‘Dukes Plain’- Continuous Improvement of the Farm Resource

‘Dukes Plain’- Continuous Improvement of the Farm Resource

Shane and Shan Joyce came to Dukes Plain in 1982 from a background in organic farming. Over the years they adopted new management practices: ceasing the use of fire, retaining timber and valuing regrowth, prioritising pasture diversity and native pastures, and employing low productioncosts and inputs. In 1993 a radical change was made to the grazing system on Dukes Plain, moving from continuous grazing in sevenpaddocks to a cell grazing system across almost 100 paddocks. Focus moved from the production bottom line to a measure of kilograms of beef produced per hectare of available pasture. Production increases were experienced within two years of adopting planned grazing management.

In addition to cell grazing, outcomes were further enhanced by the later application of organic and biodynamic methods.

By persisting through obstacles and impediments to change, the Joyce’s have experienced improvement in the natural resource with healthier soils, more diverse pastures, more trees, fewer weeds, improved water quality and water use efficiency, as well as increased carrying capacity, easier animal management and reduced labour requirements. They have been able to maintain or increase production through periods when many properties have had to reduce stock numbers.

Observation, monitoring, and recording data has allowed the Joyces more informed decision making, benefiting both landscape and business health. Approximately 800 hectares of crop land has been returned to perennial pasture at a zero dollar cost and gross margin per hectare is now between $64 and $113 on land types varying from eucalypt forest to brigalow scrub.

FARM FACTS

30 km south of Theodore, Southern QLD Brigalow Belt

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Certified organic beef cattle breeding, backgrounding and fattening

PROPERTY SIZE: 7900 hectares, 3000 hectares farmable

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 700 mm

ELEVATION: 300 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Inputs and maintenance costs exceeding production returns

INNOVATIONS

  • Comprehensively monitored and measured time-controlled cell grazing
  • Soil improvement using biodynamic methods
  • All organic management
  • Innovations commenced: 1993

KEY RESULTS

  • 30% productivity increase with gross margins between $64-$113 per hectare
  • Higher yields on revegetated brigalow paddocks than cleared paddocks
  • Increased water availability due to increased rainfall infiltration and reduced losses to evaporation

Dukes Plain- Property Background

Dukes Plain is a 7900 hectare sub-tropical property of which 3000 hectares is used as grazing land for beef cattle. This country was formerly dominated by brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) scrubs and semi-evergreen vine thicket, which are both endangered ecosystems, and small areas of eucalypt forest.

The remaining 4900 hectares is sandstone escarpment of virgin native vegetation comprising eucalypts, spinifex, acacias, grass trees and numerous other shrubs, forbs, and grasses. This area is a significant wildlife corridor linking Isla Gorge and Precipice National Parks.

Traditional management of Dukes Plain had seen continuous grazing over its seven paddocks, with water provided through open dams with constant stock access. The brigalow and other vegetation had been cleared from the landscape as a result of government lease conditions in the newly opened 156,000 square kilometre Fitzroy River Basin in central Queensland in the 1950s and 1960s. The clear and burn practices reflected the tree management techniques of the era. Regular fires were also used to control timber regrowth.

Shane Joyce points out that, as a consequence of the prevailing farming practices, the landscape was in steady decline from the beginning of the brigalow scheme. Pastures were degrading through loss of soil structure and fertility and species variety had reduced. This was combined with a reliance on external inputs with rising costs all at the same time as commodity prices were falling.

Shane and Shan took over operation of the property in 1982 after coming from a background of permaculture and organic farming on the Sunshine Coast. Not daunted by what they had come into, they began experimenting with elements of various farming management systems ranging from fully conventional to what, at the time, were considered extreme alternatives. They read about advantages of various alternative agricultural models from around the globe. They constantly questioned their farming practices and the resultant impacts on the land and production. In this process they focused on differentiating between symptoms and causes in the indicators that they observed.

This process of observation and review continued over the next ten years until Shane and Shan had gained a body of skills and knowledge that enabled them to begin to measure the results of their management practices.

Dukes Plain vista

Embracing Change

Change was evolutionary on Dukes Plain, but became inevitable when a cost benefit analysis demonstrated that input and maintenance costs from their current farming practices were far exceeding returns from production.

The reality of the inevitable outcome of this situation firmly committed Shane and Shan to a complete change of production management. They realised that the landscape was out of balance and it needed to be returned to balance to achieve long term economic production. They were convinced that, once the balance was returned, they could increase cattle carrying capacity, using the same area of land, without detriment to the landscape.

