‘TALAHENI’ – REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY AND ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY & ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

Using a deep understanding of their environment, John and Robyn Ive have used strategic paddock design and management to build resilience into their landscape, and have revegetated ridges to reduce a severe dryland salinity problem, enabling them to meet their niche production outcomes.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

Near Murrumbateman, 40km north of Canberra, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Sheep, cattle, native trees. Ultra-fine Sharlea wool; Angus beef cattle; farm forestry

PROPERTY SIZE: 250 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 625 mm

ELEVATION: 600 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Non-viability of previous management and identifying the opportunity to apply practical ecological science

INNOVATIONS

  • Revegetation to manage salinity
  • Strategic paddock design
  • Planned grazing strategies, particularly addressing fodder supply and drought conditions
  • Innovations commenced: 1980

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased available productive land through reduced water table levels eliminating saline seeps
  • Specialist provider of ultrafine Sharlea wethers
  • Revegetation of over 200,000 native trees

INTRODUCTION

The Ive family purchased Talaheni in 1980. At the time, the property was suffering from major dryland salinity caused by over clearing and exploitative land management practices. As a would-be ecologist, John saw the opportunity to repair the degraded landscape through revegetating the ridges and fixing the soil fertility problems that had built up over previous decades.

John and Robyn prepared a comprehensive plan to repair the land and achieve a profit from Talaheni. This addressed the fundamental need to understand the implications of variation in slope, aspect, soil depth, geology, vegetation and climate on achieving success.

Production improvements were experienced from 1983. Now, over 200,000 new trees and a niche production line later, the Ives manage the salinity as well as regular regional droughts with a healthy, resilient landscape. By taking a strategic approach and working with the land and the seasons, John and Robyn have transformed an “environmental and farming basket-case” into an enterprise that has received local, national and international recognition.

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COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

image of Talaheni
The current Talaheni landscape

In 1980 John and Robyn purchased the 250 hectare property in the Yass Valley, an area renowned for its dryland salinity problems. Their family farming background supplemented by agricultural college and tertiary qualifications in agricultural science and economics provided a sound basis for undertaking the makeover of Talaheni over the following three decades.

John and Robyn both realised at the time of purchase that previous management had been exploitive and would be non-viable into the future. However, they recognised an opportunity to apply sound practical ecological science to an unprofitable enterprise that had depleted the resource base.

To improve the landscape on Talaheni, John and Robyn drafted a plan that recognised major impediments to achieving production potential. Management practices were then identified to address key resource condition issues, such as the dryland salinity. Management of the elevated water tables was identified as a key priority in achieving this.

The plan was then progressively implemented as time and resources permitted, ensuring regular review and updating in response to progress.

A solid monitoring program was at the core of implementation to ensure that the farm plan was achieving intentions. Where possible this was introduced before changing management so that the effect of changing practice could be quantified. As John says, “If you do not measure it you cannot manage it”.

Various factors are regularly monitored, including vegetation transects, salinity levels in dams and weekly measurements of the water table. The Ives have now achieved ISO14001 accreditation for their Environmental Management System.

Combined with their farm plan addressing production limitations, John and Robyn set out to develop a production niche suited to the ecological function of the area.

The niche identified was ultra-fine wool production and the development of a sharlea wether market. Sharlea wool is produced by Saxon Merino sheep which are housed in specially constructed sheep care sheds where all aspects of proper sheep husbandry, nutrition and feeding, health, wool growth, quality and cleanliness are exercised between each shearing. The movement from a normal regional fine Merino flock to a highly respected ultra-fine flock has diminished threats to Talaheni’s viability, and, as John reports, “As a result we are now a sought after specialist provider of sharlea wethers for shedded sheep operators in southern Australia”.

John and Robyn have developed marketing strategies to ensure price returns meet their financial requirements. Angus steers are also produced for the beef cattle feedlot market.

By strategically planning production, including specifically-designed grazing and vegetation management techniques, John and Robyn have regenerated Talaheni, and built resilience into their landscape. They believe that environmental restoration is a necessary precursor to achieving production potential.

Advice has been sought from a wide range of sources throughout the regeneration process, such as from farming colleagues and agencies, but not always adopted. John and Robyn were initially told that overcoming their salinity problem by revegetating the ridges was impractical. They nevertheless went ahead with the plan, which has been demonstrated to be highly successful.

Improvements have been undertaken in a prioritised manner as funds have become available. Almost all work on Talaheni, such as fencing, pasture establishment, yard and building construction, has been undertaken by family members. Off-farm labour has only been used for shearing, fertiliser spreading and major earthworks for dams and contour banks.

John and Robyn also have an eye to considering wider issues for their farm, “In order to be better prepared for future climate change we have calculated that a two degree increase in average temperature, which might not seem much, would increase the average time above plant wilting point threshold [when they can no longer draw moisture from the soil] from 52 to 62 per cent of the time. Faced with this likelihood, we are trialling pastures that are more drought resistant”.

HISTORY OF TALAHENI

The area where Talaheni is located (Nanima), was first settled in the 1840s or 1850s. A gold mine, Xanadu, operated by Chinese people, was worked later in the 19th century. The gold was in narrow quartz veins and extraction required a steam-driven mill. Trees were felled for fuel for the boilers and an aqueduct was constructed to carry water to the site from the Yass River.

When gold mining was no longer economical, the miners turned to ring-barking and clearing the regrowth resulting from their felling.

By the turn of the century there was a dairy farm working next door to what is now Talaheni. Milk was carried by horse back to Canberra.

Since the early 1900s wool production in the area proved to be profitable, with graziers over numerous decades achieving record prices due to the excellent quality of the fine wool produced from the area.

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STRATEGIC PADDOCK DESIGN & MANAGEMENT

The Talaheni landscape is composed of highly folded and deeply dipping Ordovician metasediments with rocky hills interspaced by contrasting weathered valleys. With this landscape, John and Robyn believed that good management called for the different landscape elements, for instance hills and valleys, to be fenced separately, so that management could be correctly targeted throughout the year to maximise pasture growth and grazing opportunities. John and Robyn have subsequently more than quadrupled the number of paddocks originally at Talaheni. Each paddock was strategically planned taking into consideration variation in slope, aspect, soil depth, geology and vegetation. Now with their own water supply, each of these is carefully managed.

John describes, “At Talaheni we have gone from a chequerboard layout of nine paddocks to 38 resource-defined paddocks. Only one fence remains on its original alignment, the rest being pulled out and realigned to achieve the landscape separation we sought. A central laneway provides an efficient way to move stock around the property”.

Each paddock is now relatively uniform in landscape and soil characteristics such as slope, aspect and soil depth. Paddocks on the lower slopes and flats with deeper soils and more favourable soil moisture conditions now support productive exotic perennial species, primarily Phalaris aquatica pasture. The mid-slopes of the property support native perennial species, particularly pastures of weeping meadow grass (Microlaena stipoides). The hilltops, which 25 years ago only held a few aging trees that had survived earlier clearing, now have native tree vegetation cover.

This strategic design makes for easier decision making when selecting the best vegetation system and management for each paddock. In one case, fencing of a prominent hill to recognise different aspects has provided around four weeks extra green fodder for stock by preventing them abandoning the northerly area at the first sign of haying-off in preference for the increasingly more attractive southerly aspect.

image of grazing sheep
Sheep grazing patterns have been exploited to help regenerate hilltops during periods of drought.

John elaborates, “We divided a large paddock surrounding a hill into several smaller fenced sectors. Strategic grazing for short periods extends the productive grazing of the pastures by several weeks. Rather than allowing the stock to selectively and repeatedly graze the greener pastures, we can keep the stock on the more exposed side of the hill early in the season and move them sector by sector towards the more protected slopes as the pasture dries off”.

