THE ILLAWONG STORY

The Illawong Story

A regenerative agriculture case study from the NSW Riverina.

Bryan Ward’s property, Illawong, comprises 160 hectares and carries up to 140 beef cattle at any one time. While this is a relatively small property, it is perhaps typical of thousands of farms producing beef in Australia.

ABOUT ILLAWONG

FARM FACTS

Bowna, NSW

ENTERPRISE: Grass-fed cattle finishing

PROPERTY SIZE: 160 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 205 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Turning two paddocks of neglected hill country into a profitable, pasture rich operation

INNOVATIONS

  • Contour ripping; direct drilling of eucalypts, acacias and understory species in fenced off remnant vegetation patches
  • Rehydrating the landscape
  • Removal of rabbits
  • Establishment of perennial pasture

KEY RESULTS

  • Illawong cattle now consistently achieve amongst the highest level of compliance, earning Bryan an award from Meat and Livestock Australia for being one of the Top 100 producers in New South Wales.


VIDEO: THE ILLAWONG STORY IN LESS THAN A MINUTE

Bryan’s achievements over 24 years of managing Illawong provide valuable lessons for producers seeking to maintain production while also regenerating and improving the condition of the land. Watch a 1-minute summary of Bryan’s key practices and achievements.


VIDEO: THE ILLAWONG FIELD DAY


ILLAWONG: THE ECOLOGICAL JOURNEY

Contour ripping

The sheep, rabbits and kangaroos had left little groundcover across Illawong. When the drought set in around 2000, Bryan feared that massive soil erosion would ensue when the rain returned. He was keen to contour-rip so that when rain eventually came it would penetrate, rather than run off, be wasted and exacerbate the gully erosion. That work
was assisted by a drought relief program subsidy available at the time from the Commonwealth Government through the Natural Heritage Trust. Today the contour ripping is indistinguishable, but the dams constantly have water because the rain that falls infiltrates and seeps in to the dams from the water table.

Revegetation

Adding to the soil and water conservation work, Bryan fenced off remnant trees in patches up and down the gullies to prevent further stock disturbance and to enable regrowth to stabilise gully erosion. These patches also protect livestock from wind, rain and heat. Adding to the mosaic of woody vegetation, Bryan used a direct seeding method to
revegetate the rocky ridges with a range of eucalypts, acacias and other understorey species. After about 10 years, these are becoming self-regenerating. In all, about 30% of the property is now fenced off from grazing and is revegetated with woody species. In Bryan’s words: ‘the wind used to whistle across the hill, the animals are far more
comfortable and warm now’.

A further benefit of the revegetation that Bryan has undertaken is a resurgence in native fauna; he says: ‘When I came here, you couldn’t find goannas, echidnas, etc. … plus all the little birds … they have come back!’

Rehydrating the landscape

Expert hydrologists will advise that increasing catchment cover of perennial woody vegetation as Bryan has done increases ‘evapotranspiration’, that is, plant water use, and therefore leaves less water to flow downstream.

According to the Commonwealth Government’s “National Water Policy”, this can be a problem in catchments such as the Murray River and its tributaries, where water used by trees in the upper catchments does not wind up in Lake Hume and other water storages, to be delivered to irrigators downstream in the Murray-Darling Basin. The flip side of
that argument is that, while a larger proportion of rainfall might be used by evapotranspiration, less is evaporated from the soil surface and a larger proportion can infiltrate and seep through the soil profile to the water table without causing soil erosion. From there it can recharge dams on farms and enter streams lower in the catchment, but by then it has a much reduced silt load. Soils For Life describes this process as ‘rehydrating the landscape’, and it is a recurring feature of Soils For Life case studies. Stream flow lower in the catchment might be lower in some cases, but it is probably more constant and water quality is likely to be higher.

The rabbit problem has now largely been fixed, using ripping followed by baiting with Pindone as required. Having ready access to water, kangaroos are prolific and numbers must be controlled regularly to prevent over-grazing. The only practical way to do this remains to engage professional shooters to remove a proportion of the population each
year.

