Drought alters agronomists’ roles while wait for rain continues

Neil Lyon December 20, 2019

WHILE drought in New South Wales and southern Queensland continues to limit cropping activity to historically low levels, agronomists are being kept busy working through scenarios with their clients
to make the most of the next significant rainfall event.

Crop Consultants Australia director and Macintyre Independent Agronomists principal Dave Kelly.

Compared with the last bumper year of 2016, when agronomists were flat out helping their clients make decisions about crop protection and nutrition, consultants say this period is all about looking

Macintyre Independent Agronomists principal and Crop Consultants Australia communications director Dave Kelly said while agronomists had precious few crops to look at, they were busy
maintaining a dialogue with clients about decisions to make ahead of the next rain.

“We’re talking about the ‘what if’ moments: what crops would we grow, what nutrition is in the ground, and what are their programs going to be if it rains this week or the week after so they can
capitalise on the next rainfall event.”

Mr Kelly said agronomists were generally working on “significantly lower” incomes as a result of clients producing less or no grain, but retainers were in most cases generating a base wage.

“We’re right to keep treading water.”

Impact on high, low earners

Drought seems to be having its biggest impact at the ends of the pay-scale.

This has been demonstrated by Namoi Cotton putting off two senior managers in grower services as part of its recent round of redundancies, and undergraduates not being engaged by agronomists to help with fieldwork that normally comes with cotton, sorghum and other summer crops.

“Normally we would have five casual crop scouts looking at bug pressure and monitoring plants for

“This year we have none.”

Goondiwindi-based Delta Ag northern regional manager Troy Hunt said the business was looking at different ways to help clients out in such a tough season.

This has included sharing resources and experiences across its network.

In recent months, a series of workshops across NSW about feeding sheep in confinement pens has been held, and Delta Ag hosted several of them.

It highlights the role advisory services provided by companies like Delta Ag, as well as government organisations, are playing in helping producers stay afloat through the drought.

“The key for growers is to turn a dollar where they can,” Mr Hunt said.

Different decisions

Mr Hunt said reduced cropping area and yields in his patch from Gunnedah to Goondiwindi had translated to agronomists helping clients with decisions that need to be made because of the drought.

They included whether to cut crops for hay or carry through to grain, and how to ensure seed was available to plant the next winter crop.

“Seed retention, and supply of seed in general, is something that’s being discussed.

“We’re dealing with the season as it unfolds, and working with our clients to put plans in place for what to do when the drought breaks.”

“People are looking to have some diversity, and one thing with this drought is livestock prices have stayed strong.

“Feed’s a key thing at the moment, and how to get that going as quickly as you can when it does rain is the big question for our mixed farms.”

Calling on resources

Penberthy Agricultural Consultants principal Drew Penberthy employs three agronomists in the Bellata and Narrabri regions, and said it was important to include them in conversations so they were informed and had input into decisions during the drought.

Speaking at a recent Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Dealing with the Dry forum, Mr Penberthy said growers as well as agronomists were doing things differently in the drought phase.

He said some farming operations were fencing, and doing soil works and erosion control, or had initiated off-farm work with earthmoving equipment and trucks.

“These may be things we normally don’t do, but to keep staff employed many farm businesses are looking at all their options.

“These are still a significant cost to the business, but coming out of the drought, things like improved infrastructure will make for a better farming enterprise and importantly will have added value to your property.”

Mr Penberthy also suggested growers look at free courses for staff, or study trips that were supported and offered by organisations such as the GRDC.

“I also think it is important to make sure your employees take holidays while there is less work pressure.

“Spending some time with your family and having a break from the drought is really important for your mental health.”

While not all agricultural businesses will be in a position to retain staff through the drought, Mr Penberthy emphasised the importance of keeping quality people in rural and regional areas.

“I understand not every business is in the position to keep staff on, but if we lose people out here and they move away for work, I can’t see them coming back when the drought breaks and that will be a huge loss for our industry and our community.”

Mr Penberthy encouraged people to look out for each other during the Christmas period.

“I think this is a time to check in on each other and make sure your neighbours and mates are doing okay.”

“And remember spouses, partners and children, who are all affected and carry a lot of the burden.

“This is the worst drought we’ve seen in history, but we will get through because we are a resilient
mob out here.”

Accidental counsellors

Mr Kelly echoed Mr Penberthy’s sentiments, and said heightened awareness of mental health meant consultants were looking out for signs that clients or peers were struggling.

“We’re playing the role of accidental counsellor at the moment.”

Mr Kelly said while growers thrived on producing good crops and caring for their country, consultants thrived on being involved in helping them achieve that.

“As agronomists, we get nourishment out of helping out clients make good decisions.”

He said drought meant many decisions could not be acted on until it rained.

“That’s hard for all of us.”



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