Self education played a big part in deciding what changes to make to production operations. For the Joyces this included reading, observation and experimentation with both alternative and conventional systems. Shane and Shan spent eight years learning about and working with permaculture techniques. Knowledge was furthered through attending workshops, courses and field days, and engaging with leading edge consultants. They eventually completed the Grazing for Profit course which, among other outcomes, provided the tools and guides to enable measurement of production success.

Changing the grazing system on Dukes Plain was the major single change to overall production. The introduction of cell grazing for their cattle focused on high stock density for minimum grazing time to allow pasture maximum time to recover. This has lead to significant improvements in landscape health and production outputs, as detailed below, as well as substantial reductions to inputs required. As Shane says, “The ‘cow tractor’ is now the most used piece of farming equipment”.

A one-off capital investment in fencing and water distribution was necessary to establish the cell grazing system. An extensive network of single wire electric fences, sub-divide the property into what are now 97 paddocks of around 20-40 hectares each. A water reticulation system services all paddocks, gravity fed through polythene pipes from two ‘turkey’s nests’ – dams constructed at high points of the property which can have water pumped into them as required.

Continual monitoring and adjustment has been an essential part of the Joyce’s strategy. Receiving peer input through exposing the property and management to public scrutiny by hosting field days has also been an important element of implementation. Close working relationships have also been established with conservation groups and Queensland National Parks officers.

Currently, Shane and Shan are being approached by resource companies seeking to purchase environmental offsets. These organisations have been attracted to the farm by the high levels of regrowth on the previously cleared endangered brigalow and semi-evergreen vine thicket land types. Shane and Shan see the potential for possible future sale of soil carbon credits. However they note, “This is a complex issue that requires further investigation and clarification to ensure appropriate recognition of the land, the landscape and agricultural production”.

Seven paddocks were converted into
  ninety seven on Dukes Plain

Impediments to Change

Shane cites a broad range of challenges that he has encountered in the process of changing their property management, “The first and most obvious challenge was overcoming prior learning ranging from my schooling days – the broadly ingrained views that Australian soils are old, barren, degraded and can’t produce topsoil – to the generally accepted use of low management techniques”.

Shane points out that this long accepted approach is seen as the easier path, but over time it inevitably degrades the land, leading to ever falling production. “From that outcome it is only a short step to the general acceptance of external interventions such as fertiliser dependency, re-seeding and drought feeding regimes, all of which also eventually contribute to degradation of the system.”

…having the courage to try new methods and trust [our] own judgement has been an obstacle in itself.

Even with newly acquired information and the benefits of formal study and research, the Joyces found that it was challenging to put the theoretical principles into practice in a manageable form. This was exacerbated by a lack of peers to share ideas with or successful models to ‘copy’ from. General scepticism of new or different ideas was, and is, commonly encountered. Both Shane and Shan say that having the courage to try new methods and trust their own judgement has been an obstacle in itself. Old habits can be hard to break.

In addition, Shane notes that, “Declining product value across the agricultural sector, in contrast to increasing land values, provides additional challenges. Wrong decisions can easily lead to economic hardship”.

Shane also sees a threat to innovative land management in the dictation of practices, such as vegetation and pasture management, by authorities which often do not have direct experience on the land. “Ordinary people in remote places lack the opportunity to ‘have a conversation’ with such entities. To share and demonstrate actual experiences, is a missed opportunity for these authorities and virtually guarantees ‘more of the same’ from them.”

Delivering Continuous Improvement

Shane Joyce firmly believes that the natural resource base does not have to inevitably ‘run down’ with production over time, as is a commonly held view. With the management techniques applied, the Dukes Plain environment is clearly ‘running up’, showing only continuing improvement, not degradation over time. A number of principles have helped the Joyces to achieve continuous improvement of their farming resources, including:

  • Maximize animal density through large mob size and small paddocks.
  • Match stocking rate to carrying capacity. Have a good agent who assists with selling and acquisition of appropriate stock as determined by rainfall and pasture conditions.
  • No purchasing of supplementary feed for livestock during drought (see point two).
  • Do not become emotionally attached to livestock (see point two).
  • Provide adequate rest for pastures to fully recover before grazing.
  • Continually monitor and adjust.
  • Encourage diversity of animals and plants.
  • Provide adequate tree cover on landscape to minimise stress on land, livestock and people.
  • Continue to up-skill management and staff through ongoing education.
  • Minimise external inputs.
  • Seek the best in external advice.

