Vet, farmer, father and grazier earns award nomination
For Neil Farmer, Yaamba vet and farmer, breaking down some" paradigms and mindsets" into land management is paying off in spades… of topsoil.
His progressive approach to managing the overall health of his land and herd engenders an occupation with keeping his soil in place, by rotating cattle through smaller paddocks and leaving beneficial grasses to repopulate.
Consequently, the Fitzroy Basin Association nominated him for a 2019 Reef Champion Award that recognises individuals and organisations who take action to improve the Great Barrier Reef's health.
Mr Farmer's latest work on his property, "Lake Learmonth", 45km north of Rockhampton has resulted in 71.3 ha of stream bank protection, which stops an estimated 4.1 tonnes of sediment leaving his property through waterways each year, according to the FBA.
"Land that's not kept in a good state during the dry season won't respond well to the rain when it does come," he said.
"Its not uncommon to have a fall of over six inches in a good downpour but, if it's running straight off and muddying up the river, you might as well say you only got an inch plus lost a wealth of topsoil."
Mr Farmer grew up on the brigalow belt where his father drew a lot during the government land grants.
"Dad was the first in the area to plant Leucaena; everyone at the time thought he was mad," he said.
"By the time we left, everybody was putting it in."
Mr Farmer boarded at The Rockhampton Grammar School for seven years.
"The Ag Department and the property at Port Curtis had just started," he said.
"We had one class of Ag Science students, all boarders, and our school team won the judging competition in Beef 2000."
Year 10, it "clicked" that Mr Farmer was destined for a future in veterinary sciences.
After graduating from a The University of Queensland, St Lucia, in 2009, he moved back to Rockhampton in 2011 to work for a mixed practice in town, before setting up his own mobile vet business in addition to raising cattle on the family property.
The fruits of Mr Farmer's foray into third party IVF breeding are evident in the calves lying under the shade in his top paddock, one of them only a few hours old.
With almost 300 Stud Brahman IVF calves, starting to "drop" which he will sell back as weaners, to a third party, he has plenty on his plate over the coming months.
It's a mid-size operation, Mr Farmer admits, which would be impossible to sustain as a standard breeding enterprise without his and his wife's off-farm jobs supporting the business.
"By taking on IVF recipients, installing centre pivot irrigation, and thinking longer term, we are aiming to make the property a stand alone enterprise".
But the real secret to success, he said, is to not get stuck in a rut.
"In some rural family-run businesses, change only happens one funeral at a time,"he said.
"The older you get, the more risk averse you can become and, before you know it, you're defending a decision to keep cattle through until the next wet season regardless of if you've got no feed."
Mr Farmer credits a lot of his insight to ongoing connections with other property owners he met through workshops conducted by Resource Consulting Services (RCS), an education and training office out of Yeppoon.
"Dad and I enrolled in their Grazing for Profit course in 2013, before repeating it a few years later, with my wife, Clare," he said.
During this time, Neil and Clare undertook the three-year RCS Executive Link Course which brought together a board of property owners who, Mr Farmer said, "put everything out on the table and held you accountable to your mindset and actions".
"You'd be so frustrated by something that wasn't working and then you'd get to one of the meetings, and someone would say, "Why are you doing it that way?"
"There were some real light bulb moments, breaking the cycle of reactive thinking into making more proactive management decisions."
Mr Farmer said his generation has so much more information at their fingertips than the days when a farmer's source of information was their parents, neighbour or DPI extension officer.
He uses grazing charts and feed budgets a year in advance, alongside 12-month rolling rainfalls and rain projections, to calculate when to offload his cattle.
"One decision can be a $100,000 call so you've got to get your facts right," he said.
"No animal should run out of grass during a drought; it's the decision to keep that animal by not matching the stocking rate to carrying capacity that's the problem."
Earlier this year, for example, Mr Farmer offloaded 12 decks of pregnancy-tested empty cows, early enough to attract top price.
Four months later, he picked up heavier pregnant cows for $100 per head less.
Meanwhile, he saved four months of feed, whilst pastures recovered with cash in the bank. "You've got to actively manage the grasses so they don't go rank and, in our case, that's meant splitting nine set-stocked paddocks into over 45 which are now operated on a rotational basis."
Mr Farmer reckons he's got over 75 per cent grass ground coverage now, with an ever-increasing level of desirable pastures coming through, and still able to maintain larger stock numbers on a current 500mm rolling rainfall.
"Once you've got organic matter on top, it holds the moisture, which keeps microbes alive and soil temperatures lower," he said.
"Then you get better soil structure, water infiltration and utilisation.
"One statistic I heard is that for every one per cent extra carbon, the soil is able to hold 144,000 litres more per hectare. That's huge."
But for all his own proactive practices, Mr Farmer said the future for Central Queensland farmers is being severely impaired by the governments' attitude towards water availability.
"There's a huge amount of water goes down the river we're not allowed to utilise" he said.
"If not for that, we could turn the region into a food bowl for the world.
"We need to let our farmers maximise their on-site water storage and get on with being productive".
Mr Farmer has a high priority river water allocation which in 2006, had an annual cost of 26 cents per megalitre which has jumped to $13.50, "whether we use it or not", and another $1.55 per megalitre they do use.
"With no fixed long term water pricing in place, who in their right mind is going to put invest in infrastructure which may then come at an unknown cost overnight?" he said.
"We are fortunate to have significant underground water to alleviate this risk."
As for the Rockwood Weir, which has long been touted as a panacea for the region's struggling farmers, Mr Farmer said it's potentially just a "warm, fuzzy feeling for politicians".
"They have now taken the floodgates off which now won't let the water down so what's the point of that?" he said.
"Why not spend the money on a bigger structure further upstream so everyone can benefit?"
"All that aside, with the right attitude and progressive mindset, agriculture has a very bright future which I hope my daughters will be excited about."