Bernie Bierhoff, Manager for Avondale Ag
‘Avondale’, Rowena, NSW
Total enterprise size
Area to cotton 2017/2018
Type/s of irrigation
In his role as farm manager on ‘Avondale’, near Rowena in western NSW, Bernie Bierhoff is committed to progressive farming strategies, conserving water and supporting the local community. After more than 16 years in the position he has left an indelible mark on the family owned business by initiating improvements to crop and soil management. His tireless contribution to the wider industry has helped inform his holistic farming approach.
Avondale is expecting an average yield of 14.2 bales to the hectare this year in a crop a fraction of its usual size due to ongoing dry conditions. The property features a large-scale, gravity-fed furrow irrigation system which allows for quick and efficient movement of water to achieve consistent high yields. Avondale also includes large dryland fields suitable for cereal or cotton when conditions allow.
Having more irrigable land than water available has driven Bernie to improve water efficiency over the years, developing a system that is beneficial for both the property and the environment. “We grow cotton in fields that minimise conveyance losses and we order water as per crop needs so there is less water in storages exposed to evaporation,” he explains. “Moisture probes guide our water scheduling and the gravity fed furrow irrigation systems allow for quick movement of large volumes. We have also made improvement to delivery and tail water systems.” To overcome challenges posed using siphons over such a large area, Bernie developed purpose-built trailers to safely mobilise hundreds of siphons at a time. It is an example of his innovative approach to reducing occupational health and safety hazards.
Bernie responds to the challenges of managing such a vast area of land by maintaining flexibility in his approach. “Being adaptive in our management of individual fields has allowed us to respond to identified issues quickly,” he explains. “Over time we have increased our irrigation flexibility which in turn has increased yields. This has led to some years planting less cotton but increasing yields per hectare, purely because irrigation needs are met at all times. All crop management efforts are geared towards minimising crop stress events of any kind between planting and picking. We try to keep our fully irrigated fields in what we refer to as ‘luxury mode’”.
Bernie combats rising cost of production and reduces environmental impacts by minimising spray and fertiliser applications. Maintaining crop earliness helps avoid late season pests and thorough field monitoring ensures applications are timely. The application of fertiliser is reduced by growing all cotton in a cereal and legume rotation while stubble is retained where possible to build organic matter. He keeps a strong focus on avoiding compaction and has introduced soil microbe enhancer technologies. Bernie has also been able to use the large scale of the property to reduce disease. “A positive trade off of having more irrigable land than water available is that we have a very low incidence of verticillium wilt and black root rot on our farms due to crop rotation, reduced plantings of cotton and farm hygiene.”
Bernie is an early adopter of new technologies and techniques. He introduced the application of black urea on Avondale for slow release nutrients which are more readily accessible to the crop at any stage. He also plans to adopt tools such as remote access pheromone traps to ensure spray applications are more targeted. He remains at the forefront of new research through frequent involvement with extension research trials. Avondale Ag has completed the assessment stage of myBMP and are now working towards the audit. This process has led to improvements in staff management and farm safety.
Avondale currently employs 25 full time staff members and up to 50 part time workers through busy periods. Bernie believes supporting the local community is a crucial factor in attracting good staff to the isolated area. Bernie is the Vice Chair of the Walgett CGA and frequently takes part in local fields days and fundraising efforts for the local school. “We raise money for our local school through Avondale Ag and our work with some of the larger chemical companies,” he says. As a well respected member of his community, Bernie is also on the grower advisory panel to Monsanto, the Chair of the biotech panel on TIMS and a CSD Ambassador Grower. He facilitates work experience positions on the property for children from local schools and collaborates with the University of New England(UNE) by participating in the UNE careers day and supporting the rugby team. Bernie has also co-ordinated efforts to house local residents in time of flood and fire.
Avondale is a family oriented business, with a huge emphasis on sustainability and farming for future generations. “We’re a family owned business and it’s run like a family owned business,” Bernie says. “We talk well to each other and it’s all about farming for the future. We look after our soils in a way that the next generation can still be here farming.”