REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY
THE INFLUENCE OF EFFLUENT – THE POWER TO DO GOOD
ENTERPRISE: Organic irrigated dairy
PROPERTY SIZE: 261 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 500 mm
ELEVATION: 110 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
- Health concerns and the desire to try natural farming methods
- Using beneficial bacteria to treat dairy effluent for use as fertiliser
- Laser levelling of paddocks and enhancing the water reticulation system
- Composting, foliar and bio-fertilisation
- All organic practices
- Innovations commenced: 1996
- Irrigation requirements reduced by 30%
- On-farm waste producing cost-effective fertiliser, improving soil health
- 10% price premium on product
- Reduced veterinary costs
After 24 years of conventional dairying, Ian and Wendy began using organic farming methods, actively turning away from the use of chemical or artificial fertilisers, drugs, antibiotics and hormones that are common in today’s food production. Their underlying principles were to not pollute the environment or use toxic chemicals and to reduce their environmental footprint – while producing a wholesome food and remaining profitable.
The Kleins no longer have problems with excessive amounts of harmful or toxic nutrients and offensive odours from the dairy effluent. By treating their dairy effluent with beneficial bacteria, they are able to use the modified slurry as a fertiliser, returning nutrients to the soil and lowering costs of fertilising the pasture.
Using foliar sprays and bio-fertilisers to address the condition of the soil has also promoted the storage and cycling of organic matter in the soil, making the pastures more productive. The cows are healthier and require fewer interventions to prevent animal health problems.
The Kleins are also using a third less water after establishing a state-of-the-art water reticulation system for irrigating the pastures, linked to laser levelling of the paddocks.
By focusing on keeping nutrients and water on the farm, Ian and Wendy have developed a successful recycling and composting program. In the Klein’s experience, changing from conventional farming practices to working with more natural inputs and processes has reduced their input and veterinarian costs and supports a profitable organic dairy.
…be open to ideas about investigating and using biological and ecological solutions.
Ian and Wendy moved to Pine Lodge from Dandenong in 1972. Ian had previously farmed in the Heatherton Road area, which is now part of Melbourne’s sprawling suburbs.
After arriving in the district, Ian and Wendy practiced conventional dairy farming on the property for 24 years using skills and knowledge they acquired and learned from local producers and industry experts.
The Kleins recall, “In the early 1970s we were dealing with some personal health issues that were not responding to treatment using conventional medicines. Together we decided to look into natural remedies and soon observed benefits. This realisation soon caused us to question why we were continually working with conventional farm management practices year after year with our cows and pastures”.
“In 1996 we attended a public lecture given by Professor Ian Brighthope that inspired us to trial natural farming methods on our dairy. This involved us extending what we were doing in our home with our own health more broadly to the farm and the dairy cows.”
After undertaking research, Ian and Wendy agreed to perform a trial for two years. They decided that if they did not see any benefit, or saw decline, in a number of indicators then they would return to previous management practices. Indicators selected included whether the costs of milk production became higher, or the health of pastures or cows declined.
The Kleins elected to go “cold-turkey”, changing to organic practices across the farming enterprise in 1996. “We do not use synthetic fertilisers, synthetic sprays for weeds and pests nor antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick”, Wendy states.
Productivity increases were observed within 12 months and have been consistently improved, though subject to some seasonal variations.
The Kleins continued to inform themselves throughout the change process, and tried various techniques and options until they found what worked for them. This included investment of some capital into new equipment. Ian and Wendy believe that their dairy enterprise is only as good as their understanding of the ecological and biological processes that underpin it.
On becoming organic, Ian remarks, “Where you, the producer, have observed seemingly intractable problems with animal health, soil and vegetation condition, water quality and waste effluent, be open to ideas about investigating and using biological and ecological solutions.” “Often this involves joining an association or group of like-minded individuals, reading books and searching the Internet to find suggestions for fixing problems.”
As advice for others, the Kleins note, “It’s far easier than you think and there are now more opportunities to learn how to farm organically”. “We suggest that you give such solutions ‘a go’ on small areas at first before applying to larger areas. Be prepared to wait for results, remembering that problems were often slow to manifest themselves, so ‘fixes’ may also take some time.”
