Doing more with less is the new path for ag: HENRY CROOKESeptember 7, 2021
The Crooke family’s soil story appeared in our member magazine ‘From the Ground Up’ Issue #63 Autumn 2021. We welcome new members, and your membership includes a copy of our popular magazine.
“I’m pretty fascinated about soil biology now and really want to work to improve it instead of killing it.”
- Henry and Terri Crooke
- Coolamon & Harefield, NSW
Crooke family farm started by David and Liz, late 70s @ Harefield, NSW
- Fat lambs until 2010
- 2010 went to 100% cropping
- 2017 introduced multi-species cropping
- Brought back sheep on agistment
- Aiming for daily grazing system
By Melissa Pouliot, for VicNoTill
Growing up on a fat lamb enterprise in the NSW Riverina with parents David and Liz Crooke, their only son Henry didn’t like sheep. Although Henry enjoyed the rural lifestyle, he wasn’t sure he even wanted to be a farmer.
After leaving school his first job was on a fish farm at Jerilderee, where discovered he really did love farming. But not traditional, conventional farming – he wanted to pursue a different agricultural path.
He got into aquaculture at university in Tasmania, thinking he could eventually bring the concept back to the family farm using groundwater.
“I went down there thinking aquaculture I was something I could do back on our farm but what I learnt through study was that the water quality has to be right all the time. It would have involved a lot of money to set things up back at home.”
Henry then moved to Broome to work on a pearl farm, in a diamond mine and in tourism. In the back of his mind he was still wondering if he could return home one day, overcome the water quality challenges, and get into aquafarming.
He returned home as part of his family’s succession planning, and decided he’d better have a go at what everyone else was doing.
He settled into conventional farming and worked on a neighbouring farm which was predominantly cropping.
It was a period when the agricultural industry was pushing farmers to expand.
“We were being told ‘get big or get out’ and at the time I thought this was what I had to do.
“I had gotten a real taste for cropping and as I still wasn’t keen on the sheep, I ended up convincing Dad to sell them, spray out all the pastures and crop the whole property, thinking this was the best way to make money. I was pretty grateful at the time that Dad supported me in what I wanted to do.”
Henry was able to use his neighbour’s equipment while getting established enough to purchase his own. It was an exciting time and the seasons were good.
“The 2011 and 2012 seasons were quite good. Also, coming out of legume-based pastures meant there was plenty of residual nitrogen and quite a bit of a fertility in the soil. Even through some of the drier finishes later in that decade we were still able to make a profit.”
In 2014 Henry and Terri bought more cropping land at Coolamon, 40 kilometres west of the home farm, and continued working both blocks.Three years later they reintroduced sheep under agistment to help manage stubbles while adding economic value to their business.
“We didn’t want to add sheep to our workload but felt they still had a place.”
Cropping remained their major focus and in 2018 they leased an old pasture block from a Coolamon neighbour, which they sowed canola into. Things didn’t start out well and a dry start was backed up by dry finish.
“I ended up spraying it all out because we weren’t even going to grow enough biomass for hay.”
This canola crop marks a significant turning point for Henry.
“It was my first crop failure. Everything had been going so well until then. It really woke me up to how much of a gamble I was taking each year in cropping. I had all my eggs in the one basket.”
Henry says he hadn’t previously given a lot of thought about the amount of money he was investing each year into his crops.
“This made me think that if I have a failure over all my crops in one year, or even more than half of them fail, how would I come back from such a big loss? This created a lot of thinking and made me realise I really needed to diversify and reassess my business model.”
The business model at the time was a wheat, canola and lupin rotation.
“We were full-time cropping, year to year, without any long-term goals. We were using conventional rates of fertilisers and inter-row sowing with a parallelogram tyne planter.
“We cut low at harvest and left stubble standing where possible, bringing sheep in as part of an effort to reduce the amount of burning as well as adding economic value.”
Around this time Henry picked up Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy, a book that opened his eyes to the pursuit of ‘functioning soils’. Terri was also changing their family diet, keen to maximise the health of their three growing boys by including more organic foods on the dinner table.
