said.