Message from Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life board

Alasdair Macleod - Chairman

Message from Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board

As Narelle mentioned in her newsletter last month, the Soils For Life team has been busy during lockdown. Of course, it has not been possible to carry out any fieldwork, but that has not stopped the team from working on a number of different fronts.

Firstly, there has been a good deal of ‘back office’ work to bring the operations of Soils For Life up to the standard required to support our activities going forward. This has included the appointment of new management accountants who have already demonstrated their worth by quickly getting on top of the finances.

Secondly, Soils For Life has secured operational funding for the next four years from the Macdoch Foundation. This support will enable the team to continue the case study work , but also look to branch out into other activities in due course.

Thirdly, applications for the vacant role of CEO have been pouring in! I am pleased to say that we have received applications from a wide range of high quality candidates. A sub-committee of the board comprising myself, Charlie Maslin and Eve Crestani will be working through the candidates over the next few weeks and we hope to make an appointment before the end of July.

Lastly, it is clear that interest in regenerative agriculture continues to grow strongly and Soils For Life will be riding this wave of interest in a number of different ways. Of course, the programme of case studies will continue and, now that lockdown is coming to an end, the team will be keen to get back into the field. There is also work being done on an application for project funding to the Commonwealth Government’s Future Drought Fund. This is an excellent initiative, being administered by the Department of Agriculture, which will support activities that build drought resilience. For what is regenerative agriculture about if it is not about drought resilience? We feel that Soils For Life and the consortium of parties that are being assembled alongside us, will deliver a strong proposal which I hope we will be able to tell you more about in due course.

In summary, a great deal has been achieved to strengthen the organisation and equip it to provide even more support to those farmers who are considering some changes to their management practices. In fact this month’s newsletter is full of resources and information from the Soils For Life team including a catch up with Rhonda and Bill Daly around the recent performance of their case study property Milgadara as well as education resources around bird surveying and water management strategies. We are also sharing our submission to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review.

Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board

Case study catch up: How is Milgadara performing in 2020?

Case study catch up: How is Milgadara performing in 2020?

Bill and Rhonda Daly were one of the first Soils For Life case studies in 2013. They are fourth generation farmers growing sheep, cattle and crops on their property Milgadara in Young, NSW, as well as running YLAD Living Soils – a composting business that allows them to enrich not just the soils on their property but many others across the whole country.

Watch the video to see the farm and hear Bill and Rhonda talk about their practices.

‘Courage, passion and never giving up’

When Soils For Life first profiled them in 2013, Bill and Rhonda told their story of change, outlining how they had started questioning conventional practices in the mid-1990s. Their search for alternatives led them to investigate biological, regenerative and biodynamic practices. After Rhonda was diagnosed with chronic meningitis and heavy mental poisoning in 2001 they knew they had to act. Twenty years on, they are reaping the benefits of shifting their mindset and adopting a regenerative, more mindful approach to their work.

“The resilience of our country has probably been the incredible thing that we’ve noticed since we’ve changed so many of our practices. It just bounces back so quickly after a big dry,” says Bill when Soils For Life caught up with the pair recently. They had managed to sow multi-species crops just before the rain in February and watched them grow to a meter high after the rain. “That’s what was really noticeable in this drought, it was really a lead-in drought of three years. And within four weeks after that rain, we had green. It’s just incredible.”

Resilient soils, resilient people

As the whole Daly family (Bill and Rhonda’s daughter, her partner and children all live on the farm) have sought to enrich the soils under their feet, they have also been enriched personally by the changes they have made on their farm. 

“I think resilience in soils and people is probably one of our greatest attributes – our past practices were able to give us the hope and the assurance that things were going to recover and come back again,” says Rhonda. And Bill agrees: “I know with the changes that we have made on the farm and in our own lives, that simplification of our system and the understanding of the way the countryside works, allows your mindset to be more relaxed in lots of respects. You’re not putting out fires all the time.”

Reaping the rewards

Recent ABARES data confirms that Bill and Rhonda’s biological, regenerative and biodynamic approach is a profitable one. Farming operations at Milgadara have been compared with other properties in the same region using ABARES data. This benchmarking process allows the business implications of management decisions to be compared using industry standard metrics. 