“Originally I thought organic foods were just a bit of a marketing ploy but once I started learning a bit more about soil health, I really started to see the connections between soil health and human health. It opened my eyes to the fact that the way we were farming was negatively impacting on the health of our soil, and hence the health of the food we grew and ate.”
This realisation spurred him into action. He did a Grazing for Profit course which further challenged his thinking on how to farm profitably. It opened his eyes to farming with less inputs, working more with nature while still remaining profitable.
“I found it to be a great course because it didn’t only focus on aspects of regenerative agriculture, it also focused on how to run a profitable business.”
Henry and his Dad then completed a holistic management course, which helped them examine their decision-making process.
“It made sense; it made us realise we’d been working against nature. It also helped us make decisions based on what was best to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves. We now continually test to see whether our decisions align with our values and get us to where we want to be.”
The first thing they did was start weaning their crops off synthetic inputs. They dropped MAP (Mono-Ammonium Phosphate) back from 70kg per hectare to 50kg in that first year. Last year they dropped it back to 30kg. They also added a carbon source to their MAP.
Last year they dropped all insecticide and fungicide dressings off their cereal seeds and instead inoculated them with worm juice. Henry also started sending SAP tests for analysis to nutritionist Peter Norwood.
Making more sense
Farming was beginning to make more sense, Henry was starting to feel more comfortable with what he was doing, and most importantly, he was enjoying it a whole lot more.
“All the challenges and stresses of the way we were farming have now reduced. I’m finding this way of farming a lot less stressful.”
With the cropping changes came changes to the way he viewed sheep, and they started growing more dual-purpose crops as part of a sheep partnership with Craig Wilson.
“We went into a partnership arrangement where we have part ownership of the sheep but don’t have to do any of the work. This means we’ve been able to add value to our cropping system without having to worry about the extra labour requirements.”
Multi-species crops had also crept into their system, at first by accident when they added albus lupins into the rotation with wheat and canola but got stuck with having to store them on-farm when prices bottomed out, then having to sell them before prices recovered.
Their agronomist suggested planting a multi-species grazing crop rather than straight lupins to reduce future risk.
They started with a four-species mix of wheat, vetch, tillage radish and purple top turnip with the idea of having a double break.
“Instead of the lupins, we would have a legume in the multi-species and have the ability to graze that. It was a low-cost grazing legume crop that we could fallow in spring, get a good knock on the ryegrass and grass weeds, conserve some moisture and sow a grazing canola the following year. Then back to a cereal after that.”
This was before Henry had really cottoned onto the soil health benefits of a multi-species crop.
“It wasn’t until I started getting more indepth into soil health research I realised the benefits which were going on underground. All the different roots were creating synergies and feeding the underground livestock, while the tillage radish was helping bust up the hard pans, creating pathways for the following cash crop. It was exciting when I discovered this.”
More diverse mix
Henry continued with his multi-species crops but after reading Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil, he wanted to add more species into his mix. Brown’s Ranch model, developed over 20 years of experimentation and refinement near Bismarck at North Dakota, focuses on regenerating resources by continuously enhancing the living biology in the soil.
“The book outlines how the more diverse the mix, the more diversity of plant exudates that can feed the soil life. I was keen to see how eight or more species could supercharge the benefits in my paddocks.”
But to buy a big mix like that, or even to mix his own, was going to be a challenge.
Then he met former VicNoTill president Grant Sims who helped him work out a cost-effective and tailored mix of eight-plus species.
“Grant’s been growing mixed species for a long time and knows how to tailor the ratios correctly.”
He was so excited that planted 220 hectares of multi-species.
“I probably put a bit too much in and went over the top but I’ve gotten pretty excited about the multi-species.”
Multi-species lamb trial
Last year Craig Wilson ran a merino lamb wether trial which Henry hosted on his multi-species crop, looking at weight gains, wool growth and profitability of lambs with different genetics. The trial includes livestock from all over Australia and will provide a benchmark to build on in the future.