Strategic grazing enables pasture productivity to be optimised to match the seasonal conditions and herd and flock husbandry needs. The Ives employ brief heavy grazing, resting at least 25% of property at any one time.

John and Robyn’s approach to managing drought is particularly interesting. They consciously determine which parts of Talaheni are least likely to degrade during these trying times.

John explains, “The silent partner [the land] suffers when the business is failing. This is particularly the case with drought. During drought periods, we move the sheep from the erosion prone areas, which are the more productive flats and mid-slopes, to hilltop paddocks that become ‘sacrificial areas’. Here the stock are concentrated and hand fed throughout the drought. During this time the stock also eat out any remaining forage on these areas”.

“The logic of our approach is that these areas are not as vulnerable to erosion because of their high-in-the-landscape position and stony nature even when almost bare, they are however the sites of high recharge potential and cannot support productive pastures. This may seem a detrimental management practice. Our decision to protect the more productive pastures on erodible soils from grazing pressure during these hard times enables them to respond quickly once the drought breaks.”

With the onset of drought-breaking rains fuelling good pasture growth on the flats and mid-slopes, the hilltops are then destocked and stock moved down to these recovering areas.

“Grazing on the hilltops removes competition from grasses and forbs, leaving the seeds produced by the few remaining hilltop trees – which appear to have an innate ability to produce lots of seed in such periods – to germinate and establish with minimal competition. Given this setting, our experience is that eucalypt germination events are ‘like the hairs on a dog’s back’.”

With stock numbers reduced due to the drought, such areas can then be spelled possibly for many months as flocks and herds rebuild away from these areas, allowing the young trees to become well established without any setback from grazing. If grazing is required from these areas then John and Robyn prefer to pulse graze with stock introduced at very high stocking rates for relatively short periods so they graze the re-establishing grasses and forbs but are removed before any permanent damage occurs to the trees.

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REDUCING SALINITY THROUGH REVEGETATING THE RIDGES

… we have ‘established’ more than 200,000 trees at very little cost on most inhospitable sites.

Talaheni comprises 250 hectares of rolling to hilly terrain. Prior to conversion to intensive grazing, the land cover was forest and grassy woodland. The main tree species were red box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), red stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha), and brittle gum (Eucalyptus mannifera). The majority of pastures are native perennial grasses.

John and Robyn believed from early on that they could reduce their salinity problems by lowering the water table through utilising more water higher on their property. Revegetating the ridges was seen as the way to reduce rainfall infiltrating to the water table. The water table would then be lowered to below the level where saline groundwater could seep to the surface on the potentially productive lower flats.

Over time, this technique has reversed the extensive dryland salinity that had appeared on the property over the previous decades. Without the surface saline seeps, the loss of vegetation cover has been repaired and sheet and gully erosion has reduced.

image of same area of Talaheni in1980 and 2012
Left: In 1982, Talaheni was bare with visible saline seeps. Right: In 2012, revegetation has reduced salinity and pastures are healthy. Initial swales are visible across the lower right of the image.

As part of their grazing strategy, the revegetation has been achieved by intensively grazing ridge areas to maximise ground disturbance and then removing the sheep for one to two years. Tree seeds can germinate readily on disturbed ground and have a chance to establish if the sheep are kept off for long enough.

Where there were insufficient remaining trees to provide seed, seedlings were planted in multiple row strips. The ground was prepared by ripping with a bulldozer to break open the rocky and compacted soils and to enable tree roots to penetrate. Species with potential for quality timber production were included in these tree belts so that, in the long-term, there would be scope for a potential additional source of revenue from timber.

image of tree revegetation
Where there were insufficient seeds for natural regeneration, tree seedlings were planted, including species for possible timber production.

Understanding the land and climate has helped John and Robyn exploit conditions, such as drought, to achieve their goals through grazing management. “While there is little one can do to influence the progress of a drought, we must remain vigilant and take full advantage of any benefits. For landholders wanting to increase tree cover on their properties, drought can get the green revegetation wheel rolling with very little effort when resources are sorely stretched. This has been our experience during the dry times over the past 25 years. We estimate that we have established more than 200,000 locally native trees by exploiting seed production through the drought, with very little effort on our part”, John says.

Any growth is also managed with strategic goals in mind. John explains, “Where we observe excessive re-establishment of tree seedlings on areas with pasture potential then these areas may be managed to remove or reduce tree cover. The approach used depends upon the size of the area and timing. Tools in the armoury include mattocking, spot spraying with herbicide, bull blading and stem injection of herbicide, either singly or in combination to spread the workload over time. Areas are assessed to identify the better soils and flagging tape used to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ areas for easier spotting when removing trees. Where more than one species has re-established, the composition of the stand can be influenced also at this stage. In our case, red box, when present, is preferred to red stringybark. Later still, selective thinning is employed to achieve a vigorous and more sustainable stand density while providing sturdy poles and timber for farm and off-farm use”.

“Using this approach we have ‘established’ more than 200,000 trees at very little cost on most inhospitable sites. This compares with about 20,000 seedlings planted by hand, representing a labour intensive and timing critical process over the same period.”

The hilltop trees now cover the areas with the highest recharge potential and as they grow they continue to “tighten the screw on the recharge tap” and reduce the incidence of dryland salinity on the lower and more productive flats enabling successful establishment of vigorous exotic perennial pastures.

It is estimated that each hectare of ridge top that was revegetated has led to a beneficial lowering of the watertable over 50 hectares of nearby adjoining flats, much of which is on neighbouring properties.

image of half treed half bare ridgeline
The Ive’s ridgeline regeneration success is apparent at their fenceline with neighbouring properties.

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TALAHENI SOIL

When John and Robyn purchased Talaheni 30 years ago the soil health was poor. Nutrient levels were low, as was pH, at around 3.6 in some areas. Soil carbon levels of below 1% meant infiltration and water holding capacity were poor. Aluminium levels were high. High groundwater levels led to saline seeps across a substantial proportion of the property and as a consequence, much of the property suffered from sheet and gully erosion.

Some of these aspects are a natural feature of Talaheni soils, which have been derived from nutrient poor Ordovician metasediments. Landscape cross sections range from ridge top lithosols passing through gravelly shallow red podzolics, to shallow to moderately deep red podozolics to soloths and solodics on the flats.

To improve the soil health, the Ives have added sulphur-enriched reactive rock phosphate and Canberra sewage ash and lime have been used to address pH levels. Poultry manure and gypsum have been applied to assist in improving soil physical properties. Combined with the benefits of increased ground cover and vegetation, soil phosphorus and sulphur levels have increased, as have soil carbon levels. In some of the healthiest areas, soil carbon has recently been measured at 4%. John and Robyn maintain soil nutrient status records, and have over 30 years of periodic sampling data.

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TALAHENI WATER

…management of water tables has all but eliminated saline seeps.

Talaheni has no permanent or ephemeral streams so water supplies depend on a network of dams and tanks on buildings. Construction of the dams was often associated with complementary contour and graded banks. Dams were frequently installed at points where serious gullies were previously active and have been made as deep as possible with as small a surface area as possible to minimise evaporation losses. Contour and graded banks control water movement through the landscape and reduce risk of soil erosion while increasing the opportunity for retaining water on property. Where limited cultivation has been undertaken, this has been done on the contour. Areas with high runoff potential on steep slopes have been ripped at intervals to a depth of 70cm to assist rainfall infiltration and ultimately pasture growth where salinity risk was low.

