Everybody knows the presence of carbon is important for soil structure, however, it also has a structural role. This comes back to carbon being the main building block of pastures.
By structural role, I mean the way paddocks are more water efficient and have increased capacity to capture resources when plants are physically present.
THE WICK EFFECT
Carbon has a structural role as part of plant the roots. Roots, which are 45% carbon, act as “wicks” to take water down through the soil profile, especially important with harder soils.
This is achieved by water travelling down beside roots. Better managed plants, with more extensive root systems, distribute water faster through the soil and to greater depth.
Resting pastures for a short period after rain increases carbon flows for root construction, which in turn improves the infiltration of future rain.
With perennial grasses, the roots grow and die back. This results in cavities where roots have previously been. These cavities are very effective for water infiltration.
ROOTS HELP SECURE NITROGEN
Where pastures are not fertilised, the nitrogen present in the soil originates from the earth’s atmosphere, where it makes up about 78% of the air. Each hectare of the earth is covered by about 84,000 tonnes of nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Nitrogen comes in with rain, so infiltration determines plant available nitrogen from this source. In the tall grass savannahs of the Northern Territory of Australia, each year rain brings in 2 kg of nitrogen per hectare. To put this into perspective in this area, at the end of the growing season there is 10-15 kg of nitrogen in standing grass, which is low compared with more fertile areas.
There seems to be a trend towards more intense rainfall events, which is why improving water infiltration is even more important.
LIFTING WIND & SHADING
Have you ever given any thought to why clothes on the line dry quicker on a windy day than on a still one? Going back to basics, moisture is released from the wet clothes into the drier air around them. When the immediate air beside the clothes is saturated, no more moisture is released from the clothes. The wind dries the clothes because it blows away the moist air and replaces it with drier air, which then absorbs more moisture from the clothes.
The clothes line principle is central to another structural role of carbon. Standing plants lift wind off the soil surface which slows the drying of soil.
Shading by plants is an important component of water use efficiency, as it slows evaporation and makes more water available to plants.
MAINTAINING THE POPULATION OF SOIL MICROBES OVER TIME
A lot of soil microbes are like perennial grasses, in that they have to go into dormancy when conditions are not favourable.
When the soil dries quicker than it should, this does not give soil microbes time to go through their normal process of going into dormancy and so they die.
The soil remaining dry for a long time during droughts is not an issue for dormant microbes. Microbes found in the tombs of Egypt have been reactivated.
Another structural role of carbon is collecting dew in some environments. This relies on the surface area of grass being adequate.
German scientist, Dr Wihelm Ripl explains why plants are responsible for greater availability of water to the landscape, “Water vapour in the lower atmosphere close to vegetation, even without a single rain event, can be precipitated by leaves, needles and other structures with high surface to volume ratios. The result is a lowering of surface energy and a warming of these structures.”
In the case of frosts, for moisture to accumulate on the soil surface, there has to be enough moisture frozen then thawed as the sun rises. In an area suffering the driest winter in years, I observed that there was regularly moisture on the ground at the base of plants after the sun had risen. This phenomenon was only occurring where the grass was thick and tall. It was actually maintaining some green leaf at the base where it was protected from frost.
The structural role of carbon relies on the faster moving carbon residing in plants, which in turn reflects the management of carbon flows from what rain does arrive.
Management that leads to better water infiltration via increased roots and then slower drying of the soil surface due to wind being lifted, increases germination.
Roots play a very important role in Reef protection. Water has volume and if it gets together and gathers speed, then that is when it does damage by eroding soil and carrying nutrients into waterways. Getting more rainfall into the soil reduces this problem. Also, more standing pasture helps keep water apart and from gathering speed.
Have you ever thought about why cows digest leaves faster than stems or why a leaf breaks down faster in the soil than a stem. Well actually, cows do not digest leaves/stems, nor does the soil break down leaves/stems.
In the case of cows, it is the microbes in the rumen (first stomach) that consume what they can of what the cow has swallowed. The cow then digests the microbes as their food source
In the soil, it is microbes, such as bacteria and fungi that have the first snack on organic matter, eating what they can. Other soil life such as protozoa and nematodes then consume the microbes as their food source, and they in turn are consumed.
After entering plants, it is ongoing consumption from one living thing to the next that moves carbon through the landscape above and below ground. However, this consumption is very dependent on enough nitrogen being available.
THE CARBON:NITROGEN RATIO
Last week it was explained that the relative amounts of carbon and nitrogen in different life forms, and their waste products, is referred to as the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio.
Leaves have a higher percentage of nitrogen to carbon than stems i.e. lower C:N ratio. This allows microbes to multiply faster due to the higher availability of nitrogen. The faster microbes are able to multiply, the quicker the faster moving carbon starts to move.
Given plants (and trees) are the start of the above and below ground food chain in the paddock, the C:N ratio of pasture plants sets the speed of the faster moving carbon in the paddock that producers rely on.
THE SOIL PROCESS – HOW NUTRIENTS IN ORGANIC MATTER BECOME PLANT AVAILABLE
It is the C:N ratio of organic matter that determines how quickly nitrogen is mineralised and made plant available again, as the following two diagrams demonstrate.
For materials with a low C:N ratio such as Lucerne, the breakdown will begin almost immediately, because there is plenty of nitrogen around, and this nitrogen is needed by the bugs to make proteins. The more they multiply, the more nitrogen needed.
