‘NORTH EAST CMA’ – EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE

The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) is running an innovative project to help over 500 farmers improve the soil carbon content of their properties and empowering them with the knowledge to improve production sustainably, whilst meeting catchment environmental goals.

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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

The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) region is bounded by the Murray River in the north, the Victorian Alps in the south, the NSW border in the east and the Warby Ranges in the west. The North East CMA region takes in the local government municipalities of Wodonga, Indigo, Wangaratta, Alpine and Towong, plus parts of Moira and East Gippsland Shires. Approximately 95,000 people live in the region.

ENTERPRISE: The main industries in the region are agriculture (dairy, beef, lamb, wool, cropping and horticulture), forest products, tourism, value-added processing industries and manufacturing.

CMA RESPONSIBILITIES:

  • River Health
  • Floodplain Management
  • Water Quality
  • Wetlands
  • Environmental Water Reserve
  • Permits – Works on Waterways
  • Waterwatch
  • Land Stewardship – including Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Management Systems
  • Monitoring, Evaluation & Reporting
  • Caring for Our Country projects including: Landscape Scale Conservation – Threatened Grassy Woodlands Project and the Soil Carbon Programme

Within the North East CMA Regional Catchment Strategy, the CMA conducts a wide range of activities addressing these responsibilities.

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Identifying that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret results

INNOVATIONS

  • Providing soil testing for land managers and independent agronomic advice on the results
  • Running field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects
  • Delivering free eFarmer training
  • Activities commenced: 2009

KEY RESULTS

  • Over 500 landholders participating in the project
  • Combined area of involved properties over 116,000 hectares
  • Wide adoption of trial agricultural and management practices to improve soil carbon

INTRODUCTION

Chris Reid and the Land Stewardship team at the North East CMA recognised a critical gap in the knowledge of many farmers was how to practically manage soil fertility, its structure and the contribution of healthy soil to improved farm production. Assisted by funding from the Federal Government the team developed the Sustainable Farm Practices – Soil Carbon Programme to fill this knowledge gap and realise positive environmental outcomes.

In the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, the team have balanced stakeholder needs with desired environmental outcomes to develop a successful and well-received project. The team is now delivering up to six information activities a month, including field days, forums and workshops. Through these North East CMA is connecting with landholders involved in existing and/or recently completed projects, Landcare groups and networks, industry groups and individuals with an interest in improving their soil organic carbon levels. Participating farmers now have the skills and knowledge to interpret their own soil tests offered by the project and have access to independent agronomy advice on how best to respond – in a sustainable manner.

Managing such a project requires dedication, commitment, and flexibility to address challenges as they arise. The team at the North East CMA demonstrate all these attributes and share how their project came into fruition and is making a difference across the entire catchment

image of NE CMA region
The North East CMA region

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BACKGROUND

image of soil testing
A critical knowledge gap in understanding soil tests was identified by the NE CMA

The North East CMA Soil Carbon Programme was developed by Chris Reid and his Land Stewardship team in 2009 to take advantage of potential funding available from the Caring for Our Country initiative of the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). The Land Stewardship team had built up considerable knowledge from numerous previous projects and they knew what contribution healthy soil could make to production as well as the environmental benefits it delivers. They identified a significant opportunity to build on their own previous work and that already undertaken by some Landcare groups in the region to spread this knowledge to the diverse farming community.

The team were not fully convinced by some of the arguments being aired in support of the economic advantages of mooted pasture-based carbon farming under carbon trading schemes. However, they were convinced, by their own surveys and practical engagement with farmers, of the need for land holders to increase organic soil carbon as part of a strategy of farm landscape regeneration, and, ultimately, for improved production. The team had access to data that showed rates of soil carbon in the region in the 1830s as high as 12% and yet the current figures averaged less than 2%. The potential for improvement was clear.

It was apparent to the Land Stewardship team that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret their own results. Farmers were therefore inhibited in making choices for strategies for improving soil fertility and structure.

An issue arising from this lack of understanding was the use of fertilisers, what occurs as a result of continued application and the effects on soil nutrition. This was leading to issues including widespread but localised soil acidity problems, aluminium toxicity and grass tetany. Grass tetany is a reaction in livestock caused by magnesium deficiency often resulting from a mis-match of low-magnesium pastures and fertiliser use. In the view of Chris and his team, better education of farmers on understanding soil structure, soil carbon management grazing management and soil fertility would be inherently valuable.

To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term.

Promoting the idea of improving soil carbon levels in the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, was going to be a very difficult task. If stakeholders were to be convinced of the advantages of joining in the Soil Carbon Programme in such an environment, the possibility of improving production had to be demonstrable. The other significant part of the equation was that improving carbon levels was potentially a slow process. Results would not be obvious for some time into the future. The potential for increasing farm production therefore had to be clearly linked to the initiatives for improving soil carbon levels.

Chris and his team worked to identify what would help motivate farmers to join the Soil Carbon Programme in this challenging environment. Chris says they decided to offer a benefit for participants up front, in the form of, “Soil testing that produced results that farmers could understand and from which they and their agronomists could make sound decisions on soil fertility and management”.

Given this starting point, the team then developed the concept further to include independent agronomy workshops to explain to farmers how to read soil analysis and to provide guidance for further decision making. They would offer access for farmers to an agronomist of their own choosing from a panel of eight to provide follow-on support in the workshop program. The team would also seek out speakers from across Australia – and even international experts – who had practical experience in building soil health, with a focus on carbon, to pass on their experiences to land managers across the catchment.

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PROJECT OBJECTIVES & ACTIVITIES

image from a field day
Field days provide a valuable opportunity for information sharing and maintaining engagement

Chris defines the key objective of the program as, “To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term”.

