End for year message from CEO

Happy Holidays from the Soils For Life team!

The Soils For Life Team
Some members of the Soils For Life team: (L-R) Richard Thackway, Kirsty Yeates, James Diack, Rebecca Palmer-Brodie, Narelle Luff, Liz Clarke, Mark Parsons, Jen Richards, Paris Capell.

As 2020 draws to a close the dramatic events of this year have highlighted the urgent need to build greater resilience to shocks and stresses to our agricultural systems (as well as our social-ecological systems more generally).

At Soils for Life, we have had to substantially pause our case study program and associated activities during COVID-19 (with associated border closures and travel bans etc). We anticipate ramping up these activities early in the New Year, along with our other project commitments, such as the new Rangelands Living Skin project with NSW DPI, which will focus on soil regenerative practices and farmer innovation and peer mentoring processes.

2021 will be an exciting year for us, with a range of new initiatives planned as part of our ongoing support to Australian farmers in regenerating soils and landscapes. We have just released our interim Strategic Framework, which is a high level outline of our role, mission and core activities. A full strategic plan will be released in 2021.  

We’ve had a great response to our Project and Outreach Manager job advertisement (advertised in the last newsletter), and there’s still a little more time to apply with applications closing on 24 December 2020. In addition, we are also about to advertise for a Communications and Engagement Manager to complement our team.

It is a pleasure to be able to end the year by releasing our new reports on Winona, providing the latest instalment in Colin Seis’ regenerative journey, highlighting growing profitability, landscape and soil health, and resilience of the property.

The Soils For Life team wish you all health and happiness – and hopefully some relaxation! -over the Christmas holiday period. Our office will be closed from 21 December 2020 until 4 January 2021. We are looking forward to an exciting and prosperous new year.

Liz Clarke CEO

Regenerative producers take out major produce awards!

The proof is in the tasting: Regenerative producers take out major produce awards!

Congratulations go to regenerative farmer Garry Kadwell, a Soils For Life case study farmer, for winning the Producer of the Year award in the prestigious Delicious Harvey Norman Produce Awards announced in October!  

The Harvey Norman Delicious produce awards are some of the most prestigious food awards in the country. Decided on by a panel of expert palettes, including Matt Moran, Maggie Beer and slew of chefs from around the country, these awards recognise the best of the best-tasting produce in the country. Medals are awarded for top producers in categories such as “From the Ground”, “From the Paddock” and “From the Dairy” as well as selecting a producer of the year from among all the entries.

And the winner is…

Regenerative farmer Garry Kadwell took out the Producer of the Year Award. He grows seed potatoes on his farm outside Crookwell in NSW, having implemented a number of regenerative practices on his property, Fairhalt, since he took over from his father in the 1980s.

Award winning Andean Sunrise variety of potato.

Garry’s innovations include:

  • Increased time between potato crop rotations to allow soil health to repair.
  • Lucerne and grass species cropping post-potato crop to improve soil health. Compost and lime applications to provide soil nutrients and fix pH levels.
  • Utilisation of a “one pass” tilling machine to reduce tilling impact on soil.
  • Habitat corridors planted across the property to link stands of remnant vegetation.
  • Set aside 32% of the property for conservation purposes.
  • Constructed wetlands on the property to provide habitat for birds and other fauna.
  • Rotationally grazing fat lambs to maintain ground cover.

And the proof of his success is in the tasting! Judge Matt Moran declared his potatoes, an older variety called Andean Sunrise rarely seen in Australia, to be the best potatoes that he had ever tasted!

Find out more about Garry’s enterprise and his regenerative journey in the Soils For Life case study.

Regenerative pork producers also win gold medal

Our congratulations also go to Hamlet Pork who utilise regenerative practices to care for the land as well as produce amazing-tasting food.

Indigenous grains for culture, nutrition and the environment

Sunset at Winona

New research on Indigenous grains for culture, nutrition and the environment

Over the past decades there has been a growing interest in production of native grasses. In collaboration with local Indigenous groups, farmers and researchers, the most extensive study of indigenous grains from paddock-to-plate has just been completed by the University of Sydney.

The Indigenous Grasslands for Grains project from the University of Sydney was a year-long research project into the environmental, economic and cultural viability of growing native grains. The study’s first report, showing very promising results, was recently released.

Find out more about the project and the culinary potential of native grasses here.

