Monday, 10 February 2020

Hitting the sweet spot


Sixth generation Stonyhurst farmer Charles Douglas-Clifford is a big fan of data, gathering as much of it as he can to enable the farm to perform sustainably. In Stonyhurst's second year as a research farm for Ravensdown’s Pioneering to Precision PGP research programme, Charles is keen to see the technology help him improve the balance between environmental sustainability and financial viability on his breeding and finishing farm.

Soil nutrient knowledge is huge. We're interested in getting a really good picture of where our farm is at overall as well as being able to variable rate spread, which is why we wanted to be involved

The research programme gathers soil nutrient data by plane with a hyperspectral sensor that is then calibrated by physical soil tests analysed at Ravensdown’s soil testing laboratory ARL. That is then used to create nutrient recommendations that can be applied at variable rates by plane, as well as excluding waterways and any other areas as necessary.

“It [PGP] seemed like a good fit with all the other data we collect, to be able to further apply it and try to get some sense out of it. The likes of proof of placement and variable rate spreading will benefit us in not over-allocating or spreading where we don’t want to. For us to be able to sit down and accurately reallocate fertiliser to restore an equilibrium to our land will put us in a good position going forward.”

Farming values

Getting the balance right – the sweet spot – has been a long- standing value of the Douglas-Cliffords since they settled at Stonyhurst seven generations ago. “We all live and farm with the philosophy to be sustainable so we can leave the farm in a good state for the next person to come on. We are just custodians and caretakers of this land,” Charles says.With almost 170 years of those values being followed, Stonyhurst has benefited from some significant caretaking and seen some impressive improvements. The winning recipe is ensuring the farm is economically viable so they can continue to invest in environmental and sustainability practices. Charles and his family have always taken a long-term view here, which is focused on a partnership with the land where both can coexist with mutual and sustainable gains.

“What's important to me is that it’s got to be profitable to be sustainable. The two go hand in hand. There's no point in being environmentally perfect and bankrupt, but at the same time there's no point making squillions and burning your land for the next person. We've got to find an equilibrium.”

That’s where the efficacy of data comes in. Collecting data on every single stock unit for the past 15 years with electronic tags and  soil testing regularly for 40 years has afforded Charles with enough data to have him office-bound for a solid year to be able to utilise its full potential.

“We've got a lot of knowledge and information now to make educated guesses, but at the end of the day they are guesses. What we want to get an understanding of is the property as a whole. The ability to soil test the whole property to the square metre and aggregate that into clumps that you can spread at the varied rate required, as well as excluding areas, is important to us. Being able to take out portions of the paddock such as gullies, stock camps or sunny faces means we are empowered to hit that sweet spot of economic sustainability.” 

The challenge is to be able to use data in a practical way. Charles explains how he extracts meaning from the EID tags in their collective ram breeding programme. The data opportunities are constant, but the more you have the more time consuming it is to interpret and find the trends. We've started applying a lot of the information to the breeding values of our ram breeding programme, but it’s a lot to take the raw data to a point where you are integrating values to find genetic traits within certain lines. The benefit is that if we know certain traits are proven from breeding values we can, within reason, replicate a lot of that commercially.”

Stonyhurst is in partnership with five other farms of a similar nature and they pool resources to achieve their breeding objectives of quality micron wool and meat production, whilst targeting foot rot resistance as well. “It’s had its challenges but we’re starting to make headway now.

We challenge intensely (culling) to enable us to find the base animals to breed from, which has led to us reducing our micron (24-25 micron) while not surrendering anything in fertility or production. Our wool, which is sold to Smart Wool, now makes up 35-40% of our sheep income.” 

The ultimate for Charles would be to integrate all his data into one big picture where he can track what mobs have been on what paddocks, confine grazing rotations, break the farm up by stock and nutrient capacities and what inputs and outputs are required.
“If we can get a detailed nutrient profile of the farm, we know we can get the land to an equilibrium point of macro- and micro-nutrients.

“We've got to keep constantly pushing the boundaries and moving forward to make progress to our bottom line and environment.”