In fact, there is usually more nitrogen in the Lucerne than is required, so some is released into the soil and can be used by plants.
However, for say oat trash with a higher C:N ratio, nitrogen is usually not released upon decomposition, and may not become available for many months. In fact nitrogen from the soil (which otherwise would be available for plant growth) is usually needed by the decomposing organisms to complete the job of breaking down the oat trash, i.e. the soil organisms remove nitrogen from the soil as they need proteins to build their bodies.
Death of soil microbes is an absolute necessity as part of nitrogen mineralisation. The C:N ratio of bacteria and fungi, the first consumers of organic matter, is lower than the soil life that consumes them. Hence, the unneeded nitrogen is released to the soil and becomes available to plants.
Looking at the two examples, 60% of the carbon consumed has been released (respired) back to the atmosphere during consumption. The rest is now in the soil microbes.
THE COW PROCESS – GETTING SHEEP AND CATTLE TO MARKET SOONER & REDUCING METHANE
Because the microbes in a cow’s rumen have the same requirements as those in the soil, leaves, which have a lower C:N ratio than stems, move faster through a cow. Likewise, green grass has a lower C:N ratio than dry grass, so moves faster.
The reason sheep and cattle are selective in what they eat, is that they intuitively know that microbes in their rumen (gut) multiply faster with a higher nitrogen diet. The faster rumen microbes multiply, the faster the cow grows.
Hydrogen is produced in the rumen as microbes consume the gut fill. Methanogens are microbes living in the rumen that remove this hydrogen by joining it to carbon to form methane (CH4), which the cow burps out.
If the rumen is emptying slower because the microbes are multiplying slower, because nitrogen levels are lower, the methane outcomes are worse. There is actually less methane produced each day, but because the cattle take a lot longer to get to the meatworks, the methane produced in total is more i.e. more per kg of production.
WAYS TO LOWER THE C:N RATIO
Resting paddocks for a short period after rain increases the percentage of leaves to stems.
This short rest after rain increases carbon flows which increase plant energy reserves and root volume, which in turn results in pastures being green for a higher percentage of the year.
Ensure animals don’t eat out the more palatable lower C:N plants.
As a general rule, higher quality pastures (lower C:N ratio), result in manure that is broken down quicker in the soil.
There is a reason why a paddock is more productive when the faster moving carbon (short term carbon) moves faster. Everything that is joined to carbon, such as nutrients and energy, becomes available to sheep and cattle sooner. Also, increasing the speed of the faster moving carbon results in nutrients becoming plant available sooner.
Increasing the speed of carbon through ruminant animals like sheep and cattle increases profits by getting them to market sooner and reduces the production of methane per kg of production.
From a “management” point of view, it is carbon flows that are important, but moreover, it is the speed of flows that is the critical thing for a rural producer.
We can’t fully understand the process of carbon movement from one life form to the next in a paddock, until we understand how nitrogen fits in.
When any living thing dies or is consumed, plants included, it becomes the food source for another living thing. All the nutrients and trace elements are important for the next consumer, but nitrogen is a key player. It has to be passed (along with carbon) in adequate quantities down the food chain to ensure ongoing life.
Put simply, nitrogen is always moving just like carbon is always moving. However, carbon can’t move from one life form to the next, driving production and landscape health, if there is not enough nitrogen to go with the carbon.
Carbon compounds provide energy and cellular building blocks, while nitrogen is a crucial component of proteins, necessary for cell growth and function. It is nitrogen that builds tissue. Nitrogen is a component of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein.
THE CARBON:NITROGEN RATION
How much carbon and nitrogen any life form requires, be it a plant, soil microbe, worm, insect or animal, is referred to as the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio of that life form.
Suppose a plant sample is made up of 40% carbon and 2% nitrogen. Dividing 40 by 2, the result is 20. The C:N ratio of this material is 20 to 1, which means 20 times as much carbon as nitrogen. The ratio is often shortened and just written as 20.
Humans are 18% carbon and 2.5% nitrogen, so we have a C:N ratio of 7.2.
ORGANIC MATTER BREAKDOWN (CONSUMPTION)
Organic matter consisting of deceased life or their waste products also has a C:N ratio, which indicates its value for consumption by soil life.
As a rule of thumb, a C:N ratio of approximately 25 is somewhat of a watershed. The further the organic matter is above this value (i.e. higher amounts of carbon per gram of nitrogen) the slower will be the rate of decomposition. On the other hand, with a C:N ratio lower than 25, the faster the rate at which organic matter decomposes. This is why, say Lucerne (C:N ratio of 12 – 15), doesn’t last long in the soil compared to wheat stubble (C:N ratio of 90 – 160).
IMPROVING PASTURE C:N RATIO
As plants are the start of the food chains, above and below ground, their C:N ratio sets the scene for the efficiency of a grazing paddock i.e. how quickly consumption occurs in the paddock as one life form consumes another. For this reason, it is important to ensure that animals do not eat out the species with the lower C:N ratios.
We can improve the C:N ratio of plants through better management (i.e. higher carbon flows) that improves the fertility of the soil. In general it could be said that any specific plant type in a properly functioning landscape will have a higher nutritional value (including better C:N ratio) than one in a dysfunctional landscape of the same soil type. The protein level of wheat changes when fertiliser is added, which is another example of the principle.