Overall, the project activities developed were quite straightforward. The CMA team determined that it would pay for soil testing for the participating landholders; provide free agronomic advice to these landholders on the soil test outcomes; run field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects; and deliver free eFarmer training through adult education approaches. A final soil test would be provided at the end of the program to measure improvements in soil health.

In turn, the project would require specific actions from participating landholders:

  • Committing to changing their management practices for the term of the project on a nominated area of their property.
  • Agreeing to participate in farm planning and soil management training and information sessions, in which they would have access to free soil testing and agronomic advice.
  • Selecting an agronomist from a panel nominated by North East CMA who would provide up to four free on-site advice sessions.
  • Attending free eFarmer workshops conducted by North East CMA, for which the project team would set up an eFarmer help desk in support.

eFarmer is a web-based application which supports the capture, viewing and sharing Natural Resource Management information across farms, landscapes and catchments. The web application, together with a simple matrix, informs private land managers of the natural resource management priorities of the CMA within which they reside and allows them to identify proposed and voluntarily implemented activities on their properties that may contribute to the achievement of CMA catchment wide targets.

SOIL CARBON PROGRAMME TARGETS

2800 land managers would improve their natural resource management knowledge.

1500 landholders would begin using improved soil management practices.

1300 land managers would attend soil management forums.

500 land managers would commit to the whole project and attend farm planning and soil management training and conduct prescribed management practices on a nominate area of their land. These would be the key stakeholders of the project and its champions.

PLANNING PROCESS

The majority of the planning for the project was conducted as part of compiling the submission for DAFF funding. Suzanne Johnstone from the team explains that the North East CMA team found developing the Program Logic document, required for an application for DAFF funding, was a useful methodology for scoping the project. The Program Logic has since provided the basic guidance for all further project documentation.

Another key document that was developed during the planning phase was the Community Engagement Plan. This Plan identified stakeholders and set out strategies for dealing with the issues that their research had shown were the keys to the success of the project. Identified communication activities included actions such as attending meetings and discussing the project with community groups, mainly local Landcare groups, and a whole-of-catchment mail out using tailored postcards supplying project information and contacts.

The team identified its stakeholders for the Soil Carbon Programme to include:

  • Landholders of the CMA region
  • Landcare groups of the CMA region
  • Local industry supporting farming activities
  • Conservation management networks
  • CMA staff

The landholders of the region were the communication priority. Key messages for the communications were the ‘no strings’ soil testing, the independent agronomy advice, the use of the eFarmer planning tool and the field services provided for training and education. The communication activities would also be subject to the continuous improvement based on documented stakeholder feedback.

Credibility at all stages of the project was identified as essential. All of the stakeholders needed to have trust in the CMA team and in what the project could deliver. The farmers, in particular, needed to have trust in the information they received from the CMA team, the soil testing reports and in their chosen agronomist.

The team was certain that, only when this mutual trust and credibility was established, could they expect a commitment from farmers to the project and its outcomes.

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OBTAINING FUNDING

In developing their grant funding proposal, the project team identified three streams that required funding for the Soil Carbon Programme:

  • soil testing
  • agronomists and associated training and information delivery
  • staffing of the project

The CMA Board reviewed and supported the soil carbon initiative proposal and recommended it to DAFF as one of a number of North East CMA proposals recommended for funding. DAFF agreed to fund the Soil Carbon Programme to $2.2 million over four years, running from July 2009 to June 2013. The allocated funding supported all the proposed soil carbon activities as well as salaries for 3.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions.

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RISKS & CHALLENGES

Early in the planning phase, the project team expected that continuous risk and impediment management would form a large part of project management. The team identified risks to the project and developed strategies to manage them.

One of the major risks identified was the potential for staff turnover, and thus a loss of competencies from the project, as project funding was expended and staff sought other secure employment. To address this, the management team set to identifying opportunities for future projects and associated funding to ensure ongoing tenure and retain and use existing competencies.

Another significant risk identified was the difficulty of engaging 500 landowners in the program and keeping them committed for the four year duration. The team determined that maintaining ongoing communication and ensuring continued engagement through active participation in regular events would be the best way to manage this risk.

The planning phase also identified a number of likely impediments to the success of the project.

Being conducted at the height of a major and long term drought, many of the landholders would be focussed on surviving the drought and would not necessarily be interested in improving soil structure, carbon content and fertility. Additionally, many landholders were accustomed to dealing with a number of organisations, entities and individuals who were committed to traditional farming practices. Farmers had long followed their advice and support and may, therefore, be reluctant to abandon comfort zones and begin something new.

As part of their impediment management program, Chris and his team decided that their impediment management approach would include:

  • Soil testing for the 500 participants undertaken by a trusted scientific entity that was used in a previous large scale Landcare soil testing project.
  • Free explanations from experts on how to interpret soil testing results.
  • Providing free advice to farmers from a CMA-identified panel of independent agronomists.
  • Conducting field days and seminars with guest presenters suggested by farmers who were not committed to any particular method of farming or landscape regeneration to the exclusion of other ideas.
  • Ensuring that all advice came from independent sources and was not delivered by local, state or commonwealth agencies.
  • Ensuring that the project team members and the agronomists listened to the landholders and reported back their comments, ideas and suggestions.

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MANAGING THE PROJECT

Although the communications activities were relatively unsophisticated, Suzanne explains, “We were swamped with Expressions of Interest, to the extent that we had a backlog that we were having trouble dealing with”. Overall, 505 landholders have been selected to participate in the initial soils testing component of the project, from a range of farming enterprises including grazing, cropping, horticulture, viticulture, dairy and mixed enterprises.

