SOME OF THE MAIN POINTS RAISED IN 2017

A few years ago, while traveling in rural Queensland, I met an interesting woman in the Blackall newsagency. During the course of conversation she commented, “The expensive dieting programs in the city are a total waste of money. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut and move”. This woman was a clear thinker who was focused on getting back to basics.

Likewise, producers who focus on good management of carbon flows, understand that this is one of the basics you have to get right. If you get the basics wrong, nothing else will fall into place the way they should.

CARBON FLOWS ARE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL THING A PRODUCER HAS TO GET RIGHT?

Carbon is the main building block of cattle, grass and soil life and carries the energy that all three require.

Paddocks can’t function without carbon flows because carbon is the main building block of all life. Cattle are 18% carbon, grass is 45% carbon and soil life is carbon based. Also, carbon is the carrier of energy that all life requires.

Nutrients and water also follow the path carbon takes. The more carbon that flows through the paddock, the better the other cycles function.

Without the ongoing flow of carbon and all the different compounds it forms as it keeps moving, the landscape would become bare and lifeless.

MORE FLOW = MORE MEAT AND GRAIN

A producer’s day job is recycling carbon i.e. managing carbon flows. Producers set out to turn a portion of the carbon that is flowing through the paddock into saleable carbon products, like meat and grain. The more carbon that flows, the more cattle and grain are produced for sale. 

All else being equal, the grazing paddock that has the most carbon flowing through it will be the most productive and resilient.

HAS EXTENSION FOCUSED ON THE WRONG ASPECT OF CARBON WHEN DISCUSSING DECISION MAKING?

Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome. With carbon, the “management decisions” producers make relate to carbon flows.

Long-term soil carbon is important for paddock health. However, if you want to increase production in the short term, it is the faster moving short term carbon that increases production, not the slow moving long term 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.

For those interested in long-term soil carbon, this carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows i.e. when carbon enters plants from the atmosphere.

THE CARBON FLOWS CONCEPT IS DIFFERENT TO DISCUSSING THE CARBON CYCLE DIAGRAM     

The carbon flows concept, discusses the role of carbon as it keeps moving through the paddock, above and below ground, including through livestock. The concept explains what carbon does as it moves and the processes it activates, before returning to the atmosphere. It highlights that carbon is the organiser as it flows through the landscape. It discusses the different speeds of carbon to help producers better understand the different roles of carbon.  

The carbon flows concept should not be confused with discussion of the carbon cycle diagram.The carbon cycle diagram is a one dimensional discussion. It goes no further than saying that carbon cycles. It simply discusses the different pools carbon moves between.   

The easiest way to grasp the carbon flows concept is to think of individual carbon atoms entering the paddock from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and then heading off in all different directions, before finding their way back to the atmosphere. Some quickly, some slowly.

THE DIFFERENT SPEEDS OF PADDOCK CARBON

Short term carbon is the fast moving carbon and long term carbon is the slow moving carbon.

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.

WHY CARBON SUDDENLY TURNED UP IN EXTENSION

For the thirty years that I was a grazier up until 2000, not once was the word carbon mentioned to me. CSIRO confirmed this to be trueLand management was never explained in terms of carbon management, or more specifically, management of carbon flows. Nobody suggested to me that my day job was recycling carbon. It was never explained to me that the meat and wool I sold were actually carbon compounds. Now carbon is being discussed in extension but not in its full context.

It was climate change policy that introduced the word carbon into extension. This explains why current extension is focused on carbon stocks and measurement. This is where funding is being directed, not carbon flows projects.

The reason carbon was originally left out of extension can be traced back to reductionist science. Reductionist science breaks up landscape function into separate processes and is sometimes referred to as putting information in silos. Those who take a reductionist science approach place a lower importance on carbon than those who take a systems approach.

HOW MOVING CARBON CARRIES ENERGY

During photosynthesis, light energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy. The energy of the sun is stored in the new molecular structures that carbon forms.

The carbon hydrogen bonds in C6H12O6 (carbohydrates) contain more energy than the carbon oxygen bonds in CO2.

THINK CARBON BEFORE NITROGEN

A bare paddock has no carbon above ground while a paddock of frosted or rank grass has carbon but little nitrogen.

A person running a grazing operation can afford to supplement nitrogen (protein) when it is in short supply. However, it is not commercial to supplement carbon when it is short. Hay is expensive.

Correctly manage carbon flows from the atmosphere to your paddock and you will still have options when it has not rained for a while.  

THINKING WITH A NEW MINDSET

It is natural that the way somebody sees the world, influences the decisions they make. Discussing carbon flows is a different way for graziers to look at the landscape and understand how it functions. With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions.

When producers get their head around the flows way of thinking, they focus on management that will maximise flows. 

Producers have no control over how much rain arrives but they do have control over the level of carbon flows generated by what rain does arrive.

INCREASING THE SPEED OF THE FASTER MOVING CARBON INCREASES PROFIT & REDUCES METHANE

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. 

How quickly carbon moves from one life form to the next, driving production and landscape health, depends on how much nitrogen is present with carbon.

This is why the carbon:nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) is an important concept for producers to understand 

Leaves have a higher percentage of nitrogen to carbon than stems i.e. lower C:N ratio. This allows microbes in the soil and microbes in the rumen of cattle to multiply faster due to the higher availability of nitrogen. The faster microbes are able to multiply and consume their carbon based food, the quicker the faster moving carbon moves.  

There is a reason why a paddock is more productive when the faster moving carbon (short term carbon) moves even faster. In the case of soil, nutrients joined to carbon become plant available sooner if carbon moves faster. In the case of livestock, nutrients and energy joined to carbon becomes available to sheep and cattle 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.  

FINANCIAL ANALOGY

To put fast and slow moving carbon into a commercial analogy, think cash flows versus capital.

Cash flows keep you in business, just like carbon flows keep you in business.

The fast moving short term carbon makes money for you because it feeds all the life in the soil that keeps the soil productive AND feeds sheep and cattle. Remember cattle are 18% carbon, with all this carbon coming from the fast moving carbon. It is the fast moving carbon that builds larger root systems in plants so that they can access more moisture and nutrients to grow. It is central to plant energy reserves that determine how well plants can come out of dormancy.  The ability of perennial grasses to come out of dormancy and grow after isolated small falls of rain, is especially important in dry years when getting something to grow is critical.

The slow moving long term carbon, like soil humus, should be seen as part of the capital of a farming business. It is essential for increasing the “storage” of water and plant available nutrients that would otherwise escape the paddock.

CONCLUSION

Carbon is the organiser as it flows through the paddock.

Carbon stocks are simply a reflection of how well carbon flows are managed.

The health of the Great Barrier Reef and waterways is dependent on good management of carbon flows.

Because of their deep roots, perennial edible shrubs like saltbush and leucaena transfer the use of rain further into the future i.e. they can generate carbon flows when it is not raining. They also hold onto their nitrogen (protein) longer, with saltbush not affected by frosts.


