Modra Family - Port Lincoln | Rabobank Australia Client
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Modra Family, Port Lincoln

 

 

When South Australian farmer Mark Modra talks about his cropping and livestock enterprise, there are common threads throughout: sustainability, simplicity, resilience.

These guiding principles position his robust farming system to adapt and respond to challenges.

Mark, his wife Tamara and their four young children live near Port Lincoln and farm 2000 hectares across five properties on the lower Eyre Peninsula, with input from Mark’s father Theo and a growing workforce.

The family originally ran sheep on Thistle Island (off the coast of Port Lincoln) but sold in the 1980s and bought a mainland farm.

After two decades of continuous cropping in the 400-500mm rainfall zone, they reintroduced sheep in the early 2000s. Their system is now 70% cropping (on a canola/cereal/legume rotation) and 30% livestock (Merino ewes producing cross-bred lambs).

Sheep provide income diversity and play an important role in creating a resilient farming system.

“We were concerned about the sustainability of continuous cropping in terms of herbicide resistance and nutrition, especially nitrogen,” Mark said. “We shifted back into livestock for the rotational benefits of including a pasture in the system for a non-selective weed control option.”

Knocking out resistance

Alternatives to herbicides have been a long-term focus for Mark, who studied non-chemical weed control for his 2004 Nuffield Scholarship.

While it is driven by his desire to create a low-input farming system which endures environmental and social challenges (such as concerns about chemical use in food production), there is also an economic benefit.

“Farmers have little control of price or yield but we can control our overheads by creating a more robust system that minimises reliance on inputs,” Mark said.

“Through my Nuffield research, I saw how farmers across the world rely on the drum to control weeds. Even when new herbicides come along, it’s only a matter of time until resistance becomes an issue again if we continue to rely solely on chemicals.”

Mark is counter-acting herbicide resistance on his farm with a chaff cart, which he tows behind his header to collect the chaff output which contains weed seeds.

The cart is emptied along controlled traffic lines during harvest and grazed after summer. This accessible fodder has not only doubled summer stocking capacity but helps remove weed seeds from the paddock and has curbed reliance on herbicide use.

Any remaining chaff residue mulches down, strategically placed to reduce erosion in hill paddocks, and can be targeted during summer spraying.

It’s just another way to get the balance right between grazing and cropping.

Mark also has his eye on developments in farming research which suit mixed farming systems, such as new germplasms for pasture which could help build pasture systems to control weeds and put nitrogen back into depleted cropping soils.


Dirty work

Soil health is always front of mind for the Modras.

Their farms range from productive red-brown earth with high water holding capacity (100mm-plus of rain) through to poorer buckshot gravel and sand which only retain 25mm of moisture.

“We are trying different strategies to modify less productive soils, such as deep ripping, subsoil amelioration and spading,” Mark said.

Crop performance has jumped in the short term – up to 40% yield improvement one to two years after intervention – but Mark needs a longer-term solution to make the investment worthwhile.

As well as matching strategies to soil type, he must also factor in the impact of intervention on the rest of his farming system. For example, deep ripping plays havoc on the trafficability of paddocks so he avoids ripping over controlled traffic lines.

“Everything must be in balance,” he said.

Technology

Getting this balance right can be challenging in a mixed enterprise.

For example, Mark recognises the productivity benefits of rotational grazing but extensive fencing doesn’t marry with broadacre farming. So, he is interested in how emerging technologies like virtual fencing could offer businesses like his a cost-effective, low-labour option for grazing paddocks and summer stubbles without physical infrastructure.

Although Mark keeps an eye on developing technologies and has a wish-list which includes a robotic farm unit that uses WEEDit near infrared technology to identify weeds and remove them without the use of chemicals (such as manually pulling out plants), he is quick to admit he is no ‘IT junkie’.

“I don’t want to take on every new piece of technology – I focus on simplicity. We need technologies that are robust to suit the farming environment and are backed up by good support as breakdowns often happen after hours.”

As well as running in-cab platforms such as GPS and autosteer, Mark incorporates satellite imagery (NVDI) to deliver efficiency and cost-savings.

“Satellite maps are becoming cheaper and more frequent, with seven day passes which provide a biomass reading of paddocks, which we can use to assess crop nutrition.”

Mark uses variable rate technology on his spreader to target urea and lime to specific zones based on the NVDI and pH maps, reducing fertiliser costs.

Profit-driven

Instead of focusing on yield impact from new strategies, Mark monitors the bottom line.

“We aim to be profit orientated rather than just focus on productivity,” he said. “Farming remains challenging in the face of the growing cost-price squeeze and I don’t believe we can just keep doing things the way we have always done them.

“We need to constantly evaluate how strategies affect our bottom line and the sustainability of our farming system.”

For example, Mark has a green manuring program to build soil organic matter. This entails planting a mix of lupins, clover and faba beans. They terminate the crop by spraying or cutting and sow the ‘green manure’ into canola, a crop with high demand for nitrogen.

“While lupins are not profitable on their own, they are when considered as part of the bigger picture – we can’t look at each link in isolation.”

Mark said this is where the support from Rabobank has been valuable, as they also take a holistic look at agriculture and understand the realities of farming.

“I have seen other banks take a short term approach to agriculture or just treat farming as an add-on to their core business, but Rabobank are involved in the industry and have a long-term perspective.

“They actively run programs to encourage us to be better managers and farmers, something few of the other banks prioritise.”

He said Rabobank’s approach to doing business aligns with his, with simple products and a sustainable focus.

“It is a robust and simple system with no hidden fees and they make it easy for us, such as providing quick access to finance to purchase machinery.”

Mark has also taken advantage of Rabobank beyond the farm gate, attending their Global Master Class and Executive Development Program.

“I have really valued these opportunities to network with other farmers from around Australia and the world and learn how they farm and how they respond to the challenges we all face such as legislation, public perception and the cost-price squeeze,” he said.

These factors are always in the back of Mark’s mind as he moves forward with his business.

Even though his four children are young, he is mindful that it is never too early to think about succession planning.

“I want to run a sustainable system that is there for future generations – I believe it is our responsibility to our community and our family’s future to always be looking forward.”

 

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