Native grains on Gomeroi country

The project studied what is known in the local language as dhunbarbila (meaning lots of edible grain/seed in one place; similar to English ‘grain crop’) on Gomeroi country near Moree and Narrabri in NSW. Guiding the study was Black Duck Foods, a social enterprise and commercial grain production business owned by indigenous food expert Bruce Pascoe on Yuin country near Mallacoota. The project used a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the economic, environmental and social features of the ancient native grain food system of Aboriginal people in the modern world.  After studying 15 native grain crops in conjunction with local Indigenous groups and farmers, researchers found native millet to have the most potential on Gomeroi country with its nutritional value, sustainable growth and ease of processing.

Other species were found to have niche uses. Dhamu (purslane or pigweed) was found to have a potential for export as it has an established market in cultures around the world and is high in omega-3. Wattle, kurrajong, nardoo and quandong were other promising edible species which have been flagged for future research.

The future of native grasses as food

In consultation with Bruce Pascoe, ecologists, social researchers, food scientists and business experts, the project found that improved seed processing and marketing would be the next step towards making the grains commercially available. In consultation with the Local Aboriginal Land Councils from Wee Waa and Narrabri indigenous people expressed the need for:

  • Indigenous community involvement
  • Collaboration between communities
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Economic benefits
  • Links into formal education

Want to learn more? Register for this month’s Native Grains Knowledge Sharing webinar series with Dr Angela Pattison or find the report here.

Winona – Pasture Cropping the Way to Health

Winona – Pasture cropping for the way to health

A regenerative agriculture case study from the NSW Central Tablelands.

Colin Seis faced adversity and then struck ‘gold’ by developing a new way to look after the land and his bottom line – building tonnes of soil along the way. Winona was one of the first Soils For Life case studies in 2012. Click here for information about our revisit in 2020.

WINONA AT A GLANCE

FARM FACTS

ENTERPRISE: Sheep. Crops. Native Grass Seed. Kelpie Dogs.

PROPERTY SIZE: 840 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 460-580 m

SOIL: Brown Chromosol (an abrupt increase in texture between the topsoil and subsoil which is not strongly acid or sodic).

AGROCLIMATIC REGION: Temperature, sub-humid.

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Loss after major bushfire necessitating establishment of a low-input agricultural system

INNOVATIONS

  • Developing and implementing ‘pasture cropping’
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing
  • ‘Vertical Stacking’ of enterprises – cropping, native grass seed, sheep wool and meat
  • Innovations commenced: Time controlled grazing 1989/Pasture cropping 1993

KEY RESULTS

  • Annual input costs reduced by over $120,000
  • Soil carbon increased by 203% in 10 years
  • Delivering three production lines from each paddock
  • Improved wool quality


WINONA: DOWNLOAD THE PRINTABLE REPORT

The following case study of the change at Winona is from the 2012 case study published in: Innovations for Regenerative Landscape Management: Case studies of regenerative landscape management in practice, Third Edition, Outcomes Australia, Canberra.


The Winona Story

The management of Winona from 1930 to 1980 turned out to be an ecological disaster. Loss of land to salinity, declining soil quality, dead and dying trees, insect attack, fungal and animal diseases, plus the high cost of fertilisers, herbicides and other inputs showed the suffering of an unhealthy system. In 1979 a devastating bushfire left no choice but to change the way things were done.

In developing ‘Pasture Cropping’ Colin Seis found a way to work his pastures, crops and sheep together and healed his land. Now, Winona produces similar volumes of wool and grain to that achieved under previous management methods, but annual costs have decreased by over $120,000 and the condition of the land is improving, not degrading.

By applying regenerative forms of cropping and grazing, Colin has achieved a 203% increase in soil carbon in just ten years. The vast majority of the soil carbon is highly stable (non-labile), meaning it is significantly less subject to degradation, and carbon is being built and measured to a depth of 500mm.

In addition to being able to pass on a productive and sustainable farm to the next generation, Colin feels a well-deserved sense of achievement at having developed an innovative farming method that is being adopted by thousands of other farmers in similar climates and soil landscapes all over the world.

How it all began

The Seis family has farmed at Winona since the 1860s. Colin’s great grandfather initially selected a small allotment to which other allotments were added over the years to eventually form the current 840 hectares. Colin took over management of the Winona from his father in the 1970s, and now, Colin’s son Nick performs much of the day-to-day management.