The trial highlighted the variability of gross margins in relation to genetics. The weathers grazed for a total of 22 weeks. For five weeks in the middle of the trial they grazed Kittyhawk wheat with vetch and tillage radish companions.
- Total weight gains averaged 26kg of meat and 2.9kg of clean wool growth. Together this was a gross of $125 per sheep.
- $915/ha and $345/ha gross was calculated for the multi-species and the grazing wheat respectively.
An ungrazed section of the multi-species was measured in spring to have accumulated just under 19T/ha of dry matter.
The changes haven’t come without challenges, and last year was particularly challenging.
It was the best growing season they’ve had in a long time, with weather conditions staying kind from planting right through to harvest. It was difficult watching his neighbours spread urea every couple of weeks while he sat on his hands to stay true to his decision to step off his conventional program into a biological foliar feeding program.
“It was a challenging year for my mental health actually, I was wondering what I was doing. Was I doing the right thing? Was I going to miss out on one of the best years in the district? Had I picked the wrong time to go on this steep learning curve?”
These questions went around in Henry’s head as he drove around his paddocks applying three foliar sprays of a brew he made on-farm. The brew was 15kg of urea dissolved in a tank with minerals, fish, kelp, molasses and fulvic acid added to it.
Because it was a wet year there was some disease pressure creeping into his crops and he was having some doubts whether the foliar efforts he’d put in were going to work.
“It was a tough decision to spray the crops with a fungicide after going to the efforts of encouraging soil life. I had to concede that I was still in transition and my soil health was not at the stage where it was able to provide the crop with enough strength to defend itself.”
Henry made sure he followed the fungicide applications up with a foliar compost extract a fortnight later to aid in recovery.
“It was the fear of the unknown that I found most challenging.”
Farmers helping farmers
The support of the VicNoTill network was invaluable during this time.
“I found it really helpful to be able to utilise this network and ring up and talk to people about my thoughts and concerns.
“It was good to talk to other people who were doing the same things as me and to know I wasn’t on my own. There were other people out there in the same boat, having the same sort of feelings about doing this in what was such a good season.”
Post-harvest Henry feels a lot more comfortable with how his season turned out. District wheat averages were over 6 tonnes to the hectare, and Henry yielded at 4.5 tonnes. His barley yielded 5.5 tonnes to the hectare.
“In the end I was quite surprised at the results. Although I didn’t get the top end of yields in the district, I was relatively pleased with what was achieved on lower inputs.
“When moisture isn’t the limiting factor as in the season we just had, the more-on approach will be hard to beat yield wise, but I know I have to think more long-term.
“I’m working on my soil health and with the projection of more droughts in years to come, years like last year aren’t ‘normal’. The ‘normal’ is going to become the drier years and what I’m doing will balance things out and in the long-term we are going to be better off.”
And by ‘better off’ Henry means having more resilient soils that will help crops cope better in drought years.
“Admittedly it wasn’t an ideal year to start my biological program, but I’ve just got to keep thinking long-term and look at where we’re headed.”
Henry sees his system evolving away from straight cropping to more of a grazing enterprise with timed rotational grazing.
“The sheep are doing so well on the multi-species; the animal health is amazing. There’s no need for any supplements because they’re getting such a diverse diet, a naturally diverse diet. The health and weight gains are excellent.”
The rapid growth of the carbon market is also opening new opportunities to use livestock and multi-species covers to rapidly store more carbon in their soils. Compared with straight cropping, Henry sees this system as being able to increase soil carbon more quickly.
“In our environment we really need a living root in the ground at all times, photosynthesizing, and it is hard to do this when we’re having to fallow land over summer to grow a crop. I’ve gone from hating sheep and not wanting anything to do with them to seeing them as a tool to help regenerate our land.”
Henry has also steered right away from burning, and says he doesn’t want to put another match in a stubble.
“I feel like that’s a backward step for me now, I’ve got to keep our ground covered at all times.”
He has bought a second hand single-disc box drill to allow him to sow through residue and to oversow into pastures as part of his multi-species cropping program. Future plans are to set up a liquid system on his drill and put biology down the tube at sowing.