Weeds, and therefore herbicide use, are considerably reduced. With 100% ground cover of vigorous pasture 100% of the time, weeds get little chance to establish.

Contour ripping on Illawong


ILLAWONG: PRODUCTION OUTCOMES

Initially, Bryan ran 1500 super-fine merino wethers producing 15–19 micron wool, until drought and falling wool prices forced him to change. The easing of the ‘millennium drought’ in the mid 2000s gave him the impetus to apply lime to overcome acid soils and to sow improved pastures. Perennial pasture species, predominantly phalaris and clover,
were established on approximately 80% of the grazing area. Together with spraying and grazing with sheep, this eliminated the Patterson’s Curse and other weeds, and paved the way to phase out sheep and introduce beef cattle.

The remaining unimproved pastures comprise kangaroo, wallaby and red grasses. Beef production began with agisted stock before the business turned to the current pasture-based steer finishing enterprise. There are now seven dams, up from two in 1994, and these are the only sources of water on the property.

Rotational grazing

Over a ten-year period, the fencing was re-designed using electric fences so that rotational grazing could be introduced, rotating the stock around seven paddocks, leaving the pasture height at least 100 mm (1500 kg dry matter per hectare). Cattle spend 5 to 7 days in each paddock at a time, fewer in the unimproved pasture paddocks, at a stocking rate of 36 DSE/ha. This ensures that the cattle receive sufficient nutrition and provides time for pastures to recover. The native pasture species paddocks are grazed for a shorter time when animals are moved between the higher quality paddocks. This enables Bryan to better match animal feed requirements to feed availability and the nutritional needs of particular groups of animals.

Bryan plans to reticulate groundwater from bores to troughs so that the paddocks can be further sub-divided. As well as improving flexibility for rotational grazing, a major benefit of troughs would be that disturbance of the dams could be reduced so that the water would be less silty. This has benefits for animal health, and therefore their rate of weight gain. Bryan has observed that cattle go for the cleaner water and, once troughs are installed, he does not believe he would have to fence off the dams to exclude cattle.

Cattle production

Bryan buys Angus trade steers, selecting from producers whose stock he has found suitable for finishing on pasture. Three different genetic lines typically make up the annual herd. These arrive in spring at an average live weight of around 370 to 400 kg and leave by the following winter at around 630 kg live weight. The number of steers bought each year depends on seasonal conditions, so ensuring that the pasture available at the time can sustain the grazing pressure. With no dependence on maintaining breeding stock, this means there is never any pressure to overgraze in dry seasons. The timing of moving stock onto and off the property can also be adjusted to allow both for seasonal conditions and for cattle market conditions.

The finished cattle are sold into JBS Australia’s pasture-fed Food Assurance program. That requires demonstrating compliance with specifications including grass-fed only, fat colour, meat colour and fat depth, and incurring penalties or receiving lower prices for animals that do not meet specifications. Illawong cattle now consistently achieve amongst the highest level of compliance, earning Bryan an award from Meat and Livestock Australia for being one of the Top 100 producers in New South Wales and state finalist in the “Excellence in Eating Quality Awards”. This is attributable primarily to ensuring good animal nutrition, which depends on the pasture, and on managing the
temperament of the animals to minimise their stress levels.

Bryan regularly takes samples of his pastures to be analysed for feed quality in order to understand what the animals are eating and to assess whether it is sufficient for their needs. Nine-month-old steers at an average live weight of 370 kg require pasture with a metabolisable energy (ME) of at least 12 MJ per kg of dry matter and a minimum crude
protein content (CP) of at least 12% of dry matter to maintain their weight. To increase their weight at a rate of 1 kg/day or better requires ME of at least 9.9 MJ per kg dry matter and CP of 18.8% or more. Pasture foliage testing shows levels of protein and metabolisable energy from improved pastures across the year range from 8.3–11.1 MJME/kg dry matter, and a little less on native pastures. Lime and single superphosphate are applied regularly to
maintain these levels, as determined by soil tests. The lime maintains soil pH at levels that ensure nutrient availability and microbial activity are sustained and the superphosphate replaces phosphorus that is exported with the cattle.