ALAN LAUDER

‘BEETALOO STATION’ – FIRST ADD WATER

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

FIRST ADD WATER

The innovative practices developed by John Dunnicliff and his family at Beetaloo Station provide, potentially, an efficient and sustainable method of cattle production applicable to vast areas of northern Australia – just by adding water.

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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

60 km east of Elliott, 800 km south of Darwin,
NT Barkly Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle.
Brahman and Brahman-Senepol cross beef production

PROPERTY SIZE: 1,054,700 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 450-650 mm

ELEVATION: 220 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Previous experience that water supply is critical for productive grazing on vast properties

INNOVATIONS

  • Delivering a reliable water supply to support grazing across vast areas of previously unused native rangelands
  • Establishing smaller paddocks on a very large scale to concentrate grazing animals to ensure managed use of pastures and continuing improvement of soils
  • Innovations commenced: 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • Significant increase in carrying capacity – 100,000 head of cattle viewed as “conservative”
  • Development of an innovative vision for grazing in Northern Australia
  • Delivering time-controlled planned rotational grazing on a significant scale

INTRODUCTION

When the Dunnicliff family acquired Beetaloo Station in 2002, it had been managed for the previous century in the traditional way. Much of the country was effectively virgin cattle country, having never really been grazed, while the areas near water had been seriously over-grazed and the pastures and soil were degraded. With experience running grazing properties in various regions of Australia, including the Kimberley region where water supply is an equally important issue, they could see the potential to significantly increase productivity while simultaneously rehabilitating the degraded landscape. The key was the provision of water.

Since taking over the properties, John Dunnicliff has embarked on a massive development program to provide stock water across vast areas of the properties. The scale is based on a model that cattle should not have to walk more than 2km for water. Full implementation of the plan could see production expand from the current carrying rate of 50,000 head of cattle to a potential target of 100,000, with an ultimate production cost of 32 cents per kilogram.

Advice was obtained along the way from tropical animal production expert Dr Steve Petty, who is based at Kununurra, and from holistic management experts, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory.

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A WHOLE LOT OF LAND

The Dunnicliff family has been farming in various parts of Australia, starting in northern New South Wales and including King Island and the Kimberley Region of far north-west Western Australia. In 2002, they acquired Beetaloo Station, which encompasses the perpetual pastoral leases of BeetalooOT Downs and Mungabroom.

Beetaloo Station extends over one million hectares

Beetaloo Station is vast. The total area of Beetaloo and OT Downs is 707,800 hectares and the Mungabroom property is 346,900 hectares. Combined, the total area is 1,054,700 hectares or 10,547 square kilometres. The distance from west to east is approximately 130km and from north to south about 120km – as the brolga flies. Approximately 50,000 cattle are currently run on the properties.

The climate in this region is monsoonal. Average annual rainfall ranges from 450mm in the south-east of the properties to 650mm in the north. However, nearly all of this falls in the wet season from November to March. Due to the hot climate, annual potential evaporation is about 2700mm. This means that, while rainfall is not particularly low, there is a substantial water availability deficit in the dry season.

Newcastle Creek runs through the Beetaloo property, providing a series of wet season waterholes and three large wetlands that rarely dry completely. The OT Downs property, part of the northern watershed of Newcastle Creek, also has some wet season waterholes and semi-permanent wetlands. The Mungabroom property has no permanent water, only temporary waterholes along the creeks after the wet season. Large volumes of good quality water are available from shallow aquifers underlying the entire area.

The dominant soil types across the property are heavy, hard-setting alluvial clays that have formed on the flood plains. Lateritic sandy soils and red earths are derived from sedimentary rock, such as sandstone and limestone, which underlies and projects above the alluvial plains.

Wetlands and waterholes support significant biodiversity

The natural vegetation includes open plains dominated by Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), which occur on the heavy clay soils. These plains are surrounded by and interspersed with woodlands and low open forests dominated by coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah or Eucalyptus microtheca) and bauhinia (Bauhinia cunninghamii). The sandy soils and red earths support dense low forest of lancewood (Acacia shirleyi) with scattered eucalypts.

Water birds, including pelicans, ducks and brolgas, are prolific on the wetlands, temporary waterholes and earth tanks. Wedge-tail eagles, kites and other raptors are a common sight.

John and Trish Dunnicliff manage Beetaloo Station with the assistance of their daughter, Jane, and her husband, Scott Armstrong. The Dunnicliff and Armstrong families participate in a program with the Barkly Landcare Conservation Association, which has a project to investigate production from differing grazing techniques, and will contrast rotational grazing on Beetaloo with a nearby ‘control’ of the status quo management style, set stocking and with a biodiversity monitoring program run by the Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment, Arts and Sport.

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IMPROVING PRODUCTION THROUGH ADDING WATER

When John purchased Beetaloo there were 40 bores and associated ‘turkey nest’ earth tanks scattered over the properties. John considers that “Less than 10% of the land area was effectively watered. Most of the country was in a relatively natural state, apart from areas affected by heavy stocking, surrounding most of the watering points. Large areas had never been grazed, due to lack of water. As a consequence, fires were a constant problem before each wet season”.

John’s observations of the grazing effect at increasing distance from water points (see images below) suggested that the realistic maximum effective grazing distance from water is less than 2km. Cattle no doubt go further from water to graze when pastures near the bore are depleted – some people argue up to 10km – but John believes that the constant travel to and fro would eliminate any benefit and they will work off any weight gain on the way. This observation has been substantiated by work done by the CSIRO.

Left to right: Pasture at watering point; 1km away; 2km away; and 3km away from watering point

There are other management problems associated with using vast paddocks, such as the inability to control grazing intensity, inability to force cattle to graze less palatable areas and the high cost and inefficiency of mustering.

Cattle on degraded land close to a watering point

The cumulative effect of this form of grazing management is gradually declining grazing value, as the accessible pasture becomes degraded, increasing vegetation and soil degradation and loss of habitat for native species.

John could see the grazing potential in extensive areas of native pastures which were being very inefficiently used. Drawing strongly on his previous experience in the Kimberly, he saw the opportunity to develop, “A large scale, naturally sustainable cattle operation that is simple to operate, economically viable, environmentally sustainable, productively utilises all the available grazing area and aims at being an industry leader in low cost beef production”.

Cattle now graze previously untouched pastures due to the
provision of water nearby

By developing a water supply and reducing paddock size to distribute grazing pressure across large areas previously inaccessible to cattle, John believed that he could relieve pressure from previously overgrazed areas and facilitate rotational grazing that would enhance soil fertility and pasture growth.

The solution was providing many additional water points to encourage the cattle to graze areas previously not accessed. Now about three quarters of the way through implementing this solution across the million hectare property, the evidence is becoming clear, and John says, “We are looking for an increase in perennial pastures, and opening up of previously unwatered, unutilised country is increasing carrying capacity dramatically. As a consequence stocking rates are being increased to utilise this capacity”.

Undoubtedly, the expense of developing the necessary water supply infrastructure was a major impediment. However, arguably the more problematic impediment was overcoming the traditional paradigm, that cattle production in the open rangelands of northern Australia is effectively based on practically uncontrolled grazing across vast areas. John notes that uncertainty and self doubt were a challenge to overcome in implementing innovative methods in the region. Advice received from Dr Steve Petty, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory assisted in reinforcing his plans and concepts.