The 97 paddocks are now grouped into three cells to manage the various mobs of cattle. Actively managed rotation averages around two to three days grazing and 60 days recovery, longer in slow growing season. Stocking is based on 26 stock days per hectare per 100mm of rainfall. This is based on one adult equivalent – a 450kg animal at 0.5kg per day live weight gain to 2 hectares. The stocking rate is continually adjusted according to rainfall and feed availability.

In 1995 the Joyces began to record individual paddock yields. Records maintained and grazing practices are based on those learned in the Grazing for Profit course. Measurements were more rigorous in early years, though these have been adapted over time and reduced to what is most useful. Specific ground cover measurement processes used to be followed in a regular format to record both ground cover and species present, but these have been reduced to set point photographs taken twice a year at the end of the growing and dry seasons.

A recently grazed paddock (left) next to a recovering paddock (right)

Shane sees a real strength in having the ability to measure the results of different landscape management methods in dollar terms – tools to measure trends in both landscape and business. The paddocks are now continually monitored and measured and grazing time adjusted accordingly to support optimum grazing and recovery periods.

Fixed point monitoring, left: October 1997 (top) and October 2011 (below); right: March 1998 (top) and March 2012 (below)

Shane points to the importance of planning, “Once the infrastructure was established, preparing, monitoring and controlling the grazing management plan became the major regular input required for the operation of Dukes Plain. A one to two month grazing plan can be prepared in a couple of hours, outlining paddock rotation in a form that can be followed by anyone. Less physical work is now required on the property, mostly just opening and closing the electric fence tape ‘gates’ to move cattle from one paddock to another, in accordance with the plan, and occasional fence repairs”.

Shane and Shan value continuous learning. All management and staff on Dukes Plain attend the Grazing for Profit workshop, as well as the Low Stress Stockhandling workshop, various field days and biodynamic farming workshops.

As an added bonus, the increased human visibility and animal handling has made the stock far more approachable and easy to manage. The stock are familiar with the rotation process and eagerly move between paddocks once gates are opened.

Creating Healthy Soils

Shane and Shan use biodynamic products to enhance soil fertility and have adopted innovative distribution practices for improving the soil quality on Dukes Plain. “Fertile soils provide oxygen, water and nutritious food for plants, animals, insects and microbes”, Shane acknowledges. Good soil underlies – literally and metaphorically – much of the success on the Joyce property.

Fertile soils provide oxygen, water and nutritious food for plants, animals, insects and microbes.

Good litter cover on the soil and denser stands of healthy perennial grass plants and legumes, all contribute to creating soil organic matter, leading to greater water absorption, and minimising surface erosion and runoff. Traditional management practices saw soils in decline with poor water and mineral cycles. District averages for soil organic matter are less than 1%. Measured in 2003, Dukes Plain showed around 4% soil organic matter.

The 2003 soil tests revealed no glaring deficiencies, however more recent analysis identified insufficiencies in levels of boron and manganese which are now being addressed. It was through a series of events that Shane developed an innovative and organic way of increasing the nutrients in his soil.

Upon adopting cell grazing, Shane felt pressure to put urea in the water for the cattle as a protein supplement. Uncomfortable with this concept, due to urea’s potential toxicity, Shane explored other options, influenced by previous experience in permaculture and interest in biodynamics. Initially he experimented with releasing liquid seaweed in water troughs by means of a special dosage pump mechanism. However, in 2002 he explored other options as management of the dosage pump/medicators was challenging when caretaker maintenance of the property was required.

Shane decided to address nutrient deficiencies and improve soil fertility with a product entirely sourced and made on the farm. He developed a biodynamic preparation drawing various components from the field to produce what he now calls ‘soil activator’.

Originally attempted methods of distribution by spraying on paddocks was time consuming and unachievable for the size of the property. Aerial spraying was too costly, so alternative distribution methods were considered. Shane noted that the stock responded favourably when diluted supplement was added to the drinking troughs, and thought that the preparation could also act as a tonic for the animals.

Further experimentation for dosage control led to the development of a ‘tea bag’ made from shade cloth, filled with the soil activator and placed by the inlet valve of water troughs. As a result, the product was ‘steeped’ every time the cattle drank, passing through their digestive systems and eventually ending up on the soil in their waste.

Shane observed the formation of greener patches related to cattle dung and urine points, also noting that the cattle did not avoid these areas in their grazing patterns. Soil biology indicators showed improvement in comparison to ‘untreated’ ground. These green patches have gradually expanded over time.

