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Southwest dryland farmer squeezes value from every drop

3 April 2024 | News
3 April 2024

Veteran farmer Max Lomas runs a successful mixed crop and pasture livestock farm in Nelson, Victoria. Six decades of experience as a dryland farmer means he’s a master of maximising the value of what falls from the sky and comes from his groundwater allocation. And he’s willing to share his hard-won wisdom.  

Max and his wife originally owned 100 acres but have steadily bought land around them to expand the property over time to 350 acres. They also lease around 360 acres of nearby blue gum plantation to graze sheep on eight months of the year which helps keep the fire danger down. 

All up, this gives the Lomas’s around 700 acres to run 1,100 breeding ewes and cross-breds for Merino wool and lamb production, and to grow all their own feed from their 29 megalitre groundwater allocation and natural rainfall. 

Working with his son Mark, Max’s deep knowledge of the land and the region’s weather means they tailor their cropping as best they can to the rhythm of the season and its typical temperatures and precipitation.  

“We’ve got 20 acres of straight paddock that’s sowed with barley, rye, clover and oats in winter, and lucerne in spring,” he said. 

“In summer, we usually sow millets and sorghum that are nutrient rich and more drought-tolerant crops to use as feed,” he said. 

It’s a strategy that serves Max well but access to groundwater is crucial to his operation. His underground reserve allows him to manage the risk of not having water available at important times of year when he needs to grow feed and rainfall isn’t as plentiful. 

At 75-years young, Max is still eying expansion and is always looking for opportunities to get his hands on more groundwater to realise further production prospects. And it’s something that’s front of mind given his desire to pass the farm on to his son. 

His farm is in the Southwest Limestone aquifer and the volume of groundwater that can be extracted is capped. 

“With no new allocations being made available, trade is the only way we can access more water. There are people sitting on unused allocations in this region but finding those who are willing to trade isn’t always easy,” he said. 

However, Max says Southern Rural Water Field Officer Kevin Williams played an important role in helping him secure some additional water. 

“Kev knew I wanted more groundwater and when a lot came up for sale, he let me know and put me in touch with the seller,” he said. 

“Once we agreed the price, it was just a case of submitting the paperwork and it all went smoothly thanks to Kev.” 

The additional water and the ability to carry over any unused allocation (up to a maximum of 30 percent) per year, gives Max more security of supply. However, he’s still cautious about the future because weather patterns are becoming more variable and growing the right crops is a bigger challenge. 

In the last three years, he’s struggled to grow sorghum in summer because it hasn’t been consistently hot enough for the crop to grow well. This year, he said two months of continuous southeast winds were drying but brought no heat.  

“We used to get our weather pattern from Adelaide. If it rained there, it would rain here. Today, our weather comes from Kangaroo Island and while we’re still getting around 30 inches of rain a year, it’s coming at different time of the year,” he said. 

“I called my agronomist to let her know sorghum’s been a bit of a failure down here and she said it’s a similar story across the whole of the southeast.” 

Luckily, this season, Max has had a bumper crop of lucerne and he’s hopeful Southern Rural Water’s Southwest Limestone Aquifer trading project will help farmers like him access more groundwater in the future.