Ian and Wendy’s business plan was to implement a number of strategies to make the farm more viable, as well as environmentally friendly. This focussed on converting the entire farming enterprise to organic production and recycling as much as possible.
“We started small; the dairy comprised a relatively small milking operation of around 80 Friesian and Jersey cows in a six bail shed. In those days our operation was based on establishing and managing irrigated improved pastures using synthetic fertilisers, for example, superphosphate and applying chemical sprays to control weeds.”
Production was successful and Ian and Wendy considered the farm had potential to become more productive and be a much larger operation. Over the years they progressively increased the scale of the operation to what would be considered medium-sized in Australian terms. The Kleins now run approximately 300 milking cows, some dry cows, bulls and other young stock on the 261 hectare property. The daily milking of the 300 cows takes place in a 60 bail shed. The dairy represents a major piece of infrastructure on the farm.
A by-product of a large dairy is effluent. The milk shed is equipped with high pressure hoses delivering dam water for washing the floor of the shed and the holding yard. Effluent is mainly a slurry comprising wash down water, manure, urine and other waste.
Large amounts of slurry were accumulating on the Klein farm, collected in a pond next to the dairy. For many years the slurry was regarded as waste because of the high concentrations of ammonia, phosphorus and potassium that would ‘burn’ the pasture if it were not first allowed to air-dry over some time.
Periodically the slurry was dried in the sun before being spread over the pastures. However, more product was being generated than the Kleins could effectively use.
Ian notes, “Because of our increasing herd size and intensification of production we needed to find improvements in managing and disposing of livestock effluent so that it prevented pollution of surface and ground water. As a result our effluent pond was an increasing concern to us. It was characterised by anaerobic bacteria and the sludge was high in ammonia. While we knew the sludge contained potentially beneficial nutrients, but these were unavailable for immediate use on the pastures”.
FROM EFFLUENT TO FERTILISER
Wendy remarks, “In the first 24 years we did not regard the dairy shed slurry as an asset. It was a smelly mess. We reluctantly managed it and because our knowledge of ecological and biological systems was rudimentary we could not see the opportunity before our eyes”.
“Our experience and advice meant we just did what everyone else was doing.”
With their new approach to natural methods on the dairy, Ian and Wendy aimed to modify the slurry in the pond to achieve higher levels of oxygen by introducing aerobic bacteria. By adding beneficial bacteria to convert the ammonia into amino acid, this made the sludge an economically valuable fertiliser, which could be used as required.
Ian notes, “As a result we no longer had an excess of organic matter and toxic nutrient levels, it also ameliorated the pH to an acceptable level, reduced the offensive odours and removed suspended solids and salts in the slurry”.
The once problematic effluent is now contained and managed in a large holding pond and after being treated is used as fertiliser for the pastures. The results are noticeable.
“When we spread the modified slurry onto the pastures we began to observe almost immediate benefits. Where a strip of pasture is missed during spraying, you clearly see that the grass is less vigorous and not as bright green in colour.”
The effluent-based fertiliser is complemented by the other natural biological and ecological activities being performed at Pine Lodge in support of recycling nutrients.
RECYCLING THROUGH COMPOST
Composting has become a key part of the on-farm recycling program, with all plain cardboard boxes, calf shed bedding, untreated sawdust, domestic wastes and even dead stock composted for farm fertiliser. The Kleins view these activities as reducing the farm’s environmental impact, as well as supplying free fertiliser and helping to build humus in the soil. They also see that it gives the opportunity to learn more about composting and the benefits to be gained from it.
Others in the community who want to be a part of what the Kleins are doing are now saving cardboard and other materials to add to the compost heap. By performing their own recycling program through composting, materials destined for land fill are much reduced.
In Wendy’s words, “As nothing, other than produce, leaves the farm, the nutrients contained in the soil stay where they are needed – in the soil – hence no nutrients (or chemicals) find their way into waterways to contribute to blue-green algae problems of some of our water storages”.
We laser level the bays …to give us much higher water use efficiency.
