‘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.
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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.

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:

‘BEETALOO STATION’ – FIRST ADD WATER

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

FIRST ADD WATER

The innovative practices developed by John Dunnicliff and his family at Beetaloo Station provide, potentially, an efficient and sustainable method of cattle production applicable to vast areas of northern Australia – just by adding water.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

60 km east of Elliott, 800 km south of Darwin,
NT Barkly Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle.
Brahman and Brahman-Senepol cross beef production

PROPERTY SIZE: 1,054,700 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 450-650 mm

ELEVATION: 220 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Previous experience that water supply is critical for productive grazing on vast properties

INNOVATIONS

  • Delivering a reliable water supply to support grazing across vast areas of previously unused native rangelands
  • Establishing smaller paddocks on a very large scale to concentrate grazing animals to ensure managed use of pastures and continuing improvement of soils
  • Innovations commenced: 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • Significant increase in carrying capacity – 100,000 head of cattle viewed as “conservative”
  • Development of an innovative vision for grazing in Northern Australia
  • Delivering time-controlled planned rotational grazing on a significant scale

INTRODUCTION

When the Dunnicliff family acquired Beetaloo Station in 2002, it had been managed for the previous century in the traditional way. Much of the country was effectively virgin cattle country, having never really been grazed, while the areas near water had been seriously over-grazed and the pastures and soil were degraded. With experience running grazing properties in various regions of Australia, including the Kimberley region where water supply is an equally important issue, they could see the potential to significantly increase productivity while simultaneously rehabilitating the degraded landscape. The key was the provision of water.

Since taking over the properties, John Dunnicliff has embarked on a massive development program to provide stock water across vast areas of the properties. The scale is based on a model that cattle should not have to walk more than 2km for water. Full implementation of the plan could see production expand from the current carrying rate of 50,000 head of cattle to a potential target of 100,000, with an ultimate production cost of 32 cents per kilogram.

Advice was obtained along the way from tropical animal production expert Dr Steve Petty, who is based at Kununurra, and from holistic management experts, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory.

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A WHOLE LOT OF LAND

The Dunnicliff family has been farming in various parts of Australia, starting in northern New South Wales and including King Island and the Kimberley Region of far north-west Western Australia. In 2002, they acquired Beetaloo Station, which encompasses the perpetual pastoral leases of BeetalooOT Downs and Mungabroom.

Beetaloo Station extends over one million hectares

Beetaloo Station is vast. The total area of Beetaloo and OT Downs is 707,800 hectares and the Mungabroom property is 346,900 hectares. Combined, the total area is 1,054,700 hectares or 10,547 square kilometres. The distance from west to east is approximately 130km and from north to south about 120km – as the brolga flies. Approximately 50,000 cattle are currently run on the properties.

The climate in this region is monsoonal. Average annual rainfall ranges from 450mm in the south-east of the properties to 650mm in the north. However, nearly all of this falls in the wet season from November to March. Due to the hot climate, annual potential evaporation is about 2700mm. This means that, while rainfall is not particularly low, there is a substantial water availability deficit in the dry season.

Newcastle Creek runs through the Beetaloo property, providing a series of wet season waterholes and three large wetlands that rarely dry completely. The OT Downs property, part of the northern watershed of Newcastle Creek, also has some wet season waterholes and semi-permanent wetlands. The Mungabroom property has no permanent water, only temporary waterholes along the creeks after the wet season. Large volumes of good quality water are available from shallow aquifers underlying the entire area.

The dominant soil types across the property are heavy, hard-setting alluvial clays that have formed on the flood plains. Lateritic sandy soils and red earths are derived from sedimentary rock, such as sandstone and limestone, which underlies and projects above the alluvial plains.

Wetlands and waterholes support significant biodiversity

The natural vegetation includes open plains dominated by Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), which occur on the heavy clay soils. These plains are surrounded by and interspersed with woodlands and low open forests dominated by coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah or Eucalyptus microtheca) and bauhinia (Bauhinia cunninghamii). The sandy soils and red earths support dense low forest of lancewood (Acacia shirleyi) with scattered eucalypts.