The low plant-available soil moisture holding capacity, averaging around 60mm, made it a priority to retain as much moisture in the profile where it falls for use by pasture. Accordingly, continuous groundcover has been sought where possible. John notes, “A daily soil water balance ‘WATERBANK’ model has been developed to give a greater understanding of the fate of rainfall and to aid routine management and timing of operations”.

image of dams
To minimise evaporation, dams were made as deep as possible with small surface areas.

Improved soils and water monitoring helps the Ives to manage their variable annual rainfall, which, in the last ten years, has ranged from 363mm in 2006 to 967mm in 2010.

Saline seeps were previously common across Talaheni. High recharge on rocky ridge tops lead to expression of dryland salinity on potentially more productive lower flats. Consequently, water management was initially viewed as the most vital management challenge by John and Robyn. Now, their management of water tables has all but eliminated saline seeps.

The significant revegetation of Talaheni ridges has reduced rainfall deep drainage to the water table, lowering it to below the level where saline groundwater can seep to the surface. The installation of a network of piezometers (devices which measure groundwater pressure and water table height) more than 20 years ago and weekly monitoring has provided a great understanding of the response to this and other on-farm actions to reduce recharge. Documented evidence shows the significant decline in watertable levels and an equally impressive decline in salinity levels of groundwater.

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SUCCESS AT HOME & ABROAD

One needs to develop the skills to read one’s own landscape…

Production increases began to be experienced only a few years after John and Robyn commenced implementation of their plan to repair Talaheni. John summarises, “We started implementing the plan in 1980, and in terms of stock numbers there has been a steady rise since 1983 (trend line 0.15 DSE/ha per year increase). Wool production increase – taking into account wool cut and fibre diameter – has a trend line increase since 1985 at 38 units a year. Cattle weaning weight, adjusted for age, birth date, sex, age of cow trend line has increased at 1kg a year since 1985. These trends continue to the present, when seasonal impacts are removed. Visually change was apparent in 1984. With an above average season we managed to get good groundcover with gullies having been filled and contour and graded banks functioning to slow water movement through landscape”.

image of cattle
Angus beef provides a supplementary production line to ultrafine wool.

A feature of Talaheni has been the protection of remnants of dry sclerophyll woodland, native forests which typically consist of multi-aged stands of eucalypts with an understorey dominated by hard leafed shrubs, grasses, sedges or bracken fern. The health of native vegetation has improved with major recruitment of new trees as result of the Ive’s innovative management practices. Where seed trees do not exist, hand planting has been successful in establishing a corridor network of linking native vegetation.

Overall, around 20,000 native species trees have been planted over the past 30 years, plus an estimated 200,000 trees have been established naturally by the strategic grazing and rest management exploiting variable seasonal conditions. This technique has been documented and subsequently adopted by other landholders.

Measurement and monitoring are important features of the implementation of the Ive’s plan for Talaheni. Transects have been established and vegetation periodically monitored. Regular bird surveys have been undertaken resulting in a current and growing inventory of 125 species. Third-party studies of native ant populations, which are bio-indicators, reveal healthy conditions. Fencing out of remnants and exclusion of domestic grazing together with establishment of linking native vegetation corridors continues to enhance the quality of animal and plant life in the region, and previously moribund trees have recovered.

Initial large areas of serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) and black thistle (Cirsium vulgare) indicated degraded pastures. However over the years the Ive family have worked to improve the per cent of ground covered by pastures and to control major weeds using a targeted spraying program. In addition, every farm vehicle always carries a small mattock and a culture of digging out plants where ever seen during normal farm activities anytime throughout the year has been established.

Using this approach, major weeds found in the district such as serrated tussock, black thistle, fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis) and St Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum) are a relatively minor problem. John notes, “Although these weeds are not totally eradicated, due largely to wind-blown seed migrating from adjoining properties, control these days is a minor task”.

Successful land managers adapt by adopting production and land management systems appropriate to the circumstances, the markets and the environment.

The success of Talaheni has been widely recognised locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Results from a number of collaborative on-farm trials with different agencies continue to be used to promote new or amended practices throughout the region and are the focus for regular on-farm field days.

John and Robyn have experienced the steady receipt of some 27 awards for farming achievements over the past 30 years – the most recent was the National Carbon Cocky Award in September 2011. National and international press have carried stories of Talaheni – one article appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and Chinese Peoples Daily.

As a result of such achievements, John and Robyn are regularly asked to provide on and off farm presentations to groups from across south eastern Australia and overseas. They also serve on a number of industry and state committees dealing with resource issues, such as the AWI Wool Carbon Alliance.

John summarises, “The journey has been an immensely gratifying one as Talaheni has been transformed from an environmental and farming basket-case to an enterprise that attracts interest from near and far and continues to be recognised with the receipt of awards and invitations to present to farming and agency audiences across southern Australia”.

WORDS OF ADVICE

John points out the importance of embracing change in improving land management practices, “People are reluctant to consider and embrace new approaches because of ingrained attitudes. In our view, change is inevitable. Successful land managers adapt by adopting production and land management systems appropriate to the circumstances, the markets and the environment. By resisting change and sticking with the old ways the silent partner, that is, the land, suffers”.

John and Robyn believe that there is no single right way to improve land management. “Our desire is that people reading about Talaheni shouldn’t consider Talaheni as a place for rote learning, but should study the principles and apply them to their circumstances.” They recommend that, “One needs to develop the skills to read one’s own landscape and the processes involved and then seek to address the limiting and declining factors supported by a sound monitoring program. Although this may draw upon experiences and recommendations of others, the adoption of established management approaches in a rote-like manner is fraught with danger and not encouraged”.

Likewise the term ‘best practice’ is not encouraged by John and Robyn due to the finality it implies. They say, “Rather, practices should be seen more in the dynamic vane of a rainbow – although always in sight, they remain elusive but tantalisingly achievable as new and better understanding moves the destination”.

image of trees on ridgeline

THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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‘TALLAWANG’ – GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

Craig Carter and his partner Nicky Chirlian aspire to a balance of low farming inputs, comfortable returns and a healthy diverse landscape. Implementing a combination of water management and grazing practices has restored their landscape hydrology, delivering the productive, greener pastures to support their goal.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

FARM FACTS

Willow Tree, 60km south-west of Quirindi, NSW North West Slopes and Plains

ENTERPRISE: Cattle, sheep. Beef cattle and sheep trading

PROPERTY SIZE: 445 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 800 mm

ELEVATION: 400-500m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Disenchantment with ‘traditional’ grazing methods in producing a healthy landscape and adequate returns

INNOVATIONS

  • Construction of leaky weirs and swales to slow water flow
  • Rotational grazing in wagon-wheel design
  • Stock trading
  • Innovations commenced: 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • 250% increase in carrying capacity
  • 15-23% profit margin on cattle production
  • Constant river outflow regardless of inflow
  • Improved landscape hydrology
  • Increased native biodiversity

INTRODUCTION

Craig and Nicky both returned to their farming backgrounds after pursuing other careers for a period of time – for Craig, running a financial planning business in Sydney, while Nicky worked in disability services in Armidale. Nicky now runs a private speech pathology practice in Quirindi and surrounding districts.

On arrival at Tallawang in 2001, Craig was concerned about the poor condition of the land – erosion, soil compaction and impoverished pastures – and the severely eroded creek and gullies. He had become disenchanted with his family history of “traditional” land use and set stock grazing on other properties. It was apparent that traditional grazing methods had not produced a healthy landscape nor provided adequate returns. To achieve these outcomes, Craig combined the principles of two newer methods he had encountered, rotational grazing techniques learned through the Grazing for Profit course and water management based on Peter Andrews’ Natural Sequence Farming methods.

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BLENDING PRINCIPLES TO ATTAIN EFFECTIVE HYDROLOGY

When he purchased Tallawang in 2001, Craig’s objective was to establish a low cost, regenerative grazing operation. In terms of obstacles in moving from the traditional farming methods he had grown up with, Craig says, “the main impediment to change is between the ears”.