The Pine Lodge property is within the Goulburn Valley irrigation region of north-central Victoria. The main water storage for this region is Lake Eildon, which is on the Goulburn River about 100km south-east. Water stored in Lake Eildon is released into the Goulburn River when needed for irrigation. Water for the Shepparton Irrigation Region is diverted from the river at Goulburn Weir, about 50km south of Shepparton.
Pine Lodge is situated in a temperate climate. The long term average rainfall is approximately 500mm, compared with average yearly evaporation of around 1500mm. With hot and dry summers accounting for this rainfall deficit, irrigation is required year-round to maintain plant growth.
Most of the farm’s land cover is irrigated dairy pasture. Most paddocks are around three to four hectares with several larger paddocks around 20 hectares. The small paddocks have been laser levelled to provide a gentle slope to enable small bays to be flood irrigated. Farm water for the stock and irrigating the pastures is supplied from a large farm dam and from irrigation water purchased from the regional water authority.
Ian notes, “We have developed a complex system of small and larger paddocks that are irrigated using flood irrigation. Almost all the 261 hectares are irrigated at varying stages in the course of a year. The system of channels is linked to a major storage and reticulation dam on the farm”.
Flood irrigation using a border check system is used. The irrigation bays range from 200 to 400 metres long. The Kleins also established a water reticulation system for capturing and reusing irrigation and rain-fed surface flows. Any water runoff goes to the lowest point on the farm, which has a large recycle system – to be used again for irrigation.
Rain water, held in a 255,000 litre tank, is reserved for washing milking equipment and cleaning the milk storage vat. Dam water is used to wash down the dairy
Increased pasture and milk production meant more profit that enabled the Kleins to improve the standard of water reticulation and flood irrigation. “We laser level the bays that are growing pastures with a light re-grade as required to give us much higher water use efficiency. We have also installed a water reticulation system that captures runoff from irrigation and overland flows from high rainfall events. The benefits of this large water holding capacity are: no water leaves our farm except in major flood events; we recycle the water more effectively and we only purchase additional water when needed.”
Pastures used to be irrigated every six days during the summer months. Thanks to the better soil structure and increased water-holding capacity now achieved, irrigation is only required each 9 or 10 days.
HEALTHY SOILS, HEALTHY PASTURES
Our farming enterprise is like our family’s health. We use natural inputs and products to maintain good health and well-being.
The soils of the property are classified as loams and clay loams developed from alluvium deposited over many years by the Goulburn River and previous streams. Soil mineral balance has been of greater concern than organic carbon levels.
Ian comments, “In 1996 we ceased using synthetic weed and pest control and applying synthetic fertilisers. Instead we applied numerous conditioners to the soil including gypsum, lime and dolomite as well as molasses and guano. By making this move to more biologically-based approach to farming, we began to observe a number of changes in our farm”.
As a result of the application of the soil bio-fertilisers, the Kleins have observed improvements in the health of their soil. More worms are visible, and the soil has better structure and nutrient balance. The Kleins regularly have soils tests done on each paddock to determine which nutrients are limiting production. Based on the test results, the soil conditions are addressed to achieve the highest levels of productivity. Wendy happily reports, “Finally, the calcium level in our soil is close to where it should be!”
Wendy also notes, “I have farm (independent) soil tests for the past 14 years and it is very rewarding to see the benefits of our farming practices in increased organic matter in the soils. This helps conserve nutrients and water in the soil – much needed for the climate we now farm in”.
The change in management to biologically-based practices also saw the Kleins be more careful in stimulating ecological processes. When combined with integrated pasture and pest management systems, this has seen pastures become more productive, growing for longer periods through the year, and significantly fewer interventions required to prevent health problems in the cows.
The enterprise involves intensive management of perennial and annual pastures. A rotational system of summer (perennial) and winter (annual) pastures is followed.
Each three to four hectare paddock is sown to perennial or permanent pasture comprising white clover and rye grass. This is irrigated regularly to maintain high levels of production. These paddocks are grazed every 28 days. Every year each paddock is treated with an effluent/bacteria mix after summer grazing and then irrigated again.
