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.
‘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).
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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  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.
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.
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 , taking particular note of animal and pasture health.
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.
 Not as generous as the subsidy in Queensland.
 Especially over the summer period when a “feed gap” would develop if rain was inadequate.
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
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.
A regenerative agriculture case study from Crookwell, NSW.
Garry Kadwell has been managing Rosedale and neighbouring property Fairhalt since the 1970s. His family acquired the first parcels of the properties in 1901. The properties are located on the Great Dividing Range south of Crookwell, New South Wales. Up until 1980 the main enterprise of the Kadwell family was an apple orchard. Under Garry’s management the enterprise of the property has changed to producing seed stock potatoes and fat lambs.
Over the years Garry has worked tirelessly protecting remnant stands of vegetation as well as planting habitat corridors to connect stands of vegetation across the properties. Currently 32% of Fairhalt is protected for conservation. Garry has also created numerous wetlands across the property providing vital habitat for birds and other fauna, such as the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).
Fairhalt, Crookwell, NSW
ENTERPRISE: Seed stock potatoes and fat lambs
PROPERTY SIZE: 730 acres
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 813 mm
ELEVATION: 1000 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
An awareness about the environmental health of the property and its values was instilled in Garry during his youth by his father and grandfather, this helped shape the management strategies and regimes that Garry has implemented.
Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:
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.
Significant increases in production, now one of the largest potato producers in the region. High levels of organic matter and carbon are stored within the soil profile. Conservation works have provided critical habitat for endangered species of flora and fauna.
Garry’s first recollection is of planting trees with his grandfather. In the early 1970s, they planted Yellow Box together, and the elder Kadwell said, ‘Garry, when you look at these trees you will remember me, and we will have made a difference.’
See the difference this attitude has made in our photo essay of Fairhalt.
The conservation work Garry Kadwell conducted has provided significant natural capital benefits to Fairhalt. Threatened and vulnerable species of flora and fauna are thriving within the bounds of Fairhalt.
Throughout our analysis, we noted that the regenerative practices Garry has implemented on Fairhalt have led to significantly increased production levels when compared to the Average Farm. With increased productivity, the income generated on Fairhalt is also significantly higher than that of the average Farm. In addition, the increased productivity has allowed Garry to deploy a more diversified production mix – leading to a more sustainable enterprise as a whole.
Garry Kadwell’s family have managed Fairhalt for over 100
years. Garry’s early ancestors conserved remnant stands of vegetation from land
clearing across the property. Some of Garry’s earliest memories are of planting
trees with his grandfather and being instructed of their value in the landscape.
Garry has continued on planting trees and other vegetation throughout Fairhalt.
Currently 32% of Fairhalt is protected for conservation purposes.
Garry has significantly increased production levels on the property in the form of seed stock potatoes and fat lambs. The increases in production levels have coincided with improvements to soil health and ecosystem health of the entire property. Garry has achieved this through careful management and understanding of the many layers of the system that comprise Fairhalt.
Growing up on the family property Garry Kadwell realised he did not want to be an orchardist. One of the first management decisions he made after taking control of the family property was to trial a crop of potatoes to assess their viability. The potato trial was a success and Garry quickly adopted potato production as the main enterprise on his property. In the early years of producing potatoes, Garry used synthetic fertilisers to ensure crops were produced each year. His management practices were gradually degrading soil biology. Garry realised this quite early on and started focussing on improving the health of his soil to create a more productive environment.
One of Garry’s earliest memories is of planting eucalyptus trees on the property with his grandfather. His grandfather advised him that he wouldn’t see the benefit of the tree plantings, but Garry would. This is a message that has stuck with Garry his entire life. He has farmed with an attitude of conservation and improvement, aiming to leave the natural state of his property in better shape than before. Garry has also demonstrated vision, the ability to take risks and find innovative solutions to problems.
The first parcel of land Garry purchased as a young man was viewed as an unproductive, run-down block with limited potential. He viewed it as a perfect opportunity to regenerate a parcel of land. In a few short years Garry had turned the block into a highly productive working landscape with areas of revegetation plantings and native forest set aside for conservation purposes.
Over the years, Garry has adopted techniques to improve soil health and productivity. These include, applying lime to optimise soil pH levels for producing potatoes, applying compost annually, rotations of lucerne and ryegrass after a rotation of potatoes to repair and improve soil health and adopting “one pass” tilling methods to reduce soil disturbance from planting.
Garry’s property is a testament to his family’s vision and courage. Conducting tree plantings during the 1970s and conserving remnant stands of forest is a rarity among farm managers from that era. The words of Garry Kadwell’s grandfather ring true to this day, anyone who visits Fairhalt can pay testament to this statement and see the benefits of tree planting.
The Kadwell’s properties are located just south of Crookwell, New South Wales. They own two properties, Rosedale and Fairhalt, and lease a third parcel of land close by; a total of 690 hectares. The largest parcel of land by size is Fairhalt. For the purpose of providing an accurate description of the Kadwell’s land management practices, the reports will focus on Fairhalt. Fairhalt is located on top of the Great Dividing Range. Its highest point sits at 1000m above sea level and its average annual rainfall is 813mm.
The four main soil types and their total carbon content found on Fairhalt consist of:
red basalt (5.02% Total Carbon) on the undulating slopes
grey loam (2.47% Total Carbon) on the flats
quartz (3.18% Total Carbon) on the hill tops
some sedimentary soils (1.42% Total Carbon) in the gullies and watercourses.
The red basalt and grey loam country are considered to be the most productive land on the property and cropping is conducted exclusively in these soil types.
Vegetation on the property is a mix of remnant forest and conservation plantings conducted by the Kadwell family. The remnant forest is dominated by an overstorey of eucalyptus species such as mountain gum (Eucalyptus dalrympleana), broad-leaved peppermint (Eucalyptus dives), ribbon gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) and exceptionally large specimens of snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora). Black gum (Eucalyptus aggregata), which is listed as vulnerable inNSW, is also found on Fairhalt.Mid and understorey species found within the remnant include acacias, bracken, numerous native grasses and native orchids. The remnant forest areas on the property are all fenced and protected from livestock grazing.