Drawing from the more contemporary farm management practices he had encountered over the years, Craig and Nicky now apply a blend of the principles of Grazing for Profit and Natural Sequence Farming. These combined techniques have been used to implement a philosophy of low input cost for significant return, using cattle trading and breeding.

The main impediment to change is between the ears.

Craig notes, “We have used a range of management tools that are all designed to be low cost, low impact bumps on mother nature’s side to assist her to rebuild the function of a damaged environment. This is a constant learning process”.

In summary, cell grazing was introduced to Tallawang in 2002. Accessing available grant monies, Yarramanbah Creek, which runs through the property, was fenced and tree corridors were planted. In 2005 a series of leaky weirs was constructed along the length of the creek to retard water flow and enable the original chain of ponds to become re-established.

The existing contour banks in higher country were modified in 2009, by blocking them at intervals, to form swales that retain and more effectively use water in the upper parts of the landscape. This process has enabled surface water to infiltrate higher in the landscape, thus maintaining the quality and quantity of the pasture longer in the drier times, By enabling more water to be absorbed into the soil, the pastures are more lush resulting in the cattle tending to walk less to find the water trough, which is located lower down the slope.

Some slashing has been used since 2010 in combination with cell grazing on creek flats to increase soil organic matter and encourage regeneration of native grasses.

As a result, water is retained in the landscape for longer, being readily available for plants and animals. Combined with increased vegetation and soil organic matter, overall landscape hydrology has improved. Craig and Nicky are monitoring these results.

Craig notes, “As we experiment with new tools and expand our skills with old favourites, we aim to record what we have done and the observed responses. Hopefully the landscape function and productivity are improving under our watch”.

Left: Erosion along the creek had exposed the underlying base of basalt rocks.
Right: Healing erosion along banks as a result of interventions.

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CONVERTING THE WATERWAYS

Yarramanbah Creek bisects Tallawang, winding for 4.5km through the property. Average annual rainfall in the region is approximately 800mm, falling mainly from December to February and June to July.

Prior to the 1960s Tallawang was grazed with sheep and cattle. A central bore supplied two small tanks from where water was reticulated to 25 troughs. Yarramanbah Creek had also been used for stock water and was fenced into small paddocks along its length. The banks of the creek and tributaries were incised, with gullies and contour banks further draining water off the property, increasing susceptibility to drought. The creek had eroded down to a base of basalt rocks and stones for its length. Vegetation associated with the creek was characterised by remnant she-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana) and rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda) trees. Little regeneration was observed and many of the trees were over-mature and senescent.

Craig employed Peter Andrews to design creek structures, at a project cost of $17,000, establishing a series of leaky weirs in the creek. These were constructed mainly using dead trees in conjunction with later plantings of common flag reed (Phragmites australis). Potential opposition to this work from the government authorities soon dissipated when the positive environmental effect on retarding flow and creating ponds became evident.

Casurina regrowth and pioneer species covering the old creek bed.
Grassed up basalt rock creek bed forming a chain of ponds.

Six years later, the previously bare soils and gravel beds are covered with regenerating plants – including prolific pioneer plants or weeds but also dense patches of river she-oak seedlings. Considerable siltation is evident as the vegetation traps sediment carried from properties upstream.

Yarramanbah Creek is now a ‘chain of ponds’ with inflow varying according to local rainfall, but constant outflow. Craig’s paddock layout provides cattle water points high in the landscape, which discourages stock from accessing the creek for water and causing any damage to banks.

In 2009 Craig modified the existing contour banks in the higher country by blocking them at intervals to form swales. He also constructed additional swales to further intercept runoff and increase rainfall infiltration in the upper slopes.

Phragmites australis regenerating along the creek bed.

Craig states, “Through our work in converting the contour banks constructed in the 1960s into water holding swales, we are restoring the watershed. This process is beginning to restore the hydrological function of the landscape”.

Improved hydrological function ensures maximum infiltration, extending the growing season of the grasses and providing greener pastures. As a result, Tallawang has become significantly wetter along the upper and mid slopes with increased palatable vegetation later in the drier seasons. Wells that were empty on Craig’s arrival to the property are now full. Previously dry soils along the creek flats are now swampy meadows and wetland plants that did not exist on the property prior to the commencement of the work are in abundance. Rainfall is now available to be used effectively where it falls, rather than being whisked away quickly by poor ground cover with eroded creek lines acting as drains.

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FROM BREEDING TO TRADING

The first cattle to graze in the Cattle Creek locality were brought there in 1826 from the Hunter Valley by Benjamin Singleton (after whom the Hunter Valley town is named) and his son-in-law Otto Baldwin. The locality was included in the Warrah Estate, a property of some 100,000 hectares granted to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1833. The land occupied by Tallawang formed one of the paddocks of the Warrah Estate.

When introducing cell grazing in 2002, Craig elected to use a ‘wagon wheel’ fencing design, where paddocks are arranged radiating from a water point at the centre, and single-wire electric fencing for cost-effective grazing management.

To the casual visitor, one of the most obvious differences at Tallawang compared to other cattle properties is the style of fencing used to manage the herd. Gone are the gates – one simply lifts and drives under, or drives over the fences. The internal permanent fences that were present in 2001, that is, closely spaced fence posts and considerable amounts of wire, have been removed.

Stock have access to a central waterpoint from multiple paddocks using the wagon wheel design.

There are now around 100 small triangular shaped paddocks arranged in six cells. At first glance the fences are rather skimpy, comprising sparsely spaced steel posts and a single strand of high-tensile electric wire, running 3000-4000 volts. The simple construction allows fencing layouts to be easily moved or modified to suit landscape needs. Fences are only turned on around individual paddocks being grazed, and the cattle know when the fences are turned on; otherwise they just walk right over the wire. As a general rule each paddock is grazed for no more than three days out of every 90 days.

Craig manages his property to meet production and landscape outcomes, “Across Tallawang we have gradually increased the stocking rate, based on availability of regenerating native grasses. Cattle are not hand fed [when pastures become depleted] – numbers are managed according to available biomass and rainfall”. To facilitate this, Craig has changed the business from a breeding focus to a trading focus, which entails greater flexibility with stocking rates. Trading cattle enables stocking to be varied as needed to suit seasonal conditions.

“This initiative comes from my experience as a share trader at the Sydney Stock Exchange. At the start of winter, I look to the New England tablelands almost 200km away, where the winters are much harder on pastures than they are on the Liverpool Ranges. At that time cattle producers on the New England are looking to sell their stock to protect their pastures over the harsh cold winter; at the same time I can be looking to buy in cattle to help manage excess grass cover. It is a sound business model for us”, Craig explains.

Illustration of a cell of paddocks in a wagon wheel design. This depicts Paddock 3 being grazed, with access to the waterpoint and electric fence turned on.

The stock carrying capacity has increased dramatically with the introduction of time-controlled cell grazing and the restoration of native pastures. In 2002, Tallawang was carrying 218 dairy heifers with an average weight of 300kg. In early 2012, the stock comprises 300 breeding cows plus progeny, as well as 360 ewes with lambs and a further 150 ewes due to lamb in the following month.

“The main tool we have used over the last decade is grazing management. By varying the numbers of stock and using a short graze and long rest period and the paddock size, we are able to encourage the more palatable grasses while the less desirable ones get trampled and can’t compete. The key variable is the timing, frequency and amount of rain”, Craig points out. Craig maintains rolling monthly rainfall data to inform his grazing management, with records for comparison back to 1883.