Ranging from valley floors and gentle slopes rising to granite outcrops on hilltops and ridges, the predominant soils on Winona are well-drained coarse and fine sands derived from granite. There are yellow sodic (high sodium) soils along drainage lines and euchrozems (deep red clay loams) that developed on an area of basalt at the southern end of the property.

When the Seis family selected the first allotment in 1860, survey reports described the area as woodland, suggesting that the land cover was grassland with scattered trees. It is likely that there were over 100 native grass, forb and herb species, with the grassland dominated by kangaroo grass (Themeda australis). While little tree clearing was probably required to develop the land for farming, the change in management soon led to widespread tree regeneration. Title deeds dated 1906 record the presence of stringybark saplings. Colin’s father recalled considerable ring-barking occurring when he was a boy in the 1920s, indeed, one paddock is still referred to today by the name of the man employed at the time to ring-bark trees. Colin’s father also recalled that there were sparsely scattered large trees within the saplings. The large trees were retained and some remain today.

From the 1930s to 1980, the farm was used for wheat, oats, wool and sheep production. Pastures of introduced grasses, mostly annual species (sub clover, rye grass, small areas of lucerne), were established. Set or continuous stock grazing practices were used. Crops were sown every three to five years, depending on soil moisture, by ploughing and working the soil up to five times. Crop yields during this period were good, with yields of over three tonnes a hectare being achieved.

Left: Grazing on Winona in 1938. Right: Grazing on Winona in 2009.

Declining health

Associated with these management practices the soils were showing excesses of aluminium, iron and sodium. Soil carbon levels were around 1% in the 0-10cm range with observed inefficient nutrient cycling. To sustain agricultural productivity it was necessary to apply high rates fertiliser to correct phosphorus, molybdenum and calcium deficiencies.

Colin recalls, “While superphosphate was cheap and subsidised by government during the 1950s and 1960s this high input method was very productive, but at great ecological cost such as declining soil health, soil carbon loss, soil structure decline, saline areas and dysfunctional landscape”.

He notes, “As superphosphate became more expensive and the government subsidy removed this high input system could no longer be afforded. The high cost of fertilising pasture and farm inputs was around $121,000 annually – in 2011 dollars, including wages”.

No choice

In 1979 a major bushfire resulted in the loss of over 3000 sheep and most of the farm infrastructure – house, sheds and fencing. The lack of income prevented re-establishing the previous high input cost cropping method. So, after the fire, Colin started looking for a low input agricultural system. He set about understanding the ecological function of the landscape he had inherited and had managed using practices learned from his father. Faced with the challenge of matching inputs to outputs, Colin began exploring alternatives to the traditional farming system and the likely impacts on his farm’s economics.

Inappropriate grazing techniques have done major damage to Australia’s grasslands and rangelands over the last 200 years. Animals can be beneficial, if they are grazed well.

He realised that native grassland did not require high levels of phosphorus and started to develop methods that would stimulate seedling recruitment of native grass species. He sought to restore Winona to native grassland that did not require inputs like superphosphate and would function in an ecologically sound manner. Colin summarises, “If you get out of the way and let nature fix it, it works better and is much easier”.

Colin notes that tradition was arguably the greatest impediment to change. In spite of requesting assistance from scientific and research organisations, they were not interested in developing a pasture cropping management system. Representatives of these organisations told Colin that it was impossible to grow crops in this manner.

Instead, over a period of 20 years Colin developed the pasture cropping technique by trial and error on Winona. He has spent much of his time perfecting this technique and can now grow many different types of winter and summer growing crops, without destroying the perennial pasture base.

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Pasture cropping on Winona

Colin originally started time control grazing in 1989 to better manage pastures, but it was not until he and Daryl Cluff developed pasture cropping in 1993 that Colin saw dramatic improvement in the regeneration of native perennial pasture species.

Native pastures on Winona are grazed by sheep and, when dormant, direct drilled with crops.

Colin now sows commercial crops into the dominant pasture by direct drilling to minimise soil disturbance. Sheep are used to prepare paddocks to pasture crop and crops are sown, usually with no herbicide and 70% less fertiliser than conventional methods. Only relatively small amounts of liquid organic fertiliser are added at the time of sowing, using the same machine, so that tractor costs and soil compaction are minimised.