Ingredients to make soil activator can be purchased for around 60 dollars a kilogram, and Shane’s biodynamic preparations are sold by one of Australia’s top biodynamic educators. The ‘tea bags’ weigh only a couple of kilograms and diffuse into the water, moving from paddock to paddock with the cattle, for up to a number of weeks before they need to be replaced.

‘Tea bags’ filled with biodynamic preparation are attached to a
  float and placed into water troughs.

This method of distribution is an innovative way of using the ‘cow tractors’ to further fertilise the land and improve soil biology at a very low cost. Results from 2012 soil biology tests are being eagerly awaited.

Optimal Vegetation

Shane Joyce shakes his head in response to the previous vegetation management practices and how they are today costing him money.

“Through the 1950s and 1960s the brigalow and softwood scrubs were pulled with bulldozers, let lie for a couple of years, then burned and aerially seeded with a mixture of grasses. Subsequent timber regrowth was dealt with through burning and mechanical means from the 1970s. With fuel price rises and commodity price declines, by 1982 the cost of maintaining the pasture was beginning to outstrip the grazing return.”

Management practices changed, fire ceased being used on the property in 1977 and regeneration was allowed to occur naturally. Some strip removal of regrowth was performed in 1988 – corridors were blade ploughed for 120 metres with 30 metre shelterbelts, and later narrower corridors of six to seven metres with same sized shelterbelts on another part of the property (see image below). Original intentions were to undertake further clearing and thinning, however this was never performed, particularly once production rates were observed.

“Grass diversity, particularly native species, increased quite quickly after establishment of cell grazing.”

“Areas of natural revegetation with around 40% canopy cover are yielding nearly 40% greater return than those areas that were completely cleared. Counter to the long held views that the land needed to be cleared to provide more pasture for grazing, the trees are instead providing protection to the pastures and soils, allowing for much better growth and increased fodder for the cattle. Water loss through evaporation is better controlled, and the trees – notably the narrower corridors more so than the wide ones – protect the pastures from wind and frost damage. Increased diversity in grasses is also evident.”

Shane points out where up to 50% of previously cleared land on Dukes Plain has now retained regrowth. He estimates that around a 40% canopy cover appears to be optimal in the brigalow landscape, and natural thinning seems to be occurring.

He also points out that previous management practices had pastures which were developing into monocultures of buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), and native grasses were being dominated by unpalatable species such as white spear-grass (Aristida leptopoda), wiregrass (Aristida calycigna) and yabilla grass (Panicum queenslandicum).

“Grass diversity, particularly native, increased quite quickly after establishment of cell grazing. Native grasses which emerged and rapidly increased include curly Mitchell (Astrebla lappacea), hoop Mitchell (Astrebla elymoides), kangaroo (Themeda triandra), flinders (Iseilema membranaceum), satin top (Eulalia aurea), Queensland blue (Dichanthium sericeum) and sorghum almum.”

As a result the ‘monoculture’ species decreased, though there seems to be a natural increase and decrease in the predominance of all species over time, with native grasses growing into introduced pastures and vice-versa. When asked about the mix of native grasses into improved pastures, Shane says that it is harder for native grasses to dominate as they have longer rest and regeneration requirements as well as unpalatable stages of growth. “Production does not always support the predominance of natives, for example kangaroo grass is the first to emerge in spring, and hence is eaten first. However, the regular movement of stock – which can also be manipulated and controlled with selected rotation – allows for animal transfer of grass seed to desired areas and some influence on pasture variety.” The cow tractors help again.

Left: Leucaena provides a source of protein for the cattle. Right: Shrubs are quickly stripped during grazing periods

The Joyces use no chemical interventions and are not attempting to remove any particular species from their pastures as greater resilience is obtained through biodiversity. Also, over time cattle grazing preferences have been observed to change. Native legumes also multiplied naturally with cell grazing, and the leguminous shrub Leucaena leucocephala has also been randomly introduced to enhance animal protein supply. Protected for a couple of years until they are established, these shrubs are a favoured fodder for the cattle, which quickly strip the leaves in their couple of days in the paddocks.

Left: Pasture grasses growing under eucalypt. Right: Recently grazed grass under brigalow

Cell grazing, more fertile soils and vegetation protection has also allowed for grasses to grow right up to trees in both the brigalow and eucalypt. Some areas of high animal traffic are still bare, but this too is constantly improving.

Overall, recovery periods with cell grazing provide for root development and better and continuous ground cover (which, as previously mentioned, equates to increased rainfall infiltration and water holding capacity). Pasture root systems are visible down 1.7 metres.

Shane is insistent that maintaining a minimum pasture height and having sufficient leaf allows grasses to grow from sunlight energy rather than from root reserves so pastures are more resilient and recover quickly with minimum impact on the root system.