Conservation plantings conducted by Garry Kadwell consist of habitat corridors to provide linkages through the landscape. As well as patterns of plantings along the roadside to create a view that the entirety of the property is vegetated. Garry continues to conduct revegetation work across the property when time and resources allow. Greening Australia has helped him select and obtain the correct species of flora to plant in the new revegetation works as well as providing volunteers to aid in planting.
Since the 1980s Garry has created a number of wetlands on his property. Garry has trained in conservation earthworks and is adept at reading the flow of the landscape to create functioning wetlands. The wetlands act as a filter to clean and purify water flowing through the landscape and the water stored within the wetlands is utilised for irrigating crops. The wetlands provide vital habitat for all matter of fauna, livestock are also excluded from entering the wetland areas.
Surveys of flora and fauna species on the property have been conducted by the Crookwell Flora and Fauna Club in conjunction with Dr McComas Taylor of the ANU. In a survey of birds visiting the wetlands on Fairhalt, 50 species were recorded. Five species of birds that are listed as vulnerable or threatened within NSW were observed. These were:
White-bellied Sea-Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and
Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang).
Garry’s revegetation and conservation work combined with the wetlands he has created have provided a healthy habitat for many different species.
The main enterprise on Fairhalt is producing seed stock potatoes. Other enterprises include fat lamb production, gourmet potatoes and occasionally lucerne/silage fodder production. Garry applies a minimum 5-year cycle management regime to each parcel of land on the property. Potatoes are not planted more often than one year out of every five. Typically, in the other four years Garry conducts a crop rotation of lucerne for a few years, then pasture grasses for the remaining year. The lucerne, having a deep root system, helps repair the damage done to soil structure by the potato crop. It also returns some nitrogen to the soil. He extends the five year cycle up to 15 years in certain circumstances. That is, a potato crop once every 15 years. Garry has adopted this management regime to ensure his soils are given adequate rest periods after each potato crop. This allows soil structure to repair and avoids nutrient depletion.
Garry has recently purchased a “one pass” tilling implement. Reducing the amount of tillage his soil is subjected to reduces the damage to soil structure and fungal life.
Garry also applies a yearly dosage of 10 cubic metres of compost per hectare. Lime is also applied to regulate pH levels to ensure they stay between 5.0-5.8 (5 tonnes per hectare every 10 years). That practice was started in the early 1970s to provide the optimal pH for producing potatoes.
The seed potatoes Garry produces are sold to major growers throughout Australia. Garry ensures that the potatoes are free from disease by replanting and harvesting each individual potato a number of times over the course of a few years and removing the potatoes which show signs of disease. This ensures that only potatoes which are free from disease reach the market. This also multiplies the number of potatoes Garry can produce without having to purchase more seed stock.
The gourmet potatoes Garry produces are a special variety known for their ability to resist absorbing oil during cooking, which results in a lower fat content. The gourmet potatoes are sold to high end restaurants in Sydney and Canberra at a premium price.
Garry runs around 1800 lambs on the property, the lambs are grazed on lucerne and mixed grass species paddocks. Garry has the ability to cut and bail fodder to be stored and fed out to the lambs when required.
Garry Kadwell has been an active member of the Crookwell community for many years. He has served in the local Rural Fire Service Brigade, assisted the local public school in gaining equipment and volunteered with the local aged care facility.
During the millennium drought Garry recognised that the community was doing it tough and many people were facing mental health issues. He organised an event called “Looking after your mate” which was aimed at bringing the community together and giving people a space to share what was happening in their lives. The event was a huge success with many organisations supporting it and large numbers of the community attending. Some of the feedback received after the event highlighted that the event had changed lives.
Garry Kadwell has achieved significant results in improving the health of his soil and landscape as well as improving production results.Garry has managed to extend the minimum five-year rotation between potato crops out to 15 years, whilst maintaining profitability. This has resulted in significant environmental benefits to the property by reducing crop stress. Yearly applications of compost have seen the carbon levels within Garry’s soils rise up to 5%. Currently 32% of Fairhalt is protected for conservation purposes. The conservation land provides critical habitat for numerous native species of birds and mammals. Garry has developed a business model which is financially viable and employs a number of locals whilst protecting and conserving the land. This is a considerable achievement. Garry’s innovative approach to farming has led to him running one of the most successful potato production businesses in the Crookwell region.
Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shaun, Jamie and Shane through careful management and the invention of the “SoilKee Renovator” have developed a property in Hallora, West Gippsland which produces healthy pasture year round. In 2019 the family were recognised for their exploits in sequestering soil carbon by being the first farm in Australia to be awarded carbon credits for doing so.
The Olsen family is focused on improving the health of their land to its maximum capacity, they are willing to share this journey with many land holders visiting their property each year to gain insight into how the Olsen’s have achieved spectacular soil and pasture improvements.
Olsen Family Farm, Hallora VIC
ENTERPRISE: Angus cross cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 124 ha
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 1000 mm
ELEVATION: 135 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
The over application of superphosphate fertilisers over the course of two years and the subsequent damage caused to their soil was the catalyst for Niels and Marja Olsen to reassess their farming strategy. Realising that healthy soil produces healthy food was a major factor in influencing their journey in becoming regenerate land managers.
Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:
Increase paddock numbers to facilitate rotational grazing
Multi species pasture cropping
Carbon and nitrogen soil sequestration
Pasture growth improved to negate biannual “feed gaps”
Utilisation of the “SoilKee Renovator Machine”
Significant improvements in soil health measures such as moisture content, biological activity and soil carbon levels. Pasture growth has increased significantly with up to 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare grown each year. Observations of biodiversity have increased on the farm with the number of birds, frogs and other reptiles seen greatly increasing. Landslips and washouts have stopped occurring.