“Livestock are integral to this process. Like all tools they can be used badly or effectively. Overgrazing has been a cause of a significant amount of degradation in the landscape, merely amending that has had some dramatic positive impacts.”

Increased silt deposits have allowed reed beds and swampy meadows to form along the creek.

RE-HYDRATING THE SOIL

In the lower slopes and narrow riparian plains where Tallawang is located, soils are deep, heavy clay soils (vertisols) derived on weathered basalt. The vertisols, which are widespread in the Liverpool plains region, have high natural fertility. However, when Craig purchased the property in late 2001, Tallawang was typical of most heavy basalt soils, with deficiencies in nitrogen, sulphur and selenium.

Reviewing past practices shows how Craig’s approach has improved the hydrology of soil. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cropping was introduced in the 1960s and it is understood that introduction of cropping coincided with extensive earth works. Earth banks were constructed at a slight decline towards the gullies to remove excess soil water and enable cropping. The increased runoff to the drainage lines may have exacerbated the already severe gully and streambed erosion. By 2000, water retention along the upper and mid slopes was poor, increasing the property’s susceptibility to drought.

The effects of the cropping practices prior to 2001 can be seen by a recent comparison of a native pasture site on the property with a cropped site, as shown in the following table. Both sites had the same general history of grazing from the 1820s until the 1960s. The cropped site was cropped from the 1960s to 2000, and even with over ten years of improved management practices, still shows poorer results in terms of ground cover, carbon and nitrogen stores.

Site (2011)Native pastureCropped
Ground cover95%73%
Total carbon4.9%2.4%
Total nitrogen   0.3%0.2%

Increased soil carbon, ground cover, and slowing the flow of water through the leaky weirs has all contributed to improved soil hydrology. Craig notes, “The property has become significantly wetter in higher country with increased vegetation following implementation of swales, and swampy meadows establishing on creek flats”.

Paralleling improvements in the hydrological function has been a steady increase in organic matter in soil. Much of the increased soil carbon has been due to cell grazing over ten years with inputs from cattle manure and humus associated with short term high rotation of cattle. Soil tests from one paddock of native pasture show continuing improvement over time, as presented in the table below.

Year2008 
2011
Total carbon2.86%      4.90%      
Total nitrogen0.27%0.30%
pH (1:5 water)   7.186.6

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PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES

The main tool we have used over the last decade is grazing management.

The original native vegetation of the area surrounding Tallawang was grassy box woodland with sparse eucalypts.

At the time of purchase, Tallawang appeared run down and overgrazed. The property comprised 20% lucerne (for grazing and hay), 5% grazing oats and 75% native and naturalised pasture. Previous management had relied excessively on lucerne for grazing and supplementary feeding of all stock had been required each winter.

By changing the grazing management, Craig has transformed the landscape. There is extensive regeneration of kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), tall oat grass (Themeda avenacea), lobed blue grass (Bothriochloa biloba) and silky brown top (Eulalia aurea). A gradual decrease in lucerne has been observed through use of cell grazing and some slashing of plains grass, combined with broadcast legumes in 2009. Native trees and shrubs are naturally regenerating.

Pastures with visible exposed bare ground in 2002 (left) now have 95% groundcover and
a significantly increased carrying capacity (right).

By creating the environment to re-establish the chain of ponds along the Yarramanbah Creek there has been observed significant recruitment of varieties of sedges and rushes, notably cigar rush (Lepironia articulata), club rush (Schoenoplectus spp.) and marsh club rush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis), as well as considerable recruitment of river she-oak, rough-barked apple and native olive (Notelaea microcarpa).

BIODIVERSITY ON TALLAWANG

Plant life observed on the property includes:

Perennial Grasses

  • silky brown top (Eulalia aurea)
  • kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra)
  • tall oat grass (Themeda avenacea)
  • blue grass (Dichanthium sericeum subsp. sericeum)
  • wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia bipartita)
  • Warrego summer grass (Paspalidium jubiflorum)
  • water couch (Paspalum distichum)
  • wild sorghum (Sorghum leiocladum)
  • plains grass (Austrostipa aristiglumis)
  • cotton panic (Digitaria brownie)
  • hairy panic (Panicum effusum)
  • slender bamboo grass (Austrostipa verticillata)
  • tall Chloris (Chloris ventricosa)
  • lobed blue grass (Bothriochloa biloba)
  • red grass (Bothriochloa macra)

Wetland Plants

  • spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)
  • spike sedge (Bolboscheonus spp.)
  • common flag reed (Phragmites australis)
  • cigar rush (Lepironia articulata )
  • club rush (Schoenoplectus spp.)
  • marsh club rush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis)

Trees

  • white box (Eucalyptus albens)
  • river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
  • Blakely’s red gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi)
  • rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda)
  • kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)
  • river she-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana)
  • hickory wattle (Acacia implexa)
  • Cooba (Acacia salicina)
  • native olive (Notelaea microcarpa)

Weeds on Tallawang are not seen as an area of concern for Craig and no chemicals are used for weed management. His experience has shown that weeds follow a natural sequence, with reductions in weeds, such as Bathurst burr (Xanthium spinosum) and stickybeak (Bidens pilosa), occurring as native pastures increase. Across the property, prickly pear (Opuntia stricta) and sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa) are the more persistent perennial weeds and these are removed manually. Nearby roadside verges do have some infestation of African love grass (Eragrostis curvula), Coolatai grass (Hyparrhenia hirta), Noogoora burr (Xanthium spp.) and a small amount of St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum),but these are not problematic on Tallawang.

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ATTAINING BALANCE

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

Craig’s management practices have transformed the two main soil-landscape types on Tallawang; riparian systems and gently sloping grassy box gum woodlands. Compared to 2001, Tallawang now has more ecological function, restoring what is naturally inherent in grassy woodlands landscapes.

The innovations have resulted in a rehydrated landscape, and the restored ecological function is evidenced by increased ground cover, biomass and soil carbon. The property is becoming increasingly “drought proofed”. There is a broadened diversity of native grasses as they re-emerge from the seed, stabilised creek banks, regenerating riparian vegetation and increased biodiversity.

Numbers and species of small birds and parrots, spiders, frogs and echidnas have increased across the property as a result of the management changes and increase of vegetation cover, particularly native vegetation. Reptiles – geckos, lizards and lace monitors – are seen more frequently. Firetail gudgeons, a small native fish, have been observed in the creek. There are more wetland plants including spiny-headed mat-rush, other rushes, common flag reed and significant regeneration of river she-oak, rough-barked apple and native olive.

In 2012 Tallawang now aims for a 15 to 23% profit on cattle production through breeding and trading programs. Organic matter is increasing and cattle numbers can be managed with very little input costs. Craig has presented on Natural Sequence Farming at various venues and has become a member of the Sydney University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources ‘CANEn’ project – Connecting Agriculture, Nutrition and Environment.

Craig and Nicky have established a personal philosophy for health and life balances. Together they have learned to read their country and landscape and to work with this to enable them to tread lightly on the environment. To ensure the ongoing health of their landscape and their lives they aim, “to be continuously open to new ideas and have the courage to implement them as avenues to meet ongoing goals”.


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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‘THREE RIVERS STATION’ – RESTORING THE GASCOYNE RANGELAND WITH COMMITMENT, COOPERATION AND HARD WORK

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

RESTORING THE GASCOYNE RANGELAND – COMMITMENT, COOPERATION & HARD WORK

Graham Forsyth and his son Ben have an absolute commitment to the work they are performing on Three Rivers Station to slow the flow of water, restore soil health and regenerate their part of the degraded West Australian rangelands in the Gascoyne River catchment.