Stock have become used to being handled as a consequence of the grazing strategies. Despite only being held by a single wire electric fence, the stock do not try to push through fences as the grass is not always greener on the other side, and regardless, they know they’re going to be moved in a day or two, so are always content.

A single strand electric fence easily contains the cattle which wait patiently to be moved to the next paddock.

Water Management

Provision of water to stock and enhancing rain infiltration in the landscape are the Joyce’s primary water management practices. These have now resulted in greater water use efficiency and enhanced water quality.

Dukes Plain lies at the top of the catchment area, with only one creek, Cattle Creek, originating in a neighbouring property, running along the southern boundary. Outflows from the property all run into the Dawson River, from Cattle Creek in the south, Red and Four Mile Gullies which flow to Gorge Creek in the North, as well as through Lambing Gully. There are no wetlands on the property and the only spring is high on the escarpment and not useful to the property.

As a result, all stock water is provided by farm dams filled from overland flows. Water is reticulated through a poly pipe system to poly and concrete troughs from the ‘turkey nests’. Water points are located at the intersection of four paddocks. Shane initially attempted his own installation of polythene piping across the property, but later obtained advice from local pipe and pump experts to ensure the use of the most effective pipe size and to obtain suitable pressure.

Most dams remain open to stock access, though with paddock rotation they are only exposed to stock for a maximum of some 21 days per year. This exposure aids compacting of dam edges, as completely protected dams had previously dried and cracked then split in flood. As stock access is limited, any damage is minimal.

A couple of dams are still fenced, one to control the water point from animals living in surrounding scrub the other to allow for enhancement and rebuilding.

Water points are located at paddock intersections and provide clean
  drinking water to four paddocks.

Shane describes outcomes of his watering plan, “With the reduced stock access and increased vegetation experienced with cell grazing, both water quality and water-use efficiency has improved. Algal blooms which had previously caused fish and duck deaths no longer occur. The improved ground cover now filters nutrient load washing into dams and less stock time on dams has reduced concentrated nutrient sources [dung and urine] in the immediate area”.

With an average annual rainfall of 700mm, in recent years rainfall has varied from as little as 314mm in 2006 to a high of 1538mm in 2010. The Joyces monitor post rain events to observe how deep moisture has penetrated and have found that rain infiltration in the soil has improved. Rainfall events of less than 10mm have traditionally been seen in the area as “useless”, however with the conditioned land and high levels of soil organic matter, this moisture is now being absorbed into the Dukes Plain soil. With around 70% of rainfall events comprising less than 10mm rainfall, the Joyces are now able to harness this resource that previously had been lost.

As shown below, land has been contoured in certain areas away from gullies and as required to dams. This technique follows Yeomans’ Keyline Design principles and aims to ‘keep water on the farm, not in the gully’. This is happening across the property as improved vegetation helps to keep moisture in the soil and pasture. Whilst the reduced overland flows result in increased difficulty in filling stock dams, this is an acceptable part of having increased soil moisture content.

View over Dukes Plain showing narrow strip-cleared shelterbelts, wide strip-cleared shelterbelts and water contouring.

Pests & Weeds

Previous methods of weed and pest control used included fire, 1080 baiting for dingoes and shooting of pigs and kangaroos. Now no control methods are used other than through cell grazing strategies. While some weeds persist to varying degrees, amongst the increased diversity of species these are seen as symptomatic of a particular issue and allowed to follow their cycle. Weeds are seen as an ally to colonise bare ground and help change the nature of the soil to make it more suitable for growing grasses.

A better balance of wildlife now exists on the property and despite more extensive water availability; kangaroo and wallaby numbers have reduced and are at an acceptable level. This could be as a result of these animals preference for short new growth, which is less common on Dukes Plain with current management strategies. There are some feral pigs and wild dogs in the region but these are not particularly problematic.

Biodiversity

Increased biodiversity in plant, animal, insect and other species is a clear outcome of the farming practices employed at Dukes Plain.

Diversity in pastures of both native and introduced species is extensive. There is an increase in leguminous shrubs and forbs across the paddocks. Ground cover has increased and regeneration is occurring naturally. In areas where trees numbers are high (too many stems per hectare). a natural self thinning appears to be occurring.

