A merging of minds and businesses builds Bulla Burra Farms

A meeting of minds and farms leads to Bulla Burra success

BULLA BURRA BOSSES: John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer merged their family farming operations in South Australia's Mallee to create a large-scale and innovative business.

BULLA BURRA BOSSES: John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer merged their family farming operations in South Australia's Mallee to create a large-scale and innovative business.


Two South Australian farmers merged their farms and their skills to create a large-scale and innovative cropping enterprise.


The owners of a large-scale South Australian farming enterprise grew harvestable crops last year with only 90mm of rain.

Spread across 10,000 ha of red sandy soils outside of Loxton, about 45 per cent of Bulla Burra Farms' operations are focused on wheat with the balance made up of barley, legumes and oats for hay.

The business has battled a run of tough dry conditions since 2017 with both the 2018 and 2019 seasons carrying the grim titles of being within the fourth lowest rainfall years in recorded memory. Only 90mm was recorded last year.

Bulla Burra owners, Robin Schaefer and John Gladigau, recalled when their families received similar falls in the 1982 dry spell and the 2002 Millennium drought and their crops failed.

"If you go by some of the production matrices on water usage efficiency, for 90mm of growing season rainfall you should actually be able to grow nothing because the evaporation factor is higher than the rainfall we got," Mr Gladigau said.

But in 2019 things were different, he said.

Unlike in earlier times, no-till farming meant they witnessed the miracle of producing a crop which should have yielded zilch.

"We had similar rainfall, maybe even more in 1982 and 2002, and grew nothing," he said.

"But last year we were growing 0.6 to 0.8 tonnes to the hectare. We even had crops going 1.4 tonnes to the hectare for a few paddocks."

Mr Gladigau said they had still suffered significant losses in recent years as no-till farming systems can have high input costs and overheads.

"However, we managed to grow some crop, maintain groundcover and not degrade our topsoil as had been the case in previous droughts which has been a far better environmental outcome."

Eleven years ago Mr Gladigau and Mr Schaefer merged their individual businesses to create Bulla Burra Farms to capitalise on economies of scale while retaining the integrity and beating heart of a family farm.

In doing so they threw the rule about never mixing business and friendship out the window, given they have been mates since they were teenagers and their wives are best friends.

At the time of the merger each were running successful operations of around 2000ha each in their own right to be in line with the average size of a family farm in SA's Murray Mallee region.

But the decision to join forces has paid dividends over and over again, they said.

Mr Gladigau is Bulla Burra's executive director and has brought his business expertise and collaborative farming knowledge to the operation.

Mr Schaefer, the general manager, was an early pioneer of no-till farming and injected a dedication to pursuing the latest in precision agriculture.

TAKING BROADER VIEW: John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer achieved economies of scale and greater expertise when they merged their farming operations.

TAKING BROADER VIEW: John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer achieved economies of scale and greater expertise when they merged their farming operations.

An independent chairman was also brought in to oversee their board and to ensure more robust decision-making while investment was made in new state-of-the-art John Deere machinery and technology to enhance on-farm production and efficiency.

From a production perspective they rely on the John Deere Operations Centre, a platform which collects real-time paddock data via JDLink from Bulla Burra's fleet of equipment.

This simply and efficiently tracks key production elements such as yield and inputs before processing that information to determine how much is being spent per hectare, to drive business profitability.

The Bulla Burra John Deere lineup is based on three S670 combines and two 8335RT tractors as the work horses of the operation.

These machines are complemented by R4045 and 4940 self-propelled sprayers and two 1870 Air Hoe drill air seeders as well as 1910 tow-behind and 1910 tow-between air commodity carts.

Also on the books are John Deere 8300, 6800 and 5420 tractors, as well as an L110 John Deere mower.

"Our main tractors, the seeders, the sprayers and the harvesters are all linked through the Operations Centre," Mr Schaefer said.

"Wherever I go I have information at my fingertips to know what the machinery has done, as well as paddock information from across all of Bulla Burra," he said.

"For example, the other day when I was crop scouting I noticed a strip in the field and pulled the seeding maps up on my phone and I could see straight away it was where I applied a zero-nitrogen strip."

His interest in precision agriculture was born from his farm's soil variability - within the space of 20 metres the rooting depth can shift from 20cm to 2m before hitting a subsoil constraint like rock, limestone or transient salinity.

"Precision agriculture for us is about improving our bottom line. In one paddock we can have a shift in yield from half a tonne to up to four tonnes to the hectare," Mr Schaefer said.

"With the data we have on hand, we can allocate our resources to the highest yielding areas and save costs on the spots where more fertiliser won't make a difference. It allows us to get more bang for our buck."

John Deere ExactApply on the sprayers has created precise droplet sections to target weeds, reduce the chances of herbicide drift, and decrease the risk of herbicide resistance.

"It individually turns on and off nozzles along the boom, and also compensates for when the machinery is turning to reduce the damage you can cause to your crop through over application," he said.

The success of merging their business has become, inadvertently, an emblem for collaborative farming in Australia.

Mr Gladigau has travelled the world speaking about the Bulla Burra experience and is often in talks with agriculture representatives, and even government officials, interested in learning how they can support joint-farm models.

The highs, lows, and day-to-day of Bulla Burra Farms are recorded on their Facebook page, which reaches 30,000 followers and creates news headlines or viral posts shared thousands of times.


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