French student Sebastien Sester has just completed a six month practice-orientated internship at BCG, examining agronomic and farming systems research as part of his Masters of Science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
As part of his work experience Sebastien provided fortnightly updates to his course supervisor. These updates have also provided a valuable international perspective to BCG and our members.
Sebastien’s report from his final fortnight and a bit (September 1-23) follows:
The last report
By Sebastien Sester
After having spent six months in Birchip, my internship has come to an end. This is the last update on my experience at the Cropping Group.
Being born on a farm, I have always been passionate about farming. Through my education, I discovered an interest for agricultural science and research in agronomy. As a means to conclude my studies, I wanted to do an internship that would combine agriculture and science, in an applied and practice-orientated environment. In addition, before settling down in Europe, I still wanted to have another international experience.
I came across BCG when reading an article at university (I have to admit I got lucky there). BCG appeared to be an organisation that would tick all my academic and personal boxes.
A couple of emails later, BCG, my university and I would agree on an internship contract – the start of a new adventure! It was a tough decision as it would mean leaving girlfriend, family and friends for six months.
At BCG, I mainly learnt how to do operational work on trial sites. I was involved in a wide range of operations in the field for different projects. Here is what I learnt:
Nothing goes according to the plan
Despite the operation manager doing a good job at planning operations, I learnt that something always goes wrong at some stage. It can be a mechanical failure (a machine break-down, a blocked tine at sowing, a blocked nozzle when spraying), an electronic problem (a software that does not work, a file that is not updated) or human-caused (applying the wrong treatment, making mistakes, forgetting something).
But in agriculture especially, the reason why everything does not go according to the plan is weather: it indeed still remains highly variable and unpredictable, creating a lot of unexpected situations and causing troubles. For example: not being able to sow or apply treatments on time, spray drift, chemicals that are washed away and drought.
Be well prepared and flexible
Before carrying out any operation, I learnt that it is very important to be well prepared for it.
It is important to read protocols and instructions and to double-check that everything needed is available and works.
It is also very important to be flexible, as like I mentioned before, nothing goes according to the plan, even though one is well prepared. In agricultural research, I learnt that one needs to be able to change plans quickly to respond to a problem.
Communication is key
I realised that a lack of communication was often the cause of problems. Within a team of researchers, good communication is crucial.
Not only is communication important in overcoming issues, but it also creates a good working atmosphere. Everybody in the team has a role to play and we all work together for the same organisation, which creates an incentive for team work.
Be passionate and show interest
I love agriculture and have always been interested in agricultural science.
Being passionate about agriculture made my job at BCG interesting and challenging, because I really wanted to succeed. Doing a job that I love motivates me. Thanks to my passion for agriculture, I naturally show interest in my work, despite it being sometimes hard and exhausting.
Because agriculture is one of the main topics of conversation at BCG and around Birchip, showing interest in it also helped me to integrate into the community and with my colleagues.
Next to doing field work, my time at BCG was full of opportunities to meet local farmers and to learn from them. By asking questions, being curious and observant I gained a good understanding of what drives agricultural production in the region.
At various events, I also learnt about the challenges of being a farm manager.
These are my take-home messages:
- Mixed enterprises and diversification are good risk-spreading strategies
In the low-rainfall zone of Victoria, weather is so unpredictable and unreliable that having 100 per cent cropping is very risky. I learnt that having a mixed enterprise (70% crop, 30% sheep) is a good risk spreading strategy, as it allows higher profitability in dry years when crops do not perform well. Another way to reduce risk is crop diversification: including pulses and canola in the rotation has positive effects on long-term farm performance by providing diversified income (not only relying on cereal prices), and by improving ecological services (N and C fixation, pollination, predation, weed competition) and resilience thanks to increased diversity. Making hay is another alternative for diversification while offering good weed control and high prices. Next to species diversification, varietal diversification offers good options to manage risks as well. In addition, long sowing windows can help to spread risks against drought, heat shock or frost.
- A successful farm requires good holistic management
By listening to farmers and different presentations at BCG events, I learnt that proper management and good record-keeping are needed in order to be a successful farmer. Operational decisions such as what day to sow, what variety to buy, when to sell grain are as important as strategic ones (buying more land, investing off-farm, starting a new enterprise, succession planning). A wise farm manager needs to consider pros and cons and to estimate benefits and costs associated with every choice he makes. For every decision to be made, using an integrated whole farm approach is the way to go. I think that a good farmer needs to be aware of his or her current financial, economic and personal situations, and what influence they have on the business. Having estate and succession plans, considering risks and meticulously quantifying all investments are sound farm management practices.
- Micro-nutrients are as important as macro-nutrients
N, P and K are not the only elements to consider for fertilisation, despite the fact that they receive more attention from farmers, agronomists and researchers. When making a nutrition plan, I should be remembered that yield is not limited by one nutrient only and that other nutrients play a role too. In one of the farmer’s paddock I have seen a very clear zinc response when associated to nitrogen. Many previous and current BCG researches, and other scientific articles go in that sense too. Having balanced micro- and macro-nutrients in the soil is crucial for optimising yield. I also learnt that a farmer is better off having money in his or her pocket, rather than having it sitting in the ground.
- The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence
Although it appears that my neighbour performs better than me (has higher yields, has fewer weeds, buys new machinery), it does not mean that he is a better farmer than me. Indeed I think that the best farmer is not the one with the highest t/ha, but the one whose $/ha are the highest. I think that many farmers are happy to share yield data, but they are more reluctant to show their true economic figures (which is understandable). In addition, if my neighbour adopts new practices, I first should question whether or not these practices would fit in my current system and what the costs are. At the Vic No-Till conference I learnt an even more challenging way to compare farm performances: they suggested not to compare farms on an area basis (t/ha or $/ha) but to include a third dimension: soil depth. The best farmer in this case would be the one whose increase in organic carbon is the highest.
In general I think that a successful farmer is an agronomist, accountant, marketer, economist, climatologist, analyst and environmentalist.
All around the world, farming is undertaking a major shift. There is increasing environmental, financial and social pressure on farmers. Farmers will always be the ones to take more risks and do more work to respond to the rest of the world’s demand. And this is something farmer communities can be proud of.
I would like to thank everyone at and around BCG for these amazing six months, for everything I learnt, for showing me around and helping understand local agriculture. This is an experience I will never forget.
More of Sebastien’s ‘Interenational Perspective’ can be found here.