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GRAZING IN THE NORTHERN AUSTRALIAN RANGELANDS

PASTURES

Possibly the first mention of the Barkly Tablelands region by a European is by William Landsborough. Writing in 1860 while searching for the Burke and Wills expedition group, Landsborough, leader of the “Queensland Relief Expedition” described “… a plain with the richest soil, and with grasses of the most fattening nature, but which at this time are old and dry. This tableland I have named Barkly Plains, after His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly. ” 1Reference: Purdie, J., Materne, C., and Bubb, A. (2008) A field guide to the plants of the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory, Barkly Landcare and Conservation Association, Katherine, Northern Territory.
*Sir Henry Barkly was the then Governor of the colony of Victoria and president of the Royal Socieity of Victoria.

New grass shoots after burning

The lease was first settled by Harry Bathern (also known as Bullwaddy) at the turn of the 20th Century. When the Dunnicliff family took over the lease in 2002, the land had been managed for a century in the traditional ‘Top End’ manner with few infrastructure improvements and a reliance on seasonal watering points, a few bores and dams and whatever grassland was available within cattle walking distance to water. Landsborough’s comment that the grasses were “old and dry” has proved remarkably perceptive. It reveals a fundamental reality that is still relevant today: while the region has considerable potential for grazing, much of it is not being used. Pasture growth is prolific when there is ample rainfall. But nearly all of the rain falls in the few months of the wet season. This rapidly dissipates in the hot climate of the dry season. The pastures then go to seed and senesce, by which time they are of little use for fattening cattle.

There are only two ways to ensure that the grasses remain useful for grazing: animal impact or burning. The grasses regenerate readily after burning, but at the cost of loss of organic matter, soil biota and volatile nutrients. Frequent burning degrades the soil. Conversely, brief periods of high pressure grazing consumes or knocks down the pasture before it goes to seed and senesces. This maintains pasture in a vigorous growing condition.

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WATER ACCESS

Grazing in the vast expanses of northern Australia depends entirely on access to water. Cattle can travel only limited distances each day to reach water without loss of condition. While the landscape is extensive, very little of it is sufficiently close to water to be effectively used for stock grazing. The small number of (relatively) permanent water sources has been increased significantly since the realisation that there was a significant underground source of artesian water. While bores had been sunk by previous owners to access this water, by 2002 the distribution of bores was grossly insufficient to provide water to much of Beetaloo.

Water provision in traditional local grazing management was to pump bore water to open earth tanks then troughs, resulting in substantial evaporation

Traditional grazing management on the Barkly Tablelands was to drill a bore, from which water was pumped by windmill to an open earth tank and then to a trough. A large percentage of the water pumped evaporated, which meant that, where used, a large amount of the diesel fuel used was wasted.

Sparsely distributed bores typically led to serious over-grazing close to the bores and steadily decreasing grazing with increasing distance from the bores.

Over years of grazing, this leads to the elimination of the native perennial pasture species close to the bores and colonisation of annual species. The annual species have grazing value but do not persist for long through the growing period. This low-value ground cover steadily spreads out from the bores year after year. Immense areas too far from the bores are left unused – like the “old and dry” grasses noted by Landsborough in 1860. Perennial pasture species also die through stagnation.

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ADDING WATER

THE INFRASTRUCTURE

Each bore supplies around nine tanks, and each tank supplies four paddocks.

To extend the use of land on Beetaloo Station, John’s basic strategy is to establish a network of bores to provide a reticulated water supply system. The previous paddocks that were scores of square kilometres can then be reduced in size. Building on his observation that the maximum effective distance that cattle can travel is less than 2km, the goal initially was to reduce paddock size to 4km by 4km (1600 hectares). Observing that it is still difficult to get grazing pressure high enough to use the pastures effectively at that paddock size, this is in the process of being reduced to 3.3km by 3.3km (1200 hectares). Consequently, as John points out, “This water development is being carried out in conjunction with an extensive fencing program”.

The necessary stockpile of fencing materials, water tanks and polypipe stretches to the horizon

A network of bores is being installed and connected with 75mm diameter pipe installed at a depth of 800mm running along the fence lines. Burying the pipe 800mm deep ensures it does not expand and contract with temperature changes, which could cause leaks to develop. A steel tank of 170,000 litres useable capacity or a plastic tank of 20,000 litres capacity is installed at each fence intersection. The tanks are filled from the bores by diesel pump. Windmills could not generate the pressure required for this and solar-powered systems are far too costly. Despite the long distances to travel to them, the pumps are manually operated because remote electronic switching systems have been found to be unreliable.

 
Concrete or steel troughs installed in the corner of each of the four nearby paddocks are filled from the tanks by gravity. Each bore supplies around nine tanks and each tank supplies four paddocks. The pipelines being linked in a grid arrangement means there is multiple back-up in the event that a bore fails. Similarly, having four troughs in each paddock provides a backup in case a tank is unserviceable.

Left: A diesel bore pump. Right: Water infrastructure now comprises a network of steel or plastic storage tanks, concrete or steel troughs and bores

One person is employed full-time during the dry season to maintain the bores, tanks and trough system, including refuelling, servicing and repairs.

Work place safety is a major concern in this remote region. As well as ensuring all staff attend safety briefings, providing safety equipment and ensuring appropriate signs are in place around the sheds and homestead area, staff at Beetaloo Station are trained in first-aid. Using a helicopter for travel around the property has the dual benefits of enabling faster travel for work purposes and providing a means of rapid evacuation of an injured person.

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THE COST

Developing the water supply is a massive investment. Each kilometre of laid pipe costs around $3000. Even with the most cost-effective methods, the bores, tanks, fencing and other costs incurred to develop each water point come to around $60,000. This seems a lot until the capital cost is divided by the number of cattle each unit of the investment can support, making it much more achievable.

Besides financial obstacles in obtaining capital, John has encountered other challenge in implementing his watering program across Beetaloo Station. He has experienced “resistance and scepticism from some members of the grazing community and industry bodies in relation to the changes”, and regularly battles the restrictions on availability and supply of resources due to isolation. John states that trial and error and working closely with suppliers has been essential to resolve various technical issues, such as tanks failing.

Regardless, John continues to fund the development incrementally, investing all outputs from production increases back into the watering program.

THE BENEFITS

Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity [of 100,000 head] is conservative.

John has sought to implement his changes using a holistic approach to livestock management with minimal chemical and artificial inputs. His fundamental focus is on soil, plant and animal health and animal welfare.

Providing many smaller paddocks with troughs in each corner has delivered many benefits. John notes, “By increasing the available watering points, and control of the cattle with associated fencing systems, pasture availability has increased dramatically. This has enabled the spelling of paddocks, to assist with the regeneration of plants, and in turn soil health”.