Vegetation linkages are severely limited to the north and east by clearing of surrounding properties, however linkages to south and west are strong due to the topography, which has limited clearing. The area which had received wide strip clearing in the 1980s showed greater biodiversity than the narrow corridors, but this was due to its maintaining connection with surrounding remnant vegetation, whereas the other area had been previously disconnected.Across the property increased diversity and population of birds has been observed over time. Regrowth areas provide wildlife corridors to the undeveloped ridge country and habitat for many more bird species, including significant numbers of small birds due to regeneration of small prickly shrubs which provide habitat that used to be burned.

Earthworms, spiders, ant and other insect numbers and types have increased. The vegetation has also provided the ideal habitat for the orb weaving spiders which can consume significant numbers of insects, such as grasshoppers, which damage crops and pastures.

Golden Orb spiders assist with pest control

Signs of Success

Shane and Shan are experiencing financial, social and environmental gains as a result of their property management practices.

A 30% productivity increase was obtained with cell grazing – paying off implementation of the new model, such as investment in infrastructure, in three years. Previously high external inputs such as seed, machinery and labour have all gone. No production, pasture or land management expenses or inputs costs have been incurred for 24 years. They are no longer required. Shane believes that the value of this method is clear in the lack of input costs – profit is inevitable.

The landscape is telling us that we are on the right path…

The previous focus on animal genetics and individual animal performance, or production per head, has been replaced with the simple measure of kilograms of beef produced per hectare of pasture. Greatest yields are being experienced in the revegetated paddocks – a clear demonstration that totally clearing paddocks is ultimately detrimental to pasture production.

As shown in the graph below, yield figures from the past 16 years of data demonstrate that totally cleared paddocks (scrub soils) are yielding measurably less ($83.96 per ha per year) than paddocks which have 40% ($112.74/ha/year) and 45% ($98.04/ha/year) canopy cover, while eucalypt forest with 90% canopy is yielding $64.83/ha/year.

The property now serves as a host for a broad range of visitors, including field days for the public, work experience for school groups, WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms), and grey nomads. The Joyces feel that hosting helps with re-building the community on farm, which also flows on into the local towns. Hosting is also a valuable way to bridge the gap between city and country, also providing an excellent method of education.

The Joyces believe that quality food for people is being produced on Dukes Plain through organic and biodynamic practices. In addition, biodynamic preparations are being produced for on-selling by one of Australia’s top biodynamic educators. This helps fund the continuing education of farmers and gardeners in the biodynamic methods.

Shane Joyce branded beef is certified organic.

The improved landscape health would arguably result in cleaner water entering the Dawson River and eventually into the Great Barrier Reef.

Overall, compared to the previous business model on the property, the Joyces have experienced improvement in the natural resource and natural capital through more diverse pastures, more trees, fewer weeds, improved water quality, efficient water use, increased carrying capacity, easier animal management, and reduced labour input and requirements.

Shane and Shan are experiencing a greater sense of wellbeing with their current management practices, “the landscape is telling us that we are on the right path”. Observing the problems that have arisen in agriculture in the recent past, and not being affected by them, provides the clear impression that they are doing is working.

There is a clear sense of satisfaction and pride in being a part of the landscape for management, staff, volunteers, and visitors of Dukes Plain.

Lessons Learned

Shane and Shan have found that data capture, planning, monitoring and adjusting has been invaluable to success on Dukes Plain. By ensuring careful observation, such as of plant lifecycles, and behaviour adjustment, such as not grazing when grasses are just shooting, better outcomes can be received. Shane says that he wishes he had been more diligent in these activities in the early days of adopting changed practices.

“However”, he says, “I have been lucky, I have learned to have the courage to make mistakes and re-label them as learning opportunities. I believe more time can always be spent in seeking out knowledge”.

…choose what works for you from the range of methods and information available…

And what about a baseline from which to judge progress? In Shane’s region he finds that the roadside provides a good comparison tool for his own pastures. “Without technology or investment, they provide me with the opportunity to observe what is occurring naturally. That stimulates thinking on what systems or management can be implemented to replicate healthy results.” Shane’s experience has shown that investment in most productive areas first, reaps the greater rewards, “Improvements will spread to less productive areas, and increased production will subsidise later action in the harder to regenerate areas”.

With the broad range of practices available, Shane advises to choose what works for you from the range of methods and information available and from your own ideas and experiences and to “select the tiles that you want and make your own mosaic”. Ultimately, he recommends “care deeply about the land and take responsibility for your decisions and actions”.


