IMPROVING PASTURES

essential ecosystem servicesthat nature provides. Ensuring continuous ground cover is particularly important to restoring landscape health.

In our last post we mentioned that livestock grazing accounts for use of 55% of Australia’s land area [1]. While overgrazing is a well-documented cause of landscape degradation, regenerative practices, such as planned grazing and intelligent use of livestock has been demonstrated to restore groundcover and landscape health (watch this presentation by Allan Savory). By adopting these practices, we therefore have the opportunity to ensure a thriving landscape across more than half of our country.

The innovative farmers in the Soils for Life case studies are already implementing regenerative practices on their managed landscapes with positive natural resource and production results.

Planned grazing

Various forms of time-controlled planned grazing are being practiced on our case study properties, including Bokhara Plains, Tallawang, Lana(register now to attend the Demonstration Daythere 10 April), Gunningrah (read the guest blog posts by Charlie Maslin), and Dukes Plain (Demo Day scheduled for 3 July), amongst others.

Their results through applying these techniques include increasing groundcover and proliferation of preferred pasture species such as native perennial grasses. Establishing and maintaining perennial grasses assists in providing resilience to the landscape.

Our case studies have demonstrated that increased persistence of native perennial species in pasture provides for more continuous groundcover. This protects the soils from erosion and weed incursion, produces root biomass, builds soil organic matter to enhance water holding capacity and enhances resilience against drought. Preferred species can be encouraged through grazing techniques and by monitoring and responding to plant life cycles to maximise – or minimise – plant succession.

Supporting vegetation succession to more productive species of grass and shelter in turn promotes stronger mineral and water cycles and attracts a greater diversity of animals to then recycle nutrient back to plants.

Maintaining groundcover

Many of the Soils for Life case study participants cited the goal of “100% groundcover, 100% of the time”.

On Winona, Colin Seis’ ‘pasture cropping’ technique aligns with perennial grass lifecycles, ensuring continuous groundcover and delivering multiple production lines from his land. Colin sows crops into dormant perennial pastures and has integrated his grazing enterprise to graze the crop stubble and regenerating pastures (and read what this has done for his soil carbon levels in an earlier post).

Deeper rooted plants can draw on deeper moisture and nutrient for plant production. This in turn increases water holding capacity and structure to receive moisture infiltration where there is greater groundcover. As illustrated by Martin Royds of Jillamatong, deep rooted plants can be sought out to facilitate this. Martin elected to encourage growth of chicory (Cichorium intybus) and plantain (Plantago major), after observing the deep tap roots of weeds that he was removing from his more shallow-rooted pastures. He also observes that by allowing pastures to grow longer through planned rotational grazing practices, the dew condensing on the tall perennial grasses each night now provides additional water that helps sustain soil moisture and healthy pasture growth.

Another technique being applied to increase pasture quality and quantity is the establishment and protection of seed banks – or “seed orchards”, as Ben and Graham Forsyth of Three Rivers Station in the fragile West Australian rangelands call them. By protecting clumps of preferred grasses enabling them to complete their lifecycle, seed can spread and increase the population of the preferred species.

Join us in restoring our landscape – one paddock at a time. Make maximising groundcover a priority on your property today!

The Soils for Life Team

FOOTNOTE:
1 State of the Environment 2011 Committee, Australia: State of the Environment 2011, Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011, p 271

BIODIVERSE VEGETATION – CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN AGRICULTURE

It is this landscape degradation and related global challengesthat drive Soils for Life to encourage change in landscape management.

As remnant vegetation continues to deteriorate, the land and soil degrades as topsoil is lost and erosion occurs [2]. Poorer soils are then unable to support regeneration of healthy vegetation and nutrient cycles break down.

As discussed in earlier posts, nutrients are necessary for healthy soil and vegetation functioning. These are also being lost to production systems through disruption to the natural waste cycle as a result of urbanisation and consumption habits. Cities are producing increasing volumes of waste, including significant organic matter, which is no longer being returned to the soils.

The opportunity on our farms

The land use of greatest extent in Australia is livestock grazing, accounting for use of 55% of our land area (428 million hectares) [3]. By adopting regenerative management techniques on these properties, we can establish or re-establish biodiversity in pastures, crops, trees and other plant life across much of Australia. These managed landscapes therefore provide a major opportunity for revegetation – and subsequently sequestration of carbon back into the soil and for restoring natural hydrological cycles.

t is this opportunity in our managed landscapes that drives Soils for Life to focus on supporting our farmers to adopt regenerative practices.

A biodiversity in vegetation and good vegetative cover enhances resilience to variable weather patterns or extreme climate events. For example, different plants have different tolerances and recovery times – why bank on just a few? With the increased soil health, even in these times of extreme heat, a soil with a good coverage of perennial grasses will absorb available moisture. Particularly in contrast to exposed soils or hard claypans from which water just runs off.

Find out more about the national and global challenges related to landscape degradation and the opportunities and solutions provided in farming and agriculture in our report Innovations for Regenerative Landscape Management.

Each of the participants in case studies examined in our report emphasised the importance of vegetation in their regenerative landscape management practices, especially in maintaining groundcover. We’ll look at some of these next week, as well as other benefits obtained through encouraging diverse vegetation on farming properties. We’re looking forward to the Demonstration Day scheduled on Dukes Plain in July, which will focus on this very issue.

Alongside other regenerative practices, a biodiversity in vegetation also supports biodiversity in other ecosystem communities. This is essential for healthy functioning and landscape resilience.