The pastures and soils are benefitting from the new grazing regime

Stock density can be increased to force cattle to graze a much higher proportion of the pasture than they would if left to roam much larger areas. The perennial pasture species are high value for grazing provided they are grazed early in the growing season. If they are not grazed early in the season they go to seed and soon lose nutritional value. Grazing each area in turn with a high stock density for a brief period – three days grazing with a mob of 6000 cattle units is the current aim – prevents loss of pasture value.

At the same time, heavy grazing for a short period, together with the trough location that distributes cattle movement to four points within each paddock, prevents overgrazing, which discourages regeneration of annual species, and reduces soil degradation. Most importantly, short periods of intensive grazing build up soil condition and encourage pasture growth in the long term by breaking down senescent vegetation and litter and adding dung.

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THE STOCK

John believes that with full infrastructure implemented across the property that he will be able to achieve a target carrying capacity of 100,000 cattle, and says, “Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity is conservative”.

The planned carrying capacity with the current water infrastructure implementation is 75,000 cattle units, based on a 400kg animal; a breeding cow is 1.5 units and a mature bull 2.0 units. Herd bulls run permanently with the herd.

At that carrying rate, annual production is expected to be 25,000 cattle units. These are young bulls (maximum weight 350kg) grown for the Indonesian market and larger animals grown for other export markets. Bulls produced other than for this prime export line provide herd bulls for the local and Indonesian markets and for meat markets in the Philippines and the Middle East. Most heifers are retained for herd growth and replacement. Heifers not in calf at 24 months age and culled cows are also sold to the overseas meat markets. John is active in building relationships with his markets, travelling overseas and also receiving visitors to Beetaloo. This has given him confidence in regards to his animals’ welfare after export. His clients are also satisfied that they are receiving quality, grass-fed stock, meeting their needs and expectations.

Cattle are bred to cope well in the tropical environment and for resistance to ticks

The Brahman cattle have advantages in the hot climate, being resistant to ticks and tolerant of the heat. However, fertility is generally lower than for other breeds. Crossing the Brahmans with Senepol, a short-haired breed originating in Senegal, West Africa, and developed on the Caribbean Island of St. Croix specifically also to cope with a tropical environment, has been found to provide some resolution to this issue. In addition, John’s practice of culling ‘empty’ 24 month old heifers ensures that the breeding herd is gradually being selected for fertility.

Ticks are a common problem with cattle in the tropics and sub-tropics. Selecting tick-resistant cattle breeds helps, but does not eliminate the problem. Resting each paddock from grazing for long spells breaks the life cycle of the tick and therefore saves on other control treatments. This provides a further key benefit of the change from uncontrolled set stocking across large areas.

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AN INNOVATIVE VISION FOR GRAZING?

The experience on Beetaloo Station has demonstrated that cattle production can be significantly increased in northern Australia by providing adequate water supply to areas with grazing potential. There is also scope for the increasing carbon build-up in the restored soils to be achieved across vast tracts of land.

John knows that he is developing “…a well organised, productive, sustainable business operation that will benefit the whole environment and landscape, without any unnatural side effects. The changes being implemented have already been attracting attention from other graziers, advisors, industry bodies and NT Government”.

However, he advises, “The cost of infrastructure on the scale required is enormous. The sheer size of the lease limits the pace of change that can be achieved. Make haste slowly, because the costs of getting it wrong are huge”.

But this innovative approach also brings other opportunities. Beetaloo is too big for one family. The family’s vision for the property is to enable it eventually to be divided into a number of units, each of which can support an efficient family run business. This could ultimately be a model for efficient and sustainable cattle production applicable to the vast areas of northern Australia, which, as John says, “Is essential for the long term survival of the industry and its participants”.


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

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‘BOKHARA PLAINS’ – REACHING THE REAL POTENTIAL OF THE NSW RANGELANDS

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REACHING THE REAL POTENTIAL OF THE NSW RANGELANDS

Graham and Cathy Finlayson have used stock to convert claypans to pastures, significantly improving their carrying capacity, while diversifying into cattle trading and tourism to drought-proof their property, Bokhara Plains.

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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

35 km north of Brewarrina, NSW North West

ENTERPRISE:  Cattle, tourism. Beef cattle agistment and trading; accommodation and event venue

PROPERTY SIZE: 7200 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 380 mm

ELEVATION: 115 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Identifying the potential to improve the landscape and production

INNOVATIONS

  • Using stock to break up claypan
  • Holistic Management techniques to regenerate the rangeland
  • Stock trading to balance stocking rate with pasture availability
  • Diversifying into tourism
  • Innovations commenced: 2001

KEY RESULTS

  • Carrying capacity almost doubled to over 100 DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall
  • Revegetation of claypan landscape
  • Strong, positive community relationships

INTRODUCTION

Disturbed surface and early claypan regeneration.

When Graham and Cathy acquired Bokhara Plains in 1999 they accepted that the property was run down. Ground tanks were bogging sheep every summer, they needed to cut scrub for fodder to keep sheep alive and large areas of the property were claypans. But they felt that things should be better than they were.

Graham and Cathy turned this belief into action after identifying potential in the claypans from observing new plant growth where the surface had been disturbed. Stock were eventually used to break up the claypans, allowing water to penetrate and seeds to germinate. Combined with Holistic Management techniques, the claypans are now being reverted to productive, pastured rangelands with an increasing carrying capacity. Further diversifying into cattle trading and tourism to ensure that they remain viable regardless of the rainfall, Graham and Cathy are well on the way to reaching the real potential of the NSW rangelands, and are providing a shining light for others to follow.

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SEEING THE POTENTIAL

Bokhara Plains is located on the Goodooga road some 35km north of Brewarrina, NSW. The property has frontage on the Bokhara and Birrie Rivers, tributaries of the Barwon River and is part of the Murray Darling Basin and the Western Catchment Management Authority.

The property was traditionally farmed for wool production based on the sparse seasonal pasture growing on the flood plains of the two rivers.

When Cathy and Graham took over the property in 1999, about 50% of the area was claypan or otherwise bare ground. The claypans added nothing to the feed potential of the property. Even in good seasons, the land had struggled to maintain one of the lowest stocking rates in the district.

Graham realised that merinos were not profitable in this environment, and set stocking without matching numbers to carrying capacity was exacerbating ecological problems in the landscape. He explains, “We were almost totally reliant on my wife and I both working off farm to make ends meet. Continually running into dry periods and wishing / praying for rain was having a terrible emotional effect on my mental attitude, and a feeling of helplessness seemed to prevail”.

“I had read Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and realised that we could change the way we did things. One of two things drives fundamental change – pleasure or pain – and for me it was pain!”

Potential in the landscape was identified after the former owners carried out work on some of the claypans. A 400mm high bund was graded to form large shallow ponds. The theory of this method was that the water would soften the clay seal and allow seed to germinate.

The impact of ponding on the claypans was minimal but Graham noticed that there was significant growth on the edges of the claypans where the surface had been disturbed.

Graham states, “In 2001 the place was pretty well degraded and the whole ecological system had broken down. I felt that if we could restore the health of the rangeland that it could withstand drought… low rain in a healthy system could still be productive. It seemed to me that rangeland science was about understanding how the rangeland currently works, not about trying to change or improve it”.