Livestock are an intrinsic part of Colin’s pasture cropping system on Winona. Before sowing, when perennial pasture species are dormant, short term time-control grazing with a large mob of sheep (100-150 a hectare) is used to graze and trample perennial pasture down to a height of around 100mm. This practice prepares the paddock for cropping by reducing the starting biomass and physically breaking down weeds, creating a litter and mulch layer and adding nutrients from manure and urine.

Sheep can lightly graze the growing grain crop after it has become established but before it begins to develop seed. Once the crop is harvested sheep are reintroduced for a short period to take advantage of the native pasture that has been re-growing while the crop was maturing. Grazing tolerant native grass species such as red grass (Bothriochloa macra) and spear grass (Austrostipa spp) are gradually being replaced by more productive species such as warrego summer-grass (Paspalidium spp) and wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp). Significant areas of winter active species such as common wheat grass (Elymus scaber) and weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides) are returning.

Pasture cropping enables integration of sheep and crop production, optimising production of both while minimising chemical inputs and machinery use and improving soil structure and fertility.

Single trees are being planted in paddocks to restore original vegetation cover.

Sheep are managed in two main mobs of 2000 head and rotated around 75 paddocks in a time-control rotational grazing technique. Introducing time-control grazing necessitated a denser pattern of fencing to increase the number of paddocks from 10 to 75. A central laneway provides an efficient way to move sheep around the property. Over 70 small dams supply stock water as there are no creeksor rivers on Winona. These dams have high water levels and are maintained mainly through lateral underground flow. The combination of the soil type and maintaining a complete groundcover ensures that all rainfall infiltrates.

Colin recognises that trees provide stock shelter and that it is essential to replace the old paddock trees that are nearing the end of their life span. He has planted over 2000 single paddock trees, aiming to restore the original 1860s cover, estimated to be about two trees a hectare. As they establish, the single trees are protected from stock with guards. In addition, around 15,000 local native trees and shrubs have been planted in belts to form wildlife corridors and to link areas of remnant native vegetation.

Colin is deservedly proud of the technique he developed, noting its strengths, “With pasture cropping it is now possible to produce an annual crop like wheat and a perennial grain crop for human consumption off the same area within a twelve month period. Added to this is the grazing value of sheep meat and wool as well as native grass seed and carbon sequestration”.

“I believe that this technique of using ‘vertical stacking’ of enterprises on the same area over the same time period has potential for addressing world food shortages into the future.”

Vertical stacking of enterprises

Vertical stacking enables three uses of the native grassland in each paddock – native seed harvesting, grain cropping (oats and wheat) and grazing sheep for wool and meat. The three land uses are rotated seasonally, annually and every 3-5 years, depending of the prevailing seasonal conditions such as soil moisture, rainfall and temperature.

Native grass seed is harvested in summer (C4 species) and autumn (C3 species). Grain crops are direct drilled into the winter dormant native pasture at the end of autumn and harvested in summer. Sheep graze each paddock once each season, approximately 3 days every 90 days, the highest frequency of the land use rotations.

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Health restored, benefits accrued

Soil from a conventionally grazed and cropped paddock (right) and from a time-controlled rotationally grazed and pasture cropped paddock (left) which contains significantly more microbial life, soil carbon and subsequently greater water holding capacity.

Extensive soil testing on Winona has shown that eliminating all cultivation other than the direct drilling for pasture cropping, together with rotational grazing, has enabled dramatic improvements in soil condition. Soil carbon has increased by 203% to 90 tonnes a hectare over a ten-year period. This equates to storage of around 170 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) a hectare.

Seventy-eight per cent of newly sequestered carbon is in the humic fraction of the soil 1Jones, C.E. (2011). Carbon that counts. New England and North West Landcare Adventure, Guyra, NSW.. This is non-labile, therefore much more stable and significantly less subject to degradation.

All soil nutrients have increased by an average of 172% in available and total amounts, except for aluminium, iron and sodium, which have decreased. Compared to regular cropping, pasture cropping soils show an increase in actinomycete (bacteria which have a role in decomposition of organic materials) and fungal abundance consistent with less disturbance and/or with greater perennial basal cover and litter cover. These impressive results have been validated through a paired site analysis by Sydney University and CSIRO/Department of Primary Industries 2Ampt, P. and Doornbos, S. (2010) Communities in Landscape Project: Benchmark Study of Innovators, Gulgong, Central West Catchment NSW,.