The Hallora Story
Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shane, Jamie and Shaun have been managing and operating the family farm in Hallora, Gippsland, Victoria since 1985. Previously, the property was used for dairy cattle with Niels making the switch to a herd of breeder cattle in 2008. Over the years Niels has worked a number of off-farm jobs, supplementing farm income. In 2012 Niels with the help of his family designed and patented a machine to improve soil health on his farm, the machine was named the SoilKee Renovator.
Niels grew up on a farm not far from his current property;
for many years he lived the life of a typical dairy farmer, milking twice daily
365 days a year. Niels farmed the way he had learnt in his youth, the traditional
West Gippsland way: growing pastures in the good seasons of the year to harvest
and store later to be fed out during the other seasons. This method of farming
was labour and time intensive.
In the 1990’s Niels started and managed an earth
moving business whilst keeping the farm running. The earth moving business
proved to be quite successful and Niels made the decision to invest some of the
profits back into the farm in the form of superphosphate fertiliser. In 1999
upon consultation from a local agronomist Niels purchased and applied a large
quantity of super on his farm. The results were fantastic; pastures looked
green and grew significantly more than they had the previous year. Niels
decided to increase the dosage of super the following year expecting to achieve
better pasture growth results. However, the complete opposite occurred; after
applying the super the Olsen’s paddocks turned brown and stopped growing whilst
his neighbour’s paddocks were green with fresh pasture growth.
This was the catalyst for the Olsen’s to recognise these
practices were harming the landscape and seemed unsustainable in the long term.
Marja and Niels were horrified at the damage they had inflicted upon their soil.
Their response was to seek out guidance and training, they started attending
workshops and field days focused on improving soil health. Armed with the
knowledge they had gained from the numerous workshops and field days they set
about regenerating soil health on their farm.
The property is comprised of 124 hectares split
into 28 paddocks, the water supply consisting of dams and an ephemeral creek
running through the property. The property sits at an elevation of 135m above
sea level with an average annual rainfall of 1000 mm. Prior to land clearing in
the late 19th century for agricultural purposes the landscape would
have consisted of what is now classified as a damp/ wet sclerophyll forest.
Numerous species of eucalyptus and acacia trees would have been present in the
landscape, only Messmate (Eucalyptus
obliqua) is present today.
The property consists of low slopes and rolling
hills with an acidic red ferrosol soil. The pasture species at the time of
purchase were mostly rye grasses and clovers with no native grass species
present. Signs of ecological health in the soil such as worms were rarely
observed prior to 2002. The pH of the soil ranged from 3.7-4.5 across the farm.
Prior to the use of the “SoilKee Renovator” landslips and washouts regularly
occurred across the property. Since the implementation of the “SoilKee
Renovator”, no landslips or washouts have occurred on the property. The soil
structure on the farm was improved by sowing deep rooted pasture species such
as legumes, improving the structure of the soil which greatly reduced the risk
of landslips and washouts.
Indicators of ecological health such as reptiles
and frogs were not regularly observed on the farm prior to adoption of some regenerative
management techniques, especially soil health, high soil carbon content, cover
and hydration. In recent years frog numbers have increased significantly and
they are now observed regularly. The dominant snake species on the property
used to be the Eastern Brown (Pseudonaja
textilis), since the increase in frog numbers Eastern Brown snakes are
rarely sighted on the property instead Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) have become common. Frogs are the preferred
food of Tiger snakes. The increase in frog numbers on the property directly coincided
with the ceasing of chemical inputs.
Birds such as Ibis’s were commonly observed in the
paddocks eating slugs and cockchafers, since adopting regenerative management
techniques Ibis’s are rarely if ever seen on the farm. During a short walk on
the property in November 2019 a Soils For Life ecologist observed 22 different
species of birds. These species included birds from most of the trophic levels including
raptors suggesting that the health of the landscape is in excellent condition.
From 1985 till 2008 Niels operated the property as
a dairy farm with a herd size of around 150, in 2008 Olsens stopped dairying
and started a breeder operation and selling steers for slaughter. Initially they
kept the same herd of dairy cattle and used them as a breeder herd due to the
cost of replacing their herd entirely. In 2018 they replaced the herd of dairy
cattle with a herd of angus crosses. Niels and Marja have utilised rotational
grazing on the property from 2003 onwards, prior to 2015 the total yearly
grazing time per paddock was eight weeks. This has increased the grazing time
since 2015 to 12 weeks of the year due to increases in pasture production
gained from sowing multi-species utilising the SoilKee Renovator. Niels has
altered his production system from an animal-first perspective to soil first. Olsen’s
focus is on improving the health of their soil through methods such as multi
species cropping to encourage root growth and nitrogen and carbon intake from
the air. Olsens consider fungal activity to be vitally important in improving
soil health. They ensure that the soil is never deep ripped which can damage
and stop fungal activity from occurring.
Prior to 2012 Niels had a concept in his mind which
he thought could be the ideal method of farming for his property. However, he
did not have the tools to trial the concept. His idea was that by utilising a
machine which lightly disturbed the soil and planted crops concurrently, and
twice a year, he could grow enough pasture biomass to feed his cattle year-round
without having to cut and store fodder to be fed in the feed gaps of each
season. In 2012 this idea came to fruition, Niels had built and designed a
machine which he named the “SoilKee Renovator”. The machine consisted of
angular blades which “broke” the earth rather than “cutting” it at minimal
depth. The machine is utilised after grazing with 15-20% of biomass left from
the grazing mulched straight into the soil speeding up the process. Essentially
Niels had designed a machine which converted his pasture biomass directly into
mulch after grazing. This completely reduced the need for any fertiliser
application on the property.
Since 2012 Niels has not had to supplementary feed his livestock. The method of multi species pasture and cropping combined with the accelerated mulching enabled by the SoilKee Renovator, has significantly improved the health of the soil and the amount of pasture biomass produced each year. Niels has been able to grow 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare per year on some of his best paddocks, the less fertile areas of the property achieve 15 tonnes per hectare per year. The pasture growing season is now 9 months of the year. Undesirable pasture species such as kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) which used to be present across the property has been out-competed by desirable species planted sowed with the SoilKee machine.