As the project got underway, North East CMA organised and funded the initial soil sampling, comprising 22 soil cores extracted from 2 x 100m transects from each property. Soil was subdivided into four depth categories between 0-30cm and pooled prior to laboratory analysis for soil carbon as well as other chemical and physical soil characteristics. Group on-farm soil advice from their nominated panel of agronomists through field days and forums was also funded and organised. Landcare groups and networks, industry programs with similar focus, and individuals with an interest in improving their soil carbon management were identified and engaged. Regular newsletters and soil improvement information sheets were distributed to maintain interest within in the project.

The project was fortunate in that the staff carried over from a previous project had a broad range of natural resource management and agricultural skills and also had the advantage of tapping into existing Landcare coordinators and project managers that had great field and community experience. The team built on the previous experience and took on new skills. Chris notes, “Training in other areas was conducted, such as use of the soil sampling machine and preparing a formal process and following it for consistency of data and for reducing sampling error”.

Chris and his team manage from the project baseline plan and the original brief. The project is managed across three streams into which individual components have been grouped.

  1. Soil Testing – soil testing and seminars for interpreting results.
  2. Training and Education – agronomy sessions, field days, seminars and the eFarmer training.
  3. Quality Management – post-activity surveys, eFarmer help desk feedback and ongoing communications including CMA Internet site updates.

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CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

The Quality Management stream of the project aims to ensure continuous improvement of activities and information resources. Anonymous post-activity surveys administered to review training outcomes and take-up provide an opportunity for respondents to comment on content, speakers, activities and to suggest changes and improvements. This information is analysed by the CMA team and changes made to programs and activities according to need and available budget.

The CMA team depends on these anonymous surveys to check achievement of objectives and targets and to provide input to improvement of future activities.

The information from surveys is also vetted and commented upon by the agronomists participating in the program and compared with anecdotal information from North East CMA staff.

FIELD DAY FEEDBACK

Feedback from field days held in February 2012 showed that all attendees answered ‘yes’ to the question “Has your knowledge of Soil Health improved from this session?”, each marking five out of five that they had “learned a lot”.

In response to the question “Having participated in the Soil Carbon Programme, do you consider that your approach to farm management practices may change to incorporate some more sustainable practices?” those that answered ‘yes’ also provided comments of the changes they may make including:

  • “Less emphasis on spray and more emphasis on management”
  • “Use less chemical, rely on biodiversity”
  • “Improve grazing management”
  • “Look at a longer management cycle to grazing”
  • “Understanding your landscape”
  • “What weeds are telling me about my management”
  • “Ground cover management is now my top priority”
  • “I will manage to increase local biodiversity”
  • “Floodplain management”
  • “Maintaining water in the soil profile and using carbon to do this”

Suzanne Johnstone, as the lead in the eFarmer training, provides information based on her help desk role and hits on the eFarmer Internet site.

All the information gathered contributes to the continuous improvement of project activities and content and targeting of supporting publications. The project team regularly reviews activities and outcomes for opportunities to implement changes to the project and activities.

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LESSONS LEARNED

image of soil testing
NE CMA staff were trained to use the soil  sampling machinery.

The well developed continuous improvement program ensures that any shortfall in expectations, of which there have been very few, becomes the basis for improvement. For example, when the manual collection and storing of information became onerous, a database was established. The database continues to be developed and its numerous functions are major contributors to efficiency in the project and have reduced resource overheads by the equivalent of half the workload of one full time staff member.

The hand auger sampling was an idea that did not stand up to early optimistic expectations and was soon abandoned with the arrival of a suitable mechanical option.

“In the first instance, we had a three months wait for suitable soil sampling machinery and undertook a program of manual sampling in rock hard, drought affected soils. We found that we did not have the resources to continue with the manual taking of soil in accordance with our planned timetable and, in any event, from an OH&S viewpoint, manual sampling was not a good idea. However, suitable machinery was eventually sourced and staff trained to use the machinery and to follow a constructed soil sampling process.”

Initial team grouping of participants did not always work out in all instances. There was a need to move some participants to other groups as their interests were not well aligned with the majority of the participants in their area.

Similarly, choice of agronomists by some participants did not align well with requirements. “Two to three of the agronomists were exchanged by some participants for others – we always planned to offer choices to participants – even offering them to other groups such as similar enterprises, independent of their geographically location. This worked well.”

Other key lessons from the project include the importance of:

  • Establishing credibility through empowerment of stakeholders.
  • Maintaining continuing contact with stakeholders and responding positively to suggestions and feedback.
  • Continuous improvement of project activities and outcomes based on stakeholder feedback, such as:
    • using independent consultants;
    • adaptive management; and
    • initially offering an obvious benefit to project participants (in this case, soil tests and agronomic sessions).

In addition, to align with the expectations of landholders, it was essential for success that the program focussed broadly on soil health, not carbon sequestration alone, but to ensure that the program did not exclude information on carbon sequestration.

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SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES TO DATE

image of healthy pasture
Improved pasture on the property of Soil Carbon Programme participant, John Paterson.

Some interesting insights were provided by one of the projects participants, John Paterson, a beef producer in the Mitta Mitta Valley. John and his wife ‘retired’ to the area after many decades of dairy farming in the Cobram Area. Their approach to farming over that time might be considered conventional and John recognised their reliance on superphosphate and chemical inputs to keep the pastures growing.

Over recent years, with the costs of these inputs continuing to increase, John began to ponder alternatives. The Soil Carbon Programme seemed to offer an insight on other management options and the free soil testing and access to alternative agronomists were appealing. He ‘put his hand up’ and has enjoyed the experience immensely, particularly in joining others from the district and hearing their experiences.

