A new research project has shown that data-driven decisions were proving more critical than before when considering selection and culling during a drought.
The Drive and Thrive project, a collaboration between the University of New England, CQUniversity (CQU) and CSIRO, has already carried out 30 in-depth interviews with producers and advisors to improve drought management.
Fourth-generation farmer Steven Hobbs, Kaniva, is participating in the research project and said the drought frequency in his region over three decades had increased from one year in ten to one year in three.
It influenced him to consider how he managed his land.
"I reached a point where the harder I tried, the less successful I seemed to be," Mr Hobbs said.
"The way I was doing things just wasn't paying the bills."
Mr Hobbs said using technology and data to drive profitability on his dual-purpose Merino farm helped him navigate the challenging agricultural landscape.
"I don't bother using gut [instinct], I just use data," he said.
"If I can't prove it with data, it goes."
Mr Hobbs said the approach had meant increased profits while reducing his herd size.
He also maintained more cover feed to utilise during periods of drought.
"A lot of people have gone to scale to get efficiencies that way, but with land prices having tripled or quadrupled over the past couple of years, I don't know how people make it work," he said.
As well as drought, frost on crops encountered from May to November had been a growing concern for farmers through the Wimmera-Mallee and Sunraysia regions.
Mr Hobbs said such frosts could wipe out millions of dollars worth of legumes in the area.
In 2016, with the help of an advisor, Mr Hobbs underwent a detailed examination of his business, which included collecting data on weights, growth rates, fertility, fecundity, and income generation.
It led him to remove all emotion from his decisions about his operation, identifying the most profitable animals and systematically culling the least productive ones.
"We found that livestock were the ones that were making the farm profitable and the cropping was very, very erratic," he said.
"The biggest problem that I faced was I don't like sheep, but if I've got to run animals, I'd rather run profitable animals."
He said that when he had his complete data set, he identified that his sheep had generated revenue ranging from $280 to $40 a head.
"When I went through my books, I could see it was costing me at that time $15 a head to look after that animal, and if I was spending $15 on a sheep, that's only making me $40, she's the first one to go," he said.
An early investigation into producer needs by CQU showed that the types of objective stock ranking tools and the motivations to use them varied between states, stock types, producers' ages and debt levels.
CQU researcher Cathy O'Mullan said the insights gained from the interviews would assist technology developers and farm consultants in approaching how they offer support to improve drought management strategies.
"It appears clear that most producers are receptive to the message to 'decide early' and 'not look back', but it will be important for advisers to show how stock ranking tools can help make this decision easier as to which animals to keep or cull," Dr O'Mullan said.
"The messaging also needs to tap into both objective and subjective information processing by producers - nearly all producers still rely on some level of local knowledge and experience to inform decision-making.
Dr O'Mullan said local knowledge "needs to be respected", especially when there is an inherent mistrust of advice from scientists who may not be locally familiar with the region.
"Gut feeling, intuition and history are important and must be part of a balanced message that a rankings tool [or] system is just part of a suite of information sources that producers should consider when decision making."
Mr Hobbs said it was important to embrace on-farm change, even if it means questioning traditional methods, and noted that technology doesn't always require expensive solutions.
"It really comes down to, as my dad used to say, necessity is the mother of invention... the pain of making the change has to be less than the pain of not making it," he said.
"We need a cultural shift, and the data will help us make that shift."