The C:N ratio is an important concept for producers to understand. The ratio is always being mentioned in scientific literature however it rarely seems to rate a mention in extension to the grazing industry. This is unfortunate as the ratio helps producers better understand how a paddock and everything in it functions.
A broader understanding of how carbon and nitrogen combine in the paddock would lead to better Reef protection. If management is not focused on maximising carbon flows into the paddock, to bind up nitrogen, then there is more chance of nitrogen getting on the loose and promoting algal growth on the Reef. Nitrogen on the loose is also a lead cause of soil acidification and nitrous oxide emissions. Besides the environmental consequences, it is money literally down the drain.
It is the movement of carbon and nitrogen that is central to the profits of the grazing industry and this will be discussed further next week.
Have you ever considered that all the different forms of carbon in a paddock are moving at different speeds?
The first two columns drew attention to the difference between carbon flows and carbon stocks. It was explained why the success of rural producers relies on how well their management promotes the flow of carbon through their paddocks. Now I am going to add another level of refinement to this discussion of carbon flows in the paddock.
Given that all carbon in the paddock flows, some quickly and some slowly, maybe we should discuss carbon in terms of the speed of the flow, rather than simply stocks versus flows.
Some of the carbon that enters a paddock moves very quickly through the paddock on its way back to the atmosphere. Some stays a bit longer and some of the carbon is moving very slowly.
DIFFERENT SPEEDS = DIFFERENT FUNCTIONS
This suggestion of thinking speed of carbon may seem like a radical proposal, however it brings the discussion of land management back to exactly what all the different forms of carbon are doing. The faster moving carbon has a different role in production and landscape health to the slower moving carbon.
Short term resilience is linked to the faster moving carbon and long term resilience is linked to the slow moving carbon, as will be explained in a later column.
To understand the concept of different speeds of carbon, we have to go back to the idea of individual carbon atoms entering the paddock via photosynthesis then heading off in all different directions, before finding their way back to the atmosphere. Some quickly, some slowly.
Carbon atoms form different compounds as they keep moving.As you know, it is consumption of carbon compounds by life above and below ground that moves carbon around the paddock. Generally, the more times carbon is consumed, the slower it moves and the simpler carbon compounds become.
INCREASING THE SPEED OF FASTER MOVING CARBON IMPROVES PROFIT
There is a reason why a paddock is more productive when the faster moving carbon moves even faster. In the case of soil, everything that is joined to carbon, such as nutrients, becomes available to plants sooner if the carbon moves faster.
Apart from flowing through the landscape after entering plants, carbon also flows through sheep and cattle. Increasing the speed of carbon through these ruminant animals increases profits by getting them to market sooner and reduces the production of methane per kg of production.
What speeds up the faster moving carbon will be discussed soon.
Carbon flows in the paddock involve virtually none of what we term long term carbon (the slow moving carbon).
If you want to increase production in the short term, it is the faster moving carbon that increases production, not slow moving carbon. In the case of soil carbon, it is accepted in the scientific community that stocks of long term soil carbon are slow to change, which reinforces the point that long term carbon can’t to be responsible for short term increases in production.
EXAMPLES OF DIFFERENT SPEEDS OF CARBON MOVEMENT
The carbon that leaves the paddock in the quickest time after entering is root exudates. Root exudates are carbon based compounds (sugars, amino acids and organic acids) released by the roots of plants. Soil microbes that are fed by root exudates procure nutrients that plants require. A good example of this process is microbes making phosphorus soluble and ready for plant use. This carbon leaves the paddock within hours of entering i.e. it is very fast moving carbon. Plants only release this liquid carbon into the soil when they are growing (photosynthesising).
Carbon above and below ground in plants is some of the faster moving carbon. However, the carbon in the stems will move slower than the carbon in leaves when it enters a cow or the soil.
The slowest moving carbon is soil humus and charcoal. It is virtually not moving at all.
Carbon is the organiser as it flows through the paddock.
It is the faster moving carbon that runs down quickly and needs constant replacement. Ground cover is a good example.
Carbon trading is more interested in the slow moving stable carbon, while the decisions rural producers make relate directly to the faster moving short term carbon.
Did you know that after carbon enters the paddock, it is consumption that allows it to move and, in the process, change from one form to another? During each consumption event, some of the carbon will leave the paddock and return to the atmosphere, hence the need for ongoing replacement. Carbon usually leaves as carbon dioxide (CO2), however some leaves in the form of methane (CH4).
Carbon consumption usually involves living things, however fire also consumes carbon compounds such as those in grass. In the case of fire, a lot of carbon leaves in a hurry. While fire is sometimes necessary as part of managing paddocks, it must be remembered that the carbon in burnt grass is not given the opportunity to drive production and soil health by moving through the above and below ground food chain.
When pasture management is discussed with producers, carbon is usually just associated with the soil. However, it is important to think of ground cover in terms of being carbon. When a paddock goes from having a good cover of grass, to bare, this is a reflection that all the carbon that was in the grass (45% by volume) has gone somewhere else. Some of the carbon that was in the grass would now be in the bodies of livestock, some in soil life including microbes, some in organic matter and the rest back up in the atmosphere.
With the mind set of carbon always moving, comes the awareness that carbon levels in the paddock will run down if you do not allow replacement carbon to keep coming in.