John has learned much about soil health including getting mineral balances right, the beneficial work of dung beetles, the ability for native and clover pasture species to re-emerge and the positive effects that improved grazing methods can have on the enterprise. He has experimented with rock phosphates which support the soil biology and the pasture results are readily apparent when compared to adjacent untreated paddocks. The program has exposed John to new possibilities in grazing and he says he will, “Keep giving it all a go and see what happens”.

So far, more than the target number of landholders have become involved in the farm planning/soil management training, have accessed free soil testing and agronomic advice and agreed to change their management practices on a nominated area of their property.

New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince… and the cost is minimal.

Suzanne reports, “The offer of free soil tests with an obligation to attend four free soil agronomy sessions with a soil specialist of their choosing attracted 505 land holders – covering a significant area of the north east region. The attendance at each of the sessions has indicated the strong interest in soils in general and soil organic carbon in particular”.

The combined area of all the properties involved in the Soil Carbon Programme is over 116,000 hectares, noting that not all of this area is subject to changed soil management practices at this stage.

“The overall objectives of the project have been largely met due to the need and interest of the region’s landholders to improve their productive resource (soil) due to the years of degradation through general inattention and drought; and genuine interest in improving their soil health for long term sustainability.”

The training and education activities have been very successful and high demand has meant that, in some cases, there have been up to six seminars/field days in a single month to different locations in the North East CMA region.

image from a field day
Interest in the North East CMA Soil Carbon  Programme has been ongoing.

Highlighting some of the significant outcomes of the program so far, Suzanne observes, “New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince… and the cost is minimal. We now have over 2000 landholders on our database from attendance at our events!”

The team also points out that credibility is the key, “Farmers can see that we respond to their suggestions and that there are no strings attached”.

The anonymous exit surveys conducted by the team have shown that the field days on farms have developed promoters and champions of change, who, in themselves are not usually promoters of new ideas.

While noting that it is too early to point to dramatic changes in soil carbon levels where changed farming practices are in place, the team are confident that participants can show improvements in soil structure, pasture cover and stocking rates. 

As an indicator of the success of the program, the team point out that no participants have really separated from the Soil Carbon Programme and, indeed, some from the wider population have sought to join.

“From a provider of integrated catchment management programs, the delivery and uptake of information from this project has been very successful. We will be going back to all 505 landholders in the last year of the project to undertake soil carbon testing and interview each landholder to understand what changes they have adopted as a result of attending the information sessions and the general heightened level of information that has been made available through this program. The data base of information collected as part of this project through interviews and soil tests will be assessed to understand the health of the regions’ farming soils and opportunities to improve the environmental service the soil provides.”

Interim reports are demonstrating that, as a result of being involved in the Soil Carbon Programme, many participants are adopting agricultural and management practice changes across their whole property, not just on the sites committed to the soil testing activities. Changes already adopted include:

  • Increasing paddock numbers and transition to rotational grazing management
  • Improved ground cover maintenance
  • Promotion or sowing of perennial species
  • Maximising species diversity in pasture
  • Increased stubble retention
  • Changes to fertilisers used, such as seaweed and trace element application rather than only annual NPK application
  • Application of more precise Calcium products, such as sulphur/calcium/magnesium mixes

Once the final interviews and soil testing are complete a thorough assessment of the Soil Carbon Programme will be undertaken.

This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities… there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember.

Chris and the team see a clear need to communicate their successes beyond the farming community. The region includes some major urban population centres, in particular Wodonga (and nearby Albury) and Wangaratta, that are home to schools, community groups and business and agricultural production organisations and also industrial entities that support agriculture. In addition, the team has identified a number of complementary programs being run by Landcare that could provide opportunities for mutual benefit in widening awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of farm landscape regeneration. These areas will be addressed through the regional media as an enhancement to the existing stakeholder engagement activities.

As another aspect of soil carbon improvement, the project team are involved in, is an in house experimental program which is using willows extracted from stream regeneration projects to produce bio-char in a portable charcoal furnace. Further bio-char funding has been received by the Soil Carbon Programme, to implement field trials in bio-char and test its value for local agricultural enterprises.

Chris and the team believe that the momentum created by the Soil Carbon Programme could well be the starting point of a further projects that deal with the integration of soil hydrology, soil fertility and vegetation in triple bottom line outcome for CMA landholders. Project of this nature could logically build on the considerable amount of data collected a part of the Soil Carbon Programme.

Perhaps the success of the project to date can be best summed up by Suzanne Johnstone, who comments, “This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities… there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember”.

SHARING THE SUCCESS

This project is achieving catchment-wide change in knowledge of how to build healthy soils, using a range of methods that best suit the individual farmers. This closing of a critical knowledge gap, supported by practical advice and action on the ground, provides a positive example that others could follow. With funding of $2.2 million over four years, over 500 farmers are actively involved and up to 1500 are beginning to use improved soil management practices. This equates to around $1500 investment in each farmer over a four-year period.

The project demonstrates a very cost efficient way of encouraging change in farming practice. If extended across Australia’s 53 other CMA/NRM organisations it would realise 25,000 farmers actively changing their soil health for the better, together with another 50,000 looking to make a change.

Through an expanded communications program, the results can be explained to not only land managers but also to local government, businesses and schools to provide wider community awareness of the importance of soil health and the methods of achieving improved fertility.

The knowledge gained and then successfully applied through such a program could also be recognised through the awarding of a formal qualification through local training providers.


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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‘NRM SOUTH’ – WORKING WITH THE WILLING

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

WORKING WITH THE WILLING

The team at Tasmania’s NRM South are tailoring solutions to meet the needs of landholders in their catchment and are offering low risk trials for farmers willing to try new land management practices.

