Tribute to retiring VicNoTill board members

February 14, 2020

It is with mixed emotions that VicNoTill has farewelled two of its valuable board members, president Grant Sims and treasurer Ross Watson. Ross, who farms near Swan Hill in the Mallee, joined VicNoTill in 2014 and Grant from Pine Grove in North Central Victoria joined the following year. They opened their paddocks and enthusiastically welcomed and mentored the next generation of regenerative farmers. They have both have contributed a significant amount of practical knowledge and enthusiasm for exploring new ideas that take no-till farming systems to the next level. VicNoTill would like to thank Grant and Ross for their incredible contribution to the network and agriculture as a whole.

This article first appeared in From the Ground Up, Summer 2020, Vic No-Till’s member magazine. To become a member and access the latest in regenerative farming systems in Australia join the Vic No-Till farmer network HERE.

GRANT SIMS, SWAN HILL, VIC

Grant Sims regularly hosts farmer events in his paddocks.

When Grant Sims joined the VicNoTill board in 2015 he was keen to immerse himself in a network of like-minded farmers who had similar ideals for improving soils to improve production and the long-term future of his family farm.

He had been a member for several years and put his hand up for a board position as a way of giving back to VicNoTill for the knowledge and support it had given to him as a member. The sixth generation farmer, who farms with his wife Naomi and their four children and Grant’s parents Ken and Wendy, was an early pioneer of liquid systems and a firm believer in keeping residue and not disturbing the soil.

Little did the Coles Weekly Times Farmer of the Year 2015 imagine he would end up travelling the world and contribute to international discussions on improving soils on a global scale and inspire world leaders to understand the importance of acting now before it’s too late.

Grant says he reluctantly resigned from the president’s position due to increased family and farm commitments but will continue to support the organisation in any way he can.

“What I love about Vic No-Till is its motto – farmers helping farmers. It’s all about sharing – VicNoTill doesn’t try to tell anyone how to do anything, it’s just about sharing what we do,” he says. “It is exciting to see a lot of new people implementing soil health principles, transitioning to strip ‘n’ disc and looking into biological systems. There is still the ongoing challenge of drought but there are new things emerging all the time to improve the quality of the food we produce while doing a better job of looking after our soil.”

Controlled traffic conference

Grant says he first met Ross at a controlled traffic conference and from that conversation Ross encouraged him to join the board.

“What I didn’t know at the time was that I was already farming regeneratively, just without the stock. Ross was really interested in what we were doing and he really encouraged me to get more involved in VicNoTill. I’d never been on a board before and it was a steep learning curve, but I had Ross with all his experience of being on boards to help guide me.”

He says he is grateful and honoured for the opportunity to represent VicNoTill as president and vice president.

“I’m really grateful to VicNoTill for giving me the opportunity to meet so many different farmers and passionate soil experts all around the world. One of the biggest things I have gained from this experience is knowing we’re not the only ones who are trying to do things differently, and that gives us a lot of confidence going forward. Being part of VicNoTill has also helped us stay on track in our own system, and we’ve relished the opportunity to share our experiences. Farmers helping farmers is a powerful way to lead change, and I don’t know any other organisation out there who does this as well as VicNoTill does.”

Life in soils

Grant recalls an early visit to Ross’s Mallee farm during a dry year and being astounded at Ross’s crops compared to paddock after paddock of struggling crops around him.

“On just 150mm his crops were all out in head and he had life in his soils.”

He says Ross’s willingness to open his paddocks, be part of trials and put up the figures to show how his system was impacting the bottom line was a testament to his courage to find a better way.

“One thing that is unique about Ross is that there are not too many farmers of that older generation who are willing to change the way they farm. He was an early adopter of techniques that people said could never work in the Mallee and a lot of the time he was completely out on his own with his thinking. But he was never happy with the status quo and backed himself with moving away from a conventional system.”

Stripper fronts, livestock

Grant says some of the new ideas that gained momentum during his time with VicNoTill were using stripper fronts to build stubble and groundcover while achieving efficiencies at harvest, and adding livestock back into no-till systems.

“When I first joined VicNoTill the trend was more towards keeping stock out of your system. After attending the No Till on the Plains Conference in the US and seeing the way farmers over there were using livestock as a soil-building, diversity and risk management tool, there were a few of us who couldn’t wait to get some livestock back onto our farms.”

Since that 2016 trip Grant hasn’t looked back and cattle remain an integral part of his system. He says they’ve managed the cattle carefully to ensure they don’t damage their soils through compaction.

“The multi-species forage crops that we’ve been growing with very little inputs are generating a huge amount of biomass that we can either cut for hay or just graze. The water-use efficiency of the plants is unbelievable, as are the liveweight gains. If you have a monoculture crop you’ve really got to feed and water it, but this is a whole different scenario and it works so well, above and below ground.”

