Redbank Farm: Community Interaction Drives Success

The award-winning Redbank Farm in Tasmania is a mixed-use, 380-hectare (almost 1,000 acres) property that uses traditional machinery in ultra-modern ways. JOHN POWER reports.

OPERATOR: Redbank Farm
REPRESENTATIVE: Owner/Manager, Michael Nichols
LOCATION: Sisters Creek, North-west Tasmania
CONTACT: redbankfarming@nullgmail.com

The Househam sprayer in action. 

Agricultural land in northwestern Tasmania is amongst the nation’s finest – the massive diversity of crops and livestock on view from the local roads is testament to a landscape where anything is possible.

Nevertheless, a great farm can always be made greater with cutting-edge management techniques and efficiencies, and Redbank Farm is now recognised as a leader in the use of new technologies and practices designed to enhance yields while augmenting long-term sustainability.

Located at Sisters Creek near Wynyard, the farm has been owned by the Nichols family since 1989. Manager Michael Nichols says the property is a patchwork quilt of mixed uses – the 1,000 acres comprise 400 acres of crops, 200 acres of cattle grazing paddocks, a poultry farm, as well as significant stands of plantation pines and native bush that serve myriad environmental purposes. The cropped land, in turn, reveals an additional layer of diversity through its different plantings of wheat, barley, pyrethrum, poppies, potatoes, onions, processing peas, buckwheat, and corn.

COOPERATION IS KING

Given the specialised nature of many of these farming activities and crops, one might assume that the property requires a gigantic fleet of equipment – and an equally large workforce – to complete tilling, planting and harvesting activities.

Michael Nichols and his wife Rochelle from Redbank Farm, Tasmania, receive the 2021 Australian Government Innovation in Land Management Award.

Amazingly, Michael and Rochelle run the entire operation on their own with the help of just two on-site staff (one full-time, and one four days per week).

A major explanation for this efficiency is a cooperative attitude to land use in the local area – many crops are planted and harvested on a contract basis, which means external experts enter the property with their own machinery to set and harvest specific specialist crops like onions, or pyrethrum and poppies which require dedicated small-seed spreaders. As a consequence, Michael and his team are free to handle more generic land management programs such as highly rationalised fertilizer spreading and irrigation control.

Redbank Farm is not only a consumer of shared services; it is also a provider. Michael says Redbank offers commercial spray operations to three neighbouring farms, as well as poultry muck spreading services to numerous other local dairy farms. In addition, a combine harvester does the rounds on a dozen nearby properties.

These high levels of interaction with adjoining landholders enhance prosperity for all, and maximise opportunities for specialised crops on comparatively small acreages throughout the district.

Notwithstanding the use of external contractors and equipment for certain crops, Redbank Farm operates its own impressive fleet of machinery, which is stored and maintained in a dedicated on-site workshop.

Major items include a Househam self-propelled spray link, featuring an AR3000 24m boom, which is used for wide-pass spraying.

“We also have a Bogballe M2W spreader with a three-tonne capacity,” Michael says, “as well as a T7070 New Holland tractor (240hp) on super single tyres (650mm), which does most of the groundwork.

“Then, we have the New Holland T7040, which is our spreader tractor on narrow 380mm tyres, and we also have a Fendt 818 [tractor] for our irrigator works – we have a range of irrigation gear, including two linear moves and two pivots, along with five gun irrigators.” 

A network of dams contains approximately 450ML of water, though annual rainfall of 1,200mm means water shortages are never a problem! Electric pumps, mostly 45-55kW multi-stage units, are used for general water transfer.

Pyrethrum planting using an S-tyne ripper.

Other items of machinery include a LemkenKristall tiller, which is a tyned implement pulled along at speed and working to about six inches depth: “We no longer use ploughs on any of our ground,” Michael says.

“There is also a Lemken Heliodor, which is a light disc that we use to incorporate certain stubbles after we’ve mulched them, as well as a LemkenKorund 6m S-tyne, which we use for some of our final seedbed preparation for our onions and our pyrethrum.