The Olsen Farm is an unusual farm in the sense that
all three of Niels and Marja’s adult sons still work on the farm and in the
family business. A lot of the production of the SoilKee machine is done on farm
by the eldest son Shane, who is interested in manufacturing and design
improvement. The middle son Jamie manages the farm with his father Niels and
does contracting work driving the SoilKee Renovator on other properties. The
youngest son Shaun helps in all aspects of the farm and family business. Marja
manages the administration side of the farm and the business whilst Niels
oversees operations. The sons are happy that they get to keep working on the
family farm, Niels and Marja are pleased that their sons continue to play an
active role in their lives.
Soil Health and Soil Carbon
Commencing in 2016 detailed soil tests were undertaken on Hallora to meet the reporting requirements of the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund carbon abatement reporting requirements. Results for the 2017 reporting period showed Hallora measured 12.2 t/CO2e/ha and in 2018 this had increased to 13.7 tCO2e/ha.In early 2019 the Soilkee Farm became the first farm in the world (as far as we can ascertain) to be awarded carbon credits for sequestering carbon with their soil.
Increased carbon in the soil has correlated with
increases in organic matter, water infiltration and holding capacity. Moisture
and organic material were previously measured to reach a depth of 50cm in the
soil, currently on some parts of the farm that depth has increased to 650cm.
The pH of the soil has also improved from 3.7-4.5 prior to 2003 to currently
measure at 5.5-7.9.
Nitrogen nodules on the roots of peas planted in the pasture are numerous and large in size and commonly observed. Worm castings are evident across the property and the soil structure has altered to feel spongey under foot. During autumn the fruit of fungi in the form of mushrooms and toadstools are visible across the paddocks indicating a healthy fungal biota existing beneath the soil.
Over 34 years of management the Olsens have
continued learning about their landscape and the importance of the soil
underneath it. Niels and family have altered their management practices to
focus on building soil health and resilience across the farm to ensure long
term viability. The most significant innovation that Niels has implemented on
the farm is the use of the SoilKee Renovator, which has improved the health of their
soil in conjunction with growing significantly more pasture biomass across the
property. Other innovations include monitoring soil, introducing multi-species
pasture and switching from dairy to beef.
The improvements the Olsen family have made to the
property are an outstanding example of land holders implementing and practicing
innovative regenerative management techniques particularly focused on nurturing
soil health. The Olsen’s have achieved:
Soil microbiology enhancements
Soil hydration improvements
Improvements in carrying capacity of land
No low season feed inputs
Air penetration of soils
Carbon sequestration in the soils
Australian Carbon Credit Units which can be traded.
The Olsen’s started viewing and managing their property as a system and as a result the ecology of the farm has improved dramatically, so too have the social benefits as the family that works together, stays together.
The ecology of the Olsen Family Farm speaks for itself, the soil is thriving, full of worms and root systems packed with nitrogen nodules and soil carbon levels are excellent and still rising. Above the ground a diverse range of birds and frogs are now regularly seen in the grassy paddocks.
Despite the publicity about the Olsen Family Farm being the first in Australia to acquire ACCU’s under the federal governments Emissions Reduction Fund, the fact remains an integrated approach to regenerative agriculture pays off. Increasing natural capital and the resultant ecosystem service benefits provides greater productivity and landscape resilience, the ACCU’s are the cream on top!
The entire family works together on managing the property and their associated business ventures. Being able to work on the family farm into adulthood provides each of the three sons a great deal of job satisfaction. Needless to say Niels and Marja are pleased to have all three of their sons around.
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.
Richard Daugherty and Sarah Burrows set out to find a property that provided the lifestyle and outdoor experiences they so desired. With a young family they chose to move from South Africa and settle in the New England district of northern NSW. Having done their research they settled on Balala Station which just happened to be up for sale for only the second time since establishment.
Whilst drought has been a setback, this determined couple are forging ahead setting the property up for a time when rains return. New business ventures and further plans keep these two firmly planted on the ground.
Balala Station, Balala NSW
ENTERPRISE: Merino sheep and Angus cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 1250 ha
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 760 mm
ELEVATION: 860 – 1000 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Richard’s background in South Africa observing wild animals on their annual migration and learning about holistic grazing practices that mimic these natural processes influenced the choice to implement regenerative agriculture and matched Sarah’s commitment to healthy, ethical food production systems.
Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:
Increase paddock numbers to facilitate rotational grazing
Water infrastructure including dams and water reticulation points
Soil testing to identify key nutrient deficiencies
Restoration of biodiversity through tree thinning
Conservation work with the Bells turtle and Regent honeyeater Projects
Fence out riparian zones
Complimentary sheep and cattle grazing on a rotational plan.
Natural capital enhancement leading to improved biodiversity and drought resilience.
Connections through the University of New England on sustainability and land management issues.
From a regenerative perspective Balala Station may have been a blank canvas which makes the work undertaken and the transition story more intriguing. With minimal farming experience and a desire to learn from others, relationships with the broader community have blossomed and so too has the family.
From the formative years of Australian agriculture, this once vast station stocked 44,000 sheep. There we no dams and few paddocks. Over a century of set stocking had exacted a toll on the landscape. The turn around and potential thereafter looks promising.
Education, training, goal setting, trading strategies, infrastructure, cashflow, productivity and on and on it goes…
A farmers lot is never easy, taking the time to plan your approach and not go in boots ‘n all is an effective strategy.
Intent on farming, the political landscape in South Africa was judged too risky, alternatively Australia looked promising. Richard and Sarah settled on a property in the New England area, it had “good bones” but there was work to be done…
Taking over the family farm can be challenging in itself. Leaving a secure job in the public service, a young family and relatives watching over a farm that extends back generations, now that’s a challenge!
History of the Kane family runs deep in Coleraine, Western Victoria. Since 1878 four generations have farmed this area. John and family made a tree change in 1996 to take over the farm from his uncles and thus began a journey of transformation.