Regenerative vs conventional

Grant says purchases of new land in the past several years have given them clear indications of differences between their home farm’s regenerative system versus land that’s been farmed conventionally.

“Our home farm, where we’ve been focused on soil health for a long time, is more resilient to environmental challenges such as a dry spring or frosts. The more we go down this path of zero tillage, diversity and stubble retention, the better our soil structure gets and we have much better water-holding capacity and infiltration.”

Grant is always keen to explore new innovations and opportunities.

“There are so many new things to try. We’re looking into paddock-to-plate markets because we’ve got a really good line of cattle now. Being multi-species fed takes the quality and nutrition (of the end product) to a whole new level because they’re getting such a balanced and diverse diet.”

Grant says another area that’s gaining momentum is biological fertilisers, many of which can be brewed on-farm.

“Regenerative and biological farming systems, where farmers are combining livestock and cropping to mutually benefit their soils and their bottom lines, are creating exciting opportunities for the agricultural industry that I never imagined possible.”

ROSS WATSON, SWAN HILL, VIC

Ross Watson

Mallee grower Ross Watson was a member of the VicNoTill network for many years before joining the board. After seeing significant improvements on his paddocks by shifting to zero-till, Controlled Traffic Farming and stubble retention he was keen to get more involved in the organisation he saw as leading the way in developing new farming systems.

“I had been watching VicNoTill closely for a while before I joined and the direction they were moving was very much in line with the direction I was moving in,” he says.

Zero-till since 2004

Ross farmed with his wife Cynthia near Swan Hill until selling the property a couple of years ago. When they sold he was 100% cropping 2200 hectares and had been running a zero-till, controlled traffic system since 2004.

With four daughters who weren’t planning to continue on the farm, they sold as part of their succession planning but retain an active interest on a smaller block and through contract harvesting with his stripper front.

Ross said the motivation to change to no-till farming had been an economic one.

“I adopted that system because I knew I couldn’t keep farming conventionally and still make a profit. My yields were going sideways and costs were rising – I had to do something. I changed so I could improve soil health, increase soil cover and maximise every drop of rain in our low rainfall area. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but I also knew I needed to try things differently.”

He says he is seeing a growing interest in farming more regeneratively from farmers who have been slower to adopt change because they can see the evidence that this system works.

Ross benchmarked continual improvement in his soil health, year after year, after moving into a no-till controlled traffic system in 2004 on the family’s 2200-hectare cropping enterprise.

“No-till farming allowed me to leave my soil in a better condition for future generations.”

VicNoTill a highlight

Ross has served on many boards during his farming career, and marks the five years on the VicNoTill board as a highlight. He says Grant’s enthusiasm for taking the soil health message to the world and having younger farmers on the board invigorated the ‘farmers helping farmers’ network which started in the Wimmera almost 20 years ago.

“VicNoTill successfully combines a range of ideas and experiences to ensure it remains relevant and innovative while staying true to its successful foundation of ‘farmers helping farmers’.

“The most dramatic shift, which was quite bold of VicNoTill at the time, was to be among the first groups in Australia to proactively explore regenerative agriculture concepts. Although the underlying principles of VicNoTill have always remained the same, it was a big change to go from thinking sustainably to thinking regeneratively.”

Pioneers of regenerative concepts in Australia

He said a big leap forward in thinking happened after several VicNoTill members joined a SANTFA tour to the US in 2016 which included the No Till on the Plains conference and farm visits.

“Seeing first-hand how easy it was to bring stock back into no-till systems and the benefits that diverse, multi-species crops were adding to farm productivity set several within in the network on this new path to pioneer and adapt regenerative concepts in an Australian setting.”

Ross was the first Mallee grower to purchase a stripper front and grow companion crops, and says this US trip played a key role in his decision making from that point forward.

“This trip was a turning point for VicNoTill, and for myself with my own farming. Four years down the track the momentum for regenerative agriculture is just getting stronger and bigger as more and more people are experiencing the benefits of farming this way.”

Shift in thinking

Ross says Grant’s positive approach and willingness to share successes and failures from his own farm has encouraged others to think more about their soils, and what they were putting into them chasing higher yields in large-scale cropping systems.

“I’ve seen a gradual shift in thinking and Grant has played a key role in that shift. His enthusiasm for trying new things and challenging his own system has given many other farmers more confidence to see what they can adapt to theirs,” Ross says.

“I was always an early adopter of new ideas because it made farming so much more fun and exciting for me. It’s exciting to see the transition of so many farmers into zero-till systems but even more dramatic is seeing them take their soils even further through things like companion crops, livestock, cover cropping and diversity.

“Being part of VicNoTill helps farmers learn faster about what works and what doesn’t because the network has such a broad and varied knowledge which they’re willing to share. It all comes back to farmers helping farmers and I’m proud to be have been part of that circle of knowledge that will benefit our soils for generations to come.”