THE early adoption of technology has long been the mark of the Rethus family, which farms a number of locations around the Horsham district in Victoria's Wimmera.
Tim Rethus, who today runs the family enterprise with father Geoff and brother Luke, said this progressive streak went all the way back to his grandfather Gordon.
"Grandpa was one of the first to have a self-propelled harvester and was always keen to take a look at the technology available and that streak has remained with us through the generations," Tim said.
He said Geoff had made the first tentative steps towards a no-till system in the late 1980s, in as far as the machinery would allow him as means to both improve soil structure and to help retain moisture.
Big advances came in the mid-1990s with the advent of the Flexi-Coil seeder in the 1990s that was better in terms of getting through trash and had the stiffer tynes and a flexible frame that allowed the seeder tynes to better ride through the contours of the soil.
By 2000 the family had sold the last of their sheep and was investing more in pursuing cropping.
"We had some form of GPS in the mid 1990s but the machinery did not necessarily match up in terms of fitting a controlled traffic set-up," Tim said.
By 2005, the decision had been made to move to three metre centres.
"It was good timing, some of the old equipment
needed to be changed over and it was possible to get set up on 3m centres, with multiples of 40 feet in the fronts, so we had a header and seeder on 40 feet and a sprayer at 120 feet, everything was still in imperial measurements then," Tim said.
It was around this time the family decided to change over to a disc seeding set-up to minimise soil disturbance even further.
Today the Rethus family run a NDF seeder setup with twin 'sabretooth' discs, designed to cut as well as open to minimise issues in getting through trash, using a John Deere cart.
"We've experimented with precision planters, but they were not so good with awned crops and given barley and oats are a big part of our program, for now, we are sticking with an air seeder system," Tim said.
He said controlled traffic had been good for soil structure, with the soil markedly more friable as a result, especially on the self-mulching Wimmera clay component of the farm.
The zero-till aspect has been a positive in terms of weed minimisation.
"I think with weed management you have to pick one system and stick to it, some people go down the path of narrow row spacings and getting a lot of crop in to out-compete the weeds, whereas our philosophy is about not disturbing the soil and not giving the weed seeds a chance to germinate - which seems to be working."
The disc seeder allows the Rethuses to get through trash easily, meaning straw can be left higher at harvest time, which in turn has advantages for the following crops, especially when a pulse follows a cereal.
"There is a lot less crop left behind when the lentils have something to trellis on."
One of the big limitations quoted regarding disc seeders is their ability to handle the wet, but Tim said it had not been a major impediment.
There will be further advances to come in cropping and the key will be in making sure they help make your business more profitable and sustainable.
"We always heard how difficult it was to use a disc in the wet, but we've found that once you get to know the machine you're not greatly different to working with a tined machine.
"In fact, in 2017 we found Luke, with the disc seeder, was able to get back out on the paddock earlier than neighbours with a tined seeder."
Looking forward, Tim said the family has its eyes on technological advances to assist in allowing them to get the most return out of each hectare by being more selective with inputs such as fertiliser, soil ameliorants and crop protection products.
"There has to be a way for all the data and maps we generate to help us in our systems, but at present that big quantum leap just is not there - you can't necessarily get the maps to talk to one another to allow you to get a clear picture of what needs to happen in the management zones for each field.
"That said, I'm sure it will continue to improve and we see the next step forward going from farming big paddocks to lots of smaller virtual 'paddocks' with different management according to soil type or weed burden or whatever it is we feel we can generate return from."
Tim said while he was enthusiastic about ag-tech in general and the opportunities it presented, at the moment the hype generally outranked the usefulness of the products available.
"There is a lot going on in the space, some great research but for us, at a paddock level, if we are going to use something it has to be because it is making or saving us money, or makes my job easier and requires less of my precious time, not just because it looks good."
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The family's holdings are spread across the central and southern Wimmera, with annual rainfall ranging from 400-425mm, with around 300mm of that expected in the growing season.
Half of the land cropped is around the Vectis area, to the west of Horsham, mostly on self-mulching black clay.
Around 30pc is the original farm at Noradjuha, in the southern Wimmera, which has slightly higher rainfall but less productive soils, with a tendency towards sodicity.
The final 20pc is at Jung, 25km north-east of Horsham, which has similar black soils to Vectis but is marginally drier.
Crop rotation is around 25pc lentils, 20pc barley, 20pc wheat, both durum and bread varieties, 10pc canola, 10pc oaten hay, 5pc faba beans and 10pc brown manure, with the percentages fluctuating according to the rotation required.
He said over the years, lentils had proved a reliable earner for business, in spite of some years of marginal returns.
"Lentils suit our area and when we were averaging $600/tonne for them they were quite a safe option.
"Over the last few years, with the Mallee growing a lot more lentils, values have been closer to $400/t so whether that means we have to have a rethink we will wait and see."
He said the family was happy to branch into durum wheat.
"Agronomically, it goes fairly well, everyone talks about the crown rot susceptibility but the reality is that it is no worse than a number of bread wheat lines and you have the advantage of an otherwise better disease package."
Oaten hay plays an important role in helping manage weeds but is also a good money maker in its own right and lessens the workload at grain harvest time.
"We designed the oaten hay phase to replace sheep in our system and they do a great job in allowing us to minimise weed seed numbers.
"With hay processor Johnson Asahi in Horsham we also have a good market on our doorstep."
In terms of challenges, Tim said chemical resistance was a problem.
"We have resistance to Group A chemistry, the Clearfield products still work but there are issues with other Group B herbicides, and we have even seen a little bit of an issue with glyphosate resistance, which is why those non-chemical control methods, like the zero till, keeping germination to a minimum and the oaten hay, are invaluable."'
Rising land costs are also a headwind to further expansion of the business.
"Land values have really gone to another level here in the Wimmera over the past decade and that is something that is making it difficult, but it seems to be the new normal."
Looking into the future, in spite of variable rainfall and other issues, Tim was confident there is a bright future ahead for cropping in the Wimmera, providing farmers continued to innovate.
"You have a look at years like last year, in the 1980s a season with the rainfall we had in 2018 we would not have harvested a thing with such a rainfall deficiency but there were a lot of reasonable crops, things like minimum till have helped us grow more with less rainfall.
"There will be further advances to come in cropping and the key will be in making sure they help make your business more profitable and sustainable."