“We’ve also got a Delmade Ripper, which is a nine-tyne ripper with a crumble roller to take out some of the compaction after onions, and in the same pass we have an APV air seeder on the back.”

The farm also keeps an Alpego ripper and hoe for single-pass spud ground preparation.Cover crops are incorporated by a front-mounted Falco 3.6m mulcher.

A 6m Edlington Cambridge rolls is used for consolidating seeds after planting or smoothing out seedbeds, and the main drill is a Väderstad Rapid, which is a 4m 400M with a split box for seed and fertiliser.

A CLAAS combine harvester (used at Redbank and other customers’ properties) harvests around 3,000 tonne of grain per year. “It’s actually a UK (wide-bodied) model, which means it comes with a Mercedes engine and has more horsepower than the Australian models,” Michael explains. “And probably the most well-used machine we have is a CLAAS 735 Scorpion telehandler.”

A Rolland V2-170 muck spreader rounds out the major items of farm equipment.

Recently, Michael purchased a Can-Am Defender Side by Side for daily transport around the property. There are also a couple of Triton dual cabs for general use.

As for smaller gear, Redbank has a STIHL FarmBoss chainsaw for cleaning up fencelines, a Falco 3.6m mulcher, Husqvarna whippersnipper, and a Husqvarna 2038R ride-on mower.

“Plus, we do our own silage and hay for beef steers, so we have a Splendimo 8 disc, and a Lely Lotus tedder, baler, rake and wrapper are contracted in.”

Despite such a large inventory of different brands and models, Michael says two local dealers in nearby Sommerset and Latrobe can service the majority of equipment.

The beautiful red soils of Redbank Farm are on full display during wheat planting.

MODERN TECHNOLOGY

Traditionally, soil additives like fertilisers have been incorporated into soils in a regular, fixed pattern. However, Redbank Farm is now using advanced technologies to applydifferent amounts of additives, as needed, to different sections of the property, as determined by specific soil samples.

“We do a lot of grid sampling soil tests – two tests per hectare down to 20cm depth – to measure pH, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium,” Michael says. “And then I get a map back for the paddock we’ve chosen to do.” Much of the testing, conducted by Precision Agriculture Victoria, is custom-made for Redbank, which uses a higher frequency of samples per hectare than most mainland properties.

The results allow Michael to refine the correct rates of fertilizer application, and to limit or stop applications where they are not needed. For example, some potato crops might require 800kg of murate of potash per hectare, while other sectors of the property might need nothing.

“And by doing that we’ve managed to cut our fertiliser bill by $20,000 on average per year.”

There are additional improvements to yield (2–5%) thanks to more consistent and regularised growth characteristics of crops. In particular, Michael says he has noticed a reduction in ‘lodging’, which refers to a bending of stems arising from excessive nutrients and overly rapid growth.

“We also use NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) images through DataFarming, which is a satellite imagery website, and they provide a satellite image of the crop,” he says. “You can draw a variable-rate map for your nitrogen spreading from that.

“Nutrients tend to flow into gulleys or hollows, so we will cut our urea or nitrogen use.

The funny thing is when you’re using your own NDVI images, you don’t use less nitrogen; it’s just that you apply it in a better way.”

The property features a range of crops, including barley, pyrethrum, poppies, potatoes, onions, processing peas, buckwheat and corn.

DON’T FORGET THE BASICS

Natural habitat preservation can be just as valuable as scientifically regulated treatments. Michael says the property features decent swathes of bushland, which promote native insect populations of lacewings, ladybugs, and native wasps and hover flies. These insects eat aphids, caterpillars, and other pests, reducing the need for insecticides and improving overall bio-health and flower pollination.

Combined with the planting of cover crops over winter to stabilize soils and enhance the presence of organic matter that can be recycled into the ground, the farm’s soils are now in better condition then ever, with soil organic matter between 4–5%.