Cattle temperament is important for the Farm Assurance quality program because muscle glycogen is depleted when the animals are stressed. This increases pH, which affects meat quality, making it dark and less tender. Frequent handling means the cattle are used to human presence and alleviates that problem. Bryan finds that frequent moving in accordance with the rotational grazing system, monthly weighing to monitor weight gain and to check for health issues and an occasional stroll through the paddock all contribute to getting them used to human presence, so that they maintain a calm temperament. This practice ensures that they are not mixed with unfamiliar cattle on trucks, which avoids stirring them up and increasing stress levels, and is a specific requirement of the Farm Assurance program.

Bryan buys Angus trade steers, selecting from producers whose stock he has found suitable for finishing on pasture. Three different genetic lines typically make up the annual herd. These arrive in spring at an average live weight of around 370 to 400 kg and leave by the following winter at around 630 kg live weight. The number of steers bought each year depends on seasonal conditions, ensuring that the pasture available at the time can sustain the grazing pressure.

Bryan has variable costs of $119/ha, considerably lower than the regional average of $181. This can be attributed in part to his reliance on pastures. Feed supplements are not needed and animal health costs are minimal. Compliance with the quality assurance program ensures that prices received are at the high end of the range, which adds substantially to the total gross margin received.


The Illawong Story

Bryan came to southern New South Wales from Victoria in 1965, having been appointed manager of Woomargama Station, a large merino sheep and cattle property about 40 kilometres north-east of Albury. After 29 years in that job, by 1994, it was time to take on a new challenge where he could try innovative ways of farming he had read about while a farm manager, but had been unable to implement. Finally he could call “a piece of dirt my own, be a one man band who could shout out orders in the morning, and alone proceed to obey them!”

To fulfil that ambition, Bryan found two paddocks of neglected hill country, a small part of a large sheep grazing property called Table Top Station located at Bowna, about 10 km north of Lake Hume and 20 km north-east of Albury. In late 1994, these run-down paddocks, comprising undulating slopes with clay loam soils rising to rocky granitic soils on steep slopes, became Illawong.

After decades of set stocking on annual pastures, Patterson’s curse, rabbits and gully erosion were prevalent on Illawong and the remaining woody vegetation comprised remnant red box, yellow box, red stringybark, Blakely’s red gum and long-leaf box trees. Average annual rainfall in the area is a respectable 650 mm, but that is little use if it falls
on bare impenetrable soil and most of it rushes down the gullies, taking topsoil with it. Carrying capacity was a low 1.5 DSE. This was the condition of the property when Bryan acquired it. Just to add to the challenge, 1996 was around the beginning of the ‘millennium drought’ which saw 10 years of severely below average rainfall across southern Australia.

Over 24 years of changing from sheep to cattle, introducing rotational grazing, establishing perennial pastures and improving stock shelter, productivity has increased from 1.5 DSE to 12–14 DSE. Cattle growth rates of over 2 kg live weight per day have been recorded in winter. Most importantly, the business can adjust to seasonal conditions so that pastures do not suffer from over-grazing in dry periods and there is no loss of soil capital.

The practices adopted by Bryan at Illawong are not ground breaking [no pun intended] or revolutionary. It is simply common sense land management based on self-evident principles. Nor is it complicated or particularly expensive to implement … but it is surprising how uncommon, common sense can be and how avoidable obstacles prevent people from changing habits ingrained after decades and generations.


FUNDING ANNOUNCED FOR THE SOILS FOR LIFE PROGRAM

National Objective Declared on Soil and Landscape at Bush Summit

FUNDING ANNOUNCED FOR THE SOILS FOR LIFE PROGRAM

The Prime Minister announces funding for Soils for Life at the Daily Telegraph’s Bush Summit held in Dubbo.