In winter the cows graze on the 20 hectare paddocks, which are annual pastures on subterranean clover. In February-March these pastures are watered to provide growth for the winter months.
The system of smaller and larger paddocks and the use of electric fencing has gained efficient pasture utilisation throughout the growing season.
A foliar spray comprising lime, molasses and borax in a rain water base is also applied to each paddock each year.
The farm has few weeds and pests due to the intensive management of the pastures. Keeping internal irrigation channels clear for irrigation purposes is sometimes a problem, as herbicides cannot be sprayed to suppress vegetation growth. Though not as successful as spraying, the Kleins are using other methods and looking at the vegetation in a new light.
“We manage excessive biomass in the channels by using two people with whipper-snippers. Excess vegetation growing in the irrigation channels has benefits in that it cleans the water”, Ian notes. Any other weeds are managed by slashing or mulching, ultimately returning nutrients back into the soil.
A small section of the farm has a reasonable cover of remnant grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) trees which are encouraged to regenerate. As a certified organic farm, 5% of the property must be maintained for biodiversity. Wendy notes, “Grey box were the predominant large trees in this area, and we have tried to plant other species indigenous to this area… with enormous effort we managed to get a large percentage of the trees through the drought, only to see many get swamped in the last two years and die of wet feet”. Regenerating trees are protected using tree-guards to prevent the cattle from damaging the young trees.
Wendy observes that there are now more birds, frogs, worms, dung beetles, spiders, bats and beneficial wasps. The dam is near a large remnant vegetation area and is also a haven for bird life. No chemicals have been used for 16 years, and pests are not seen as a problem at all.
On being organic, Ian notes, “An added benefit has seen us lower our costs for weed control and pest management”.
PRODUCTION & PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS
By improving the health of our soils, water and pastures and cows we have peace of mind that our environment is healthier than when we first began.
Wendy states, “When evaluating the farm’s environmental performance, I would look at where the farm was 15 years ago and where it is now – and the improvement and benefits – both environmentally and financially – are obvious”.
Ian points out, “The enterprise is profitable – but as for most agricultural businesses, the drought made life very difficult for a long time”. Even with the challenges of drought, both animal and soil health are greatly improved and financial inputs reduced as a result of the changes the Kleins introduced. They aim to achieve a balance between inputs and outputs regarding pasture productivity and milk yield. Wendy adds, “The farm is viable, partly due to the free fertiliser the farm now generates from the continuous recycling of waste products produced on the farm, no chemicals are purchased and all water is recycled”.
“We made a few mistakes and lost a few good cows along the way – but we composted the dead animals and made fertiliser out of them.”
On average the Kleins are obtaining greater than a 10% price premium compared to other producers. They are achieving this because of the natural product and through systems of management that can produce regular and reliable milk yield from season to season.
“Even if we were not getting a price premium, we would still farm the way we are because of the benefits to us personally and to the wider society”, Wendy says.
By changing from conventional farming practices to working with more natural inputs and processes the Kleins:
- have much richer looking and biologically active soils and more earthworms
- have improved soil friability making it much easier to work, therefore using much less fuel
- have dramatically reduced veterinarian costs
“Our farming enterprise is like our family’s health. We use natural inputs and products to maintain good health and well-being. The same is true for our farm. We aim to have active, ecologically healthy, functioning soils that produce high quality pastures; that feed healthy cows producing safe and wholesome milk.”
Ian and Wendy have confidence that their management systems are having a minimal impacts off-farm. Their approach is to, where possible, grow all animal feed requirements on farm so that they are satisfied with the quality and health of the products they are producing. This approach offers considerable benefits both private and public.
Wendy comments, “We are not using anything detrimental to us, our animals or our environment – so we all benefit from that, even people who don’t know us or how we farm”.
“We aim to live with and work close to nature, understanding the seasons and cycles of life. Our systems of management are built on understanding ecological and biological processes. By improving the health of our soils, water and pastures and cows we have peace of mind that our environment is healthier than when we first began. We can also assure those who use our farm produce that it is of a high standard for human health and wellbeing.”