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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

Southern Tasmania

ENTERPRISE: Grazing, cropping, perennial horticulture and other sectors

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400-2400 mm

ELEVATION: Sea level to 1450 m

SOILS: Varied, on dolerite, mudstone and sandstone, ranging from podzol, podzolic to brown, black and alluvial

NATIVE VEGETATION COVER: 60-70% on average, less than 50% in the Jordan catchment (mostly within the Southern Midlands municipality)

INNOVATIONS

  • Engaging farmers through supported activities to encourage trial and adoption of regenerative landscape management
  • Tailoring support to land manager requirements
  • Activities commenced: 2010

KEY RESULTS

  • Farmers adopting trials of planned grazing
  • Gaining a sound understanding of farmers’ interests in improving their landscape
  • Developing the ability to set-up and monitor farm trials
  • Exceeding engagement targets

INTRODUCTION

Southern Tasmania’s natural resource management organisation, NRM South, has determined that the best way to encourage regenerative land management practices in their region is to give farmers what they want. Surveys of landholders participating in the Woolworths drought landcare project showed that soil health, pasture management and irrigation were the areas of most interest to farmers in NRM South’s region. Understanding that everyone is at a different stage of learning, with different priorities for the management of their land, the team at NRM South has developed a range of activities and learning strategies most suited to individual landowners to improve knowledge and practice in these areas. Their methods provide a model of coordination and cooperation for organisations helping landholders to embrace change in land management.

The NRM South Sustainable Farm Practices program has two components: Living Soils delivers education, engagement and support, and Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture incorporates a range of projects to develop a body of evidence for the application of low input, biological farming practices in southern Tasmania. Central to this, NRM South is working with farmers to perform monitored trials, particularly in holistic planned grazing. With comprehensive support and guidance, willing participants are learning new methods and obtaining evidence to help them decide whether to adopt new practices on their land.

With a focus on landscape health, NRM South is providing tools to help identify and support farming goals through an approach that targets outcomes across the triple bottom line – social, environmental and financial.

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ABOUT NRM SOUTH

NRM South is the natural resource management body for southern Tasmania and engages with government, business, scientists and the community to protect and manage the natural assets of the region.

The Southern Tasmanian NRM Region covers 2.5 million hectares, including Hobart, its urban fringes and numerous towns and hamlets, and supports almost half of Tasmania’s population of 500,000. It spans the twelve urban and rural municipalities of Brighton, Central Highlands, Clarence, Derwent Valley, Glamorgan Spring Bay, Glenorchy, Hobart, Huon Valley, Kingborough, Sorell, Southern Midlands and Tasman and the state and federal electoral divisions of Franklin, Denison and roughly one third of Lyons. NRM South has five priority areas for investment in its region, established on the bases of threats to natural assets and community readiness.

Approximately 1200 landholders reside in the NRM South region, however, due to the nature of the region, only 12% of these consider themselves full-time farmers. Around 240 landholders have some form of active engagement with NRM South.

map of NRM South Region
The NRM South region

Eighteen staff work at NRM South implementing a range of programs, projects and initiatives. These activities seek to address the corporate priorities, namely:

  1. Develop and share knowledge of the region’s natural resource condition, values and threats
  2. Build partnerships and engage the community in positive action
  3. Deliver on-ground and sustainable practice programs in priority areas
  4. Optimise the use of available resources for NRM and secure additional resources
  5. Govern and manage the NRM South business effectively

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TAILORING SUPPORT

Group processes are powerful learning experiences.

NRM South engagement activities aim to develop “a productive and ongoing relationship based on mutual respect, trust and benefit”. Central to this is jointly meeting landholder and NRM requirements. NRM South understands that the landholders in their region have varying motivations and needs. Dr Magali Wright, the NRM South Biodiversity Coordinator, points out, “People are at different places [with their land management practices and knowledge] and need different things”. This understanding has led NRM South to tailor their information and support as much as possible within their available resources to meet landholder needs.

Using their base funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for Our Country program and funding from the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the team at NRM South have developed a range of activities to meet these goals.

Drawing on survey information that showed that soil health, pasture management and irrigation were the areas of most interest to landholders in the region, information and activities are targeted to address these areas, but always within the context of overall environmental, economic and social health. The team at NRM South attempt to provide broader land health solutions to address specific problems being experienced by landholders (for example, weed invasion), to better support triple bottom line outcomes.

The ability of the local facilitators, who work in each of NRM South’s priority areas, to build relationships in local communities is essential to the success of the program. They initiate engagement with landholders through advertised workshops or field days and one-on-one farm visits. Interest in regenerative farm practices is also spread more broadly through word of mouth between the range of long-term landowners, sea-changers and tree-changers which comprise the region’s populations.

LIVING SOILS

Field Day image
Landholder visits provide the opportunity to share experiences

Living Soils activities provide a range of methods of education, engagement and support. The team attempts to manage activities that best engage landholders and facilitate communication. Workshops and field days are fundamental to the program. Barry Hardwick, the Regional Landcare Facilitator notes, “Group processes are powerful learning experiences. As are visiting other landholders to share experiences”.

The Living Soils workshop series addresses a range of methods and techniques including but not limited to Keyline ploughing, compost, compost teas, holistic planned grazing and pasture cropping. Local facilitators also deliver workshops addressing issues such as weed management, salinity, tree decline, erosion, pasture decline, soil health and native grass management. On farm visits are also performed, providing advice and action planning with expert consultants or advice and support from local facilitators.

NRM South also supports existing farmer groups in the region and facilitates the formation of new groups to further spread their engagement and enable information sharing.