The Prime Minister endorsed the critical need to restore and maintain the health of the Australian agricultural landscape to guarantee a food secure nation and sustainable farming communities as a national objective when he addressed the Daily Telegraph’s Bush Summit held in Dubbo on Thursday 18 July.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that, “Healthy soils with high carbon content are essential for any serious water resource management policy.”

The Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Agriculture and the Leader of the Opposition also joined a cross-section of farmers, agricultural entrepreneurs, community and representatives of all three levels of government in Dubbo for the forum.

In a major address the Prime Minister focussed on the important role of the Soils for Life program and will provide $2M over 4 years to support its work of encouraging the adoption of regenerative landscape management.

The Coalition government recognizes that any serious water resource management policy must include action to promote healthy soils with high carbon content. The Prime Minister observed that, “Land is becoming increasingly marginal therefore we have to do more with less.”

With secure tenure, Soils for Life is positioned to continue with its production of case studies into regenerative agriculture practice across Australia. The program plans to further collaborate with universities and research organisations. “Funding announced in Dubbo strengthens the program’s capacity to approach financial institutions and foundations with interests in sustainability and environmental stewardship” responded the Soils for Life program founder, and national Advocate for Soil Health, Michael Jeffery. A clear mission is now supported by Government as the Prime Minister spoke to the crowd, “To adopt as a national objective to restore and maintain the health of the Australian agricultural landscape to guarantee a food secure nation and sustainable farming communities.”

ESTABLISHMENT OF THE NATIONAL OFFICE OF THE ADVOCATE FOR SOIL HEALTH

The Prime Minister announces the establishment of the office of the National Advocate for Soil Health at the Daily Telegraph’s Bush Summit held in Dubbo on Thursday 18 July.

The Prime Minister announced plans to establish a permanent office to advise on our national soil strategies and initiatives across multiple portfolios including education , training, science and technology, agriculture, water policy and regional development. The Prime Minister has recalled the Honourable Major General Michael Jeffery AC AO (Mil) CVO MC (Retd) as the National Advocate for Soil Health.

The Prime Minister stated that Australia’s national drought strategy and long-term strategic plan will be based on the clear foundations and directions set out by the Government’s appointed Coordinator for Drought Major General Stephen Day, namely:

  • Drought is an enduring, regular feature of the Australian landscape and is likely to become more regular.
  • Drought preparations and planning must always continue, especially during times of no drought.
  • Building drought resilience requires comprehensive understanding and integrated management of our soil, vegetation and water resources.
  • Drought policies, programmes and preparation must be developed with industry and communities and informed by the best possible information.

The Prime Minister outlined a plan to ensure that information about our precious soil resource is collected, accurate, timely, collated, shared and widely understood through the auspices of the Office of the National Soils Advocate. The Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack endorsed the Prime Minister’s initiatives, commenting, “The overarching principle of the National Advocate’s appointment was that Australia’s soil, water and vegetation are key natural, national, strategic assets and must be managed in an integrated way across the continent.”

The Soil Advocate will also take on broader global advocacy on soils as part of Government’s global environmental agenda especially in Indo-Pacific and as part of the Pacific Step-up program working with Pacific Nations.

CEO’S COMMENT AUGUST 2019

It’s a busy and exciting time to be involved in regenerative agriculture. In the Soils for Life office, we’ve noticed a growing interest and momentum from farmers, growers and producers and with government policy advisors, scientists, academia, media and related industry people. Improving soil carbon content allows us to access carbon credits. Adding soil carbon is also intrinsically beneficial to encourage water retention (when those rains eventually come) and improve soil structures, including the microbial and fungal prospects. Over this recent couple of months, we have worked to complete a further four case studies. We have also focused on collaboration with universities and engineers to both establish a baseline and monitor over time, soil carbon. Our thanks to the Department of Agriculture who gave us a small grant to get the ball rolling with a workshop on soil carbon measurement. Advanced technologies are emerging on remote sensing carbon too!

I’m looking forward to keeping all of you apprised of developments over the coming weeks.