ONE EXAMPLE OF HOW CARBON KEEPS LEAVING THE PADDOCK
The above diagram representing the decomposition of plant residues highlights that it is critical to keep introducing new carbon into a paddock because carbon keeps leaving the system. The arrows on the CO2 sections represent the loss of introduced carbon via consumption i.e. oxidisation. The oxidisation process involves one life form consuming another and releasing CO2 in the process. As discussed, consumption by living things is not the only way carbon moves. Fire also consumes carbon by oxidising it. As we all know, remove the oxygen and the fire goes out.
The diagram highlights that the outcome of photosynthesis is being reversed with every consumption event. You can see that some of the original carbon that arrived as short term carbon is now heading towards longer term carbon as it becomes less and less digestible. This is represented by the horizontal red bar becoming shorter.
The above diagram of what happens in the soil is a similar process to what happens in the rumin (first stomach) of sheep and cattle, where the gut microbes consume the grass that livestock have eaten. The sheep and cattle then consume the gut microbes as their food source and breathe out CO2 in the process. In the rumin, hydrogen is produced as part of the digestive process and microbes, known as methanogens, convert it to methane (CH4), which sheep and cattle burp out of their mouth. What the microbes do not consume becomes manure that then flows through the soil life.
As a general comment, 75-80% of carbon that enters the soil will be gone within twelve months. The actual amount consumed is determined by soil moisture and soil temperature as these two parameters determine how active soil microbes are.
Everything discussed here highlights that if your management is not focused on maximising the introduction of new carbon when the opportunities present after rain, then you run the risk of running short of this commodity, especially above ground.
Inputs and maintenance costs exceeding production returns
Comprehensively monitored and measured time-controlled cell grazing
Soil improvement using biodynamic methods
All organic management
Innovations commenced: 1993
30% productivity increase with gross margins between $64-$113 per hectare
Higher yields on revegetated brigalow paddocks than cleared paddocks
Increased water availability due to increased rainfall infiltration and reduced losses to evaporation
Shane and Shan Joyce came to Dukes Plain in 1982 from a background in organic farming. Over the years they adopted new management practices: ceasing the use of fire, retaining timber and valuing regrowth, prioritising pasture diversity and native pastures, and employing low productioncosts and inputs. In 1993 a radical change was made to the grazing system on Dukes Plain, moving from continuous grazing in sevenpaddocks to a cell grazing system across almost 100 paddocks. Focus moved from the production bottom line to a measure of kilograms of beef produced per hectare of available pasture. Production increases were experienced within two years of adopting planned grazing management.
In addition to cell grazing, outcomes were further enhanced by the later application of organic and biodynamic methods.
By persisting through obstacles and impediments to change, the Joyce’s have experienced improvement in the natural resource with healthier soils, more diverse pastures, more trees, fewer weeds, improved water quality and water use efficiency, as well as increased carrying capacity, easier animal management and reduced labour requirements. They have been able to maintain or increase production through periods when many properties have had to reduce stock numbers.
Observation, monitoring, and recording data has allowed the Joyces more informed decision making, benefiting both landscape and business health. Approximately 800 hectares of crop land has been returned to perennial pasture at a zero dollar cost and gross margin per hectare is now between $64 and $113 on land types varying from eucalypt forest to brigalow scrub.
Dukes Plain is a 7900 hectare sub-tropical property of which 3000 hectares is used as grazing land for beef cattle. This country was formerly dominated by brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) scrubs and semi-evergreen vine thicket, which are both endangered ecosystems, and small areas of eucalypt forest.
The remaining 4900 hectares is sandstone escarpment of virgin native vegetation comprising eucalypts, spinifex, acacias, grass trees and numerous other shrubs, forbs, and grasses. This area is a significant wildlife corridor linking Isla Gorge and Precipice National Parks.
Traditional management of Dukes Plain had seen continuous grazing over its seven paddocks, with water provided through open dams with constant stock access. The brigalow and other vegetation had been cleared from the landscape as a result of government lease conditions in the newly opened 156,000 square kilometre Fitzroy River Basin in central Queensland in the 1950s and 1960s. The clear and burn practices reflected the tree management techniques of the era. Regular fires were also used to control timber regrowth.
Shane Joyce points out that, as a consequence of the prevailing farming practices, the landscape was in steady decline from the beginning of the brigalow scheme. Pastures were degrading through loss of soil structure and fertility and species variety had reduced. This was combined with a reliance on external inputs with rising costs all at the same time as commodity prices were falling.
Shane and Shan took over operation of the property in 1982 after coming from a background of permaculture and organic farming on the Sunshine Coast. Not daunted by what they had come into, they began experimenting with elements of various farming management systems ranging from fully conventional to what, at the time, were considered extreme alternatives. They read about advantages of various alternative agricultural models from around the globe. They constantly questioned their farming practices and the resultant impacts on the land and production. In this process they focused on differentiating between symptoms and causes in the indicators that they observed.
This process of observation and review continued over the next ten years until Shane and Shan had gained a body of skills and knowledge that enabled them to begin to measure the results of their management practices.
Change was evolutionary on Dukes Plain, but became inevitable when a cost benefit analysis demonstrated that input and maintenance costs from their current farming practices were far exceeding returns from production.
The reality of the inevitable outcome of this situation firmly committed Shane and Shan to a complete change of production management. They realised that the landscape was out of balance and it needed to be returned to balance to achieve long term economic production. They were convinced that, once the balance was returned, they could increase cattle carrying capacity, using the same area of land, without detriment to the landscape.