On-Farm Action grants are available as an alternative method of supporting engagement and practice change, These have received strong interest from the community and further extends NRM South’s reach. These incentives provide financial and in-kind support for various areas of landscape regeneration, such as weed management, biodiversity and riparian protection. The On-Farm Action grants encourage co-investment from landholders and align with available service provision and ongoing support advice or activities from local facilitators.

LIVING SOILS CONTRIBUTES TO
SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

  • Promote and support the uptake of sustainable management practices, attain 20% uptake
  • Promote innovation in agriculture
  • Build evidence in the application of sustainable practices in a Tasmanian context as an engagement mechanism
  • Engage 400 landholders with the program
  • Support practice change in 60 landholders
  • Measure area (hectares) under improved management
  • Measure the amount and type of resource condition and change monitoring conducted

Living Soils is a key project delivered through the Regional Landcare Facilitator role. As at December 2011, halfway through the three-year project, it has:

  • assisted 43 landholders to prepare action plans to improve the environment both on-farm and off-farm, from a target of 60
  • provided advanced training activities on sustainable farm and land management practices that deliver improved ecosystem services to 116 landholders, from a target of 360
  • engaged 452 landholders through workshops and field days, already exceeding the three year target of 400.

The team want their projects to empower and build capacity in their landholders, rather than relying on external supports. In Barry’s words, NRM South wants to help landholders “To find their own solution for their business, for their property, for their family, for their community”.

NRM South is continuously learning from their activities to improve their services and the outcomes in their region. Cathy Limb, the Communications and Engagement Manager, knows that many activities, “Develop and support passion in the land managers”, but that, “follow up is critical – to maintain the momentum.”

To support this, NRM South are moving from the previously typical short-term individual projects, to longer term activity planning to gain continuity of outcomes, including ongoing engagement, support and empowerment.

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BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Trials are a low-risk approach.

To encourage landowners to adopt new regenerative practices and holding a long-term view to landscape regeneration, NRM South has developed the Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture projects.

The primary objective of the Building Evidence trial sites is to demonstrate the application of regenerative agricultural practices on farms in the southern Tasmanian region. The evidence collected through the trials will be used to support farmers interested in these techniques and improve the sustainable management of natural resources on their properties. These are successful in bringing farmers on board, because, as Cathy points out, “Trials are a low-risk approach”.

The experience of team members at NRM South has shown that changing thinking is a very challenging process for some landholders, whereas others find it easier. Only having to commit to a trial helps to ease some farmers into new practices and allows them to test these out for themselves.

The Building Evidence trials ultimately aim to bring landscape change across southern Tasmania grazing land and improve landscape function, in particular retention of resources in the landscape and improved water and nutrient cycling. Holistic planned grazing was selected as the trial method, as improved grazing regimes have the potential to lead to large scale change – a large proportion of private land in the NRM South region is grazed. Many threats to the region’s natural assets have also been linked to inappropriate grazing practices.

The trials follow principles that build on the concept of ‘holistic decision making’ which provides tools to help identify and support farming goals across the triple bottom line – considering economic, social and environmental aspects. The trials incorporate holistic planned grazing treatments with a focus on dealing with causes of land management issues, not the effects or symptoms. They aim to develop skills to improve soil health and landscape function.

The short to medium term outcomes of the Building Evidence trials are communication, engagement and capturing qualitative and quantitative data based on changes in pasture and soil resources. In the longer term, in addition to ongoing communication and engagement, the project aims to provide a research base, and the potential for scientifically rigorous comparisons to reference sites.

Over 25 trial sites have been established across the region, with a number of other less formal trials taking place on other farms. Fifteen of the trials are undergoing formal monitoring processes, and five have been set up as demonstration sites. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation is helping to identify issues and is an integral part of the project.

NRM South staff are now building sufficient skills to set up trials on farms, reducing previous reliance on consultant support. This both assists with minimising expenses and helps achieve credibility and trust from landholders.

Approximately six staff work on the Living Soils and Building Evidence projects, however, most of these also have other responsibilities, so all are on a part-time basis, ranging from around one to three days a week on the project. Budget allocated to the projects vary each year, depending on the activity and focus. In Financial Year 2011-12, $76,000 has been allocated to Living Soils and $70,000 to the Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture project. These figures do not include salary components.

BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

  • Encourage improved grazing management in southern Tasmania
  • Trial the effectiveness of planned grazing to address a range of land management issues and landscape goals with landholders willing to host long term demonstration sites
  • Establish 5 sites in 2010-11 and 10 new sites in 2011-12
  • Monitor results of resource condition improvement
  • Record how many landholders extend the practice beyond trial scale

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THE PARTICIPANTS

Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture trial participants are private landholders with different enterprises, values, land management issues and production. The majority are conventional agricultural enterprises, however there are also two organic farms with conventional grazing regimes. Each landholder is trialling the use of holistic planned grazing on a small half to one hectare paddock. However, Barry reports, “A number have gone to whole of farm first up”, with two landholders making a full transition to holistic planned grazing across their entire properties.

All of the 15 trial sites with formal monitoring have poor landscape function and most have been selected to focus on the poorest soils and pastures on the properties. The trial sites have been set up to address a range of land management issues including herbaceous and woody weeds, salinity, soil erosion, poor ground cover and water-logging. Water cycling is an issue on all sites.

The trial locations range from costal scrub to wet forest, however the majority would originally have been grassy woodland. All sites comprised degraded native or introduced pastures and would have previously functioned more effectively. Some sites contain or are linked to native vegetation, and the majority of the 15 trial sites had low cover of perennial grasses prior to changing grazing management.

Most common weeds being addressed on the trial sites include ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), horehound (Marrubium vulgare) and gorse (Ulex europeaus).

