Weathering the extremes
“Rocky Ridge” is no place for a rest.
Just north of Caragabal in southern NSW, the highly productive cropping and sheep property demands round-the-clock attention, careful planning and hard work. It’s a complex parcel of land with 1,700 hectares ranging from light, loamy pine country to heavy black cracking clay and everything in between. Then there’s the hills and slopes to contend with, running down onto plains that form the backbone of the southern agricultural district. The only way to manage this farm is to multi task.
Graham Toole is driving, checking paddocks, checking off lists in his head and speaking into his hands-free phone kit. Alongside his father and business partner, Peter, he’s preparing to commence the winter sowing program while also looking after 1,000 Merino ewes heavy with lambs about to drop. He’s keeping an eye on the skies for signs of rain to help jump start sowing, but part of him is hoping it holds off to buy him a few more days to get a couple more jobs done.
“Our biggest challenge is time,” he says. “We have a reasonable size farm that’s keeping us busy, so we are focusing on reinvesting in the land we already have and getting our place running at its full potential, rather than going out and buying more land. We’re not doing anything earth shattering out here, we’re just trying to keep it simple, keep costs down and get the biggest return we can.”
The journey towards a more productive and efficient farm started with an overhaul of land management. Everything was investigated – from crop types, ratios and treatments to the timing of joining rams and ewes to commodity and stock price trends. It was during this time that Graham Toole decided he needed to outsource some agronomy expertise to spread the workload more evenly across their business profile. He enlisted the assistance of Delta Agribusiness agronomist, Dave Crowley, which he says has proved a cost-effective strategy resulting in closer monitoring of crop and soil health, the inclusion of dual purpose and legume crops, and an increased area of higher value crops. “It’s about realising that you can’t do everything yourself and you’ve got to have the right people in the right jobs to help everything work better,” Graham explains. “We found that things were slipping in our cropping operations before we got Dave on board, because we just didn’t have the time to pay the attention to it that it deserves. Careful, early planning and keeping a really good record of where things are at is all it took. Dave also sees a lot of different operations and is able to bring ideas on how we can improve, it’s bringing best practice back to us and it’s very beneficial. It’s just a big weight off my shoulders to know that he’s keeping an eye on things.”
At 30 per cent canola, 20 per cent barley and 50 per cent wheat, it’s a busy winter sowing program ahead. Increasing the size of the canola break crop on Rocky Ridge from 20 to 30 per cent of the overall cropping profile helped with chemical rotation and weed management, while the incorporation of legume crops aims to rest the country and fix more nitrogen. Graham now incorporates more comprehensive fertilizer and spray programs, carefully planned sowing programs and extensive soil testing. Weed management has become a priority and pre-emergent herbicides have played a significant role in reducing rye grass and black oat control. Contract farming also helps boost cash flow and means machinery is fully utilised and upgraded regularly. “We’re trying to increase our cropping productivity through better management,” Graham says. “It’s about having a strict program that we set up early in the year so we have better direction in what we’re trying to achieve. Like everyone, we’re trying to be more professional in what we’re doing. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago you could slap it in the ground and hope for the best, but it just doesn’t work that way anymore.”
But it hasn’t all been about cropping. The sheep standing quietly in the paddock began demanding attention as the wool on their backs steadily rose in value. Some of the less favourable farming paddocks were even temporarily converted back to grazing to capitalise on the shift in stock prices. Planting dual purpose crops aimed to improve livestock nutrition, increase lambing percentages and build ewe numbers. Graham is also in the process of pushing joining back from December to February, a better time of year for joining which will hopefully increase fertility.
“Sheep will always be secondary to cropping, but there is money in stock at the moment so we’re trying to put a little bit more effort in,” Graham says of the shift in prices. “We’re putting a pasture phase into the rotation with some of our less favourable cropping paddocks and trying to make every acre that we’ve got more productive.”
Agronomy and animal husbandry aside, Graham believes one of their greatest assets is running as a family partnership in a strong community. His great great grandfather was allocated a soldier settler’s block after the war, the beginning of what would become a successful farming business lasting generations. “My father still works here as hard as what I do and having that support is a definite advantage,” Graham explains. “He’s nearly at retirement age but he’s just got such a passion for it, he loves it more than anyone I’ve ever seen. So it really is a strong family farm in that sense. We make decisions together, as the years go by I’m bringing more ideas but nothing gets done without approval from both of us.”
Graham says the vibrance of their local community also plays a huge part in the success of their operations. His wife, Jodie, is a teacher at the local school, which both their children, Ryan (8) and Lizzie (6) also attend. Graham’s parents, Peter and Lyn, also have the convenience of living in town while still working on the farm.
“We’re lucky enough to have a great little community with lots of young families around, that’s a great asset and lot of little farming communities are starting to miss that. I guess we’re bucking the trend,” he says. This also gives him confidence in the future of the farm, that while the local community is strong it will continue to be a practical and attractive place to raise a family. He’s careful to add though that there is no expectation that his children should come home to work on the farm. “If you don’t love it you’re not going to do a good job. All you can do is give them every opportunity in life. Farming is hard work and long hours and sacrifice but it can be very rewarding as well, and hopefully the kids will also see how rewarding it is.”