Self education played a big part in deciding what changes to make to production operations. For the Joyces this included reading, observation and experimentation with both alternative and conventional systems. Shane and Shan spent eight years learning about and working with permaculture techniques. Knowledge was furthered through attending workshops, courses and field days, and engaging with leading edge consultants. They eventually completed the Grazing for Profit course which, among other outcomes, provided the tools and guides to enable measurement of production success.
Changing the grazing system on Dukes Plain was the major single change to overall production. The introduction of cell grazing for their cattle focused on high stock density for minimum grazing time to allow pasture maximum time to recover. This has lead to significant improvements in landscape health and production outputs, as detailed below, as well as substantial reductions to inputs required. As Shane says, “The ‘cow tractor’ is now the most used piece of farming equipment”.
A one-off capital investment in fencing and water distribution was necessary to establish the cell grazing system. An extensive network of single wire electric fences, sub-divide the property into what are now 97 paddocks of around 20-40 hectares each. A water reticulation system services all paddocks, gravity fed through polythene pipes from two ‘turkey’s nests’ – dams constructed at high points of the property which can have water pumped into them as required.
Continual monitoring and adjustment has been an essential part of the Joyce’s strategy. Receiving peer input through exposing the property and management to public scrutiny by hosting field days has also been an important element of implementation. Close working relationships have also been established with conservation groups and Queensland National Parks officers.
Currently, Shane and Shan are being approached by resource companies seeking to purchase environmental offsets. These organisations have been attracted to the farm by the high levels of regrowth on the previously cleared endangered brigalow and semi-evergreen vine thicket land types. Shane and Shan see the potential for possible future sale of soil carbon credits. However they note, “This is a complex issue that requires further investigation and clarification to ensure appropriate recognition of the land, the landscape and agricultural production”.
IMPEDIMENTS TO CHANGE
Shane cites a broad range of challenges that he has encountered in the process of changing their property management, “The first and most obvious challenge was overcoming prior learning ranging from my schooling days – the broadly ingrained views that Australian soils are old, barren, degraded and can’t produce topsoil – to the generally accepted use of low management techniques”.
Shane points out that this long accepted approach is seen as the easier path, but over time it inevitably degrades the land, leading to ever falling production. “From that outcome it is only a short step to the general acceptance of external interventions such as fertiliser dependency, re-seeding and drought feeding regimes, all of which also eventually contribute to degradation of the system.”
…having the courage to try new methods and trust [our] own judgement has been an obstacle in itself.
Even with newly acquired information and the benefits of formal study and research, the Joyces found that it was challenging to put the theoretical principles into practice in a manageable form. This was exacerbated by a lack of peers to share ideas with or successful models to ‘copy’ from. General scepticism of new or different ideas was, and is, commonly encountered. Both Shane and Shan say that having the courage to try new methods and trust their own judgement has been an obstacle in itself. Old habits can be hard to break.
In addition, Shane notes that, “Declining product value across the agricultural sector, in contrast to increasing land values, provides additional challenges. Wrong decisions can easily lead to economic hardship”.
Shane also sees a threat to innovative land management in the dictation of practices, such as vegetation and pasture management, by authorities which often do not have direct experience on the land. “Ordinary people in remote places lack the opportunity to ‘have a conversation’ with such entities. To share and demonstrate actual experiences, is a missed opportunity for these authorities and virtually guarantees ‘more of the same’ from them.”
Shane Joyce firmly believes that the natural resource base does not have to inevitably ‘run down’ with production over time, as is a commonly held view. With the management techniques applied, the Dukes Plain environment is clearly ‘running up’, showing only continuing improvement, not degradation over time. A number of principles have helped the Joyces to achieve continuous improvement of their farming resources, including:
Maximize animal density through large mob size and small paddocks.
Match stocking rate to carrying capacity. Have a good agent who assists with selling and acquisition of appropriate stock as determined by rainfall and pasture conditions.
No purchasing of supplementary feed for livestock during drought (see point two).
Do not become emotionally attached to livestock (see point two).
Provide adequate rest for pastures to fully recover before grazing.
Continually monitor and adjust.
Encourage diversity of animals and plants.
Provide adequate tree cover on landscape to minimise stress on land, livestock and people.
Continue to up-skill management and staff through ongoing education.
Minimise external inputs.
Seek the best in external advice.
The 97 paddocks are now grouped into three cells to manage the various mobs of cattle. Actively managed rotation averages around two to three days grazing and 60 days recovery, longer in slow growing season. Stocking is based on 26 stock days per hectare per 100mm of rainfall. This is based on one adult equivalent – a 450kg animal at 0.5kg per day live weight gain to 2 hectares. The stocking rate is continually adjusted according to rainfall and feed availability.
In 1995 the Joyces began to record individual paddock yields. Records maintained and grazing practices are based on those learned in the Grazing for Profit course. Measurements were more rigorous in early years, though these have been adapted over time and reduced to what is most useful. Specific ground cover measurement processes used to be followed in a regular format to record both ground cover and species present, but these have been reduced to set point photographs taken twice a year at the end of the growing and dry seasons.
Shane sees a real strength in having the ability to measure the results of different landscape management methods in dollar terms – tools to measure trends in both landscape and business. The paddocks are now continually monitored and measured and grazing time adjusted accordingly to support optimum grazing and recovery periods.
