Young Farming Champions Dan Fox and Emma Ayliffe find farming in a drought is a steep learning curve

Young Farming Champions Dan Fox and Emma Ayliffe come from different ends of the farm ownership spectrum but both have learnt valuable lessons as they have embarked upon new enterprises during a drought.

Dan, the 2018 Australian Innovation Farmer of the Year is a fifth-generation farmer, whose family have been farming in the Marrar district of southern New South Wales for more than 80 years. Over the last decade Dan has been helping move the farm from a traditional mixed sheep and cropping property to a continuous cropping enterprise using regenerative agriculture, and in the last two years he has introduced even more changes.

Dan has planted cover crop brassica/legume/grass pasture mixes of lentils (left) oats,cereal ryegrass, filed peas, faba beans, turnips and tillage radish which not only enrich the soil they also provide highly nutritious feed for sheep  

Emma Ayliffe is a well-respected agronomist, private consultant and business owner who in 2018 bought her first farm with partner Craig Newham at Burgooney near Lake Cargelligo in the Central West of NSW, where they set about growing wheat, barley and lambs.

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Emma Ayliffe and Craig Newham bought a farm together in one of the worst drought years on record 

On first glance it may appear Dan and Emma have little in common; one is changing a generational farm, another is starting a farm from scratch. But like all farmers they share the inconsistencies of the weather, and they realise that it is not so much what happens to them, but how they react to it, that makes the difference.

“Our average rainfall is 500mm but in the last twelve months we only received 200mm, and we also had some of our most severe frosts on record, yet we were able to harvest wheat at the area average of 2.5tonnes/ha,” Dan says.

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Harvesting Wheat on the Fox Family Farm

This amazing result is due to changes Dan has implemented in the last two years to conserve soil moisture during the summer fallow period.

“We got 100mm of rain in the fallow period and looked after it with our stubble, fallow sprays and groundcover management. That’s the only reason we ended up with a crop, because of the stored soil moisture before the crop went in. Years like this, which is one of the driest we’ve seen, show this approach to be a very valuable tool and dry years are when you really learn. Anyone can grow a crop in a good year but it takes a bit of skill in a drought.”

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Harvesting lentils 

Emma follows the principles of moisture conservation but in her case even the early rains were missing.

“We didn’t get a good break to sow into and then we never really had any good in-crop rainfall.  This meant poor to no yields for most of our cropping area and not much stock feed resulting in us sourcing grain for our sheep and grazing off crops,” she says.

emma - impressive but dry

No shortage of dust storms but very little rain 

It was a testing year to start farming but valuable lessons were learnt.

“Fortunately we both work other jobs to help keep some money rolling it and we learnt about diversification. Sheep were an amazing asset to us this year.”

emma ayliffe sheep

Drought puts a lot of pressure on farmers and their animals – with hand feeding a daily ritual 

Speaking from her own experiences in this challenging dry period Emma has this advice:

“Smile! We can’t make it rain. Do your budgets so you know what you’re up for. Don’t be scared to ask for help or advice from people who have been doing it longer. When you find yourself in the dust stand up, brush it off and go again. A new year means 365 days to kick goals.”

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And how does the prolonged dry effect confidence going forward?

“This is farming, This is the “gamble” that we take to grow food and fibre. It reiterates to us the importance of having a good drought management strategy in our business to support us in tough times. As a farmer it makes me want to work harder to learn how to do more with less, as an advisor it makes me admire the strength and resilience of the growers I work with even more so.”  Emma says. 

Dan, too, is optimistic.

“We’re only 2 years in and I’ve got a lot of confidence that the longer we stick with this system to build soil health and reduce our harmful insecticides and cut our fungicides right out, the better it is going to be. I think if we get a dry period such as this in ten years’ time our results will be better again – we’re pretty excited by the future.” he says. 

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Author: Picture You in Agriculture

The world needs creative, innovative and courageous young people who can connect, collaborate and act. We know that youth may only be 20% of the population but they are 100% of the future. The time is now to let them share their dreams and design the future they want to see.

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