Reference: Joyce, S. (2000), ‘Change the management and what happens – a producer’s perspective‘, in Tropical Grasslands, 2000, Volume 34, pp223-229


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

Winona – A case study in resilience

Revisiting Winona: A case study in resilience

Colin Seis’ property Winona, north of Gulgong in the NSW Central Highlands, was one of the original case studies in regenerative agriculture conducted by Soils for Life in 2012. Our profile of Winona at that time told an incredible story of recovery. It detailed how the landscape, recovering from the effects of a devastating bushfire, plus suffering from salinity, declining soil quality, dying trees, and insect attack has been rehabilitated under Colin Seis’ innovative management, in particular his development of pasture cropping.

This year, Soils For Life revisited Winona to look at Colin’s ongoing soil and landscape rehabilitation journey and the ongoing ecological improvement since the original case study. We conducted soil testing to add to our understanding of the positive impacts on the soils of Colin’s property regenerative practices. We also took a closer look at Winona’s financials to understand how Col’s regenerative practices have had a positive impact on the profitability, productivity and natural capital of the property.


FARM FACTS

Situated North of Gulgong in the headwaters of the Macquarie River catchment, Winona is a land of flat plains and gentle slopes rising to hilltops and granite, basalt, sandstone or shale ridges. The property, that supports a self-replacing merino flock of around 4000, comprises 840 ha subdivided into 76 conventionally-fenced paddocks with a system of laneways for the efficient moving of stock. It is land that Colin’s family have been farming for four generations.

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
  • ‘Multi-species pasture cropping’ for high quality stock feed and soil restoration
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing
  • ‘Vertical Stacking’ of enterprises – cropping, native grass seed, sheep wool and meat
  • Innovations commenced: Time controlled grazing 1993/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


PHOTO TOUR OF WINONA

Take a tour of Winona with Colin Seis

Colin has implemented a number of regenerative practices in order to improve the productivity and sustainability of the property. He runs a number of enterprises that are ‘vertically-stacked’ including cropping, native grass seed, sheep wool and meat enterprises. Listen to Col describe his property as you browse the gallery below. Click to enlarge.


LEARN PASTURE CROPPING FROM COLIN SEIS

Learn from Colin Seis

Pasture composition is critical to Colin’s success with pasture cropping and he has developed a training program to help others successfully implement a pasture cropping system in their landscape. This course, developed with Smartsoil, can help landholders avoid the pitfalls and have the tools and methods to regenerate their perennial native grasslands and soil ecosystems while maintaining a productive and profitable enterprise.


Click the tiles to learn more.


Pasture cropping for resilience

The Seis family have been in the district since 1868 when Colin’s Great Grandfather selected the original family property. Colin’s father, Harry Seis, purchased ‘Winona’ in 1929, and Colin has managed Winona since the 1970s. Today, it is managed jointly by Colin and his son Nick.

During his lifetime, Colin has seen the devastating impacts of fire, soil erosion, drought and flood on Winona. In fact, fire was the driving force behind Colin’s switch to low-input, regenerative practices. He reports that once he began and refined the practice of pasture cropping, he noticed a gradual improvement in the resilience of his enterprise to drought, especially when pasture cropping was combined with time-controlled grazing. Pasture cropping involves combining a commercial crop (grains or other) with one or more pasture species.

Maintaining dominance of summer active (C4) grasses in the pasture cropping system also improves the property’s resilience to fire. These C4 (summer-growing) grasses remain active and green in summer, responding well to summer showers. This reduces fire risk in high to extreme fire danger periods during the summer. These grasses “hay off” in the winter when the risk of wildfire is low. Although in drought years, the fuel load is naturally low, grazing can be used as a management tool to reduce fuel load where necessary, but while maintaining ground cover.

This approach contrasts with many of southern Australia’s grazing systems which are dominated by C3 (winter/spring growing) grasses that hay off in summer/autumn, which increases fuel load and fire risk. Added to this, the increased productivity of introduced grasses (such as Phalaris) often adds to the fuel load and fire risk in these agroecosystems.

Colin’s pasture cropping system ensures there is a year-round supply of fodder for his stock, including filling the regular winter and late summer “feed gaps” often experienced in this region. Colin says he is always prepared to sell stock during drought, but that the need to do so was minimised during the last drought as his well-maintained pasture responded well even to very light showers of rain. Recovery from drought is quicker too. Our team reported excellent ground cover of desirable species soon after the drought broke in February 2020. This compares with bare paddocks on some other properties in the region.


Resilient, protected, productive soils

Pasture cropping allows abundant and continuous groundcover to help protect the soils on Winona. Our recent testing showed that the soils on Winona are naturally fragile, low fertility soils. The gullies observed by our team on areas of roadway not protected by groundcover demonstrated just how vulnerable the Winona Soils could be. However, these naturally fragile soils are resilient, protected and productive under a no-till pasture cropping regime.