Shane points to the importance of planning, “Once the infrastructure was established, preparing, monitoring and controlling the grazing management plan became the major regular input required for the operation of Dukes Plain. A one to two month grazing plan can be prepared in a couple of hours, outlining paddock rotation in a form that can be followed by anyone. Less physical work is now required on the property, mostly just opening and closing the electric fence tape ‘gates’ to move cattle from one paddock to another, in accordance with the plan, and occasional fence repairs”.
Shane and Shan value continuous learning. All management and staff on Dukes Plain attend the Grazing for Profit workshop, as well as the Low Stress Stockhandling workshop, various field days and biodynamic farming workshops.
As an added bonus, the increased human visibility and animal handling has made the stock far more approachable and easy to manage. The stock are familiar with the rotation process and eagerly move between paddocks once gates are opened.
Shane and Shan use biodynamic products to enhance soil fertility and have adopted innovative distribution practices for improving the soil quality on Dukes Plain. “Fertile soils provide oxygen, water and nutritious food for plants, animals, insects and microbes”, Shane acknowledges. Good soil underlies – literally and metaphorically – much of the success on the Joyce property.
Fertile soils provide oxygen, water and nutritious food for plants, animals, insects and microbes.
Good litter cover on the soil and denser stands of healthy perennial grass plants and legumes, all contribute to creating soil organic matter, leading to greater water absorption, and minimising surface erosion and runoff. Traditional management practices saw soils in decline with poor water and mineral cycles. District averages for soil organic matter are less than 1%. Measured in 2003, Dukes Plain showed around 4% soil organic matter.
The 2003 soil tests revealed no glaring deficiencies, however more recent analysis identified insufficiencies in levels of boron and manganese which are now being addressed. It was through a series of events that Shane developed an innovative and organic way of increasing the nutrients in his soil.
Upon adopting cell grazing, Shane felt pressure to put urea in the water for the cattle as a protein supplement. Uncomfortable with this concept, due to urea’s potential toxicity, Shane explored other options, influenced by previous experience in permaculture and interest in biodynamics. Initially he experimented with releasing liquid seaweed in water troughs by means of a special dosage pump mechanism. However, in 2002 he explored other options as management of the dosage pump/medicators was challenging when caretaker maintenance of the property was required.
Shane decided to address nutrient deficiencies and improve soil fertility with a product entirely sourced and made on the farm. He developed a biodynamic preparation drawing various components from the field to produce what he now calls ‘soil activator’.
Originally attempted methods of distribution by spraying on paddocks was time consuming and unachievable for the size of the property. Aerial spraying was too costly, so alternative distribution methods were considered. Shane noted that the stock responded favourably when diluted supplement was added to the drinking troughs, and thought that the preparation could also act as a tonic for the animals.
Further experimentation for dosage control led to the development of a ‘tea bag’ made from shade cloth, filled with the soil activator and placed by the inlet valve of water troughs. As a result, the product was ‘steeped’ every time the cattle drank, passing through their digestive systems and eventually ending up on the soil in their waste.
Shane observed the formation of greener patches related to cattle dung and urine points, also noting that the cattle did not avoid these areas in their grazing patterns. Soil biology indicators showed improvement in comparison to ‘untreated’ ground. These green patches have gradually expanded over time.
Ingredients to make soil activator can be purchased for around 60 dollars a kilogram, and Shane’s biodynamic preparations are sold by one of Australia’s top biodynamic educators. The ‘tea bags’ weigh only a couple of kilograms and diffuse into the water, moving from paddock to paddock with the cattle, for up to a number of weeks before they need to be replaced.
This method of distribution is an innovative way of using the ‘cow tractors’ to further fertilise the land and improve soil biology at a very low cost. Results from 2012 soil biology tests are being eagerly awaited.
Shane Joyce shakes his head in response to the previous vegetation management practices and how they are today costing him money.
“Through the 1950s and 1960s the brigalow and softwood scrubs were pulled with bulldozers, let lie for a couple of years, then burned and aerially seeded with a mixture of grasses. Subsequent timber regrowth was dealt with through burning and mechanical means from the 1970s. With fuel price rises and commodity price declines, by 1982 the cost of maintaining the pasture was beginning to outstrip the grazing return.”
Management practices changed, fire ceased being used on the property in 1977 and regeneration was allowed to occur naturally. Some strip removal of regrowth was performed in 1988 – corridors were blade ploughed for 120 metres with 30 metre shelterbelts, and later narrower corridors of six to seven metres with same sized shelterbelts on another part of the property (see image below). Original intentions were to undertake further clearing and thinning, however this was never performed, particularly once production rates were observed.
“Grass diversity, particularly native species, increased quite quickly after establishment of cell grazing.”
“Areas of natural revegetation with around 40% canopy cover are yielding nearly 40% greater return than those areas that were completely cleared. Counter to the long held views that the land needed to be cleared to provide more pasture for grazing, the trees are instead providing protection to the pastures and soils, allowing for much better growth and increased fodder for the cattle. Water loss through evaporation is better controlled, and the trees – notably the narrower corridors more so than the wide ones – protect the pastures from wind and frost damage. Increased diversity in grasses is also evident.”