Soil carbon levels on Winona

Increase in soil microbial numbers and species diversity has resulted in better nutrient cycling and greater potential for increasing soil carbon.

DepthSoil Carbon Level
0-10cm2.65%
10-20cm1.35%
20-30cm1.18%
30-40cm0.53%
40-50cm0.26%
Soil tests conducted in September 2010 revealed carbon levels at the various depths as shown in the table.

Colin notes that his landscape has developed a real resilience, with relatively stable production regardless of rainfall. “Over the last ten years, we have experienced five years of above average rainfall and five years below. A new rainfall pattern has emerged that sees 70% of our rain falling in the summer months, whereas before it was closer to 50%. In the poorer years, no ‘drought’ feeding has been required, due to the resilience in the pastures from the improving soil conditions.”

Many biodiversity improvements are apparent since the changes to management of Winona. Vegetation changes are being monitored on six 100 metre long survey lines (transects). Winona was once dominated by annual weeds and the transect counts from 1999 showed 60% weeds and 10% native perennial species in the pasture. Transects now show 80% perennial native species and 5% weeds. Winona is now a diverse, functioning native grassland with over 50 native species.

As Colin points out, this change was created, not with herbicides, but with groundcover. “Providing the conditions for perennial pasture species to thrive will steadily suppress the weeds. Using herbicides can help is some circumstances but can also kill desirable species, such as the perennial pasture species.”

Tree health has improved and the remaining naturally established trees are regenerating.

Monitored bird numbers and diversity includes around 100 species. Sparrows and starlings that were common prior to 1990s are no longer observed on Winona. Few marsupial species were observed prior to 1990s and now marsupial diversity has also increased, including grey kangaroos, swamp and red necked wallabies and wallaroos.

Healthy soils are clearly apparent under the diverse native vegetation cover on Winona.

A large increase of spiders in pastures has delivered a more stable balance to the insect populations and provided biological control of problem insects like red leg earth mite.

Whilst crop production on Winona has remained about the same, averaging two tonnes a hectare but producing up to four tonnes a hectare, the cost of growing the crops has reduced significantly; in the order of $120,000 a year.

Additionally, Winona now produces and sells about one tonne of native grass seed annually to farmers and for landscape rehabilitation. Colin is also investigating the economics of harvesting and marketing of two native grass seeds for human food consumption.

Pasture cropping enables extra grazing of up to six months on Winona’s mixed farm enterprise. No longer having to re-sow pastures saves $100 – $150 a hectare per year.

Wool and sheep production has also remained about the same, however wool tensile strength has improved by 60% and vegetable matter such as burr and seed in the wool has declined by around 70% making both the wool and sheep more valuable.

Colin says that being able to measure and monitor on his farm has been very important, “Carbon and soil nutrients, plant and ground cover transects as well as sheep and crop monitoring has been very beneficial in observing the positive change forward”.

Education is also seen essential to bringing positive change. Colin states, “We require more farmer educators. Farmers should empower themselves with knowledge.” Colin devotes a lot of his own time running courses, workshops and providing training on pasture cropping across the country, encouraging experimentation with or adoption of this innovative technique.

Overall, the development and implementation of pasture cropping has restored the landscape health on Winona. Re-establishing native grasslands through methods working with nature, ensuring ground cover at all times, rather than trying to control it through use of herbicides and fertilisers has delivered its rewards to Colin Seis.

In his words, “As we farm closer to how nature had it originally designed, the easier the workload becomes and the more profitable it can be.”


Want to learn more from Colin and his pasture cropping method? Read about his course with Smart Soil here:

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.

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.

Salisbury: Rehabilitating the Scalds

Salisbury: Rehabilitating the Scalds

A regenerative agriculture case study from The Marra, north-central NSW.

In the 1980s, portions of Salisbury were fit for one thing and one thing only: landing an aeroplane. Since then, the MacAlpine family has rehabilitated much of this scalded land and developed a number of strategies to make their property ready for both the droughts and flooding rains that this part of the country is prone to.

ABOUT SALISBURY

The Property

The Salisbury property is located on the floodplain and associated relict red duplex terraces of the Marra Creek, to the west of the Macquarie Marshes about 160 km north-west of Warren in north-central New South Wales. The Queensland border is about 160 km further north. Carinda – the nearest town – is about 60 km north-east. Marra Creek runs through the region. It adjoins Salisbury on the property’s western side and potentially flows north into the Barwon River, a tributary of the Darling River.

