Andrew and Jenny Chambers together with their three children Kye, Mitch and Tracie and their families, run Moolyall – their family property 30 kilometres north-east of Ravensthorpe, Western Australia.
Andrew and Jenny Chambers, and their three children, Kye, Mitch and Tracie, plus Kye’s partner Portia and Mitch’s partner Sophie.
Annual district average – 406mm
Total farm area
Arable – 8161 hectares
Non-arable – 1944 hectares
Owned – 10,105 hectares
Mostly shallow duplex on the home farm and adjoining blocks, with heavier deeper soils on Mountlea Farm (with considerable variability within paddocks).
Wheat and barley (60 per cent), canola (20 per cent), legumes (five per cent), pasture/oats (15 per cent).
Cross-bred lamb and Merino wether trading.
One full time staff member, one extra at seeding, and four extras at harvest.
The family is part of the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association, farming group Ravensthorpe Agricultural Initiative Network (RAIN), Ravensthorpe Tigers Football and Sporting Club and various other local committees.
Q When was the farming district settled?
A Our area was released under a conditional purchase land development scheme in 1979-1980. This new land comprised uncleared mallee and banksia woodland and scrubland on duplex soil types.
Q What is the history of your farm?
A Prior to coming to this district, my father had a war service farm in Gardiner River, between Jerramungup and Albany. Both he and my mother came from farming families. We moved to Ravensthorpe in the mid-70s to expand the farm size. The Ravensthorpe red ground farm was sold when Mum and Dad wanted to retire, and my brothers and I took on the “new land” block.
My brothers and I cleared our home farm, Yoorooga, in the early 1980s. The allocations out here were some of the last land allocated for farmland in Western Australia (WA), and we took it over as blocks of scrub with pegs in the corners. We chained the scrub, burned the debris and ripped or blade ploughed the paddocks to remove the roots and stones.
Then we set about trying to build up the infertile soils. It took around 10 years before the soils came into full production.
My eldest brother left the partnership in the late 1980s and Jen and I farmed with my other brother and his wife. Together we purchased another new land block, Hutchies, in 1992.
We cropped 50 per cent, grew merino sheep and ran a small (30 sow) piggery.
In 1995 we split that entity and began farming on our own on the two blocks.
After the boys indicated they would come home full-time, we purchased Waverley in 2005, Endeavour in 2013, and Mountlea in 2015.
Q How do you manage your cropping programme?
A Our average crop rotation is wheat, then barley, followed by either canola, pasture or a legume (depending on the weed load). If we have a grass blow out, we will go to a pasture/canola/pasture rotation and utilise different chemicals to lower the grass levels.
We put equal focus on all our commodities. Wheat and barley are our most reliable cash crops, but canola, legumes and pasture all have an important place in the rotation.
We grow Scepter wheat, which is higher yielding than Mace. We grow La Trobe and Planet barley, which are both high yielding varieties. We mostly produce feed quality,
but have the potential of achieving malt with these varieties.
We grow open pollinated canola. We don’t get a high canola yield, but we’re not pushing nitrogen as hard as we could.
Q Are you 100 per cent no-till, or a mix of tillage practices?
A We have been no-till since 1996. We used to cultivate three times, but our soils don’t handle cultivation. Since going no-till, we’re seeing much less water and wind erosion.
Three years ago, we brought a Horsch Joker plough to manage large pasture loads, which we use strategically as needed.
We start sowing dry in mid-April, so we can finish our sowing programme in a suitable time.
To do this we need to work ahead to ensure we have enough clean paddocks to sow dry without a weed blow out.
Q What is your fertiliser regime?
A We mainly use 80 to 100 kilogram/hectare k-till at sowing and band 60 litres/hectare nitrogen down the tube.
We generally apply 40 to 60 litres/hectare liquid nitrogen post seeding. However, if it is a dry season like this year, we drop rates right back. This year we have held off altogether. We have plant tested and are waiting for rain.
Q What is your normal herbicide regime?
A We use summer knockdowns as needed, a double knock pre-sowing.
We use a post emergent for broadleaf weeds in cereals and a grass spray on canola.
Chemical group rotation is an important part of our strategy.
We have also been using chaff carts since 2005, which has reduced our radish weed load considerably. Chaff carts cause the harvester to slow down, but it really takes the pressure off the weed burden.
Ryegrass is a numbers game. We use a three year break crop rotation to combat ryegrass if it gets out of hand (pasture/canola/pasture).
