Crop Protection

Sustainability and profitability the goal for Tasmanian enterprise

19 July 2023, AU: Profitable and sustainable farming are the goals for the Nichols family and their 400-hectare property of Redbank Farm, at Sisters Creek, located an hour west of Devonport, in the north-west of Tasmania.

Michael Nichols said the family farm was quite diverse with beef cattle and mixed cropping which includes onions, poppies, potatoes, wheat, barley, canola, mustard and pyrethrum.  They also run a poultry farm and a grain pool business.

“One of our main goals for the farm is to be sustainable, yet profitable – to be in the top five per cent of production.”

Their success was recognised in the Corteva Agriscience 2021 Climate Positive Leaders program.

Mr Nichols said their crops were in a six-year rotation which helps with disease and weed control and they put a lot of programs in place to ensure sustainability.

Nutritional inputs are carefully monitored with grid sampling and variable rate applications used to ensure consistency across the enterprise.

Two samples per hectare determine the rate of elements such as lime, dolomite, phosphorous, potassium and others and allows the spreader to increase or decrease applications as required.

“There are definitely big savings on fertiliser through the grid sampling,” Mr Nichols said. “It’d be between $20,000 and $30,000 a year in direct fertiliser savings.

“We then use NDVI images through satellite to put our nitrogen on. The nitrogen application doesn’t save you any money, it just puts the nitrogen in the right spots.”

“By doing the variable rate application, we’re finding that we’re improving our yields across the board.”

He said they were very focused on looking after the environment, with the property less than two kilometres from Bass Strait and surrounded by National Park.

“It’s not just making sure we don’t have soil erosion, we also are conserving native forests and making sure that we don’t degrade that by having cattle grazing it.  We’re not chopping down the tall dead trees, which are the hollows for the owls and the parrots.”

They have fenced off patches of bush in the middle of the farm and planted flowering shrubs to attract the insects such as hoverflies, native bees and native wasps.

“We use IPM, where we only use insecticides when numbers get to a certain level,” Mr Nichols said.

“My Dad’s always been a very avid birdwatcher, having emigrated from the UK.  The ethos there is if a bird on your place that’s a bit rare – it’s a talking point for the local community.”

The family located a colony of Tree Martins on the property and have taken steps to ensure they survived and flourished.

“Tree Martins are like a little swallow, but they don’t like domestic buildings,” Mr Nichols said.  “They are quite a rare bird, so Dad thought he’d put up a few old power poles with some nest boxes.  They loved them. We’ve increased the flock from six or seven to near 30.”

“We also have Wedge Tailed Eagle nests on the property and a Sea Eagle on the other side of the farm.  They’ve come up with a mutual agreement to not kill each other and the Sea Eagle’s allowed on a couple of hectares.

“There’s an advantage for having all these birds of prey on the place because they keep track of our rabbits.  It’s nice to see the wildlife working around you.”

Mr Nichols said they just want to be doing the best for the land for the next generation by ensuring it is as in good, or even better condition, than what it is currently.

“We started monitoring soil organic matter.  We are sitting at 5.5 to 6 per cent organic carbon, which is high for the area, and utilising cover crops and the residue of other crops. By increasing the soil carbon you’ve suddenly increased your nutrient and water holding capacity in the soil.”

Grain trading is another business on the property in an area where cereals are not normally grown.

“We’ve managed to get some very high yielding wheats and barleys,” Mr Nichols said.  “Our five-year average would be 11 and a half, 12 tonnes to the hectare of wheat and our barley crops are sitting at about 10 and a half.”

He said they were surrounded by dairy farms, so it made sense to combine with their neighbours to pool grain for the local market.

Their Northwest grain pool is made of 12 growers, supplying grain to local dairy farmers also alleviates the need to buy from mainland Australia.

“Locals trying to support locals. We’ve cut out a heap of freight and provided an opportunity to grow another crop in the rotation.”

Mr Nichols said community was very important to their family and he was president and a coach at the local soccer club and involved in the fire brigade.

He is the current president of the Tasmanian Poppy Growers Association and involved with a number of farmer groups.

n 2021, the enterprise won the National Innovation in Agricultural Land Management Award.

The award recognised their work with cover cropping, variable rate application, soil maps, putting nutrient where it needs to go and also trying to preserve local biodiversity.

“It was really nice to see that come through, showing that what we’re doing is working really well,” Mr Nichols said.  “It shows that we haven’t slowed down, because in 2006 my dad won the Primary Producers Award, nationally, for profitability with sustainability. I think we’re still on track for environmental excellence with profitable crop growing at the same time.”

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