Through self education, independent thinking and the support of immediate family, John was able to turn Collingwood around to be the thriving black Angus cattle breeding property that it is today. A focus on soil through an integrated approach to managing physical, chemical and biological processes has seen Collingwood get the balance between soils, water, plants and animals just right.
CollingwoodFarm, Coleraine VIC
ENTERPRISE: Cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 242 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 620 mm
ELEVATION: 90-100 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Opportunity to embrace biological farming to regenerate run down enterprise with potential for improved profit and farm landscape improvement.
Fencing of stock water and improved fencing along creek line
Stock medication (supplements added to water troughs)
Stock mineral supplement powders
Effective weed management
Consistently high levels of ground cover all year round
Improved extent of tree and shrub cover along the creek
Significant reduction in input costs
High level of consistency of cattle breeding
Rotational grazing of high quality pastures
Cash flow all year round
High level of personal satisfaction in outcomes achieved
John Kane, his wife Jenny and their three children, Andrew,
Christopher and Melissa took up an offer from two elderly uncles to manage
their farming enterprise, Collingwood, near Coleraine in western Victoria in
1996. The family moved onto the property, but John also undertook work from the
local council while he found his feet in managing the farm.
The property consisted of two main blocks comprising a
complex set of titles left over from the World War 1 Soldier Settlement Scheme.
One block, Evestons, is 102Ha and the other, Collingwood, is 140 Ha. There were
thirteen paddocks that were set stocked with sheep and cattle. Some fences were
run down and dams and watering points did not match the paddock subdivisions, a
must if rotational grazing was to be introduced.
There were three paddocks totalling 36 ha under hay when
John took over the property. He increased that to four paddocks totalling 48 ha
as part of his feeding out strategy.
Kanes Creek runs through the property and poor land
management in the 1930-40s led to the formation of a 12 metre deep erosion
gully. In the 1960’s, as part of Soil Conservation Service work, the creek was
fenced-off and partially revegetated. Its intermittent flow carried water and
soil nutrients off the property to the Glenelg River and out to sea. The creek
bed was a haven for rabbits and foxes and home to a considerable number of
snakes which prey on the proliferation of frogs which share the habitat.
In 1996, the enterprise carried 12 DSE set stocked on
pastures heavily infested with Cape Weed and lesser infestations of Onion Weed,
Rush, Wild Geranium and Dandelion. About one third of the stock was sheep and
two thirds cattle. Poor quality grazing combined with poor cattle genetics and
underweight calves being dropped at inopportune times of the year.
Planning and Implementing Change
Initially, John opted to improve the cattle genetics. He
soon realised that he had the wrong strategy. Even with top quality bulls, poor
pasture was leading to poor returns from cows grazing sub-standard pastures and
dropping underweight calves. Above and
beyond soil test results, poor quality pasture indicated poor nutrient density
and nutrient deficient soils. John decided to improve the soil as a first
In 2000, at some risk to the economic viability of the
enterprise, John decided to streamline his workload by selling off his sheep
and concentrating on breeding Black Angus cattle. The strategy has paid off,
but he now has two fully function shearing sheds to maintain in case of a
future decision to bring back sheep.
Today John’s annual production cycle is geared to producing
consistent numbers of high grade weaner steers (calves) that are sold locally.
John’s cattle are finished on farms in NSW and Queensland.
Soils and Soil Fertility
John first conducted his soil tests in 1996 to establish a baseline. Initial tests and associated observation and research highlighted an average pH of 4, an imbalance of the Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) ratio, soil compaction, indications of over-use of superphosphate, poor soil hydrology and considerable bare ground after broad leafed annuals died off. Since that time subsequent soil tests have been used to inform progress and to adjust management regimes to improve soil condition. John dispensed with the services of the agronomist and took over the fertiliser program himself. He opted for a program of mineral fertilisers and foliates. He introduced Bubas bison dung beetles, in addition to extant native varieties for greater aeration, water penetration and nutrient sequestration of the soils.
In the early years John used a soil aerator to break through the hard pan that had established historically through ploughing with a mouldboard plough. Soil compaction is a thing of the past.
The fertiliser program includes regular applications of lime and recent soil testing indicates an average pH of 6. Organic matter content has increased significantly. Water infiltration has increased considerably due to physical soil aeration, dung beetle activity and rotationally resting paddocks that are dominated by deep rooted perennials such as cocksfoot and phalaris. Periodically, John renovates the pasture to increase diversity of species by direct drilling of clovers and ryegrass.
Vegetation and Ground Cover
When John took over management of the farm in 1996, the
pastures were run down, they were weed infested and fertilised with
John’s new fertiliser program has dramatically changed that
situation. John describes himself as a biological farmer with a strong focus on
soil function (refer to the annual production cycle below). As a result, his
pastures have high nutrient mixed species of high density pastures with very
little weed burden.
Most paddocks comprise improved pasture including phalaris,
clover and rye. One paddock is set aside and managed as native pasture including
Kangaroo Grass, Wallaby Grass and Weeping Grass.
John’s uncles had begun a program of tree planting (Red Gum
and Blackwood) and had, with the assistance of the Soil Conservation Service,
planted some 7,000 trees. John and Jenny continued this program and planted a
further 10,000 trees and shrubs of a variety of species.
In the early years, annual weeds and seasonal bare ground
favoured outbreaks of the red legged earth mite and the Lucerne Flea. While weeds
are much less of a problem today, John addresses the annual weeds with a targeted
program of spraying with a broad leaf herbicide mixed with fulvic acid. John
advises that “It is important to spray in Autumn when plants are small – the
clover at two leaf stage – to gain maximum effect using low spraying rates”.
The hay paddocks are sprayed annually with foliar sprays,
trace elements, biologic agents and kelp. This spraying program encourages the
growth of the pasture grasses and tends to effectively control the annual weeds
When John first came to the property, the watering
infrastructure consisted only of a number of dams. Kane Creek was fenced off from grazing and was
not used as a source of reticulated water. Only half the paddocks had water and the fenced
dams did not coincide with the number of paddocks which made John’s intention
of introducing rotational grazing somewhat problematic.