Salisbury is about 20,000 hectares. The MacAlpines consider that area can support a self-replacing merino flock totalling about 10,000 dry sheep equivalents, typically comprising 5000 breeding ewes (1.5 DSE each) and 2500 ewe lambs, on average in the long term (and allowing for the kangaroos!). The property is subdivided into 22 main paddocks and a few holding yards and transport routes.

Salisbury was previously part of the Womboin Station, which was owned by the Dalgety company. Womboin was subdivided in 1972. The MacAlpine family purchased the Salisbury part in 1977 and added two adjoining blocks soon after. Half of Salisbury is on dark heavy clay soil that is relatively impervious to erosion. This rest is red soil that has a better natural potential for grazing has been degraded by wind and water erosion.

FARM FACTS

Salisbury, The Marra, NSW

ENTERPRISE: Self-replacing merino flock

PROPERTY SIZE: 20,000 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: Approximately 450 mm

ELEVATION: 133 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Improve the health and condition of the sheep, primarily through improving the health and condition of the pastures

INNOVATIONS

  • Reclaiming scalded red duplex country through “waterponding”
  • Manage total grazing pressure with wildlife-proof fencing
  • Manage sheep numbers via trigger point assessments at key points in the annual cycle
  • Manage water infrastructure
  • Supplementary feeding to assist breeding

KEY RESULTS

  • Approximately a quarter of the property (most of the scalded red country) has been treated with waterponds.
  • Several paddocks have been enclosed with wildlife proof fencing.
  • Sheep numbers are being managed via decisions on numbers to join and disposal to sale or to brother’s property at Grenfell, NSW.
  • Three of the four artesian bores on the property have been capped and piped to tanks – each with two troughs.
  • Supplementary feeding infrastructure established.


THE ECOLOGICAL ASSESSMENT

All functional criteria in are considered to have improved since 1972. For example, since the widespread adoption of regenerative practices in 2009:
• the property is becoming more resilient to drought. A similar conclusion is likely for flood proofing
• soil health and function has gradually improved
• vegetation biodiversity has stayed much the same during the waterponding operations
• pasture status has gradually improved (from zero) in the ponded areas, due to increased ground cover and herb species richness.
The reproductive potential of the plant species and plant community has similarly improved.
More improvement in these values is expected in future, particularly when drought conditions ease. Further rainfall will serve to leach salts from surface layers of the scalds as well as provide an essential input for plant growth.


THE SOCIAL REPORT

The MacAlpine vision for regenerative agriculture developed and evolved over many years of experience to meet perceived needs of the family and their country. Their broad aim is to remain profitable while not degrading (or, where possible, improving) their asset base and its resilience to drought. Their early grazing practices noticeably degraded the country and its resilience, so they were always on the lookout for better ways of managing their stock and country.
Grant made all management decisions in the early days. Will is now joint manager with a focus on the stock. Strategic decisions for Salisbury are made by Grant, Cathy and Will at weekly meetings. Rather than a formal risk management framework, the family makes judgements based on the accumulated wisdom gained from years of experience on the property and the experience of neighbours.


THE ECONOMIC REPORT

The regenerative farming practices that the MacAlpines have implemented on Salisbury have led to significantly increased production levels when compared to the Average Farm. With increased productivity, the income generated on Salisbury is also significantly higher than that of the Average Farm.


Tour the farm with Will MacAlpine

Ready for drought, ready for rain

Salisbury is typical of Dorothea McKellar’s ‘land of droughts and flooding rains’. 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 on the property or 405 mm as measured at the nearest meteorological station, perhaps indicating high local variability. The average and median monthly rainfall sometimes falls in a single day, sometimes causing regional flooding. Conversely, very little rain falls for substantial periods.

Will MacAlpine is clear that for the grazing business to cope, obtaining maximum benefit from rainfall events and minimum damage during dry periods, ‘we must be ready for drought, and we must be ready for rain’. The strategy to achieve that comprises a number of tactics:

  • Increase the area of productive grazing land by rehabilitating scalded land.
  • Cap the artesian bores to control water supply.
  • Control kangaroo grazing pressure.
  • Manage sheep grazing pressure in dry periods by moving sheep to holding pens and hand feeding them, and by deferring joining young ewes.

In practice, these tactics are interlinked or interdependent.

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Rehabilitating the scalds

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.