At $278/ha Milgadara produces 61% more profit per hectare than the region average of $173.  This is due to significantly higher income of $795/ha compared to $485/ha (Figure 1).

Milgadara income, expenses and profit compared to the region averages.
Figure 1 Milgadara income, expenses and profit compared to the region averages.

Wool production is a big contributor to profitability. Shearing occurs when the wool gets to 70mm, which is usually after around seven or eight months. Bill says that this actually makes the sheep operation a lot easier as they no longer have fly impacts, only drench on average once a year and often do not have to crutch sheep. Milgadara cut more than double the average amount of high quality wool per sheep with a corresponding increase in wool income (figure 2). Maintaining ground cover and feed budgeting is a big focus at Milgadara; “I made a very conscious decision to spell certain countries [rest certain areas] right from basically the beginning of the spring time last year. We didn’t have any stock on that right up until basically even into late April this year.” These paddocks were then used for this seasons lambing, giving other pastures a chance to recover.

A prime lamb operation remains part of the livestock system to maintain a strong cash flow. “It just makes that huge difference to how your yearly income is balanced rather than having to wait for one cheque a year,” says Bill. Cattle production is a trading operation with stock brought in when market and farm conditions are favourable. “I’d rather have the feed grow and allow it to make a healthy soil rather than lose money on cattle.”

Milgadara wool production and income compared to the region averages.
Figure 2 Milgadara wool production and income compared to the region averages.

With the Covid19 restrictions easing in NSW, Soils For Life will visit Milgadara in July to gain an understanding of how Bill and Rhonda’s practices are impacting the ecology and soil of the property. For more information on the Daly’s story of change, see our first case study here.

Water management in the land of droughts and flooding rains: Lessons from our case studies in low rainfall areas

Water management in the land of droughts and flooding rains: Lessons from our case studies in low rainfall areas

Managing grazing pressure, maintaining soil fertility, controlling weeds … the list of challenges facing agricultural land managers could go on and on. But, arguably the biggie, the black beast always lurking out there, is water. Sometimes there is too much of it, but that is rare in our land of droughts and flooding rains. Usually the problem is that there isn’t enough. Perhaps a solution in some circumstances is to focus on the flooding rains.

This article looks at the different approaches taken on our case study properties to manage big falls of rain when they come. It is evident from the range of approaches mentioned across all our case studies that there are creative ways to make the most of the available rainfall. The principle shared by each of the examples is an approach that slows the movement of water and allows it to seep into the soil. The ways and means vary depending on the land itself and resources available.

Water management: Scalds on Salisbury

Soils For Life’s Salisbury case study, about the MacAlpine family’s property in the north of central-western New South Wales  illustrates the problem, and the potential solution. Salisbury and several prior case studies provide lessons in water management that might be useful for many agricultural land managers.

There are no permanent watercourses on Salisbury. Water supply is rain and bores that tap the Great Artesian Basin. Average annual rainfall is about 450 mm, probably less. The average and median monthly rainfall sometimes falls in a single day, sometimes causing regional flooding. Conversely, little or no rain falls for substantial periods. As if that doesn’t make life complicated enough, there are also the ‘scalds’ to deal with.

The early period of sheep grazing in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of western New South Wales was a disaster for topsoil. Overgrazing encouraged by high wool prices destroyed ground cover, which in dry periods led to widespread wind and water erosion that created ‘scalds’ where the coarser textured surface material has been completely lost, leaving the finer textured and less permeable subsoil [Figure 1]. This was reported as being an extensive problem as long ago as 1901 (Cunningham 1987). By the 1960s, tens of thousands of square kilometres of rangeland sites in western NSW were moderately bare or completely ‘scalded’ (Thompson 2008).

Water soaks into scalded land so slowly that soil moisture recharge, and the potential for revegetation, is negligible. The rare events of flooding rains do little more than cause more soil erosion. This land is perpetually barren, or would be without intervention.

water management on Salisbury
Figure 1: A scald on Salisbury, still remaining in 2020, showing the hard-packed surface soil and elevated root systems of dead plants, indicating the depth of topsoil lost to wind and water erosion.