John has established a system of troughs in each paddock. Potable
water is pumped from the dams by solar power to storage tanks on the high
ground, holding 80,000 litres and 120,000 litres, respectively. This allows all
troughs to be gravity fed. John achieved
this through the purchase of a “Ditch Witch” machine to trench piped water 650
mm under the ground.
John’s water infrastructure hosts his program of water
medication. Trace elements and food
supplements are fed into the drinking water by vacuum pumps that are worked by
water pressure. The pumps require a 2 metre head of water to operate and on
average they are situated some 200m below the water storage tanks. The medication is fed into the stock watering
system 3 to 4 times a year. When the water medication is operating, this
program ensures that each animal gets the required amount of trace elements and
John has a highly disciplined approach to farm management with his task organisation and time management of a very high order. This approach is essential as Collingwood is a one-person operation. An example of the Collingwood production management program is at Annex A to this report.
The days of a stocking rate of 12 DSE faded into memory. In the really good
seasons of 2000 to 2010, the stocking rate peaked at 18 DSE. John has reduced
that to a modest 15DSE as a conservative hedge in case of a down turn in stock
prices or seasonal conditions.
High Impact Hay
were three paddocks totalling 36ha under hay when John came to the property. He
has increased that by four more paddocks totalling 48ha as part of his feeding
out strategy. John pays great attention to the fertility of the soil in
the hay paddocks and to the nutrient density of the phalaris, clover and rye
that comprises the makeup of the hay cut in October each year. The resulting hay production of some 600
large round bales is fundamental to John’s animal nutrition and soil biology
strategy. All of the hay produced on the property is retained on the property
as part of this strategy.
John feeds out daily from mid-February to the end of July,
covering the crucial calving period from March to April. The dung reflects the
soil fertility of the hay paddocks and the nutrient density of the hay, and is
transferred into the grazing paddock soil by the dung beetles, notably the
imported Bubas Bison. This is a flying variety that scents andflies to new dung pats, therefore
expediting the burial of dung across the paddocks. This cycle is critical to
John’s biological farming.
Over the years, the burgeoning rabbit
problem has been tackled by local landholders using at different times, Sodium
fluoroacetate (“1080”) impregnated carrots, Myxomatosis and Calici Virus. These
operations have reduced the rabbits to negligible numbers and the foxes that
also inhabit the creek bed keep them that way. There are no other pests
affecting the management of the property.
Outcomes and End State
John Kane has worked both hard and smart for 22 years and
Jenny was part of that effort for 18 of those years. John started with little
knowledge and little standing as a farmer in the eyes, not only of his uncles,
but also many of his peers. He sought knowledge through training courses, field
days and practiced what he learned innovating on the farm.
John can now look across pastures and vegetation that
represent his goal of 100% ground cover 100% of the time. He can see healthy,
unstressed cattle in good condition grazing on pastures of high nutrient
density. This ideal situation has eventuated from his initial adoption of a
fertility-first strategy for his soils all those years ago.
Over a century of conventional farming practices had caused deep erosion gullies and a hardpan 200 mm below the soil surface. Through perseverance, education and a little ingenuity the ecological assessment for this farm leaves no doubt about the improvements and ongoing resilience of Collingwood.
Collingwood is productive and profitable, but it wasn’t always like that. Through an investment in soil health and the smart acquisition of some second hand machinery, the returns from this farm and the potential for future capital gain look promising.
Health and wellbeing
The potential of Collingwood was evident but you had to look beyond the weeds and erosion gullies. A cursory look back then would never have foreseen what is evident today. If John had his time again, what would he change? “Nothing”
A fish kill in 1987/88, caused by leaching from acid sulphate soils, and a divided community set the scene for Robert Quirk’s journey as a cane farmer turned “accidental, but willing, scientist”.
He’s since developed, and implemented, a set of regenerative practices that are recognised as best management for cane farming. Robert uses a holistic approach, combining engineering and agronomic solutions, to drainage, soil health and nutrient management.
Prevent release of sulphuric acid from farm into the Tweed River and reduce waterlogged soil impact on sugar cane productivity.
Laser levelling and automatic pumping system to stop flooding
Leaving cane trash to decompose after harvest
Applied urea to cane trash to assist in decomposition
Introduced mounding/raised beds to grow sugar cane
Utilised a ‘bed renovator’ machine to prepare for planting
Introduced winter cover crops into the crop rotation
Significant reduction in input costs.
Increased soil organic carbon levels from 1% up to 8.8%.
Improved pH from 1.8 to 5.6.
Increased number of harvests (ratoons) from 4 -6 years.
Understand causes and mitigate sulphuric acid from releasing into waterways impacting aquatic life.
Robert Quirk implemented innovations such as laser levelling his cane fields and mounding the cane rows to ensure that water drained correctly off his property and didn’t mobilise the acid sulphates in the soil.
During this time Robert Quirk became aware of the danger of climate change, this caused Robert Quirk to alter his management practices in an attempt to build carbon in his soil and reduce inputs. Robert Quirk reduced the amount of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides used on the property as well as leaving the cane trash to lie on the field post-harvest. Robert Quirk also introduced other innovations such as an automatic pumping system to remove flood water from the cane fields and a bed renovator machine to prepare the cane fields.
Robert Quirk found that through his innovations soil organic carbon levels increased from 1% in the 1960’s to currently 8.8% on different points of the property. The pH of the property also increased from 1.8 in the 1980’s to currently stand at 5.6. Robert Quirk’s innovations have greatly improved the health of his soil whilst managing to control the threat of the acid sulphates underneath his cane fields.
THE QUIRK FARM STORY
The practices Robert Quirk has implemented on his property have led the way for sugar cane farming around the world.
In 1987 Robert Quirk set out on a path to improve the ecological health of his property and the nearby waterways.