Although rehabilitation work was begun on Salisbury in the 1970s by the previous owners, when the MacAlpines took over the property Grant MacAlpine could land his light plane almost anywhere on the property. After seeing promising results on properties nearby, the MacAlpine family continued rehabilitation in the 1980s and 1990s. Works ramped up in 2009 and 2012 when government grants were available.

The methods that have been used successfully for several years on Salisbury 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). Saltbush seed – some of it collected on the property – is sown over the disturbed surface. Running cattle over the ponded area after the surface had been softened by rain was used to disturb the soil surface in a previous Soils For Life case study of a property near Brewarrina.

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 and provide moisture down the soil profile. The banks and disturbance within them 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 seed is delivered by wind, sheep and birds, 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. To date, about half of the scalded areas on Salisbury have been treated in this way.

The results can be seen here:

Capping the bores

Four artesian bores that were installed early in the 20th century and have been flowing ever since supplement Salisbury’s intermittent water supply from rainfall. The aggregate potential flow rate is 9 L/second (284 ML/year, or about 114 Olympic swimming pools). However, the volume required to support grazing stock is estimated at around 1 L/second, so the rest (around 250 ML/year) runs away to waste via bore drains. The wasted water supports a kangaroo population far in excess of what would be there naturally, whereas a tank and trough system can be managed to restrict water supply.

Bore drain
One of the four bore drains that together used to carry away around 250 Ml/year of surplus water.

Capping the bores maintained the pressure of the underground artesian aquifer and used only the amount of water needed for stock. A threat by governments to charge for water used in excess of stock requirements focused the MacAlpines’ action. A subsidy from the NSW Government [1] helped too. Following the mandated specifications, each tank supplies two nearby troughs – the second being presumably for backup in case one failed. So far, two of the four bores on Salisbury have been capped.

tanks and troughs
Tank and troughs that have replaced free-flowing artesian bores.

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Managing grazing pressure

This is the biggest concern for the viability of the Salisbury business is a seemingly endless supply of kangaroos willing to move on to the property. Generally, they come from the north and arguably in far higher numbers than would have been possible before graziers started providing water sources.

Managing the kangaroo population requires a massive investment in specifically designed fencing. Fences like that will also exclude wild dogs that be-devil sheep graziers elsewhere and that the MacAlpines expect in the Marra region before long.

The cost of kangaroo-proof fencing is around $4,000/km for materials and the property boundary is about 50 km, so a substantial investment is required. Fortunately, the NSW Government has provided a low-interest loan for this.

Kangaroo proof fence
Kangaroo-proof fence: extra height wire supported by fewer posts; mesh apron to prevent kangaroos pushing under the bottom wire; two electrified mid height wires powered by solar panels.

Sheep grazing pressure is managed in dry periods by moving sheep to holding pens and hand feeding them with grain and straw. This is especially useful for ensuring that ewes chosen for breeding have optimum nutrition.

Further tactics to reduce grazing pressure include:

  • deferring joining young ewes so that their grazing requirements are minimised; and
  • selling older ewes or passing them on to the farm run by Alex MacAlpine at Grenfell, NSW.

Will and Grant MacAlpine make these decisions from time to time [2], taking particular note of animal and pasture health.

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Adapted to a variable climate

In summary, the grazing enterprise at Salisbury is well adapted to the highly variable, semi-arid climate. Amongst their many benefits, the water ponds bring more areas into production and generally improve the appearance of the property. Capping the bore, erecting wildlife-proof fencing and managing stock numbers controls the total grazing pressure and ensures sustainability so that the MacAlpines are ready for drought and ready for rain.


[1] Not as generous as the subsidy in Queensland.

[2] Especially over the summer period when a “feed gap” would develop if rain was inadequate.

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.

Herczeg, A.L. and Love, A.J. 2007. Review of Recharge Mechanisms for the Great Artesian Basin. CSIRO Land and Water, Glen Osmond, South Australia.

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

Are you our next case study? If you have a story of change to tell about your regenerative landscape practices we’d love to hear from you! Find out more here.

The 10 things our ecologists look at when conducting field visits on farms

The Soils For Life team provides professional assessment of properties that are using regenerative landscape management practices. Our case study program considers the quadruple bottom line of each property by looking at the effects of regenerative agriculture practices on a farm’s production, economics and ecology as well as the social implications of these practices.

