Yielding Paddock Precision
Article I Lucy Ziesemer
Photography I Rachel Walker Photography
Most people would assume a fifth-generation agriculturalist would have nothing left to learn after inheriting such a wealth of knowledge from those who passed through droughts and floods before them.
But, Sandy Munro of “Weebollabolla” at Moree promptly dispelled such a myth, confirming he is still learning and evolving to this day.
With a family history spanning almost 160 years at Moree, Sandy has become attuned to all the highs and lows the agricultural industry has to offer.
Right now, as is the case for many farming families, the Munros are nearing completion of what Sandy says was a “surprising” harvest.
“I’ve been amazed at the yields and the biomass produced on the in-crop rain we’ve received,” he says. “We started with a less than three quarter moisture profile in most cases and were only assisted with 36 to 40mm of in-crop rain, so to produce what we have has been astounding.”
Sandy put this down to years of dry weather actually providing the soil with a recovery spell.
He believes droughts are nothing new and despite the previous four years, especially 2019, being particularly cruel, the break from cropping had increased mineralisation in his paddocks.
“We’ve had to adapt our management practices in recent years to accommodate minimal rainfall conditions, and a big part of that has been planting cover crops to provide ground cover for moisture retention,” Sandy says.
“Ongoing drought has created an overall deficiency in terms of sub soil moisture so working towards improving that was our primary strategy this winter.
“The Bureau of Meteorology predicted a wetter than normal winter so we punted on cereal crops and where more moisture was present we planted some linseed as well as chickpeas.”
Sandy believes one of the bigger changes affecting modern day farming is the increased pressure from the northern hemisphere.
“We also planted a small area of low GI purple wheat with the niche domestic market in mind as I believe the days of back to back commodity farming are coming to an end,” he says.
“Unless we can keep costs down and move into good crop rotations to control moisture and break the weed cycle, I feel we will slip behind the eight ball against our competitors.”
The name “Weebollabolla” is also familiar to cattlemen and women where the Munro family have upheld a superior Shorthorn stud herd and sale for 53 years.
The drought took its toll on this side of the “Weebollabolla” operation too, and Sandy explains that they were forced to scale back their breeder numbers significantly.
“My grandfather always said ‘sell, repent, but sell’ and frankly we followed that mantra and sold down to our core female herd,” he says. “You can put the value of a cow down its throat very quickly and it was a case of kilograms of beef per hectare compared to tonnes of grain per hectare.
“The opportunity costs of running cows in this country have gone, so we must look long and hard at only reproducing the superior genetics of our herd – that’s the functional basis within our whole production system currently.”
Sandy believes the Shorthorn breed has a big role to play in the evolving composite herd of tomorrow.
“As Asia demands a more palatable product in terms of meat pH and with the prominence of live trade, I see Shorthorns regaining their place in northern parts of Australia,” he says.
“Shorthorns tick boxes – they will grade MSA and meet the criteria which are a magnificent animal to cross with Bos Indicus cattle that have taken over in the north.
“The Shorthorn has proven it can establish itself right around Australia because it was there 30 years ago, and with the evolution of genetics as a powerful tool I suspect we’ll see more Shorthorn composites heading into Asia that are better suited to that market.”
Sandy’s daughter Jen Jeffreys has recently taken over the day-to-day operations at “Weebollabolla” and Sandy is delighted for a new generation to adapt to the demands, with the support of key advisors.
“We’ve got some really good people on board. We’re relying on advice from Delta’s Mick Parry and the latest in terms of research into crop rotations, and it’s proving to be rewarding,” he says.
“Delta provides assistance for both farming and grazing sides of our operation, which is beneficial considering how much the two overlap.”
The rise of the clean, green image has not missed Australian producers and is not a negative factor in Sandy’s opinion.
“We’ve got a wonderful advantage on the world scene when it comes to our integrity regarding animal welfare and offering sustainable products and I believe red meat has a really strong future if we maintain transparency right through the production chain,” he says.
“That’s across the board for all sectors of food production – we need to be identifying and grading our products to meet the specifications of our brand driven by the burgeoning Asian middle class who are now wanting documentation of how that product came to be.”
In terms of modern day broadacre farming applications, the advent of wide machinery and high horsepower tractors really lend themselves to the northern NSW region.
He believes productivity around Moree is based on its rich deep soils, high phosphorus levels and its access to underground water.
“Sub artesian and artesian water are the foundations for strength within the agricultural enterprises in this district,” he says. “Moreover, we’ve learned how to farm our cracking soils and maintain stubble cover and with technology like infrared cameras and drones I think we’ll only see productivity increase. Labour costs have also been decreased on many of the larger acreage farms particularly west of Moree, with technological advances now allowing producers to farm in eight kilometre runs. Combine this with easy access to bore water for application of herbicides and you’ve got a far more efficient way of operating compared to years gone by.”
While it seems the Munro family have found ways to overcome significant challenges, no doubt there will always be more puzzles in the not too distant future.
However, as is the general feel within agriculture in 2020, Sandy remains optimistic. “It’s all about one’s ability to adapt under pressure, where on farm decisions become paramount,” he says.
“The next generation are resilient and have the smarts to benchmark their operations against their peers, and for that I feel Australian agriculture is in safe hands.”