Our aim is to minimise chemical applications where possible, to minimise costs.
Q What is your normal fungicide and pesticide regime?
A We band the product name of Impact with our liquid nitrogen at sowing of our Scepter wheat and use Evergol Energy on our La Trobe barley as a smuticide and to help with Rhizoctonia. A post sowing spray is sometimes required on our barley for net type blotch and other foliar disease.
Q Do you use GPS autosteer technology?
A We use RTK Greenstar GPS and have been yield mapping since 2005. We overlay these maps with GAMA and EM soil maps and make lots of comparisons. We use this information as the basis for variable rate lime and gypsum applications.
We also do a lot of strip trials in our paddocks to investigate responses to fertiliser. These trials comprise a strip at sowing that matches our harvester width.
We check yield response at harvest – we are always looking for opportunities to increase productivity. We have improved yields from one tonne/hectare to around 2.5 or three tonne/hectare.
We soil test on a rotation basis, or if we are going to adopt something different. For example, we are experimenting with deep ripping, but because of the variability of our soils we really need to have a variable height deep ripper so we can adjust depth on the go, according to soil type.
Q Do you use a farm management advisor?
A Our farm management advisor is Ben Curtis from Farmanco. We meet with Ben a couple of times a year, and bounce ideas back and forth. Ben is not involved in the day to day running of the farms, so he gives us a different perspective. Ben, along with Jenny, is our financial brake lever.
Q What is your harvesting routine?
A We have four harvester operators, two chaser bin drivers, and one run around worker.
We also have two truck drivers, and run two trucks daily to Ravensthorpe or Munglinup.
We bring in contractors to cart grain if needed.
We have 500 tonnes of field storage and 4000 tonnes of shed storage, which we use to stockpile dry grain and blend if required.
We also have a dryer if we need to dry grain and mix to delivery standards. We also have 1500 tonnes of on-farm silo storage. We use this for seed, and to store lupins and oats to sell mid-year.
Q How do you market your crop?
A We use everything except pools. We start selling grain a year or two out, when the price looks okay. By harvest we will have generally locked in about 80 per cent of our absolute minimum yield, if the price is right.
Jenny spends a lot of time perusing and analysing grain markets, using numerous websites, emails and text messages.
Q What are the biggest challenges to your farm, and how do you manage them?
A 1. Rainfall variability
Our average rainfall has stayed the same, but we are getting more peaks and troughs. We have gone from our wettest year on record in 2016 to 2019 being potentially the driest year on record in our farming lifetime. We have a definite focus on conserving soil moisture from summer rains, in case it doesn’t rain during winter. You wouldn’t think our soils would hold much moisture over summer, but surprisingly they do, so summer weed spraying is critical.
Being an export state, we bear the brunt of volatile world markets. Our best opportunity to manage this challenge is to maximise yield. At 2.5 tonne/hectare there’s no safety margin when prices are low. If we can produce four to five tonnes/hectare, we have plenty extra to play with.
We need to ensure we can keep producing a good quality marketable product. I disagree with the use of glyphosate on malting barley. There is too much potential to damage our export grain markets.
Machinery prices have percentages that increase price every year (plus CPI), but grain price doesn’t follow that. We like to keep economies of scale in equipment on farm, but we need to factor in the value of getting our harvest off as early as possible to maximise high quality grain. The cool, moist harvesting conditions on the south coast of WA mean we have a smaller daily harvesting window compared with the drier conditions of the wheatbelt.
Q Do you think food production has a good future in Australia?
A The Australian grains industry needs to ensure our produce is affordable for other countries to purchase, and importantly, Australian farmers need to be able to afford to grow grain, to make a reasonable living from primary production.
With highly populated countries nearby, we need to continue to develop these markets.
Q What technological developments do you foresee which will improve your family farm?
A Glyphosate replacement is a necessity. We need to have a new chemical to rotate through the system, so we are not so reliant on glyphosate.
Weed seed management tools will be important in the future. We are watching the development of the new terminator and destructors and will gradually replace our chaff carts with those systems.
Camera ‘green on green’ spraying systems to target weeds in crop and lower chemical use will become more affordable as technologies keep improving.
We would love to see new varieties that increase yields without impacting the quality.
Profitable soil amelioration developments such as a variable depth deep-ripping machine would greatly assist us.
Q Do you have future expansion plans?