Shane points out where up to 50% of previously cleared land on Dukes Plain has now retained regrowth. He estimates that around a 40% canopy cover appears to be optimal in the brigalow landscape, and natural thinning seems to be occurring.
He also points out that previous management practices had pastures which were developing into monocultures of buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), and native grasses were being dominated by unpalatable species such as white spear-grass (Aristida leptopoda), wiregrass (Aristida calycigna) and yabilla grass (Panicum queenslandicum).
“Grass diversity, particularly native, increased quite quickly after establishment of cell grazing. Native grasses which emerged and rapidly increased include curly Mitchell (Astrebla lappacea), hoop Mitchell (Astrebla elymoides), kangaroo (Themeda triandra), flinders (Iseilema membranaceum), satin top (Eulalia aurea), Queensland blue (Dichanthium sericeum) and sorghum almum.”
As a result the ‘monoculture’ species decreased, though there seems to be a natural increase and decrease in the predominance of all species over time, with native grasses growing into introduced pastures and vice-versa. When asked about the mix of native grasses into improved pastures, Shane says that it is harder for native grasses to dominate as they have longer rest and regeneration requirements as well as unpalatable stages of growth. “Production does not always support the predominance of natives, for example kangaroo grass is the first to emerge in spring, and hence is eaten first. However, the regular movement of stock – which can also be manipulated and controlled with selected rotation – allows for animal transfer of grass seed to desired areas and some influence on pasture variety.” The cow tractors help again.
The Joyces use no chemical interventions and are not attempting to remove any particular species from their pastures as greater resilience is obtained through biodiversity. Also, over time cattle grazing preferences have been observed to change. Native legumes also multiplied naturally with cell grazing, and the leguminous shrub Leucaena leucocephala has also been randomly introduced to enhance animal protein supply. Protected for a couple of years until they are established, these shrubs are a favoured fodder for the cattle, which quickly strip the leaves in their couple of days in the paddocks.
Cell grazing, more fertile soils and vegetation protection has also allowed for grasses to grow right up to trees in both the brigalow and eucalypt. Some areas of high animal traffic are still bare, but this too is constantly improving.
Overall, recovery periods with cell grazing provide for root development and better and continuous ground cover (which, as previously mentioned, equates to increased rainfall infiltration and water holding capacity). Pasture root systems are visible down 1.7 metres.
Shane is insistent that maintaining a minimum pasture height and having sufficient leaf allows grasses to grow from sunlight energy rather than from root reserves so pastures are more resilient and recover quickly with minimum impact on the root system.
Stock have become used to being handled as a consequence of the grazing strategies. Despite only being held by a single wire electric fence, the stock do not try to push through fences as the grass is not always greener on the other side, and regardless, they know they’re going to be moved in a day or two, so are always content.
Provision of water to stock and enhancing rain infiltration in the landscape are the Joyce’s primary water management practices. These have now resulted in greater water use efficiency and enhanced water quality.
Dukes Plain lies at the top of the catchment area, with only one creek, Cattle Creek, originating in a neighbouring property, running along the southern boundary. Outflows from the property all run into the Dawson River, from Cattle Creek in the south, Red and Four Mile Gullies which flow to Gorge Creek in the North, as well as through Lambing Gully. There are no wetlands on the property and the only spring is high on the escarpment and not useful to the property.
As a result, all stock water is provided by farm dams filled from overland flows. Water is reticulated through a poly pipe system to poly and concrete troughs from the ‘turkey nests’. Water points are located at the intersection of four paddocks. Shane initially attempted his own installation of polythene piping across the property, but later obtained advice from local pipe and pump experts to ensure the use of the most effective pipe size and to obtain suitable pressure.
Most dams remain open to stock access, though with paddock rotation they are only exposed to stock for a maximum of some 21 days per year. This exposure aids compacting of dam edges, as completely protected dams had previously dried and cracked then split in flood. As stock access is limited, any damage is minimal.
A couple of dams are still fenced, one to control the water point from animals living in surrounding scrub the other to allow for enhancement and rebuilding.
Shane describes outcomes of his watering plan, “With the reduced stock access and increased vegetation experienced with cell grazing, both water quality and water-use efficiency has improved. Algal blooms which had previously caused fish and duck deaths no longer occur. The improved ground cover now filters nutrient load washing into dams and less stock time on dams has reduced concentrated nutrient sources [dung and urine] in the immediate area”.
With an average annual rainfall of 700mm, in recent years rainfall has varied from as little as 314mm in 2006 to a high of 1538mm in 2010. The Joyces monitor post rain events to observe how deep moisture has penetrated and have found that rain infiltration in the soil has improved. Rainfall events of less than 10mm have traditionally been seen in the area as “useless”, however with the conditioned land and high levels of soil organic matter, this moisture is now being absorbed into the Dukes Plain soil. With around 70% of rainfall events comprising less than 10mm rainfall, the Joyces are now able to harness this resource that previously had been lost.
As shown below, land has been contoured in certain areas away from gullies and as required to dams. This technique follows Yeomans’ Keyline Design principles and aims to ‘keep water on the farm, not in the gully’. This is happening across the property as improved vegetation helps to keep moisture in the soil and pasture. Whilst the reduced overland flows result in increased difficulty in filling stock dams, this is an acceptable part of having increased soil moisture content.