GO TO:

FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

FARM FACTS

230 km north of Meekatharra, 1000 km north east of Perth, WA Mid West

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Bos Taurus beef production

PROPERTY SIZE: 480,000 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 225 mm

ELEVATION: 550-600m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Degraded landscape unable to support stock

INNOVATIONS

  • De-stocking of property to allow for regeneration
  • Construction of strategic earthworks to slow surface water flow, restore water flow to wetlands and floodplains, reduce erosion, build soil and promote perennial pasture regeneration
  • Innovations commenced: 2004

KEY RESULTS

  • Gradual regeneration of perennial pastures
  • Erosion stabilisation and reduction
  • Water ponding and reduced evaporation

INTRODUCTION

From their initial purchase of the pastoral lease in 1984, the Forsyth family built Three Rivers Station into a highly successful and extensive beef enterprise. During this time, the family came to realise that traditional management of the rangelands had caused them to decline to a critically fragile level. In response to this knowledge they began to implement different management practices to regenerate rangeland function.

image of sun shining through trees and grassland
Three Rivers scenery

Since 1992, increasing mining operations and exploration on the station has interrupted pastoral operations and made large demands on water supplies in the aquifers. However, it was observing cattle of below expected condition at the 2003 muster that led the Forsyths to make the difficult decision to de-stock their property. This has culminated in the effective suspension of pastoral operations while mine exploration and development is taking place, but has enabled conditions to help restore the landscape.

The Forsyths have turned what could have been a family catastrophe into an opportunity, working with the mining companies to halt the decline and accelerate the regeneration of the rangelands. After building their knowledge on local landscape and function, they have been experimenting with earthworking techniques such as rakes and bunds to stabilise erosion areas and nurturing perennial grass seed banks. This work has seen active gullies stabilised, surface water flow slowed and spread across the landscape and a dramatic increase in the abundance, diversity and vigour of perennial grasses.

Together, Graham and Ben Forsyth are investing in the future to re-establish grazing operations. They are restoring the degraded landscape in their part of the West Australian rangelands.

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THREE RIVERS STATION

Three Rivers Station is located at the headwaters of the Gascoyne River in the rangelands in the mid-north of Western Australia, intersected by the Great Northern Highway. It has been used for extensive pastoral operations since 1898. The long term average rainfall is about 225mm with very large variability and a trend towards summer dominant rainfall or significant storm events evident in the last decades.

“We are responsible to produce food that makes people healthy and that gives a fair share to everyone in the supply chain so they can look after their people and the land.”

The Forsyth family purchased the Three Rivers pastoral lease in 1984. In 1992 they sold the lease to Plutonic Gold Mine, which is currently owned by Barrick Resources Pty Ltd of Canada. The Forsyths subsequently sub-leased back the grazing rights to the property.

The Forsyths built up a high quality breeding herd based on Bos Taurus genetics. From 1995 to 2004 the progeny from Three Rivers was used to produce the Forsyth family’s own Three Rivers Beef, which was marketed across Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. The Three Rivers brand was notable not only for the quality of the product, but also for the values the brand embodied: integrity of relationship with the pastoral ecology and ensuring that everyone in the supply chain got a fair share of the profits. As Graham says, “We are responsible to produce food that makes people healthy and that gives a fair share to everyone in the supply chain so they can look after their people and the land”.

The Forsyth family were conservative in their stocking levels and traditionally managed to a carrying capacity of 2,857 large stock units (unit of measure based on the feed requirements for a 450kg steer). Availability of stock water is important when managing grazing in the vast rangelands where the size of the area makes fencing cost-prohibitive. Watering points are used to encourage cattle to move to areas ready to be grazed and to leave areas needing rest. Provision of water for cattle on Three Rivers Station is from permanent natural water as well as localised watering points. Watering points are supplied from local bores using a combination of windmill, tank and trough as well as solar and diesel pumps.

Initially, processing of ore at Plutonic Mine placed a large demand on water supply. In response, watering points had to be deepened by over a metre to reach the water table. Plutonic have since implemented recycling, water use efficiency programs and tapped into a second water table, somewhat easing the pressure on station water.

THE FRAGILE RANGELANDS

“Generally, soil health in Western Australia’s arid rangelands is historically unknown, or not considered, by land managers.”

Western Australia’s rangelands are vast areas of lands from the headwaters and catchments of major rivers including the Gascoyne and the Murchison. The original sandy loam topsoils have traditionally been a rich resource for extensive grazing operations and have been the base of major industries producing beef, sheep and wool. The rangelands are a fragile and sparsely populated landscape on ancient geology in a harsh and unforgiving climate.

The rangelands are also a mineral resource asset. Since starting slowly in the 1960s, mining interest in the area has accelerated. There are currently 40 mining and exploration leases and two active mines on Three Rivers Station. The main mineral interests are copper, gold and iron ore. Mining exploration and operations can be highly disruptive to pastoral enterprises and the landscape as they set up rigs, mines and roads and compete for water from the local aquifers.

image of an erosion gutter forming
An example of road construction re-directing the flow of water, potentially causing an erosion threat to the floodplain.

There is ample evidence that unfortunately, until recently, some members of the rangeland community have not understood the brittle nature of the land, its vulnerability to the placement and construction of roads, the importance of perennial grasses to the landscape function and the vulnerability of the grasses to over-grazing.

Ben points out, “Generally, soil health in Western Australia’s arid rangelands is historically unknown, or not considered, by land managers. The most limiting soil factor is water and the main symptom of soil ill health is landscape desiccation as a result of loss of perennial ground cover species and nicks in the landscape resulting in an accelerating incising of the drainage lines”.

image of a salt-encrusted creek-bed
Evident salinity in a streambed.

The land is so brittle that areas of wagon tracks of the old settlers, or accidental ‘nicks’ in the landscape caused by new roads in contemporary times can have a major effect if they result in concentration of water into a channel on bare ground. The landscape is so flat, that an incision measuring only centimetres can change the water course. In large rain events, small incisions can result in rapid gully formation and change the drainages so significantly that the course of the river can be altered, leaving important wetlands and floodplains perched above even the most significant floods. Such a minor incision in this flat landscape can concentrate large amounts of water that should spread gently over the plains without damaging them, into destructive torrents that can wash metres of soil (and salt) downstream. This in turn threatens the productivity of lower areas in the catchment.

As a result of decades of poor grazing practice, the rangeland perennial grasses have steadily declined. This, plus erosion-causing surface damage, has left the fragile topsoil exposed and vulnerable to the variable climate and occasional, but quite extreme rain events. By the latter part of last century, much of the topsoil in the rangelands had eroded, leaving the hard, water-shedding subsoil that can only support sparse annual grasses and shrubs that are tough enough to establish roots.

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A CHANGE IN TRADITION

The Forsyth family was endeavouring to stop erosion and to restore the landscape function whilst running a fully operational pastoral business, however incremental change was not sufficient. Ben points out, “When dramatic change is needed, more often than not dramatic action will be required to jar things out of the current paradigm”.

Dramatic action was triggered at the 2003 muster when the family observed that the cattle did not look as good as they thought they ought to, given the amount of feed that appeared to be on offer. They made the decision to remove all the mustered cattle from Three Rivers and to de-stock the property. To this day Graham Forsyth is convinced that if he had not done this, many of the cattle would have died the following summer, even if heavy weaning was carried out. This courageous act has cost the family approximately one million dollars in direct costs and lost opportunity from the pastoral lease.

Hard subsoils exposed after loss of topsoil along the river.

As a consequence, the combination of declined landscape function and the difficulties of integrating their pastoral operations with further mining exploration and expansion prevented the Forsyths from running a viable pastoral business at Three Rivers Station. In Graham’s words, “When your cash flow stops, all hell breaks loose”.