Graham chose to build on the former owner’s ponding operations, initially by using their small Ferguson tractor to mimic the use of a larger grader, and then later using a mouldboard plough to break up the hard capped surface. At this point, he did not have the numbers of cattle that he needed to create the disturbance necessary, and recognised that using a small tractor, although relatively economical, was not nearly as efficient or effective as using cattle. Particularly someone else’s cattle.

Graham eventually identified that regeneration of the claypans and planned rotational grazing could allow the property to develop into productive rangeland with prolific native grasses and herbage suitable for cattle grazing. Agisting cattle allowed Graham to increase his numbers, which he then used to break up the surface of the claypans.

The results were significant, with earlier colonisers like copper burr (Sclerolaena spp.) responding quickly to the changed conditions, followed in due course by a variety of native grasses spreading over the bare surface.

Left: Grass seeds in disturbed claypan. Right: Regeneration of early coloniser, copper burr.

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REALISING THE POTENTIAL

In achieving the potential they envisaged on Bokhara Plains Graham recognised that claypans were not a natural formation and could be restored to rangeland. Combined with Holistic Management principles, Graham determined that rangelands would respond positively to managed grazing practices, using livestock as partners.

After reading Allan Savory’s book, Graham undertook a RCS Grazing for Profit course followed by four years in the Executive Link program. “We also became inaugural participants in a program called Enterprise Based Conservation (EBC) through which we accessed some financial help to undertake a significant water and fencing project for much better control of grazing management.” This pilot program was run by WEST2000 Plus and included a five-year conservation agreement on land placed under voluntary conservation management.

Graham and Cathy also undertook major changes in their livestock enterprises, moving from sheep breeding to trading, then to agistment sheep to agistment cattle and now also cattle trading. They specialised in the larger herbivores from 2007 when they recognised that cattle were giving much better ecological and management benefits.

Graham follows three guiding principles for Bokhara Plains:

  • Match the stocking rate with the carrying capacity of the land.
  • Plants need adequate recovery.
  • Monitor what is going on across the property, make plans, then manage against these plans.

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INFRASTRUCTURE CHANGES

Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount…

Graham and Cathy planned their infrastructure around their grazing strategies. The fencing forms a number of ‘wagon wheels’ with a watering point at the hub, producing a number of ‘cells’. For additional fencing to match stocking rates to carrying capacity, they rely on electric fencing supplied from an inverter connected to mains supply at the house.

Fencing was initially based on the original infrastructure but Graham has modified the layout to reflect his requirement that stock should preferably not travel more than 1.5km to access water. On Bokhara Plains fencing cost about $400 a kilometre for material and labour. Graham points out that the cost can be recovered in a year with increased production from the planned rotational grazing and Holistic Management strategies. Much of the labour for fencing was on-farm, comprising Graham, Cathy and their daughter, Harriett.

STOCKING

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Graham discussing his stock trading chart

Graham and Cathy plan their grazing on availability of pasture at any one time. Graham explains, “Agistment is the basis of our operations and we trade against the variation of available pasture. Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount, along with creating the ‘beneficial impact’ described previously. We monitor pasture availability and plan and manage against that”.

The agistment runs at $/head/week basis for 6-12 months. Stock trading is used to balance the agistment with pasture availability. Stomach and skin parasites are not an issue in the region and stock are not drenched or treated for lice.

In their stock trading operations, Graham and Cathy use strategies developed by Bud Williams in the USA, and now taught by KLR Marketing in Australia. These are based on keeping the three inventories of price, available pasture and stock holding in balance. Using a ‘sell-buy’ process rather than a ‘buy-sell’ process, in the balanced inventory context, they can decide on selling and re-stocking options.

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Increased pasture availability has enabled a significant increase in stocking rates

Graham and Cathy use a 12 month rolling rainfall figure to calculate the stocking rate per hectare by month and annually per 100mm of rain. Using this method, they can reduce stock accordingly when conditions deteriorate and do not have to purchase feed. While they have de-stocked in earlier times, they are confident that they will not have to do so again.

Using these methods, stocking rates have increased exponentially on Bokhara Plains. Graham and Cathy have been measuring their stocking rate or DSE* days per hectare per 100mm of rain since 2002, and have seen their benchmark capacity lift from 56 DSE days per hectare to over 100.

Standing at a watering point where six paddock fences join, Graham points to a 60 hectare paddock with 1100 cattle spread throughout the tall grass, “That paddock would typically only carry about four head year round in a set-stocked operation”.

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WATER MANAGEMENT

Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!

Graham acknowledges, “Water supply is the limiting factor for our grazing enterprise”.

Previously, Bokhara Plains had a very poor water cycle, with substantial runoff from the bare eroding soils. Livestock water was all supplied through open ground tanks, and the two river systems that transect Bokhara Plains, had a long history of set stocking.

Graham’s current sources are the two rivers and access to a bore. The rivers do not always flow, but when it is at high flow he stores water from the Bokhara River in a dam. Both rivers have now been fenced off to allow for strategic grazing. The old ground tanks have been blocked off or fenced in, and 35km of poly pipe has been laid to nine poly tanks and troughs. Water from the dam is pumped to stock watering points. The header tanks at the water points gravity feed to the troughs.

Graham structures his grazing plan around water availability and understands how much water is required on a daily basis per 1000 head of cattle. He works on his principle of, “Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!”

The waterpoints are the ‘hub’ for multiple paddocks in the wagon-wheel design. They are high-use areas when accessible (left), but the pasture can recover after rest (right)

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SOIL

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Improving the soil has enabled increased ground cover and nutrient cycling – visibly different to remnant claypan

The soils across Bokhara Plains, which have not yet been subject to soil testing, are varied. The country off the Bokhara and Birrie rivers comprises typical black soils, with lighter Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), Neverfail (Eragrostis setifolia), Queensland bluegrass (Dichanthium sericium) and bladder saltbush (Atriplex vesicaria) country interspersed with scalded claypans in between the rivers.

Claypans are a dense, compact, slowly permeable layer in the subsoil with a much higher clay content than the overlying material. The subsoil claypan layer becomes exposed when original topsoil is lost or degraded, exhibiting very different physical properties and behaviour. Claypans are usually hard when dry, and plastic and sticky when wet. They limit or slow the downward movement of water through the soil.

The techniques applied by Graham however, have enabled the bare ground to be converted to productive rangeland. The vastly increased ground cover has demonstrably increased overall soil biological activity, particularly the visible beneficial decomposing fungal activity in the soil, which regenerates healthy topsoils. Reducing paddock size and the successful grazing strategies are pointing towards potentially even higher stocking rates and therefore towards greater soil fertility as animals spread more dung and seed.

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

At acquisition, the Bokhara Plains was a dustbowl. Approximately 50% of the total land area was bare ground, and aerial photographs showed huge areas of claypan. However, there were reasonable patches of Mitchell grass and bladder saltbush in places. Besides providing some basic stock feed, this existing vegetation provided a seed bank.