Methods for reclaiming scalded soils in Western NSW have been researched since the late 1940s (Cunningham 1987). Surveying and construction methods developed over several decades have made rehabilitation of scalds more and more cost-effective (Rhodes 1987). These involve using a grader to build low ponding banks to hold rainwater to a depth of 10 cm or so. These are circular on flat ground and semi-circular (a ‘horseshoe’ shape) on scald with a mild slope. The opening of the horseshoe is to the up-slope side, so that run-off collects within the banks. Each pond covers about 0.4 hectares. The grader used to construct the banks is also used to disturb the soil surface within the ponds in strategic locations (Thompson 2008).

The effect of the ponding banks and disturbance is to hold water from the intermittent heavy falls. This then infiltrates – albeit slowly – to leach salts from the surface, recommence soil swelling and cracking and provide moisture down the soil profile. The banks and disturbance within the pond area provide a barrier to wind-blown sediments and plant material, which collects and starts to form an organic-rich surface layer. The saltbush seed, together with whatever other wind-blown or sheep- or bird-delivered seed arrives, then has somewhere to germinate and moisture to tap in the soil profile. The natural processes of ecological succession have effectively been given a ‘kick-start’ and can take their course.

The results on Salisbury can be seen in Figure 2.

Pond bank and trenches
Figure 2: A horseshoe pond bank with water ponding in the trenches either side of the bank and across the surface. Regenerating vegetation is evident within the horseshoe.

Breaking the surface on Bokhara Plains

About 150 km north-west of Salisbury, on the Goodooga Road north of Brewarrina, is Bokhara Plains. In 1999 around 50% of the 7200 hectares property was clay pan or otherwise bare ground.Ponding had been tried on Bokhara Plains but, except at the edges of ponds where the soil had been disturbed, the effects were minimal. A cost-effective way to break up the hard capped surface to accelerate water penetration to capture the infrequent falls of rain was required.

The most cost-effective method found was to use cattle. The trick was, after a fall of rain when the surface was wet, to pack on a big enough mob of cattle so that the hooves could break the surface. However, because of the low carrying capacity on the property there weren’t sufficient numbers to do the job, so the landholders agisted cattle when the time was right to help break up the surface.

As well as Salisbury and Bokhara Plains, interventions to make the most of intermittent and unreliable rainfall have been implemented at Gilgunnia Station and Wyndham Station. Clay pans were not such a problem on these properties, further west in New South Wales, but the need to maximise the benefits of limited available rainfall is no less important. Rothesay, in the central west, illustrates the use of a similar technique in hillier country.

Water-spreading at Gilgunnia Station

Gilgunnia comprises 10,000 hectares on the Cobar Peneplain. Rainfall ranges from 101 mm in 1982 to 710 mm in 2010, and averages 398 mm. As is common in the region, rainfall comes in heavy falls. Here, the tendency is for it to run off the gravelly rises and through the flats without infiltrating and therefore exacerbating soil erosion. To add to the soil erosion hazard, turpentine bush and other invasive native shrub and tree species had taken over the original grassy woodland, considerably reducing grazing capacity. Removing that vegetation posed the risk of increasing soil erosion. Landscape engineering in the form of water-spreading banks was implemented to help address these issues.

Water spreading is suited to broad flats between 100 metres and 1 kilometre wide. The system at Gilgunnia comprises concentric curved banks constructed along the contour, spaced a few hundred metres apart (Figure 3). The banks prevent runoff from accumulating down drainage lines, and therefore stabilise erosion, and increase water infiltration. A gap is left in the bank at alternating points along the length of each bank. Runoff ponds behind the banks and infiltrates through the gaps, making its way to and fro gradually down through the broad flats. Organic matter accumulates behind the banks, trapping seeds and accelerating revegetation.

Shallow contour banks
Figure 3: Shallow contour banks on Gilgunnia [Photo: Google maps]

Improving water distribution on Wyndham Station, Rothesay and Balala

Wyndham Station on the lower Darling River is even further west in New South Wales – in fact it’s not much further to get to South Australia. The average annual rainfall here is only 260 mm. Rothesay is in central NSW at the foothills of the Liverpool Plains, where the average annual rainfall is a rather more generous 691 mm. But the same problem arises: there are good years, and there are drought years.

The topography on Gilgunnia and at Rothesay is more pronounced than at Gilgunnia or Salisbury, so different solutions apply. Low banks and channels are constructed at a shallow down-grade from drainage lines towards the ridges. Runoff follows the channels and disperses down the slopes.