Productivity and profitability on Winona

As part of our revisit to Winona, our team carried out an economic analyses of the years since our first case study in 2012. This analysis showed that Winona consistently outperforms other farms when benchmarked against the relevant ABARES data – described as the ‘average farm’.

Pasture cropping is just one of the regenerative practices Colin uses to achieve good economic, and ecological results on his farm. Colin also uses holistic management techniques, an intensive rotational grazing system where livestock are rotated on a time-controlled basis to maximise pasture utilisation. In addition, the Seis family integrate multiple production systems including harvesting native grass seeds and cereal crops. Colin has succeeded in simultaneously operating multiple enterprises on the same land whilst also improving soil health, fertility and ground cover.

The vertical stacking of enterprises on Winona increases income productivity per hectare beyond that of the ‘average farm’. Combined with good onsite water storage and pasture cropping, this has enabled the property to maintain high productivity through periods of limited rainfall. By integrating cropping and grazing enterprises, fodder expenses are significantly reduced aside from drought management strategic fodder purchases. Of course, the combination of regenerative practices has decreased the property’s reliance on fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides, which subsequently reduces input costs relative to the ‘average farm’ year on year.

The combination of these benefits has resulted in profit and gross margins for Winona consistently exceeding those of the ‘average farm’. During the period the profit margin ratio for Winona was 19.4% compared to the benchmark of -3.5% – a great result in anyone’s books!


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:

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.

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.

Garry Kadwell’s Fairhalt

Garry Kadwell’s Fairhalt

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).

ABOUT FAIRHALT

FARM FACTS

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.

INNOVATIONS

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.

KEY RESULTS

  • 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.


FARM GALLERY

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 ECOLOGICAL ASSESSMENT

Ecological Assessment

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.


THE ECONOMIC REPORT

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 in his own words

The Fairhalt Story

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.

Background

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.

Habitat corridor planted by the Kadwell’s and an apiarist’s beehives.

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 Landscape

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.

A conservation planting conducted in support of Land For Wildlife.

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:

  • Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua)
  • White-fronted Chat (Epthianura albifrons)
  • Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera),
  • 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.

Production

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.

Harvested potatoes are stored in a refrigerated warehouse.

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.

Community Engagement

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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

Olsen’s Hallora

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.

Angus cross cattle enjoying healthy pasture.

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.

FARM FACTS

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.

INNOVATIONS

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”

KEY RESULTS

  • 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 Olsen showcasing soil structure and root depth gained from utilising the SoilKee Renovator.
Multi species pasture cropping at the Olsen Family Farm.

Background

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 Landscape

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.

Production

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 Family

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 Sequestration

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.

Conclusion

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
  • Biodiversity
  • Family wellbeing
  • Carbon sequestration in the soils
  • Australian Carbon Credit Units which can be traded.

Narrative summary

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.


Ecological summary

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.


Economic summary

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!


Social summary

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.

Balala Station

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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.

FARM FACTS

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.

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

  • 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.
Balala Station – Picturesque rural setting where colonial history blends with modern agriculture
Angus cattle wandering among vegetation on the flats
Fallen trees strategically placed to catch organic matter and slow water sheeting across the ground

Narrative

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.


Ecological

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.


Economic

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.


Social

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…

The Collingwood Story

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.

John Kane

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.

FARM FACTS

Collingwood Farm, 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.

INNOVATIONS

  • 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

KEY RESULTS

  • 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

INTRODUCTION

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 Landscape

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 priority.

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 superphosphate.

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.

Weed Management

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 through competition.

Water

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.

Water Medication

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 food supplements.

Production

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.

Cattle Production: 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 Production: There 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.

Pest Management

 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.

Ecological summary

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.

Economic summary

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”

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THE QUIRK FARM STORY

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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.

FARM FACTS

The Quirk Farm, Stotts Creek NSW

ENTERPRISE: Sugarcane (100 ha), Cattle grazing (17 ha)

PROPERTY SIZE: 117 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 1801 mm

ELEVATION: 0.5 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Prevent release of sulphuric acid from farm into the Tweed River and reduce waterlogged soil impact on sugar cane productivity.

INNOVATIONS

  • 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
  • Applied lime
  • 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

KEY RESULTS

  • 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.

INTRODUCTION

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.

ECOLOGICAL HEALTH

In 1987 Robert Quirk set out on a path to improve the ecological health of his property and the nearby waterways.

ECONOMIC HEALTH

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.