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Vegetation diversity and coverage has significantly increased

The WEST2000 Plus Project on EBC, that predated the intervention of the CMA, was aimed at increasing ground cover. The project paid on percentage of ground cover achieved. Graham and Cathy had a personal target of 70%, although the EBC target was 40% which is recognised as a critical threshold point to stop wind and water erosion, and was measured in the most likely month for being dry – October. Graham and Cathy noticed that the areas of high-impact grazing recovered better and they could see that, over time, stocking rates could be increased. They amended their own target to “100% ground cover 100% of the time”, and although difficult to achieve, Graham believes it should be every land managers goal whatever the environment. It had become obvious to Graham and Cathy that grazing strategies had to be part of their vegetation management and enterprise-based conservation.

The planned rotational grazing practices have given young trees and shrubs respite from literally being ‘nipped in the bud’. Independent monitoring from the beginning of the EBC Project has shown a steady increase in the number of native trees, increased ground cover and the presence of perennial grasses.

They also noticed that the best gains came from improving good land and not necessarily from regenerating claypan. They therefore concentrated their efforts on the good land first.

Weeds were not previously a significant concern on Bokhara Plains, and now, besides small and decreasing outbreaks of Bathurst Burr (Xanthium spinosum), which they deal with by hand, there are no appreciable weed and pest issues on the property

DIVERSIFYING

Graham and Cathy are admirers of the Joel Salatin approach of many synergistic enterprises stemming from the one farm. Aligned with this approach they have a willingness to diversify with complementary enterprises. One such enterprise has seen the development of a tourism venture ‘Bokhara Hutz’, which they have grown over the last ten years into a reliable source of income, particularly through the four separate occasions when they have totally de-stocked the property.

This successful 30 person capacity farm stay business also provides a venue for local events, such as weddings and parties. Plans for the future include generating more farm produce, to be less reliant on off farm purchases.

Cathy notes, “Our diversification into tourism has allowed us to reach toward our goal of drought proofing our business”.

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A SHINING LIGHT, ON THE FARM…

The infrastructure design and layout, the ready availability of water to stock, the rested and fresh pastures and the careful management of all farm operations combine for exemplary Holistic Management practices. This is a far cry from when Graham and Cathy took over six dusty paddocks and a flock of struggling sheep in 1999.

Graham summarises, “This has so far been a ten year learning process, which we expect to continue for some time yet. Installing infrastructure, etc., was implemented with some financial help through the EBC project involvement, however much of our innovation has been off the back of work done by many friends, colleagues and other people I’ve met while learning and studying all over the world [Nuffield Scholarship 2008], due to their desire and preparedness to share their own experiences”.

Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas, is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts

Through intensive cattle grazing using agistment and trading to give flexibility in numbers, Graham and Cathy have revegetated and rejuvenated a much degraded landscape. “We have taken Bokhara Plains from a six paddock extensive layout with poor water security, to a 100 plus paddock planned cell system with fully reticulated and controlled water system. We have also diversified into tourism / accommodation, and have hosted many farming tour groups in our facility, Bokhara Hutz.”

Graham and Cathy’s original goal was to develop their property to be able to run around twice the original estimated 56 DSE days per hectares per 100mm of rainfall. They now see that the potential is much greater, perhaps up to three to four times that DSE rate, whilst continuing to build positive environmental outcomes. These increases are possible, due to the resilience in their pastures through increased diversity of their ground cover and improvements in soil health brought about by their grazing management. Their profitability is now based on a sell/buy approach, where the ups and downs of the markets are smoothed out. And to provide further surety, a careful balance between agistment operations and a trading herd is maintained.

Graham points out that the “economics stack up” – the potential for increased production on the property is better than investing in more property.

“Often people in the area believe that expanding their land holding is the only way to survive in the light country of the region”, states Graham. “A quick cost benefit analysis suggests that this is not the case at all. Enterprises of our size can prosper. At a rate of around $12 per acre to establish water points and fencing will allow intensive grazing approaches to be established, with immediate improvement in the quality of pastures, percentage of ground cover and health of the stock. These improvements come with no additional overheads, unlike purchasing additional land at upwards of $100 an acre and the associated taxes and other costs.”

He continues, “And, it’s all about flexibility. You can’t manage without people and animals. Smaller places are the answer, not more land. We should make the most of what rain we get and develop the land we have. We always plan for no rain. If there is a rain event, then we re-plan”.

However, Graham laments, “Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts”. Reliance on science leading the way, with a lack of supporting policies and unreasonable bias against livestock, provides some of the greatest impediments to wider adoption of the sort of practices that are employed at Bokhara Plains. Indeed, Bokhara Plains is a shining light, in stark contrast to others seen around the landscape when driving through the west of NSW. For the Brewarrina area, a stocking rate of 4 head of cattle (24 DSE) to 60 hectares is considered suitable. That Graham can have 1100 head in that same area for two days might be considered by some to be ridiculous and not sustainable.

Graham points out that it is important to manage equity and debt levels against cash flow to ensure potential to increase carrying capacity and the possibility of increasing the margins from stock trading. In addition, in the context of all the activities, it is necessary to watch for ‘staff burn out’ and to employ additional labour at the right time.

For Graham and Cathy, reduced overheads through increased productivity and the use of contractors for specialised operations has contributed to more satisfying outcomes and better use of family time.

Graham’s practices are regenerative and enable a much greater stocking rate

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…AND IN THE COMMUNITY

Graham and Cathy note, “Since we first had a change in thinking back in 2001 we have endeavoured to be able to help others achieve the same. Our view is that we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours not less, and in a community that is not struggling or welfare reliant”.

Graham is an active mentor to others in developing their enterprises to more sustainable grazing and enjoys the opportunity to encourage others through both mentoring and education programs.

Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.

…we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours, not less, and in a community that is not struggling…

Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.

Graham is considered a role model for other farmers in the wider region wishing to consolidate their formal grazing management training, through his Western CMA sponsored mentoring of four farming business. This activity includes on-farm visits and teleconferencing to help his clients focus on outcomes, not issues.

Graham’s training was based on the RCS Grazing for Profit course and this program allows for expansion of this support through a well developed extension program.

Graham and Cathy now enjoy many social benefits from the enterprise. Bokhara Plains has hosted ‘Keep In Touch’ days for graduates of earlier grazing management courses, and field days (including hosting his mentors – Allan Savory and Terry McCosker at different times). On these days around 150 people, many of them young farmers, eager to learn and talk about a wide range of challenges both on farm and more strategically are able to share experiences.

Cathy remarks that one of the clear positive community aspects of their lives now is the opportunity to sit down at dinner most nights with a wonderful and varied group of people from all walks of life.

Graham was adjudged the NSW Young Farmer of the Year in 2005, relatively early in the transformation of Bokhara Plains, and has gone on to be recognised with Carbon Cocky and CMA awards.

Graham and Cathy have been involved in the P & F at a local school, the Rural Financial Council, and in the local Show and Rodeo committee. They also host an annual visit to Bokhara Plains by the Warringah school group as part of a sister city relationship with Brewarrina.