The prime motivation of landholders to participate in the trial appeared to be an interest in improving soil health through encouraging biological activity. The goal of many of the landholders in participating in the trials was to increase the cover and diversity of palatable perennial grasses on their land.

Additional information is also being captured through the trial on landholder motivations, drivers and barriers to adopting new practices. Interviews have been conducted with the 15 landholders hosting trials and these will be revisited in 3-5 years to help understand what influences the uptake of regenerative farm practices.

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THE TRIALS

Participants have set up two small half or one hectare paddocks for the trial and selected an area of conventional practice to be their ‘control’ or reference site. Some increased fencing has been required on the majority of properties in order to establish the trials.

The trials comprise a short grazing event with intense stock density followed by a long recovery period (greater than 150-180 days). These recovery periods are determined by monitoring the recovery of perennial grasses. For the landholders that have extended holistic planned grazing across their entire property they have either increased the fencing or started to run their stock in larger mobs.

With the assistance of expert consultants, NRM South has produced a comprehensive, yet simple to understand Guide to Planned Grazing to support this project. The first part of the guide shows how landholders can conduct a trial of planned grazing on their land to see how the method works. The second part of the guide provides planning and monitoring tools to help those who have already trialled the method to refine it for their property.

Five field days have been held at grazing trials sites with practical demonstration on how to monitor for changes in pasture following the methods in the Guide to Planned Grazing. Demonstration sites have provided a great opportunity for people to get together and talk. Common points of discussion at these activities include:

  • How small scale trials relate to whole properties
  • Perennial grass recovery
  • Animal performance
  • Applying planned grazing using existing farm infrastructure

SETTING UP A PLANNED GRAZING TRIAL 

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the
 Guide to Planned Grazing.
 The full guide is available on the NRM South Internet site.

 
 

image of Guide to Planned Grazing

STEP 1: Fence off a small area. Choose your smallest paddock or fence off a corner so that with your mob size the animals are at stockyard densities. For example, if you have sheep in mobs of 500 put them into an area of less than 0.5 ha (1 acre). The closer you can get to stockyard density the less time the stock will need to be in the trial area.

STEP 2: Make a record of the current health of the pasture. It can be helpful to take photos before, during and after this treatment so you can easily monitor any improvement. Take the photo looking straight down from around chest height so that you can see the soil surface.

STEP 3: Add stock. You might need to leave the animals there for as little as four hours, so keep a close eye on your trial area.

STEP 4: Remove stock. It’s important to take stock out at the right time… when the animals have trampled most of the area but the soil surface is still 100% covered either by plants or litter.

STEP 5: Record the date, for how long and how many stock were in the trial area.

STEP 6: Leave the area to recover. It typically takes between 6 and 12 months in temperate regions such as southern Tasmania for the best perennial grasses to recover. Grasses are considered to be recovered when they contain fresh litter (dead leaves still attached to plants) and there is no evidence of previous grazing such as chewed tips.

STEP 7: Repeat the process. By doing this you should continuously improve biodiversity of your pasture and the land function. Recovery time varies with season and from year to year, so you need to keep monitoring and make sure you do not put animals into an area to graze before it is ready, or leave them so long that they create bare ground, otherwise you won’t produce the healthy, diverse landscape you need for your farm. Remember to keep records of stock movements and take photos to see how the length of the recovery time affects your pasture.

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NRM SOUTH TRIAL – FULHAM

image of Sandy Gray
Sandy Gray on Fulham.

Sandy Gray leases his 1000 hectare farm, Fulham, for sheep grazing, but has dedicated a couple of hectares to the NRM South grazing trial. His property falls in the Tasman catchment and is part of NRM South’s priority Tasman Sorell area.

When asked why he decided to adopt the trial Sandy responds, jokingly, “Because they spun me too good a yarn to refuse”.

Jokes aside, ultimately it was the suggestion that sustainable regeneration of the landscape to support production could be achieved without dollar input that piqued Sandy’s curiosity. He had previously attended a course on a similar grazing technique, cell grazing, so was aware of some of the concepts, however his own current management preference is a slow rotation over a small number of large paddocks.

Sandy shows an open interest in the results of the trial, with a half and a full hectare paddock dedicated to the trial. He has also fenced off an additional hectare where he is experimenting with a slightly different rest period to the trial paddocks and monitoring the outcomes for his own interest. He agrees that the trial paddocks are already clearly healthier than those still under conventional methods.

images from trial paddock
Fulham 1 hectare trial paddock, February 2011 (left) and May 2012 (right) six weeks after 24 hours of 700 sheep grazing.
 Note improved groundcover and concentration of manure.
image of Sandy Gray
NRM South team members with Sandy Gray.

Observable differences are apparent at Fulham after only 12 months and two grazing periods. The soil in the trial paddocks is softer underfoot and more fibrous, have more litter, healthy regrowth and an even spread of sheep ‘fertiliser’. Thistles are also less than in the ‘control’ paddock, which is subject to slow rotation grazing, where they have seeded in bare soil exposed by over grazing.

Based on the formal monitoring as part of the project, the NRM South 12 month report for Fulham notes, “There is evidence of improvements in both the soils and pastures in the Fulham holistic planned grazing trial site with increases in sown perennials, organic soil carbon, soil water content and decreased bulk density as early as 12 months into the trial. Increases in cover of perennial grasses mean that more of the soil surface will be covered throughout the year where increases in organic carbon improve the ability of the soil to hold water and supply more fuel for soil biological activity”.

Sandy is happy to continue with the trial and is positive about results so far. The lessee is also becoming engaged and is watching the results from the trial activity. Sandy appreciates the support and engagement offered by NRM South and the opportunity to share experiences with other landholders.