Fallen trees strategically placed to catch organic matter and slow wate
Figure 4: Balala Station; fallen trees strategically placed to catch organic matter and slow water flow down the slope.

A different approach has been taken at Balala, west of Uralla in northern New South Wales. Following a long history of set stocking, woody native vegetation over substantial parts of Balala had become substantially denser than the original grassy woodland, to the extent that the grasses were suppressed and there was little grazing potential. Approval was obtained to thin some areas of overly dense stands. That helped pasture rejuvenation but created the problem that there was woody debris to deal with. Turning that problem into an asset, piles of stems and branches were laid along the contour on gentle slopes (Figure 4). The effect of the piles was to impede surface water flow, which increases infiltration, and to trap organic matter. As well as making better use of available rainfall, research has found that this method improves soil nitrogen and carbon content and nutrient exchange properties (Tongway and Ludwig 2006).

Bundles of woody debris or “Brush Packs” were installed in the Mulloon Creek catchment as part of the Green Army program. The Mulloon Institute produced a guide to the use of “Brush Packs” following the bushfires of 2019/20. Retaining organic matter and nutrients after fires increases the speed of landscape recovery and protects water systems.

References

Cunningham, G.M. 1987. Reclamation of scalded land in western New South Wales. Journal of Soil Conservation New South Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of NSW, Sydney.

Rhodes, D. 1987. Waterponding banks – design, layout and construction. Journal of Soil Conservation New South Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of NSW, Sydney.

Thompson, R. 2008. Waterponding: Reclamation technique for scalded duplex soils in western New South Wales rangelands. Ecological Management and Restoration 9: 170-181. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-8903.2008.00415.x

Tongway, D. and Ludwig, J. 2006. Rehabilitation of Semiarid Landscapes in Australia. I. Restoring Productive Soil Patches. Restoration Ecology. 4. 388–397. 10.1111/j.1526-100X.1996.tb00191.x.

Birds: Why and how to measure them on your property

Birds: Why and how to measure them on your property

By Richard Thackway and Greg Hosking

Results of repeated bird surveys, like repeated soil tests, can provide land managers with valuable information on how their land management is performing over time. In fact, the number and different types of birds​ found in different types of vegetation on a property can be used​ as a​ measure of​ management performance.   

Why measure birds in your landscape

Birds are a practical indicator to monitor biodiversity. Any changes that you make to vegetation on your property will influence the type and number of birds by changing the availability of food, habitat or shelter. ​For instance, you might choose to remove​ exotic weed species and replace these with​ locally indigenous native plant species. ​Or you could decide to fence and revegetate an area of your property. Both management practices are likely to see some kind of change in food, habitat and shelter for birds. 

Before​ you change the management of an area, it’s a good idea to establish a repeatable way to measure bird life. By establishing a robust survey, then repeating it in the same season each year over following years, you will measure the impact on biodiversity that the changes your management practices have on the landscape.

Birds and vegetation

You can expect​ that​ establishing native plant shelterbelts or fencing out remnant patches of native vegetation will provide more​ habitat for local bird species to occupy.​ As a patch of vegetation matures (i.e. becomes more vertically complex and provides more resources like food, shelter and nest sites) it’s usual for a greater number and variety of​​ birds to be present. However, one factor that strongly influences the variety and number of birds found in such sites is how well the native vegetation on the property is connected with larger patches of mature native vegetation in the surrounding landscape. 

Garry Kadwell’s property ‘Fairhalt’, a Soils For Life case study, illustrates how this works in practice. His well-considered approach to the size, connectivity and proximity of his revegetation projects increased the numbers and types of birds visiting and staying to breed.

Revegetating a site with native plant​ species and​ encouraging​ the regeneration of native​ tree, shrub and ground cover plants will influence the types of birds and the number of birds over time and in different seasons. However, established non-natives also provide valuable habitat for birds so it’s important to consider their value to bird life and the other roles they play in the landscape (ie shade, amenity, stabilising waterways) before removing them.

Measuring bird life over time

Consistently recording the bird communities found on your property can provide you with valuable information about how the quality and extent of bird habitat has changed over time. We encourage land managers to use the same bird survey technique each time that they survey birds. 

