BRUCE BILLSON: Michael Nichols, Redbank Farming, the ancient art of production on the land. You’ve gone high tech. Tell me a little bit about your farming operations.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Right. Well, we’re here at Sisters Creek with this farm called Redbanks. And we have a mixed cropping, poultry-beef operation. What we do is we grow about seven different crops. So we grow potatoes, onions, poppies, pyrethrum, wheat, canola, processing peas, and buckwheat, with a little bit of mustard as well. It’s all value added. We have a cold pressed canola oil plant that we cold press our own canola oil. And we bottle that and also sell some of that to our parent company, which is Nichols Poultry, that goes into the animal feed. And then on top of that we also have a whole variety of contracting businesses as well.
So we do a whole heap of muck spreading, spray operations, combine harvesting, and a bit of drilling. The combine harvesting is something that we’ve sort of got into to have a look at how things sort of work. And we’re now harvesting all the wheat in the local area. And we’re pooling that back at our place. And we’re then on-selling that direct to three dairy farms.
BRUCE BILLSON: An incredibly integrated farming operation. You’ve got most of your day, your fingers in the dirt, but then your fingers are all over an iPad. Tell me what technology’s doing to transform your business?
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah, so that’s correct. So what we’re doing is we’re sort of looking at doing the basics right, which is in the dirt. But now we’re just trying to fine tune our operation and make sure that we try and do everything as efficiently as we can. So that’s where the iPad comes in. What we’re doing is we’re looking at doing a lot of grid sampling soil tests, where we’re actually instead of just getting one test for a 20-hectare paddock, we’re now getting around 20 to 40 tests per paddock. And we’re then mapping that and seeing where all the different nutrients lie. And then I’m drawing a variable rate map. And I’m spreading the right nutrients in the right spots.
And that’s saving us around 40% in our fertiliser usage, which is massive, considering I’m spending about $120,000 a year on fertiliser. I’m always trying to aim for the top 10%. I want to be in that top 10% of return. And like a couple of crops, we’ve had our canola crop go 6.1 tonne to the hectare, which is an Australian record. We had our wheat crop last year that did 13.1 tonne to the hectare, which is an Australian record as well in our wheat. A lot of our other crops, we’re right up there getting awards for, with poppies and potatoes.
So it’s just one of those things that if you try and link some of this technology together, you can get results. And if you can get the results, then you can hopefully invest in the future to still remain farming.
BRUCE BILLSON: You’re also using drones to fly over to see what the growth rates look like in different areas, and then overlaying that knowledge on top of what you understand is happening in the soils.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah, that’s correct. So we’re obviously starting at the base with the soil. And then during certain growing stages– so every crop’s got a different growth stage that’s critical– so I like to refer to wheat, because wheat’s got so much knowledge out there, because it’s such a broad acre crop. So if you Google NDVI images, which is a, it’s a green index image of a drone that flies over and takes a certain spectrum, and it’s a density map. So it shows where the light areas are, where there’s very thin growth, and then the very thick areas with very dense growth.
So when I was looking at that, I suddenly realised that, for instance, with wheat at growth stage 31, which is when it’s just starting to shoot up, that’s a very critical point to get an image. And I can then manipulate that with some nitrogen. So if I’ve got some thin areas and some thicker areas, I can put more on the thinner areas and less on the thicker areas and even the crop up.
BRUCE BILLSON: And you mentioned you partnering with others that are the technology experts that you are knitting all that together to get the insights and knowledge you need to make your farming operations as productive and successful as it can be.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah. So one thing that I always think that people get a bit carried away when it comes to tech. And you can spend a fortune on drones and cameras and everything else, whereas I find that for one thing, I don’t really have the time to fly a drone around. It would be very nice, but I don’t have the time. So therefore I find it’s easier to get somebody in. They obviously charge me a couple hundred dollars a paddock to do an image, but I don’t have the risk of flying it into a tree and smashing a $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 drone. Plus, normally, the camera is worth more than the drone anyway.
