Tribute to retiring board member Paul OxbrowMay 19, 2021
It is with mixed emotions that VicNoTill farewelled two of its valuable board members, Paul Oxbrow and Matt McKinley this year. Paul is one of the organisation’s longest-serving board members, first joining in 2006. Paul has made a significant contribution to our ‘farmers helping farmers’ network in that time. We took a look back with Paul on his journey with VicNoTill in our member magazine From the Ground Up, Autumn 2021, Issue 63.
Paul Oxbrow snapshot
- Farms with wife Kellie and three children Alex and twins Zac and Abby
- Rupanyup South, Victoria
- Sticky black loam self-mulching clay soils
- Strip ‘n’ disc, CTF
- Soil biology focus, trialling biological inputs
- Canola, wheat, barley, lentils, chick peas, beans, multi-species to feed biology
- Trading livestock when timing suits
Always looking for a better way
Third generation Wimmera farmer Paul Oxbrow is quietly curious and is most comfortable when he’s doing something to improve what is happening around him. Whether it’s in his own paddocks or the Rupanyup community he’s lived in his whole life, he’s on a continual path of discovery.
“Years ago in farming we used to say we’d learn by looking over the fence and see what your neighbour is doing, but now we’re able to take it a whole lot further than that.
“We used to just get a couple of mates, load up the esky and drive around the district to see what was working and what wasn’t. If there’s one thing I have learnt by being part of VicNoTill is that it’s critical for you to get outside your own region, whether interstate or international, and see what others are doing.”
Paul first joined VicNoTill in 2006. From 2015 to 2019 he was president and has remained on the board until this year. Fellow board member Ross Watson says he has enjoyed sharing Paul’s no-till journey.
Ross was one of the first Mallee farmers to implement a strip ‘n’ disc system and he continues to contract harvest Paul’s crops with his stripper front.
“I really enjoy going down to Paul’s on a regular basis. He’s been able to tap into the VicNoTill network both here and overseas and has made changes and tried new things never tried in the Wimmera before. His tenacity and resilience to change are qualities I really admire,” Ross says.
Paul has always wanted to do the ‘absolute best’ for his soils.
When it comes to soil health, he says it’s easy to talk in simple terms about worms indicating a healthy soil because they’re so visible, but there’s a whole lot more going on. A whole lot more than he realised before he joined VicNoTill.
“The worms are biology we can relate to because we can see them, but they complement a whole heap of other biology which is microscopic critters we can’t see. We know they’re there but because we can’t see them we don’t tend to focus on them as much.”
He says he likes pushing the boundaries as well.
“I’ve never wanted to be a person that just follows the status quo.
In my eyes VicNoTill is the best farm group in Australia, because it’s all about farmers helping farmers. It brings together the best of the best; leading farmers who are always looking outside the square.
“These farmers are willing to share not only their good experiences, but also things they would do differently next time, which is often the case when you are at the cutting edge of new technology and techniques.”
When Paul first joined VicNoTill he says the organisation provided valuable mentorship for refining his direct-drill, stubble retention system. He was one of the first in the district to go to a strip ‘n’ disc set up.
He says the group has helped give him confidence to make decisions that best suit their farm, even when they may not be exactly what they initially set out to do.
“There’s always going to be good and bad results. There aren’t any rights or wrongs, but there are always better ways to do things.”
Paul draws inspiration and knowledge from conversations and reading about what people are doing through publications like this magazine. But he says his knowledge goes to a whole new level when he steps into someone’s paddock or someone steps into his.
You can study pictures and data all day but it’s one thing to see a picture or numbers in a pie chart but there’s nothing like walking through it, digging through it, smelling it and crawling around in it.
A study tour to the US in 2017 opened Paul’s eyes to new ideas for regenerating his soils.
“It was a priceless experience – I just can’t put a dollar value on how much I gained from the trip. Seeing first-hand what we’ve been hearing about at VicNoTill conferences was invaluable.”
After the trip they tried more regenerative farming techniques including a summer cover cropping project so see if they could integrate multi-species covers into their cropping program. They also brought livestock in to retrieve some short-term income and boost soil biology. For the past two years have trialled a biological liquid system.
Paul says he was excited to bring stock back into the system but found the labour and planning a challenge.
“We have to be careful not to neglect our core business of growing grain, and being new to livestock means it takes more planning and more work to get it right. For now we don’t have any stock in our system but we have the flexibility and opportunity to dabble in them down the track.”
He says they’re seeing positive changes in their plants and soils.
Everything starts with our soils and how much moisture we can retain in them. We’re definitely seeing better root development in our crops, our water infiltration is improving all the time, our paddocks are getting softer and more and more worms are appearing.
“Our crops hold on well at the end of the season and we are conserving more moisture with our taller stubbles.”
Paul says they are finding some changes financially prohibitive and they’re not delivering the results they had hoped. However, they are not giving up on farming outside the square.
“Everything we do revolves around our soils and what’s good for the longevity of our farm business. Where we are at now is a huge shift in thinking from the way we’ve been brought up on the farm forever – which was to conserve summer moisture by spraying or tilling everything.
Part of the challenge and excitement of farming this way is that there’s always something new worth considering.
He says it’s important to understand that changing your system and improving your soils is a long-term commitment.
“We’ve tried an enormous number of different things, especially in the past five years, with varying degrees of results. Being able to plan something a bit left of field that may not have been done locally and then see it work is quite rewarding.
The heart of what I want as a farmer is the ability to improve our soils so that this improvement is reflected in our production. It’s important to do whatever it takes to remain viable. You’ve got to be prepared to try new things and at the end of the day, you are in charge of your own destiny.
Paul says VicNoTill has always been at the forefront of change and provides a valuable opportunity for farmers to share ideas and experiences – both good and bad. He is grateful for the lifelong friendships he has formed.
“I have gained enormous value personally through and met a lot of people with similar ideals who are willing to think outside the box. It’s given me more confidence to try different things and have had access to some very knowledgeable people. I look forward to continuing these strong connections and keep learning and finding new opportunities through VicNoTill.”