Biological farming switch pays [Story from Weekly Times by LINDSAY HAYES]
KEITH Cowen did his farm rounds last month with a spring in his step and a tape measure in his pocket.
He was confident his 600ha wheat crop north of Weethalle, northeast of Griffith in NSW, would average six tonnes a hectare.
That was before torrential rain early this month caused extensive crop damage, from Queensland through to Victoria.
Now, with his harvest wrapped up, the average was five tonnes/ha.
"I am pleased I came close to my expectations," Keith said.
"I got big yields with low inputs."
He attributes the outcome to his switch from conventional to biological farming 14 months ago, saying the rain before sowing was beneficial but did not account for the results.
"My pre-drought best yield was four tonnes/ha in 1999," he said. "That crop was grown in a year of normal rainfall."
The second-generation farmer runs a mixed-farming business based on grain, mohair, wool and meat production on the 1200ha Yarran Park.
Keith said harvest failures and rising debt prompted him to rethink his cropping methods.
His research led him to a Victorian agronomist, who developed the carbon farm system he now has in place.
Soil analysis and carbon measuring are part of the system, which uses a fish-emulsion protein to enhance soil fertility.
This year, it was applied in February at 10 litres a hectare on the cropping land.
Three months later, Keith sowed the early ventura wheat, with knife points, and the following month, the later livingstone variety, with a disc seeder.
No chemical-based fertilisers have been applied and he expected to recoup the initial $30/ha outlay from increased yields and input savings.
Keith said costs in succeeding years would fall in line with lower application rates.
"Each year we soil-test and use a paddock rating system based on the results," he said.
"I can call up my paddock ratings on the computer and decide what crops to grow where and the inputs needed and estimate the yields."
Keith said neighbours, initially sceptical about his cropping methods, were looking over the fence and admitting he "could be on to something".
Keith reduced sheep and goat numbers during the drought, while continuing his breeding improvement program using the soft rolling skin principles based on genetic selection to bolster fibre quality in both flocks.
His pride and joy is Yarran Park 1380, a six-year-old stud angora buck producing 19-micron fibre, the highest SRS rating.
The buck, bred on the property, is one of the top sires in the SRS-registered Yarran Park Angora Stud, established 21 years ago.
Keith consistently achieves high lambing and kidding rates.
He gives full credit to his "security guards", Maremma dogs and alpacas that protect the goats and sheep.
The sale of semen from SRS bucks to domestic and overseas buyers is a growing part of the stud business.
"The angoras produce an average of 3kg of fine micron mohair per shearing and we shear twice a year," Keith said.
"Quality fibre is selling for $12-$14/kg across all lines."
Keith switched to on-line sales of breeding stock several years ago after receiving a good response to his website.
He keeps a close tab on his progeny's performance and on the angora industry as service manager for the SRS Company Pty Ltd's angora division.
"I class goats in 18 SRS flocks in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland," he said.
Keith has been at the forefront of breed improvement for 20 years, earning recognition for his embryo-transfer program and contribution to the industry.
His sheep enterprise comprises 695 Merinos for meat and wool production.
Using Aloeburn Rams bought from Boree Creek to improve his bloodline, Keith aims to produce a plain-bodied, fast-growing animal with long, high-density wool.
He stopped mulesing two years ago, having achieved the optimum wrinkle-free progeny.
Carbon Farm in action