As well as conducting extensive desktop research, our ecologists conduct field trips to assess first hand the impacts of regenerative agriculture on the ecology of the farm. They chose ten criteria to represent the regenerative and productive capacity of each major land type on a farm.

Here are the ten things that they are looking at when they visit a farm:

Image from our case study Jillamatong

1 – Resilience to major natural disturbances

Resilience to major disturbances includes the following factors depending on the agro-climatic region (wildfire, drought, cyclone, dust storm, flood, frost). A major natural disaster or natural disturbance event can occur at any time. Some disturbances give a warning, such as a windstorm or electrical storm preceding a wildfire or a flood. Once a disaster happens, the time to prepare is gone. Lack of preparation can have enormous consequences on farm life including social, ecological, economics and production.

2 – Soil nutrients including soil carbon

Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a vital role in influencing available soil nutrients. Generally for every tonne of carbon in SOM 15 kg of phosphorus, 15 kg of sulphur and about 100 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen become available to plants as the organic matter is broken down. It is vital to know how much carbon we have in soil so that we can roughly estimate the potential supply of nutrients. SOM releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes the structure, biological and physical health of soil, and is a buffer against harmful substances.

3 – Soil surface water infiltration

Soil texture and structure greatly influence water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity. Of the water entering a soil profile, some will be stored within the root zone for plant use, some will evaporate, and some will drain away. In agro-ecological settings, by increasing water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity this will usually act as a stimulus to improve ecological function. Management regimes that promote the capture and utilisation of rainfall where it falls generally enhances ecological function.

4 – Biological activity in the soil

Soil biology affects plant and animal production by modifying the soil physical, chemical and biological environment within which plants grow and persist. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is important for land managers to understand – too many bacteria can indicate an unhealthy and unproductive soil.

In healthy soils, there is a good balance between fungi and bacteria; invertebrates including arthropods and worms are usually present. Collectively these form a vital part of a plant nutrient supply web.

A wetland from our Fairhalt case study

5 – The physical properties of the soil

Soil is a medium for plant growth, given the right environmental conditions. In some agroclimatic regions, the naturally occurring surface layers (A horizon) have historically been adversely impacted by inappropriate land management regimes. Major and moderate loss of the A horizon either through water or wind erosion may have diminished the ecological function of the soil as a medium for optimal plant growth.

6 – Changes and trends in the reproductive potential of plants

Grazing production systems rely on an ecosystem’s inherent capacity to bounce back after grazing and natural climate events (e.g. wildfire and drought). Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented to build or rebuild the reproductive potential of plants and pastures, we look at the observed outcomes on plant/pasture reproduction, germination, establishment, development and maintenance.

7 – The extent of tree cover

Tree cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits, including mitigation of soil erosion; shelter for pastures and crops; improved animal welfare; enabling added revenue from stacked (multiple) enterprises; habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and predatory insects birds and animals; improved salinity management; improved interception of rainfall; and improved aquifer recharge.

8 – Status of ground cover

Ground cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits. The quality of ground cover provides essential protection to keep the soil cool against direct, searing summer heat by reducing evaporation and protecting bare soil against raindrop splash and wind erosion. A dense, matted ground layer of pasture grasses slows overland flows during the intense rainfall events and assists with infiltration of rainfall, thus mitigating soil erosion and replenishing soil moisture. Ground cover also provides essential habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and insects and birds and other biodiversity. Land management regimes that promote higher levels of ground cover and biomass in critical growing seasons generally enhances ecological function.

9 – The diversity of tree and shrub species

Intensively managed agricultural landscapes typically adopt management regimes that simplify the diversity and number of species of trees and shrubs for pasture and crop production. Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented there has been an observed increase in the number of tree and shrub species.

10 – The diversity of grass species

In many grazing production systems, the implementation of regenerative land management regimes can improve the variety of pasture plants (annuals and perennials). In turn this can improve pasture production, animal nutrition, protect natural resources (soil and water) and build the capacity of farming systems to adapt to future production and environmental challenges. The intensity of the grazing management system will determine the health and vitality of pastures and their longevity.

The management and selection of the perennial pasture species for a grazing production system should be based on considerations of climate, soil conditions and performance of pasture species under different management regimes.

Read about how land managers have improved each of these ecological criteria on their farms in latest case study reports. You can search them by state or sector here.

Are you farming using regenerative agriculture practices? Why not consider applying to be a case study.