Pastoralists whose stations are already showing signs of degradation and who are also being significantly impacted by mining would be forgiven for selling their lease to the mines and leaving. Instead, the Forsyth family chose to turn what could have been a tragic end to a pastoral family tradition into an opportunity to accelerate rangeland regeneration.

Together, Graham and his son Ben, are forging a new era of pastoral cooperation with mining in the rangelands. They have formed a new business, Three Rivers Contracting, to provide services to the mining companies in support of their exploration and mining operations. This business leverages the Forsyth knowledge of the land, their skills with machinery and earthworks and their business acumen. The machinery used in support of mining is compatible with that needed on the rangeland for regeneration works. It allows them to earn an income from an alternate use of the land and the developing partnership has already enabled strategically important interventions to regenerate this valuable landscape.

Mining companies are obligated to restore the landscapes they have operated in. In the past, many mining restoration works have been focused at the closure of part of a mine, or at the end of operations, levelling hills of overburden into the excavations and restoring vegetation. Generally, the more remote the mine, the less effort devoted to rehabilitation. At Three Rivers, Graham and Ben and their partners in the mines, in particular Barrick Gold, are demonstrating that a great deal of highly effective landscape regeneration can be occurring whilst the mine is still operating. Such a progressive approach to regeneration potentially offers benefits to the mine and its personnel through local service provision to complement the mining company’s own skills, greater landscape amenity through regenerated rangelands and possibly improved security of water supply by greater recharge of the aquifers – as well as beginning the landscape repair required as part of the mine’s exit strategy.

LEARNING IN ORDER TO HEAL

They are now demonstrating that… these pastures can also build soil, guard against erosion and increase ecological complexity and function.

A combination of influences and their own observations led the Forsyth family to recognise that the ecological health of Three Rivers Station was declining and that this was partly due to their own and others’ mismanagement of aspects such as groundwater and roads which could have a negative impact the landscape.

Particularly influential were insights gained from working with respected rangeland ecologists, Dr. Ken Tinley and Dr Hugh Pringle. Together they worked on a program to facilitate ecologically sustainable rangeland management using the Ecosystem Management Understanding (EMU) approach, as delivered jointly by the West Australian Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Conservation. Building on local knowledge, the EMU approach involves reading and recognising the terrain elements in the landscape, their internal and linking functions, condition and trends. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of what the landscape can and cannot offer.

In addition to participation in these formal programs, the Forsyth family invested a great deal of personal effort in their study of the history, geography and climate of the area to better understand what was happening in the landscape. They used the diaries of the original settlers, examined the notes regarding rainfall and stocking levels from the pastoral families that had previously managed Three Rivers and searched newspaper archives.

image of grasses and scrub
Typical shrub land of sparse grasses and woody weeds.

They noticed that records from Three Rivers Station showed a repetition of cycles of drought years followed by wet years followed by dramatic reduction in stocking levels. They coupled this information with their own observations that the dominant vegetation during their tenure of the lease was shrubs with largely bare soil between them except for a short time following rain, when they observed a flush of annual grasses and forbs that quickly dried off and blew away.

As cattlemen, they also observed that the annual grasses and shrubs, although highly nutritious, could not support the same levels of animal productivity, water infiltration and soil health that perennial grasses can achieve. In transitioning from a grassland to shrub lands of woody weeds, the productivity of pastoral operations had declined.

These cycles indicated to the family the importance of managing the balance between shrubs and pastures in maintaining the ecological function of the rangelands. From their work with animal nutrition, they came to realise that balancing shrubs and pastures in the rangelands was also important to cattle health and productivity.

image of healthy pastures
Thriving perennial pastures.

Contemporary understanding of the rangeland ecology by government departments, natural resource management groups and even pastoralists such as the Forsyths has been that many of Australia’s semi-arid rangelands are shrub lands with little or no topsoil and little, if any, capacity to support perennial grasses. From their study however, the Forsyths concluded that diverse native perennial grasses had thrived in the rangelands in the past. They are now demonstrating that these grasses can thrive again, and showing that, with help, these pastures can also build soil, guard against erosion and increase ecological complexity and function.


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INVESTING IN THE SOIL & CALMING THE WATERS

In regenerating the rangelands, Ben points out, “Our focus is on looking after the soils before other aspects of management, as this is where true sustainability will be judged”.

The Forsyth priority for helping the soil recover its health is to firstly to slow down the flow of water on the landscape so that it soaks into the soil. The best tools for this job are diverse communities of vegetation – dense swards of perennial grasses, forbs, shrubs and some trees. The reduction in grazing pressure to very light grazing has already resulted in vegetation re-establishing in some of the better areas, such as where healthier, protected soils held seed banks of perennial grasses. Perennial grasses are particularly important because they are typically deep rooted and persist all year, so they hold and build soil. Because the rangelands have already lost a lot of soil and plant species over the last 100 years of pastoral management, it has become a race of regeneration against erosion.

image of Ben and Graham looking at a map
Ben and Graham use aerial photos to identify priority erosion locations for treatment.

Graham and Ben judged that mechanical intervention was needed to speed up the recovery process and took advantage of earthworking equipment available through their contracting business. In the recovery process a fine balance is required between mechanical intervention, maximising perennial grass seed build up and the managed use of cattle.

Ben notes that they have been “Property planning using the EMU methods, identifying key erosion locations and required interventions and treatments on aerial photo overlays. These interventions have been implemented at a limited scale with encouraging results for controlling the loss of water from the landscape”.

The Forsyths have trialled and developed “water calming” interventions, starting at the erosion source areas and working downstream. The techniques used at Three Rivers include interventions such as bunds (raised embankments), rakes (evenly spaced poles embedded in the ground to catch debris) and strategic banks. (See images below.) These interventions are all slightly different methods for slowing water flow during rain events and spreading the water out over a large area so it becomes de-energised and loses its erosive power. Each has slightly different characteristics of performance and cost and is matched carefully to the situation being managed. As an added bonus, the interventions also trap debris and sediment which then becomes decomposing organic matter which in turn provides a nursery for grasses and shrubs to grow in.

An innovative approach to using local materials was generated by the Forsyth family’s intimate knowledge of their land. They had noticed that a locally available rock, calcrete*, had a binding action and was having a beneficial effect on regeneration of perennial grasses. The Forsyths had noticed that where the truck that carted the calcrete had bounced on rough ground and spilled calcrete, “The effect on the palatability of that grass was unbelievable. For the width of the truck, where the spillage was, grass had been chewed down to the ground to the edge of the spill, beyond that, the dry grass was totally left alone. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, that’s for sure. I don’t think much scientific work has been done on calcrete, I think we’re the first people to try anything”.

Where this rock had been used as a road surface, more grasses were growing along the road side. Whilst no soil testing has been performed, as the rock is highly alkaline, it appears that it was helping the soil chemistry to suit the perennials grasses as well as being a strong road surface. They put this insight into action where the remnant flood plains were actively eroding, using calcrete in their regenerative earthworks.

Bunds, rakes and banks are very practical in that they can be implemented with readily available equipment and they provide a rapid response as soon as it rains. They do not prevent flood water flow, but help to capture debris and sedimentation and to build soil and vegetation.

image of a calcrete bund and kangaroo grass
Left: Calcrete bund to slow and divert the flow of water. Right: Thriving kangaroo grass alongside the bund.

The areas of concern were mainly those lower in the landscape, the river bed and floodplains. Because of the soil characteristics of the area and the lack of topsoil, the remaining soil is vulnerable to slumping when it becomes wet. The resulting ‘crab holes’ become an issue if they start to join up, creating extensive fronts of sheetwash erosion. The Forsyths have seen this result in some significant incisions in the landscape.