PESTS & WEEDS
Previous methods of weed and pest control used included fire, 1080 baiting for dingoes and shooting of pigs and kangaroos. Now no control methods are used other than through cell grazing strategies. While some weeds persist to varying degrees, amongst the increased diversity of species these are seen as symptomatic of a particular issue and allowed to follow their cycle. Weeds are seen as an ally to colonise bare ground and help change the nature of the soil to make it more suitable for growing grasses.
A better balance of wildlife now exists on the property and despite more extensive water availability; kangaroo and wallaby numbers have reduced and are at an acceptable level. This could be as a result of these animals preference for short new growth, which is less common on Dukes Plain with current management strategies. There are some feral pigs and wild dogs in the region but these are not particularly problematic.
Increased biodiversity in plant, animal, insect and other species is a clear outcome of the farming practices employed at Dukes Plain.
Diversity in pastures of both native and introduced species is extensive. There is an increase in leguminous shrubs and forbs across the paddocks. Ground cover has increased and regeneration is occurring naturally. In areas where trees numbers are high (too many stems per hectare). a natural self thinning appears to be occurring.
Vegetation linkages are severely limited to the north and east by clearing of surrounding properties, however linkages to south and west are strong due to the topography, which has limited clearing. The area which had received wide strip clearing in the 1980s showed greater biodiversity than the narrow corridors, but this was due to its maintaining connection with surrounding remnant vegetation, whereas the other area had been previously disconnected.Across the property increased diversity and population of birds has been observed over time. Regrowth areas provide wildlife corridors to the undeveloped ridge country and habitat for many more bird species, including significant numbers of small birds due to regeneration of small prickly shrubs which provide habitat that used to be burned.
Earthworms, spiders, ant and other insect numbers and types have increased. The vegetation has also provided the ideal habitat for the orb weaving spiders which can consume significant numbers of insects, such as grasshoppers, which damage crops and pastures.
Shane and Shan are experiencing financial, social and environmental gains as a result of their property management practices.
A 30% productivity increase was obtained with cell grazing – paying off implementation of the new model, such as investment in infrastructure, in three years. Previously high external inputs such as seed, machinery and labour have all gone. No production, pasture or land management expenses or inputs costs have been incurred for 24 years. They are no longer required. Shane believes that the value of this method is clear in the lack of input costs – profit is inevitable.
The landscape is telling us that we are on the right path…
The previous focus on animal genetics and individual animal performance, or production per head, has been replaced with the simple measure of kilograms of beef produced per hectare of pasture. Greatest yields are being experienced in the revegetated paddocks – a clear demonstration that totally clearing paddocks is ultimately detrimental to pasture production.
As shown in the graph below, yield figures from the past 16 years of data demonstrate that totally cleared paddocks (scrub soils) are yielding measurably less ($83.96 per ha per year) than paddocks which have 40% ($112.74/ha/year) and 45% ($98.04/ha/year) canopy cover, while eucalypt forest with 90% canopy is yielding $64.83/ha/year.
The property now serves as a host for a broad range of visitors, including field days for the public, work experience for school groups, WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms), and grey nomads. The Joyces feel that hosting helps with re-building the community on farm, which also flows on into the local towns. Hosting is also a valuable way to bridge the gap between city and country, also providing an excellent method of education.
The Joyces believe that quality food for people is being produced on Dukes Plain through organic and biodynamic practices. In addition, biodynamic preparations are being produced for on-selling by one of Australia’s top biodynamic educators. This helps fund the continuing education of farmers and gardeners in the biodynamic methods.
The improved landscape health would arguably result in cleaner water
entering the Dawson River and eventually into the Great Barrier Reef.
Overall, compared to the previous business model on the property, the Joyces have experienced improvement in the natural resource and natural capital through more diverse pastures, more trees, fewer weeds, improved water quality, efficient water use, increased carrying capacity, easier animal management, and reduced labour input and requirements.
Shane and Shan are experiencing a greater sense of wellbeing with their current management practices, “the landscape is telling us that we are on the right path”. Observing the problems that have arisen in agriculture in the recent past, and not being affected by them, provides the clear impression that they are doing is working.
There is a clear sense of satisfaction and pride in being a
part of the landscape for management, staff, volunteers, and visitors of
Shane and Shan have found that data capture, planning, monitoring and adjusting has been invaluable to success on Dukes Plain. By ensuring careful observation, such as of plant lifecycles, and behaviour adjustment, such as not grazing when grasses are just shooting, better outcomes can be received. Shane says that he wishes he had been more diligent in these activities in the early days of adopting changed practices.
“However”, he says, “I have been lucky, I have learned to have the courage to make mistakes and re-label them as learning opportunities. I believe more time can always be spent in seeking out knowledge”.
…choose what works for you from the range of methods and information available…
And what about a baseline from which to judge progress? In Shane’s region he finds that the roadside provides a good comparison tool for his own pastures. “Without technology or investment, they provide me with the opportunity to observe what is occurring naturally. That stimulates thinking on what systems or management can be implemented to replicate healthy results.” Shane’s experience has shown that investment in most productive areas first, reaps the greater rewards, “Improvements will spread to less productive areas, and increased production will subsidise later action in the harder to regenerate areas”.
With the broad range of practices available, Shane advises to choose what works for you from the range of methods and information available and from your own ideas and experiences and to “select the tiles that you want and make your own mosaic”. Ultimately, he recommends “care deeply about the land and take responsibility for your decisions and actions”.