We’ll leave you with these images as a little food for thought on the effects of many of our conventional practices on ecosystem biodiversity and what that could mean…

Plants and animals collected in a square metre of South African public park over the course of 24 hours:

Plants and animals found over the course of two nights and three days in an Iowa cornfield:

(Courtesy of http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/11/29/166156242/cornstalks-everywhere-but-nothing-else-not-even-a-bee via OnEarth)

The Soils for Life Team

http://www.environment.gov.au/soe/2006/publications/report/index.html
2 State of the Environment 2011 Committee, Australia: State of the Environment 2011, Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011, pp267-368
3 State of the Environment 2011 Committee, Australia: State of the Environment 2011, Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011, p 271

SUCCESS IN MANAGING FOR RAINFALL VARIABILITY

Gunningrah where he discusses the outcomes attained on his property by changing his practices to effectively manage rainfall received.

(Read Part One)

PART TWO

THE RESULTS OF THE CHANGES ON GUNNINGRAH

We thought that the changes resulting from the grazing and stream interventions would have been slow, and maybe not noticeable to the eye for some time.

This couldn’t have been further from what happened on all fronts.

First, the grazing management changes…

With the whole farm change in the manner in which animals grazed, the resulting changes to ground cover and infiltration rates were quite rapid.

The first thing we noted was that our 55 dams we once relied upon for stock, were no long reliable. A decade after the change, only 25% of our dams had water in them, when most neighbouring dams were full…….. the water cycle was slowing.

Through adjustments to stock numbers, to better suit feed availability, we were able to get ground cover up (from the 70% start), to the 80 – 90% range quite rapidly (in years not dissimilar to that year in which we started).

Improved groundcover (left) and cattle reaping the benefits of the grazing practices onGunningrah (right).

Our animal health levels improved. While we only drench on the basis of worm egg levels, under the set stocked regime we had to drench on average around four times per year.

With pastures rested, combined with perhaps an improvement in diet, we need to drench only twice in most years, and just once in some of the drier years. The animal health budget, as a result, has halved.

Another big gain has been from the efficiency of our use of labour. Under set stocking, over 300 man days per year were spent doing stock work, such as mustering, drenching, marking, checking… (This was 4 years records prior to the change).

Now, (with the same number of DSEs run), that figure is down by 33%, to average less than 200 man days per year. In some years, it has been almost half the previous requirement at 160 man days.

With wages being our most significant cost, this benefit alone has produced great financial gain, in the order of $30,000.

Michael Jeffery visiting Gunningrah to discuss its successes with Charlie Maslin.

Second, the stream changes…

The extent of the slowing of the stream flow, as a result of the work done, basically depends on the magnitude of the runoff event.

Where the rain event is large and widespread, the effect on slowing flow is minimal. The main gain in such a case, is the additional water stored high in the catchment, which under normal circumstances would have ended up much faster downstream. [Read more about how Charlie has reinstated natural flood plain processes and view corresponding images from Gunningrah on the Earth Integralwebsite.]

However where the event may have been a thunderstorm downpour, the slowing effect is very noticeable, where the weirs would fill up and then gradually over subsequent weeks/ months, permeate into the soil profile and slowly drain downstream.

One small stream, which previously after a storm flowed for 24/48 hours, now flows for up to 12 weeks in winter, and about 6 in summer, with just three weirs to slow the flow.

The sediment capture aspect of the weirs also became quickly apparent.

Another weir, below a fenced out granite gully, has had sediment deposited at the rate of around 20 tonnes per year. (Previously no sediment ever deposited anywhere on our property below that weir, and now it is over 1.5m deep at that spot).

Measurements have shown sediment build up of over 1.5 metres in some locations.

Before the weir was built, that part of the stream could not even be crossed by bike… now you can drive easily across in a 2wd ute.

Sediment capture in other weirs has been similar. Plants are able to grow in the stream bed, as a combined result of the sediment deposition and the resting of paddocks.

In many places, plant growth in the riparian area is now prolific.

Left: Healing gully erosion is evident as a result of the practices being applied on Gunningrah.
Right: Healthy vegetation along slow-flowing creek lines

Leaky weirs slow the flow of water

Additionally, species not seen in the stream bed area previously, have appeared. They all add to the stability and resilience of the streams, and add to the future ability to trap even more sediment and runoff debris.

Water quality has also improved markedly.

Turbid water entering the stream above the weirs, becomes clearer as it moves downstream. A neighbour, on seeing one of the streams flooding, reported seeing the first “clear flood” (downstream of the weirs) he had ever seen.

The further the flood water can flow out over well-covered riparian areas, (due to the weir’s location), the greater the resulting reduction in the stream’s turbidity, as a result of the slowing of the rate of stream flow.

The changes over the last couple of decades, to our water management, here, has been quite marked. Some of the changes you can attach a dollar figure, others are giving very observable environmental gains.

Without doubt, the greatest impact to managing our rainfall, has come from our changes in grazing management. Making the land more receptive to moisture infiltration has been of great benefit.

This, when allied with the weirs in the streams for when runoff does occur, has further benefited, both our water management and those downstream of our property.

As far as the changes we have made to our management of water, I have no hesitation in recommending similar changes to others, if they are encountering problems along the lines of those we faced.

While the restoration does involve some cost, maybe some forgone income, and possibly a change in management philosophy, we have found the environmental and financial benefits in the longer term, to definitely outweigh any near term sacrifices.

We hope you enjoyed reading Charlie Maslin’s story. Feel free to leave a comment or question below, or email us at info@soilsforlife.org.au if you would like to get in touch with Charlie directly.

The Soils for Life Team