Rod Chisholm, CEO of Soils for Life

LETTER TO THE AUSTRALIAN FROM THE SOIL ADVOCATE

I write in response to your editorial “Time to get on with new dams” (12/8). While properly sited dams have their role, much more water can be stored in healthy soil containing adequate levels of carbon. Essential carbon can be sequestered into soil by informed farmers who integrate the management of their plants, soil, water and, where appropriate, their animals. In cities, we can ensure urban planners design ways to catch and safely reuse every drop of rain.

As the Commonwealth national Advocate for Soil Health, I recommend that water be seen as a key national strategic asset. Working together, federal cabinet and the states can maximise the capture and use of our precious water asset for drinking, agricultural and environmental purposes. Our soils are depleted and need regeneration. With leadership and all of us working to an agreed and simple plan we can restore the health of our soils and ensure optimal use of each drop of water where it falls.

Michael Jeffery, National Soil Advocate (published 14.08.2019)

WORKSHOPS – EARTH CANVAS

Earth Canvas is a project set up by Gill Sanbrook that links six outstanding Australian artists to six regenerative farmers to give their artistic interpretation of what’s happening on their land.

The Earth Canvas project began in April 2019 and will culminate in November when the six farmers will host a lunch at their properties to showcase their regenerative agriculture and the artists will exhibit their art.

Workshops and field days are being held to further showcase regenerative farming in a creative and stimulating format.

https://earthcanvas.com.au/

NOTE FROM THE CHAIR JULY 2019

For the first time, we have a national objective to restore and maintain the health of the Australian agricultural landscape. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison guaranteed a food-secure nation and sustainable farming communities in his speech at the recent Daily Telegraph Dubbo Drought Summit in July.

Farmers who are informed and supported can successfully integrate the management of their soil, water, vegetation and animals. Soils for Life can work collaboratively with farming communities to ensure the agricultural industry is sustainable and our environment is resilient.

The Prime Minister announced that his Government will support this national objective and that all appropriate departmental portfolio areas will work closely together on this issue.

The PM also recognised the importance of an independent Advocate for Soil Health to coordinate and promote good healthy soil and regenerative agriculture. He has reappointed me to this role and tasked me with working with all stakeholders: political, academic, departmental, industry and landholders.

My responsibilities include visiting regional and global catchments and communities to look at how we can exchange agricultural landscape management ideas. Farming case study examples can provide information and ideas for neighbours to learn from and adapt their practices. Soils for Life is expanding its capacity to promote and inform through measured case study performance results.

Michael Jeffery

INTRODUCING THE MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER WITH THE SOILS FOR LIFE TEAM

Cecilia Moar is a former farmer and resident of the North-Central, Wimmera and Mallee areas in Victoria. Awarded ABC Rural Victorian Woman of the Year, a graduate of the Australian Rural Leadership program, she sat on the boards of Telstra and the Mallee Catchment Management Authority. Cecilia has an Honours degree in Social Science from Bond University.

Cecilia’s professional experience includes commercial food and fibre production, land and water stewardship, community capacity building, corporate governance, and the delivery of education and allied health services in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia. Cecilia manages her communications business, c.comms, and is keen to apply her skills to improve soil health.

TURNING THE TENNIS COURT INTO TRAIL PLOTS FOR SOIL NUTRITION

The National Soil Advocate Major General Michael Jeffery visited Freeman’s Organic Farm at Currumbin Valley, Qld, on Tuesday 30 July 2019. David Freeman grows an abundance of green nutrient-dense organic vegetables and tropical fruits. David says, “I’m very interested in the health of my soil, which translates into nutrient-dense food and better health.”

Today, the former banana farm demonstrates significant improvements to soil health. With improved hydrology the farm is now rich in organic matter with a neutral pH, providing optimum conditions for a diverse range of healthy plants.
Former Governor-General Michael Jeffery observes that the old tennis court is now an expansive organic vegetable patch. David maintains an ambition to, “Leave the farm in a better state than I found it.”