A We are not actively hunting, but if land nearby comes on the market, we would definitely consider it. If we were to purchase land further away from here, it would need to be larger to make it worthwhile, and we’d need to get our head around how to do that in our programme. There are a number of corporate farms already established in the Ravensthorpe area that are actively buying land.
Land values vary considerably, around $650/acre at home to $1200/acre 60 kilometres south of us.
Q Do you have a business diversification strategy?
A Our sheep trading enterprise is our main diversification strategy.
Usually 15 per cent of our income comes from trading crossbred lambs and Merino wethers throughout the year.
Our sheep enterprise also greatly decreases the risk of low yielding break crops and assists with weed management.
We buy in around 5000 freshly weaned cross-bred lambs from August to October, and retain them for around six months. We also buy around 1200 Merino wethers which we generally hold for up to three years.
We run them on nitrogen fixing pastures (a cocktail of serradella, biserulla, and messina)until barley and wheat stubbles come online after harvest.
Sheep can be run through a feedlot if the season dictates (using grain produced on the farm) and are sold on-farm at 50 kilograms plus live weight direct to abattoirs in the south-west of WA.
Q What motivates you to be farmers?
A I started farming straight after agriculture school, Narrogin Ag, which I attended after three years boarding in Perth. I couldn’t get there quick enough. I loved life on the land and spent every spare minute of school holidays working on the farm.
Jenny had a rural upbringing and has always enjoyed living and working on the farm. It has been a really great environment for bringing up a family. The kids have been involved all their lives.
Farm kids get to have so many experiences growing up but also need to entertain themselves, so they become very innovative, capable and independent.
It has been a very rewarding journey, and quite challenging at times as we have developed the business. We need to be across grain marketing, new varieties, technology, compliance, work health and safety and HR management, plus more, so we are always learning new things.
Kye, Mitchell and Tracie all enjoy the variety of work, the rewards and challenges of each season and love living in a rural community.
Q How do you manage roles within the family?
A Our properties are adjoining, and everyone lives on a different farm, so we are close, but not too close, so everyone has privacy. The boys have young families so it’s great having the grandkids nearby.
Kye and Mitch manage the cropping and sheep enterprises, and Kye generally manages the spraying and precision ag technology for the VRT mapping and yield monitoring.
Mitch uses his skills in the workshop and has designed and built our chaff carts, silos, liquid carts and sheds.
Tracie operates the seeder and header, does sheep work and most other day to day farm jobs, plus accounts and budgeting.
Most of us have our road train licence so we can do our own cartage and work inside fatigue management practices.
Everyone can do everything, so the system doesn’t fall down if someone is absent or busy doing something else. Jen does the bookwork when Tracie is on the tractor.
Having lots of people means communication is so important!
We probably don’t have enough formal meetings with the whole family present so that is an area we need to work on.
Texts, WhatsApp and Snapchat are good communication tools just to keep everyone informed quickly.
Q Are you involved in grower and/or industry groups?
A Jen became involved with the local landcare group when Mitch was a baby. This evolved into working as the local Landcare coordinator, and later the executive officer of the Ravensthorpe Agricultural Initiative Network (RAIN) for quite a few years. This group commenced as a Landcare group but morphed into a local grower group, lobbying for things important to the local farming area.
These days she sits on the RAIN committee and local biosecurity group, plus several other community groups and boards.
I am currently the vice president of South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA), a grower group created 20 years ago to promote the value of our locally grown wheat.
The group today focuses on promotion of all grains grown in the Esperance port zone and is currently exploring opportunities to export grain to Vietnam. SEPWA conducts ‘real life farmer’ trials providing the real life results of new varieties as a comparison to the highly scientific formal trials.
I’ve also recently been accepted onto CBH’s Grower Advisory Group, and am involved in the RAIN.
I enjoy being involved in those groups. Talking to different people and meeting people out of your area gives you a different perspective.
Kye is involved in the Young SEPWA group. The group provides great networking across a wider region than the local farming area, gives them a voice and provides opportunities for sharing new ideas.
The kids are heavily involved with the local sporting group. The community has been challenged with changing demographics which led to low numbers to make up footy and netball teams. Rather than let the association fold they have developed fixtures that sees some part of the season played as “round robins” and less formal player affiliations. All the sports including juniors is played on the same day.
Q What is your retirement/succession plan?
A The current plan is for the kids to take over the operation, and either continue to run it as a corporate model or become separate entities – it’s up to them. We will continue to be involved for a few more years but we are having less input in the management and decision making.
We have some off farm investments and have a house on the coast to retreat to.