So I find that if I do all of this, it just– yeah, you sort of use other people’s knowledge, and you then try and match it all together when you’re gathering that back from everybody.
BRUCE BILLSON: So that’s the flip side of your harvesting and contracting business. Not everyone needs a harvester. Buy it in for that specialist use, that technology and let someone else worry about it. You do that for others with harvesting and other contracting, but they do that for you around the technology piece that’s such an important part of your business.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah, that’s it. And we all know that technology goes out of fashion so quickly. So if you buy a drone now, in 6 to 9 months’ time, suddenly the technology on that drone or the camera is out of date. Suddenly you need to improve the software. Well, I don’t want to have that hassle, because otherwise, you spend the whole time on the computer spending hours de-programming things or uploading programs. And you sort of think, well, why am I doing this? I should get somebody else to do this. And that’s what I find the technology scheme at the moment.
BRUCE BILLSON: Now, going to the bottom line, you shared with me that some of the investment in bringing that expertise is giving you multiples in terms of value and return. Just what does digital engagement mean for your farming operation’s profitability?
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah, well, I think it’s all because we’re so time poor. So we’re always time poor, but technology seems to be bringing things together. So I’ve got multiple programs that I run. So we have one that keeps a record of our day-to-day operations. We use that as our QA program. It’s called PAM Ultra Crop. And it’s a really good program that just matches everything together on your day-to-day running. So you’ve got a very good record. Then we’ve got– on the other scale, we’ve got my combine software, which is running the yield maps, but that can also do the prescription maps at the same time. And then we’ve also got the soil maps coming in.
And by having all that information at hand when I need it just means that I’m not running back to the office all the time doing all the running around. I can pull it straight up. See the issues. Upload them onto the computer, on the GPS, on the tractor. And I can then just program it in and away I go.
BRUCE BILLSON: What I really liked about what you shared with me was that a lot of farmers might watch the weather. You’re watching technology trends, but you bring a real business rigour to what you actually use. What does it mean for my business? How does it carry my strategy forward? What’s the mindset you bring to that digital engagement with your operations?
MICHAEL NICHOLS: The whole digital era is something that you just get– you can sort of lose track sometimes. So you’ve got to remember just to– if you start doing something wrong, just go back to the basics. Put the technology down. Look at the dirt. See, smell, feel the dirt, because that tells you a lot of things. And when you start getting it right with the technology, you can look at the dirt, and you can go, yes, I got that right, because it just feels good.
BRUCE BILLSON: So embedded in your strategy is the smart deployment of digital, not sort of, look here, I’m going to get the biggest brand new thing around. But really, it’s driven by your business strategy and what digital tools can help carry that forward for you.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: Yeah, that’s it, because you’ve got to go– you filter through all the rubbish first to find out what’s going to give you the bang for your buck. And at the end of the day, we’re all driven by profits. And there has to be profits. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to invest in things. And they always say, oh, you’re the innovator, but I’m not really the innovator. I’m actually just doing it. Everyone has been talking about variable rate applications for the last 10 years. It’s only when I went to the machinery dealership and I said, can you make my spreader a variable rate? It says on the brochure it can do it all.
And they said, well, actually, to do that, you’re going to have to get this program. You’ve got to get this cable. You’ve then got to upload it into this program as well. And suddenly a lot of people put that in the too hard basket, whereas I persisted and I said, no, I really want to do this. So just to get over the cables and software up, it probably cost around $6,000 or $7,000. But I know that in the first year of me doing this variable rate spreading, I saved myself 40,000. So it was a no brainer, really.
BRUCE BILLSON: Michael Nichols, maximum respect for all your doing at Redbank here. Great story. Thank you for sharing some time and some insights with our fellow SME practitioners.
MICHAEL NICHOLS: No, that’s fine. Thank you very much.