Robert Quirk has significantly reduced the cost of his inputs whilst maintaining good production levels.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Robert Quirk has gained immense satisfaction through reinventing himself and his management strategies.
Maddy Coleman grew up in the city, and her love of horses introduced her to agriculture. Years of experience working in diverse farming practice and ongoing training and education followed. Maddy has made changes to their initial Rothesay business model, proving that flexibility, formal and applied education and conversations with mentors are key factors in managing ongoing drought conditions.
Management changes on Rothesay include preserving ground cover using a different stocking model and fencing to allow rehabilitation of creeks and gullies. Maddy shares her experience in managing Rothesay using regenerative farming practices in this transition case study.
Maddy and Malcolm Coleman (her father) purchased Rothesay in 2016. They added the adjoining Springfield block two years later and now the combined Rothesay property comprises 1,629 hectares. While Malcolm visits to help occasionally, Maddy makes all the day-to-day decisions about managing the farm.
Rothesay is located on the foothills and lower slopes of the Liverpool Ranges, in the catchment of the Mooki River. Omaleah Creek and Black Creek run through and join on the property. The creeks only flow intermittently, so water for stock is obtained from bores. The long-term average annual rainfall as recorded at Blackville (2 km south of the farm) is 691 mm, with summer dominant rainfall pattern.
The main soil type is deep cracking clay (vertisols) derived from basalt (figure 3). This soil type is well-structured and intrinsically fertile and can be highly productive given enough water. Maddy arranged soil testing to be done soon after she took over Rothesay. This showed an abundance of phosphorus and magnesium but insufficient nitrogen, sulphur, calcium, zinc and boron. A fertilisation program incorporating a trial to test different mineral and/or biological approaches to addressing the deficiencies was recommended, but it is too soon to tell the results.
Native vegetation on the cracking clay soils of the Liverpool Plains region is mainly native grass with a range of small forb and herb species. The main grasses include Plains Grass (Austrostipa aristiglumis), Queensland Bluegrass (Dichanthium sericeum), Red Grass (Bothriochloa macra) and Wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia sp.). It also contains scattered and patchy shrubs and trees, including Myall (Acacia pendula), Rough-barked Apple (Angophora floribunda), Fuzzy Box (Eucalyptus conica), Bimble Box (E. populnea) and Yellow Box (E. melliodora). Rothesay, which stretches from the plains onto the lower slopes, also hosts Wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp.), Red grass (Bothriochloa macra), Lobed Blue Grass (Bothriochloa Biloba), River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), which proliferates along some reaches of the creeks, Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), White Box (E. albens) and Cypress Pine (Callitris spp.).
The Blackville Floodplain Management Plan (2003) recognised that land management practices in upstream areas of the Mooki River catchment have increased erosion, and that ‘downstream landholders have not been able to pass on the additional flow or sediment…’.The ‘additional flow’ evidently exacerbated flooding and waterlogging, and became an issue for cropping on the plains. The plan prescribed various ‘solutions’ for the Upper Catchment Zone, in which Rothesay and Springfield are located. These solutions included:
maintaining 70% ground cover
on slopes up to 75% and 80% ground cover on steeper slopes;
using a stocking strategy to
take account of ‘climatic variability’ (i.e., high rainfall periods versus drought)
avoiding overstocking by using
preventing concentration of
run-off using ‘appropriate limited’ earthworks to stabilise gully heads, and
to promote overland flow
These practices seem eminently sensible and
desirable. Individual landholders were nominated as being responsible to
implement them. To what extent those landholders took up the challenge is
unclear, but Maddy is endeavouring to do that today on Rothesay. As such she is initiating a ‘catchment
rehydration’ approach to make the most of all the rain that falls and to reduce
She has made a start in three ways.
Firstly, by increasing the number of paddocks to 68 (more paddock subdivision is planned) grazing pressure can be managed better to maintain ground cover. Subdividing paddocks can be done more cost-effectively by installing a trough at the intersections, so that one new trough can water up to four paddocks.
Controlling grazing pressure in riparian areas has allowed River She-oak to regenerate within the creek system. The build-up of vegetation can already be seen to be holding back the intermittent flows that would otherwise be racing downstream, eroding the creek banks and carrying away soil and nutrients. As well as reducing erosion, slowing the flow increases infiltration and groundwater recharge.
Early in 2019 shallow level contour banks were built running out of a gully. In a flood, the level contour bank picks up water and runs it along the contour until it is dispersed at a ridge where a spill way has been created. The aim is to use the flood water which would have ended up in Omaleah Creek to instead be diverted to rehydrate paddocks on the property.
This contour bank is perhaps the first of many
such drainage control interventions. The work was designed and implemented with
advice from Peter and Stuart Andrews and regional catchment authorities including
Local Land Services and Landcare.
When Maddy took over
Rothesay the business focus was breeding Angus cattle. Based on the good
seasonal conditions at the time, she invested in breeding stock. As dry conditions
quickly set in, maintaining a breeding herd and trade steers became a challenge.
One cow and calf per four hectares is the expected carrying capacity for the region. While that might be a useful ‘rule of thumb’ over the long term, year-to-year stock management requires a far more nuanced approach to adjust for rainfall variability from year to year. Using the tools of observation and pasture budgeting, Maddy has found the Maia Grazing software pasture management system very useful. She feels it enables a more detailed analysis of grazing stock management than the traditional paper grazing chart. There are many software systems available and can be found, for example at Trethewey (2018).
through grazing cells allows Maddy to increase the stocking density and animal
impact by moving larger mob sizes over short time periods. Her feed budget
calculates the time period a mob should stay in any one paddock, calibrating
this pasture management system through observation has proven successful.
The objective is to maintain adequate ground cover by moving stock on once fifty percent of the available grass is consumed. This allows plants to recover more quickly, keeps the roots in active growth phase and provides for longer recovery periods.