To limit the variables, make sure you repeat your survey in the same season every year. An ideal time to survey birds is the first week of ‘spring’ (whatever time that may be in your agro-climatic region). For example, in Canberra it’s best to survey in the first week of October. Whatever time of the year you choose make sure you perform the survey at that same time in following years. Of course, you may wish to survey multiple times each year, depending on the seasonal variation of your climate. In rangelands settings, it is best to do this survey up to three weeks after rain.

Doing your first survey BEFORE you make changes (e.g. removing​ the weeds​ or fencing a remnant patch of native vegetation) will give you a fuller understanding of the impact of the changes on the landscape. 

The Soils For Life Bird Survey

To assist you to conduct robust and repeatable bird surveys, we have produced an easy to use bird survey template. Filling it out over seasons will provide more detailed and useful information about the bird life on your property than a simple species list. You may need multiple copies if you have a lot of bird life on your property.

Other survey techniques

Birdlife Australia has information on other types of bird survey techniques available for use on farms. They have also developed an app for mobile devices which can be used to record bird surveys. The Birddata app is free to download/use for both Android and Apple users. A range of different survey methods are available to use within the app. It also gives you the opportunity to trial different survey methods to determine the method that best suits your purposes, once you’ve found what works sticking to that method is the recommended approach. 

Talaheni ridge line showing two types of vegetation cover.

Things to consider when conducting a survey

  • Survey at the same time of year every year. The first week of spring each year is a good time.
  • Use the same survey technique each time you survey. 
  • Set a duration of time that you will spend on the survey (ie one hour) and use that duration consistently each time you complete a survey.
  • Different types of vegetation-cover and land use deserve a separate survey. For example, do separate surveys for ridges, slopes, river flats, dams etc. 
  • Use binoculars. They don’t need to be expensive, but 8 or 10 x 42 are best for birdwatching.
  • Pleasant weather – without wind and rain – is best for bird watching.

How to identify bird species

Many of you will have a field guide on your bookshelf or kitchen bench. You can use this to help you identify the species of bird. If you don’t already have one, the commonly used bird identification manuals across Australia are:

For more information on identifying bird species try the following places:

Want to know how to improve bird life on your property? Jillamatong, Fairhalt and Talaheni are Soils For Life case studies that have all reported positive change in bird life over time.

Our submission to the EPBC Act Review

Our submission to the EPBC Act Review

The Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act is currently undergoing independent review and recently sought input on a discussion paper. Soils For Life prepared a submission that reflects a consolidated perspective from our engagement with our case study participants and the broader agricultural community interested in regenerating agricultural landscapes and the expertise of the SFL scientists. A draft report of the review is expected this month and the final report is due to be handed on down in October.

A summary of our recommendations

The SFL provides the following recommendations for improvements to the Act. Further detail is provided in the body of our submission.

  1. A key priority for reform should be that the Act support regenerative agricultural practices where appropriate. We propose that these practices are continuing uses as defined under the Act.
  2. Regenerative farmers are part of the wider agricultural sector. Duplication between States and Commonwealth can be reduced by a strong active leadership role from the Commonwealth and a coordinated approach from all levels of government to the rights and obligations of farmers. The Act should define national standards and objectives instead of focusing on compliance with process. The Commonwealth should establish detailed long term biodiversity goals, standards, indicators and reporting to inform policy and decision making under the Act.
  3. SFL notes the Craik Review from 2018 and believes that the issues covered and solutions proposed should be considered within the context of the EPBC Act review and in the main are supported.
  4. The approvals scheme needs to be improved upon; it should be outcomes driven and risk based, instead of process driven. Where producers undergo innovative land use change the Act should make provision for suitably qualified environmental professionals, to be appropriately recognised with qualifications and/ or certification, such as through the Certified Environmental Practitioner Scheme (CEnvP), to evaluate novel land use change to determine if it is consistent with the objectives of, and therefore allowable, under the Act.
  5. Cumulative impacts of projects at a landscape-scale should be considered within the Act, along with the need for setting regional outcomes and objectives through bilateral agreements with each state, allowing planning schemes and combined impacts to be referred to the Commonwealth for determination of potential to affect MNES.
  6. There is a need to demonstrate the efficiency and effectiveness of offsets through improved transparency. This must ensure that offset arrangements are demonstrably supporting the aims of the Act and are applied more consistently across landscapes.