SOWING SUCCESS - How changing seasons are a driving force for growth for the Hallam family
Article I Lucy Moore Photography I Jane McLean Photography
With more than 135 years in farming in north west Victoria, the Hallam family have certainly experienced varying seasonal conditions.
They say dry spells have provided the most valuable insights into the most profitable areas of their business, and those less sustainable.
The Hallam farming enterprise is run across 12,000 hectares near Hopetoun.
They have measured less than 40mm of rain up until autumn – one of the driest three months on record in the area.
Being a solely dryland cropping operation of cereals including wheat, barley, lentils and canola, they are balancing on a knife edge. “We’ve been farming in the area for about 135 years and there’s been tough times and good times throughout that duration,” he says.
“You more or less need to roll with the punches. I think if you approach every year as though it’s going to be a bumper season you may not be in the game very long.”
Pat is nearing completion of sowing lentils, with canola due to be planted. This year he is bucking the trend sowing it late in the year, usually it is first in the ground on their program.
“We’ve tried to spread our risk as much as possible given the poor forecast,” he says.
“We normally plan our cropping regime in September and stick to it as much as possible, remaining adaptable where we can.”
The family also run a 2,000 head self-replacing Merino sheep flock, sowing approximately 3,500 hectares to vetch each year for fodder.
Ideally this side of the operation would complement the more prominent cropping aspect, however, Pat says the sheep business is becoming less favourable for their operation and goals. “From a sustainability and soil regeneration angle we’re finding the sheep are somewhat detrimental. Our soil is mostly sandy loam and the sheep tend to camp and feed on loamy rises where wind erosion is a big concern.
“We’re finding we’re needing to go out with a disk plough or scarifier and recover the land to prevent erosion and soil drift, so that leaves us scratching our heads about the place sheep have in our operation.”
Pat says sheep provide a consistent income stream, however, with cropping being their main enterprise and an increasing focus on soil regeneration, they are looking at other options.
“Some of our sheep are currently all contained in a small feeding area due to the dry and costs obviously increase in that situation,” he says.
“The thing with sheep, and to their credit, the wool needs shearing, rain, hail or shine and we sell all wethers as meat sheep so it’s an income stream regardless of where the market value is.
“However, from a business growth and sustainability point of view, if we relied on sheep to cover ever-climbing land prices we’d never get a go, hence our focus on cropping.”
Pat says the family has acquired a lot more land through lease or purchase in the past 15 to 20 years, as the younger generation looked to return to the industry.
Eight members of the Hallam family are involved in the farming business – Pat’s father and three uncles, as well as, his brother and two cousins.
Pat says communication is key to their continued success. “We all have our own roles to play but mainly we all pick up the pieces and do what needs to be done,” he says.
“We have a 1,200ha farm south of Horsham where one cousin lives and works, but generally we all put in at busy times such as harvest to make sure we get a solid result.”
The advent of farming technologies has made a lasting impact in the Hallam family operation – a factor Pat says also influences the stronger focus on cropping as their dominant industry.
“We used to be an all conventional operation and would rip the country until it all blew away. The introduction of GPS systems and the evolution of better chemical options now make zero till farming a game changer.
“Twenty years ago we were on a two year rotation of fallow-wheat or fallow-barley, whereas now we plant legumes and canola to tighten those rotations up a lot.”
Pat says chemicals such as Glyphosate and Paraquat had strong positive results for productivity.
“The older generation were very sceptical when zero till farming was suggested but they wouldn’t go back now,” he says.
“We’re able to rely on chemicals for zero till farming, in turn allowing us to take better care of our soils and it has definitely increased our productivity. We’re able to cover greater areas in less time. It’s a one pass operation, whereas conventionally the soil would have been worked numerous times before it was sown.”
In line with the adage ‘time is money’, despite increasing their acreage, the zero till method has meant their outputs remain at a profitable level.
“We can run two boom sprays for weed management capable of covering 60ha/hr each, compared to a tractor and cultivator doing less than 10ha/hr – and the results speak for themselves.”
The shift towards regenerative agriculture has been notable in the last decade, particularly as the next generation of farmers return to the land. Similarly, these farmers are looking for more productive ways of working where their time is invested in areas most profitable to the business.
In an example of this, Pat Hallam explains that if the auto-steer GPS was not working on any given day you would not waste time starting the tractor.
“It’s not a matter of whether a job is possible or not but how effective and therefore profitable your efforts will be,” he says.
“I’m on the tractor right now using the auto-steer to go up and down between last year’s rows and I can be making business calls simultaneously.
“The technology today is so advanced that it does not compare with human ability - things like variable rate technology and yield mapping on headers.
“There’s no doubt we could get the job done by hand, but I believe the output would outweigh reward.”
Pat put his family’s long history in the Hopetoun area down to more than just technological advances.
He says the region is quite secure from a cropping angle with eight out of 10 years resulting in good to very good yields.
As it stands now with their existing sheep enterprise, Pat says the family aims to harvest 65 per cent of the farm with the remainder servicing stock on hand or standing on rotation.
From a community perspective, Pat says the tight knit nature of people living and working in the region rendered it a strong place to settle.
Hopetoun’s Lake Lascelles remained dry for many years in the early 2000s until the community, including Pat’s uncle, pushed for a pipeline to supply water from the Grampian Mountains resulting in a now constant water supply and a tourism opportunity for the town.
Pat says efforts like these drew considerable traveller numbers to the area on their way further north to warmer climates and resulted in better financial outcomes for members of the Hopetoun community.
“People around Hopetoun are prepared to work hard for each other for the betterment of the town moreover,” he explains.
“It’s easy to sit on your hands and wait for government funded development grants, but the Hopetoun community is good at getting out and making things happen.”
Pat says he and his brother are heavily involved in the local football club while his father and uncle are active members of the golfing fraternity – their commitment to life at Hopetoun is unquestionable. When I ask about his outlook for the remainder of the farming season, Pat says he remains hopeful.
“The forecast seems to decline day to day each time a rain event is predicted and the general consensus is that it simply does not want to deliver.
“Everyone gets their turn though - while New South Wales went through three years of drought we were getting away with it and had three pretty good years.
“We’ve got the support of our agronomists and the team at North West Ag Services and we’ve come out the other side of times like these before – it’s all about being flexible and adaptable and it’s what we’re good at!”