By March 2017 Maddy had started to destock and over the course of the next year, she sold all her trade steers. As the dry spell progressed, Maddy’s feed budget was telling her that the breeding cattle needed to be sold. Short-term pain for long-term gain. Selling the herd, even at a loss, ensured that the paddocks were not over-grazed and would therefore recover sooner after rain. The cost of hand feeding was avoided and instead of increasing her overdraft on feed bills, she had the money from the sold stock available for re-stocking when the time was right.
By December 2018,
there was enough growth in the paddocks to enable Maddy to start trading. She managed to trade cattle from December 2018
to September 2019. With a combination of
careful feed budgeting, the use of the forecasting tool in Maia Grazing and KLR
Marketing Spreadsheets, skinny cows were purchased to fatten and sell on short
trades. Although at significantly reduced numbers, Maddy was still generating cashflow
– and this during the worst drought in history!
However, from mid-September
2019, once again Rothesay is completely destocked. Leaving sufficient ground cover has been the
key and of particular importance to the farm management. It protects the soil, reduces erosion and
improves the micro climate at ground level.
From Maddy’s observations,
having plants with roots already established is fundamental to paddock recovery.
They are sitting there waiting for the rain and even if there is a small
shower, they just start to green up and grow, unlike seeds that must germinate
and take time to be established as occurs in bare paddocks.
“I have seen it
repeatedly in this dry period where we get a shower, and a seed will germinate,
only to die because we don’t get the follow up rain it needs. It has been a
continuous trend throughout the last few years”.
Keeping ground cover
has been fundamental and the reason Maddy has been able to make trades for the
past eight months. An added advantage is
that by turning off water to troughs when the cattle have moved on, you remove
the attraction for Kangaroos and minimize grazing pressure.
With sound advice and using grazing tools Maddy is
turning over cattle every couple of months. She is using both commercially
available tools and her own observations to determine how much feed is
available at a moment in time and hence how many cattle can be run and for how
long. Using marketing tools, she knows the profit margin before purchasing
cattle to ensure a profitable trade.
During the current dry period, Maddy makes sure she has enough feed available in the paddocks to finish a trade before cattle are purchased. It is too risky to purchase cattle with the “hope” it is going to rain to grow feed to finish a trade. To take the hope and risk out of her trades, Maddy matches her stocking rate to carrying capacity – in effect the number of mouths to the available grass.
While it is early in the story, indications are that Maddy Pursehouse is showing the way to considerably improve the resilience of her farm business. She is keeping an open mind about grazing strategies and adapting them to seasonal circumstances, and she is keen to learn about new approaches or practices and willingly consults on possible options.
Are you the next soils for life case study? Find how what the process involves here.
This is a common story in the history of Queensland farming, but it’s an inspirational story too. It’s a story of persistence, resourcefulness and resilience, self-sufficiency, acute observation of nature, the adoption of practical and cost-effective innovations and resilience to droughts and floods due to the property’s conservative grazing system.
Soils For Life has chosen Glenelg as a case study because it presents strong arguments for conservative stocking, comprehensive ground cover, soil hydrology and available water, thus preserving soil and biodiversity. The result is a profitable and productive enterprise. Our study took place when Glenelg had been in drought for 6 years.
Glenelg, Mungallala QLD
ENTERPRISE: Sheep, cattle grazing
PROPERTY SIZE: 4,000 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 504 mm
ELEVATION: 432 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Need to reduce grazing pressure and improve pasture
Introduction of Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris)
An exclusion fence
Commitment to permanent pasture cover
Management of kangaroos and wild dogs
Dramatically improved and sustainable pasture
No supplementary feeding for stock during drought
Reduction in desertification
This is hard country – prone to desertification – but the Chambers family saw that it could be profitable with some major changes, including the introduction of Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), an exclusion fence and a commitment to permanent pasture cover.
Glenelg is near Mungallala, in a semi-arid part of Australia with pastoral activities being the dominant land use. Most rain falls in the summer months. The main pre-1750 (pre-European) vegetation types were Poplar Box, False Sandalwood, Wilga and various acacias, notably Mulga, Bendee and Bowyakka. The property carries sheep and cattle, with kangaroos contributing to total grazing pressure.
In line with State Government extension advice at the time, large areas of Glenelg were cleared by pulling a chain between two bulldozers from 1978 to 1981, and again in 1989, to control regrowth and promote pasture growth. These practices helped make the property a viable grazing operation and can be compared with many other properties in similar landscapes in Queensland and New South Wales where “woody weeds” rendered much of the landscape only suitable for goats.
During the 1980s, poisoning by Pimelea (probably P. trichostachya – Flaxweed, Spiked Riceflower) led to the loss of cattle. The maintenance of good ground cover was found to control the problem. In the late 1980s, Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) became well established over much of the property. This is in line with existing pastoral practice across large areas of northern and arid Australia.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Chambers constructed an exclusion/predator proof fence around the property. Kangaroos were herded off the property before sealing the fence and the remaining population was controlled and maintained at a sustainable level. This has resulted in a dramatic reduction in total grazing pressure and improved maintenance of pasture cover. The parts of the fence across Mungallala Creek are hinged, such that the fence lies flat in floods and can be easily restored to vertical afterwards.
This is a story of persistence and resourcefulness of the Chambers family (Harry and later Graham and Jan) over five decades on Glenelg station, Mungallala. The property exhibits remarkable resilience to the current drought – even posting a profit in adverse circumstances.
THE GLENELG STORY
In line with State Government extension advice at the time, large areas of Glenelg were cleared by pulling a chain between two bulldozers from 1978 to 1981, and again in 1989, to control regrowth and promote pasture growth.
This ecological assessment commences in 1970, when Harry Chambers purchased the first parcel of Glenelg.
The Chambers’ deliberate decision to maintain a consistent level of productivity through conservative stocking rates has translated into improved profitability despite poor seasonal conditions.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
For Jan and Graham Chambers, 2019 is looking good, with the expectation of a bumper profit in this tax year.
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.
Turning two paddocks of neglected hill country into a profitable, pasture rich operation
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.