The Bokhara Hutz accommodation package has also delivered welcome benefits for the family. Cathy and Graham both enjoy the opportunity to interact with their visitors and interested farming groups coming to visit the property. “It provides another opportunity to show people what we have done over the years and to learn from those around the table.”


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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‘BRIANDRA’ – USING RAISED BEDS AND BENEFICIAL FUNGI TO RESTORE SOIL HEALTH

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

USING RAISED BEDS AND BENEFICIAL FUNGI TO RESTORE SOIL HEALTH

Upon learning the links between soil health and waterlogging, Brian and Sandra Wilson concentrated on improving their soils, adopting a technique to improve drainage and biologically managing stubble.

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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

Mingay, 16km north of Lismore, 170km west of Melbourne, VIC Western Plains

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Cereal, oilseed and pulse crops; Merino sheep grazing

PROPERTY SIZE: 1073 hectares, 700 cropped

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 20 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Needing to diversify to maintain production and address waterlogged soils

INNOVATIONS

  • Raising crop beds
  • Using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing to manage cereal stubbles
  • Spreading biological blend on soils
  • Innovations commenced: Raised beds 1993/Biological blend 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased the area available for cropping through improved drainage
  • Adoption of practices across a community
  • Improved soil health and fertility
  • Increased sheep weight gain

INTRODUCTION

By creating raised narrow beds of soil Brian and Sandra Wilson achieved major improvements in drainage and the structure of their soil. This led to more reliable crop yields and the production of considerable amounts of stubble.

A stubble digestion program was initiated to manage cereal stubbles, using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing. The wheat stubble is now incorporated into the soil and is used to renovate the beds.

A biological blend, a mixture of brewed microbes, humates, basalt, soft rock phosphate and various trace elements, was spread to rectify soil deficiencies.

As a result of the various techniques applied, the changes to the soil both physically and chemically are remarkable, transforming from hard setting grey clay to a red/brown non-sticky loam. The ratio of calcium to magnesium moved towards a desirable 5:1, improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.

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BRIANDRA

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Sugar gum shelterbelt originally sown in the late 19th century.

Briandra was originally part of the ‘Gala’ estate, which was settled by a scot named John Brown, probably in the early 1840s. This estate was broken into smaller properties later in the 19th century and the government acquired part for soldier settlement blocks in 1919 1Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool.

The policy to subdivide large pastoral properties into soldier settlement blocks assumed that smaller-scale farming would be viable 2Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool. This was often not the case on Western Victoria’s basalt plain. Although rainfall is generally reliable, poor drainage caused by the heavy clay soil was a problem during the winter months.

The climate in the region is temperate and average yearly rainfall is around 650mm. The local topography is flat to undulating, with some deeply incised drainage lines where streams have cut through the basalt plain to underlying sedimentary strata. A watercourse, Brown’s Water Holes, runs from north to south through Briandra, continues to the town of Lismore and terminates in Lake Gnarpurt, one of the western district of Victoria’s saline lakes. Soils are typically heavy, deep hard-setting clay that has developed on basalt.

Sugar gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) shelterbelts run along several road and paddock boundaries. The shelterbelts are about 50 metres wide and occupy a total area of about 10 hectares. They were originally established in the late 19th century because there was little tree cover or timber available.

The people from whom Brian and Sandra bought the property had held it since 1912. When they were first in the area, the Brown’s Water Holes watercourse was a flood plain through the tussocks, which could be crossed by horse and cart anywhere along its length.

During the 1950s, most of the native pasture was replaced with phalaris and sub clover. The former owners felt that these grasses were becoming too invasive on the higher fertility soil, and they had ceased using any phosphorus fertilisers some fourteen years before. As a consequence, the pastures were very phalaris dominant, and together with their conservative stocking rate, were also very rank. Cropping was only performed in a limited area, mainly oats for sheep feed and wheat, and was not very successful due to high prevalence of waterlogging. The flock was mainly Corriedale, which was common in the district at the time.

The Wilson family, Brian, Sandra and four children, moved to Mingay from South Australia in 1985. The children have since left the farm and Brian and Sandra run the farm with the help of an employee, who lives on an adjoining smaller property. About 700 hectares of the property are cropped and 330 hectares is permanent pasture.

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WATERLOGGED

We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the market.

By the time the Wilson family moved to Briandra, the wool industry had been in decline for many years. The creek had eroded to a depth of up to three metres in places and bridges were needed to cross it.

“Pasture pugging and waterlogging gave us little confidence of achieving good outcomes in crops and pasture growth”, Brian recalls. “We had come from a merino sheep and mixed cropping operation, in 432mm rainfall and sandy soils. It was quite a learning experience to manage waterlogged soils.”

In 1987, after a few wet years, the Wilsons ceased cropping and fully dedicated themselves to wool growing. Failed crops and high wool prices made this a good decision, until the collapse of the wool reserve price scheme.

“We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the market.”

“We realised that we did not know how the basalt plains functioned as an ecosystem and why it was in such poor condition. We lacked detailed technical information. It was not until we went and talked to a wide range of experts that we began to understand why the soil condition and the waterlogging problems were related.”

Brian and Sandra commenced their journey to improve the soil health and fertility over the long term. They sought expert advice, paid for a digital elevation model and collected soil samples and had them analysed and explained. They realised that they would have to restore soil health to address the waterlogging before they could produce productive crops. To achieve these goals Brian and Sandra decided that they would have to do things differently from their neighbours and the way the land had been managed previously.

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RAISING THE BEDS

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Raised crop bed former.

In November 1990 Brian and Sandra installed 40 hectares of sub surface drainage in an endeavour to prevent waterlogging, and to see if they could successfully grow crops. They found that they could produce high yielding autumn/winter sown crops without the constraint of waterlogging. This doubled the potential yield of spring sown crops and was much more reliable.

Brian recalls, “The 1992 wheat crop was planted early May, some of it to the experimental red winter wheat ‘Lawson’. In a very high rainfall spring and summer, this crop survived, and though weather damaged, yielded well with the Lawson giving seven tonnes a hectare. Satisfied that with drainage crops could be grown successfully, we installed a further 40 hectares of underground drains in 1995.” However with the cost of establishing the drains over $1000 a hectare, this was prohibitive, and the Wilsons were unable to convert larger areas.

Around 1994, a small group of farmers met with the director of agriculture in Ballarat to investigate the possibility of improving crop production in the region. Brian was invited to attend, and also had joined the Geelong crop improvement group to learn from others. From this background, the Southern Farming Systems group was formed in 1995. The initial management committee leased land at Gnarwarre for experimental work to trial various methods to improve cropping outcomes in the high rainfall zone.

n 1996 the committee trialled two hectares each of sub surface, wide, and narrow raised beds. Even with an extremely wet winter, canola yields of 3.5 tonnes a hectare proved their worth. Brian points out, “The outcome from this was that yields were similar on all sites, but at $200 per hectare with narrow raised beds, the cost could be factored into the first crop’s gross margin. The crop was more even than the wide raised beds, where the fertile top soil was moved from the drain to the top of the beds”.