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MEASUREMENT & MONITORING

NRM South is conducting site specific biophysical monitoring at each trial site with measures of the soil and pasture in the holistic planned grazing trial plots and reference sites (in good condition with similar soil, topographic and vegetation characteristics). This monitoring includes the following methods and is tailored to the test the site-specific landscape changes desired by the landholders:

  • Landscape Functionality Assessment (LFA) of treatment and reference/control areas
  • Basic soil nutrient analysis (N, P, K, organic C, etc.)
  • ScarP soil carbon tests
  • Bulk density samples
  • Soil compaction
  • Soil invertebrate samples
  • Tasmanian vegetation condition assessment benchmarks (VCA)
  • Permanent transect-guided quadrant-based studies of pastures measuring the relative composition of native perennial pasture species
  • Permanent transect-guided quadrant-based studies of pastures measuring presence of exotic annual and perennial pasture species and understorey vegetation
  • Density measures of species of interest such as weeds
  • Landscape context for farming enterprise (e.g. patch connectivity)

Baseline and 12 month follow up reports have been performed for five properties in collaboration with researchers from the Tasmanian institute of Agriculture. Fifteen of the properties will undergo follow up monitoring in three to five years. First year data for changes in percentage of organic soil carbon and soil water content for the five demonstration trial sites is presented in the graphs below. After the first year, measurement shows that there have been increases in soil organic carbon and soil water content in both planned grazing treatments (0.5 and 1 ha) at Farm 3 and Fulham.

Continued monitoring and activities on demonstration sites helps to maintain engagement with participants and other interested landholders. This helps to maintain enthusiasm and also provides the opportunity to share and discuss results or experiences, contributing to NRM South’s goal of ongoing support and empowerment to landholders in their region.

graphs of changes in soil organic carbon and soil water content

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EARLY INDICATORS – TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE OUTCOMES

We are… able to provide support for farmers willing to trial new techniques; those willing to change.

NRM South has encountered some challenges throughout their projects, noting that, “the existing (conventional) agricultural paradigm in Australia does not encourage farmers to trial regenerative farming methods”. They have experienced some resistance from some agronomists, farmers, ecologists and public land managers.

On the whole, however, landholder engagement has been very strong. An independently conducted survey in mid-2011 found that 79% of landholders that NRM South has engaged have gone on to invest additional resources and/or introduce new practices to improve profitability and pasture production and soil health. As Barry notes, “[It is a] challenge to move from linear to holistic thinking, however if it’s worthwhile to the farmers, if they can see money in it, they’ll do it”.

Living Soils activities are attracting increasing interest from landholders, with less advertising and promotion. This program also continues to share the information gained in Building Evidence trials.

In the first 12 months of the Building Evidence trials, changes are already being observed in soil carbon, soil water content and increase biomass and cover of perennial grasses. Due to a good season however, improvements are being seen both on control and planned grazing plots. Across the trial demonstration sites, there are also some site specific changes, and changes vary depending on original practices.

In addition to participating in the trials, some landholders have chosen to trial different practices or methods, seeking their own solutions and evidence – or even trying to disprove the advice NRM South is providing. The team find this positive as it increases farmers’ ownership of results.

images of NRM south vehicle on local farm
The team at NRM South are achieving positive results from their active and tailored engagement in the region.

The tailored approach taken by NRM South directly addresses other challenges that have been experienced. Magali notes, “There are a lot of learnings from the project, especially that everyone does it differently, with different enterprises and social circumstances which can result in different motivations and impediments”.

“Initially we were collecting purely biophysical evidence, however it is clear that social and economic information is need to have a clear evidence base for farmers interested in regenerative farm practices in southern Tasmania.”

NRM South believes that they are achieving positive outcomes for healthy rural profits, communities and environment with the range of activities they are delivering. Encouraging results include:

  • A high interest of landholder engagement for future planned grazing trials and events;
  • High participant satisfaction with demonstration field days;
  • Three landholders hosting trials have applied techniques beyond the original trial sites;
  • Engagement with industry and community groups through field days; and
  • Broader communications and recognition outside of Tasmania, such as an invitation to speak at STIPA conference in Holbrook Nov 2011.

In the future NRM South hopes to build redundancy into the delivery of their programs, with the development of communities of practice, or farmer support networks. The increasing demand, evidenced through the numbers attending courses, suggests that this has the potential to become a commercial venture. Some farmer bodies of practice that have been set up elsewhere are self sustaining due to farmers driving and providing educational activities and NRM South would like to explore these options.

As summarised by Barry, “We work with the willing. If landowners are already happy with their production system, we’ll support them in mutually beneficial activities, but, we are better able to provide support for farmers willing to trial new techniques; those willing to change.”

SHARING THE SUCCESS

The projects run by NRM South are encouraging landholders to adopt sustainable land management practices in a low risk way that suits the situation of individual farmers. By using a method based on coordination and cooperation, a range of options are available to assist farmers to change their practices. These provide sufficient ongoing engagement to support changes beyond the initial enthusiasm experienced at field days or workshops.

Landholders are being empowered to understand new techniques at their own pace through the assisted trials. Trial demonstration sites allow for sharing of results and broader discussion and generate interest across the catchment. The landholders are a part of the change, with minimal disruption to their production, and they can choose whether or not to adopt practices based on their own evidence.

The wider adoption of regenerative landscape management is a strategic imperative for Australia’s future well being. Support mechanisms are clearly required to assist land managers who have attended training activities or demonstration days as a means to gain confidence in changing practices. The NRM South case study provides an example of effective techniques to which could be used to provide the required encouragement and support to farmers and land managers to adopt regenerative landscape management practices.


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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