Last year he built a compost extractor, tapping into the VicNoTill network to help, adding 50% worm castings and 50% compost to his foliar liquids including magnesium, zinc, copper and boron. But it wasn’t without its challenges.
“I found all that foliar work quite time consuming. Spending so much time filling the boom spray with a lot of different inputs, 10 or more, then spraying it out – it really added to my feelings last year about putting in all this effort and not knowing it was going to work. I put a lot of faith in this change.”
Henry says more conversations with VicNoTill farmers mean he may consider a multi-mineral mix this year.
“It might cost a bit more, but the efficiency will be a lot better.”
He says he’s learning all the time, and is loving it.
“Before I was just following the instructions from my agronomist to put this on here, put this on now, without ever questioning them on anything. I never gave soil health a thought, I just did what I was told.”
Now that he knows more about how soil functions, he asks more questions.
“I question any recommendation now and what effect they might have on my soil health. I’ve become fascinated about soil biology and I really want to work to improve it instead of killing it.”
It’s changed his attitude towards farming as well.
“Farming was almost getting a bit boring before as I was doing the same thing routinely without any change, but now I’m learning something new every day which is making farming a lot more enjoyable.”
He says being part of the VicNoTill farmer network helps immensely.
“Within this network of farmers who are relying on this system to work, we’re all on the same journey and on the same page. Everyone is so genuine and there’s no judgement when mistakes are made.”
His newfound knowledge is also opening his eyes to exciting opportunities. He is leasing a block across the road from the family’s home farm where he grew multi-species last year.
“I talked to the owner and his daughter a couple of years ago about farming a bit differently, introducing them to my regenerative farming ideas, and they really got on board. They are in the food industry and we’re working on a plan to produce regeneratively-grown food to incorporate into their food business.
“I made a plan to sow a couple of years of multi-species in that lease block and they’re happy to invest in a watering system to enable us to do time-controlled grazing.”
Last year he put in the multi-species, and the wet year resulted in a lot of volunteer species. Plans are to let it become a volunteer crop this year then undersow perennials next year to set it up for livestock.
They’re also setting up a Syntropic Farming trial, a system developed in Brazil in the 1970s where forest plants work symbiotically.
“This system is not input-based, it’s a closed loop system that develops its own mulch and fertility.”
They have engaged with Scott Hall, an experienced syntropic farmer and educator, to assist in setting up the trial and will run a 2-day introductory course at the time of planting in early May.
The plan is to plant a row of trees and shrubs using collected seeds from the area, then alternating rows of perennial grasses and cereals then another row of trees. The perennial grasses will provide the mulch for the crop rows and the trees and shrubs will be pruned at the onset of flowering.
This action triggers a growth pulse and the trees release gibberellic acid through their roots, stimulating plant growth. The focus will be on achieving as much diversity as possible and watching the natural succession.
They are also looking at ways to stack enterprise by integrating livestock at different times. Other possibilities include running chicken tractors up the rows, honey production and agri-tourism. In 8-10 years, they have the potential to harvest hardwood timber as another income stream.
“Years ago I would have thought ‘how ridiculous’ but with the courses I’ve done and all the reading, I’ve learnt to keep more of an open mind and be more willing to give new things a go. Now that I understand more about nature’s processes, I can see so many new opportunities.”
Henry says Syntropic Farming has been proven to work in other environments, but nobody has trialled it in theirs.
“If we can demonstrate that it can work, we can unlock some really great opportunities.”
Henry says he has shifted right away from the model promoted in conventional agriculture for bigger farms – to buy up more land to make a living.
“I don’t believe in that model anymore. We need to be doing more with less land, plus get more people involved in agriculture.”
He says if farmers can grow better food in more intense systems on smaller amounts of land, it is a win for everyone.
“Land values are being pushed well out of reach of young people wanting to get into farming. If we can develop systems that are highly profitable on smaller acreage, we can create stronger communities and get that community culture back into agriculture.”