At $200 a hectare for narrow beds compared with over $1000 for sub-surface drains, the committee decided to concentrate on the narrow beds. It is estimated that around 500,000 hectares in south-west Victoria now use this practice.

By adopting raised narrow beds of soil on Briandra, the Wilsons achieved major improvements in drainage and the tilth (condition of tilled soil, especially in respect to suitability for sowing seeds) of the soil. They also actively avoid compacting the soil.

“Since moving to raised bed farming we no longer drive machinery or vehicles on the beds. Our own tests have shown that this compacts the soil and reduces biological activity. To overcome this problem in the long term we have moved to control track farming where the tractors and harvesters only move in the furrows. To ensure this happens, machinery is fitted with high spatial precision tracking systems.”

When the paddocks are not cropped they are established and managed as phalaris/sub clover based perennial pastures.

Raised beds on Briandra with stubble (left) and after grazing (right).

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The results of the biological program trialled over small areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now using that system.

While the narrow raised beds were effective in managing waterlogging, with increased productivity the Wilsons found they had to deal with higher stubble loads of up to 10 tonnes a hectare. Stubble burning was a commonly accepted practice in the district, however the Wilsons felt that this was not sustainable in the long term.

Attempts to mulch the stubble and sow directly into them was defeated not by physical restraints, but by chemical limitations. Excess stubble was resulting in allelopathy – exudates from wet straw were poisoning the following crop. In 2001 Brian met Adrian Lawrie at the Wimmera field days. His small biological products company LawrieCo was promoting cellulose-digesting fungi to break down straw.

In 2002 Brian purchased enough product to treat 17 hectares. This was not overly successful, possibly due to poor brewing technique. In 2003, he installed a tank and brewing pump to properly multiply the fungi and applied it to another 17 hectare plot. This time a better result was achieved, so the Wilsons expanded the area treated. The results were successful.

“In 2005 we treated the barley stubble in Weir South on one side of the creek only. Sheep had access to both sides, but only grazed the treated side. Brian removed them in score 3 condition when it was felt that the paddock was bare enough; around 1000kg a hectare dry matter. The untreated side had only been ‘picked at’”, notes Sandra.

“The results of the biological program trialled over small areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now using that system.”

Brewed cellulose fungi and grazing has now become standard practice to manage cereal stubbles on Briandra.

The high biomass produced by pea and barley stubbles tends to clump together with wind, but these are now reduced by grazing. The biological stubble digestion program makes them more digestible to stock, and they become a valuable food source. As the health of the soils improved, Brian and Sandra found the need to incorporate the wheat stubble, which is not eaten as effectively as barley, into the soil to get it to breakdown quickly enough. To overcome the biomass problems the Wilsons invested in specialist machinery to incorporate the wheat stubbles at a shallow level, and then reform the beds.

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ADJUSTING SOIL CHEMISTRY, BIOLOGY & STRUCTURE

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Top: Poor structure of overworked, low organic matter soil.
Below: Soil from the same area, now friable after several years of treatment.

“While we were successfully growing high yielding crops, with high inputs of fertiliser, it seemed that pathogens were an increasing problem. Lucerne flea attacking wheat crops at the 2 to 3 leaf stage became more common, and barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) also prevalent. LawrieCo suggested trying the nutri-blend product [now called ‘biologic blend’]. This dramatically changed the chemical analysis of our soils.”

Previous soil tests on Briandra had shown high levels of iron and magnesium, resulting in tie up of nutrients and poor soil structure. After adding the biologic blend, the Wilsons found that the phosphate available for plant uptake, measured through Olson P levels, had increased dramatically. “Pasture paddocks where Olson P had stabilised in the 12-15 range despite annual dressings of 20+ P increased to 19 with the addition of only 10 P in the form of soft rock phosphate, together with 5kg a hectare of boron humates”, Brian explains.

Calcium levels had also increased. This improved the calcium to magnesium ratios, moving it towards a desirable 5:1, from a previous 1.5:1, thus improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to previous conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.

Soil structure, already improved by minimising waterlogging, changed from light grey clay, to a reddish brown loam. It was less sticky and had increased infiltration rates.

Brian notes, “The results of the biological soil improvement program trialled over small areas initially, then across the whole farm have been very rewarding. Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic soils”.

The Wilsons are proud to note, “We have shared the lessons we have learnt at Briandra. Over many years of serving on local and regional bodies we have been able to influence the focus of several groups on soil health. In 2012 soil has been listed in the top six assets of the regional catchment strategy”.

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PRODUCTION HIGHLIGHTS

Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic…

Crop rotations over four years follow the sequence of canola, barley, pulse, wheat, as shown above. The pulse is either broad beans or field peas, which provide valuable stubbles, giving high protein supplements to lambs (weaner sheep) and ewes. Brian and Sandra have found that an obvious benefit is weight gain, with lambs reaching 50kg or more live weight by joining at 19 months, with conception rates in hoggets comparable to the older ewes as well; usually 90% in one cycle.

Crop production has remained about the same level as before biological inputs were applied on Briandra. The Wilsons spend around the same amount on fertiliser inputs but are finding that the crops appear greener and more robust. Urea applications have been reduced to about 40% of what they were previously.

Brian points out that recent extreme years of 2006 and 2010, when growing season rainfall was 220mm and 714mm respectively, have made it difficult to assess how much production has been influenced by management change, and how much by weather influences. He does note however, “Suffice to say, the best performed paddocks on those extreme years, have been those where the most biology has been added”.

In 2006 barley yielded 6t/ha compared with an average 4t/ha over the rest of farm. In 2010 the beans yielded 4t/ha without any fungicide applications

It would appear that the immune system of the crops and pasture plants have been enhanced as lower levels of pathogenic attack have been experienced. The need for both insecticide and fungicide use have been dramatically reduced, mostly confined to seed dressings. This has made integrated pest management strategies easier to implement, and beneficial insects are now the Wilson’s main control measure. While production assessments are ongoing, Brian and Sandra report that, generally, cash profits are about the same as they were after the drainage was installed and before the biological amendments were applied. However, they are confident that long term outcomes are better.

Most profits are reinvested in improving the farm. Brian notes, “My business model has the philosophy to use ten per cent of farm gross income in experimentation, starting over small areas, and the encouraging results are expanded, and may develop into standard practice. Any failures, and there have been many, are discarded”.

He advises, “Be prepared to try new methods on your own farm. Use on small scale first. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn from others. Join farm groups”.

The Wilsons are content with what they have achieved on their property and in their region in relation to soil health. “We have personal satisfaction that the soils on the property are much healthier now than we first arrived. We have passed the lessons we have learned on to the wider community and region through our involvement in regional NRM bodies.”

“We now observe a gradual awareness and adoption of innovative solutions for solving seemingly intractable management problems such as waterlogging and pugging on our region’s soils.”

No doubt, the establishment of Southern Farming Systems as an organisation providing farmers in high rainfall areas with ‘real world research and information’ has provided the framework for these innovations and their adoption.

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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