A technique Graham and Ben have developed to address this is simple and effective. It consists of chamfering (flattening) the erosion face to give it a gradual slope rather than a vertical face, then lining the fresh face with calcrete. They have found that this is a very low risk approach, and even if the work fails in places, the calcrete armour prevents erosion from progressing. This technique appears to have an added bonus of the calcrete lifting the soil pH and helping the perennial grasses to grow vigorously.

image of small and increasing sheet erosion
Small ‘crab holes’ of collapsed soils (left) can spread to form massive fronts of sheet erosion (right).
image grasses growing over chamfered erosion
Chamfered erosion in September 2005 (left) and stabilisation through colonisation of annual and perennial grasses after summer rain (no flood) in March 2006 (right).

image of interventions on Three Rivers Station

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MOSAICS OF HEALING

…You change your intent towards your country and it responds.

The strategies put in place by the Forsyth family are clearly being successful in helping mosaics of regenerating soil and vegetation to establish and expand. Ben notes, “Historically Three Rivers has had a comprehensive photo and species count monitoring system in place. Due to the destocked period, and resultant drop in available time and money, monitoring has not been as thorough in recent years. Anecdotally, the perennial grass content of the pasture has dramatically increased in the last five years and there has been a definite decrease in erosion at the locations that have been treated”.

image of some grasses on near-bare ground
Recolonisation of perennial grasses after de-stocking, forming a seed bank.

Ben continues, “Significant increases in the population of perennial grass species has occurred since de-stocking happened in 2003-4. It is assumed that this will lead to an increase in soil biology and sequestration of carbon”. Perennial grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) and silky brown-top (Eulalia aurea) are recolonising areas in groves that formed after the destocking. On slightly-sloping sheetwash eroded terrain, alternating strips of sandy topsoil are supporting these groves, separated by usually bare gravel bands that only support low annual wind-grasses for a short time after rain. These clumps of grass form seed banks – or “seed orchards” – which allow the grasses to build and spread.

Kangaroos have long plagued Three Rivers Station, competing in droves for the scarce grasses with livestock. Ben and Graham have noticed that kangaroos prefer short grasses and will eat them to the roots, yet ignore longer grasses. Where grasses are growing taller, kangaroos are not to be found. As the impact of regeneration spreads across the landscape, Graham and Ben are seeing fewer and fewer kangaroos. They feel there is a strong possibility that, as the grassland returns, the kangaroos will maintain balanced and healthy numbers on Three Rivers Station.

image of pond of water amongst trees
Water ponding upstream of established rakes.

Some gullies that were forming in the Middle Branch of the Gascoyne have been stabilised by the erosion-control earthworks and calcrete and this, combined with the respite from grazing from both cattle and kangaroos, has resulted in extensive perennial grass recruitment and probably increased recharge into groundwater. The river banks have more grass. Pools that used to exist upstream of the rakes have filled with sand. They still contain water, but as this is covered by 30cm or so of sand, there is no evaporation.

In one area, as is common, an accidental nick in the landscape due to road works on an old track had caused a small incision to start. This small incision had the capability of putting at risk the water course leaving some wetlands perched above the new stream level. The stream diversion banks, made of calcrete have been successful in stopping the progress of the incision and in restoring the flows of the river to this wetland.

Interestingly, a new grass has been found on Three Rivers which has not yet been identified. Graham Forsyth reports it as, “extremely vigorous, with very vigorous rhizomes and limited spread by seed. It produces a dense sward able to capture litter and sediment. It appears to be able to use soil moisture at any time and maintains green leaf well into dry periods. It is palatable to cattle and horses, both graze it only to a height of about 10cm.”

image of grass species
Left: Graham discussing the as-yet unidentified new grass on Three Rivers Station. Right: New grass shoot.

Graham says, “Nature’s wonderful and it’s just waited for the right circumstances and the manager of the land. You change your intent towards your country and it responds”.

TOP

ON THE WAY TO RESTORATION

I believe we’re going to need every bit of productive country that earth’s got to offer over the next few years, we’ve got to nurture what we’ve got…

Graham and Ben are looking forward to being able to expand these early successes across the landscape to get the full effect of them. “From an individual and family perspective, it has been affirming to see the positive results from our dramatic and very costly action to de-stock back in 2003. This decision was made after we became aware of the accelerating soil erosion and landscape desiccation processes that were rampant. Our family has been greatly encouraged by the rapid increases in the regeneration of the perennial ground cover species and the obvious benefits of the earthworks that we have been able to construct to slow the water and spread it across flood plains.”

Once the mining activity in the area has been stabilised and the locations and requirements of the mines are known, pastoral operations will be able to be integrated back into the area. This is critical, not only the Forsyths, but to the ecological function of the area. Perennial grasses are an important component of the rangelands because of their function in protecting and building soil, storing carbon in the soil and infiltration of water into the subsoils and aquifers. Perennial grasses have evolved alongside grazing animals and the actions of grazing, trampling and recovery are vital to the renewal of the perennial plants and to the maintenance of plant diversity and abundance.

Graham and Ben have been studying leading grazing theory and practices from all over the world and integrated this knowledge with their own insights into the current and desired function of their land. Ben notes, “Destocking of the property allowed recovery while strategies were implemented”.

In April 2012, 400 cows were returned to Three Rivers Station and it is anticipated that grazing pressure will slowly be increased. Ben advises that they are, “Establishing a plan to introduce rest and rotation to the grazing strategy, rigorously maintaining total grazing pressure to remain within seasonal carrying capacity and embracing technology for water point management and livestock monitoring”.

The initial plan will see rotational grazing used across four paddocks on one floodplain area of Three Rivers Station. Once mining requirements become clearer and location of fence lines can be planned with confidence, Graham and Ben will sub-divide to smaller paddocks and a more intensive rotational grazing strategy. The strategy will be extended to other parts of the property as more grassland becomes available and resources become available to extend the watering and fencing infrastructure.

image of grass species

images of the beginning of perennial colonisation and flourishing pastures.
A range of pasture conditions evidenced on Three Rivers Station: still degraded land (top left); initial colonisers (top right); beginning of perennial colonisation (below left); flourishing pastures (below right).

The locally appropriate plan for management of grazing aims to build the ecological function and sustainability of the pastoral enterprise, improve aquifer recharge and build soil carbon stocks, protect the rivers and drainages, produce ‘clean and green’ and healthy livestock in a financially satisfactory way. The Forsyths are investigating some new processes and technologies to lower the fossil fuel footprint of their operation. This includes use of recycled materials and new technologies such as virtual fencing.

Graham and Ben Forsyth believe that Australia’s rangelands are assets of national importance and responsibility for their condition extends beyond the current lease holders to the nation as a whole. Regenerated land at the headwaters of the Gascoyne and the Murchison will assist with the delivery of clean water downstream to important catchments surrounding Carnarvon. Fully regenerated pastoral leases will be vitally important to future generations through the revitalisation of the pastoral industry to help to meet the requirements for high quality protein for a growing population.

The Forsyth commitment to the land and its people shows in the determined and innovative approach they are taking to bringing the major stakeholders together to lead the process of taking collective responsibility for the degradation and working together to effect the regeneration and restore the decades of damage to the Gascoyne rangelands. Their leadership and innovation shows that together, mining companies, governments and farmers, as stewards of the land, have an opportunity for a strategic partnership in restoring the rangelands and realising the agricultural production opportunities that a healthy landscape will present.

As Graham concludes, “I believe we’re going to need every bit of productive country that earth’s got to offer over the next few years, we’ve got to nurture what we’ve got but if it can’t be bought into production viably, then you’ve got to find other ways to still bring it back. Because if we don’t bring it back, the Gascoyne River from this divide to the sea will just be a Grand Canyon. Now, we can’t let that happen”.


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
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