Water birds, including pelicans, ducks and brolgas, are prolific on the wetlands, temporary waterholes and earth tanks. Wedge-tail eagles, kites and other raptors are a common sight.

John and Trish Dunnicliff manage Beetaloo Station with the assistance of their daughter, Jane, and her husband, Scott Armstrong. The Dunnicliff and Armstrong families participate in a program with the Barkly Landcare Conservation Association, which has a project to investigate production from differing grazing techniques, and will contrast rotational grazing on Beetaloo with a nearby ‘control’ of the status quo management style, set stocking and with a biodiversity monitoring program run by the Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment, Arts and Sport.

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IMPROVING PRODUCTION THROUGH ADDING WATER

When John purchased Beetaloo there were 40 bores and associated ‘turkey nest’ earth tanks scattered over the properties. John considers that “Less than 10% of the land area was effectively watered. Most of the country was in a relatively natural state, apart from areas affected by heavy stocking, surrounding most of the watering points. Large areas had never been grazed, due to lack of water. As a consequence, fires were a constant problem before each wet season”.

John’s observations of the grazing effect at increasing distance from water points (see images below) suggested that the realistic maximum effective grazing distance from water is less than 2km. Cattle no doubt go further from water to graze when pastures near the bore are depleted – some people argue up to 10km – but John believes that the constant travel to and fro would eliminate any benefit and they will work off any weight gain on the way. This observation has been substantiated by work done by the CSIRO.

Left to right: Pasture at watering point; 1km away; 2km away; and 3km away from watering point

There are other management problems associated with using vast paddocks, such as the inability to control grazing intensity, inability to force cattle to graze less palatable areas and the high cost and inefficiency of mustering.

Cattle on degraded land close to a watering point

The cumulative effect of this form of grazing management is gradually declining grazing value, as the accessible pasture becomes degraded, increasing vegetation and soil degradation and loss of habitat for native species.

John could see the grazing potential in extensive areas of native pastures which were being very inefficiently used. Drawing strongly on his previous experience in the Kimberly, he saw the opportunity to develop, “A large scale, naturally sustainable cattle operation that is simple to operate, economically viable, environmentally sustainable, productively utilises all the available grazing area and aims at being an industry leader in low cost beef production”.

Cattle now graze previously untouched pastures due to the
provision of water nearby

By developing a water supply and reducing paddock size to distribute grazing pressure across large areas previously inaccessible to cattle, John believed that he could relieve pressure from previously overgrazed areas and facilitate rotational grazing that would enhance soil fertility and pasture growth.

The solution was providing many additional water points to encourage the cattle to graze areas previously not accessed. Now about three quarters of the way through implementing this solution across the million hectare property, the evidence is becoming clear, and John says, “We are looking for an increase in perennial pastures, and opening up of previously unwatered, unutilised country is increasing carrying capacity dramatically. As a consequence stocking rates are being increased to utilise this capacity”.

Undoubtedly, the expense of developing the necessary water supply infrastructure was a major impediment. However, arguably the more problematic impediment was overcoming the traditional paradigm, that cattle production in the open rangelands of northern Australia is effectively based on practically uncontrolled grazing across vast areas. John notes that uncertainty and self doubt were a challenge to overcome in implementing innovative methods in the region. Advice received from Dr Steve Petty, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory assisted in reinforcing his plans and concepts.

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GRAZING IN THE NORTHERN AUSTRALIAN RANGELANDS

PASTURES

Possibly the first mention of the Barkly Tablelands region by a European is by William Landsborough. Writing in 1860 while searching for the Burke and Wills expedition group, Landsborough, leader of the “Queensland Relief Expedition” described “… a plain with the richest soil, and with grasses of the most fattening nature, but which at this time are old and dry. This tableland I have named Barkly Plains, after His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly. ” 1Reference: Purdie, J., Materne, C., and Bubb, A. (2008) A field guide to the plants of the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory, Barkly Landcare and Conservation Association, Katherine, Northern Territory.
*Sir Henry Barkly was the then Governor of the colony of Victoria and president of the Royal Socieity of Victoria.

New grass shoots after burning

The lease was first settled by Harry Bathern (also known as Bullwaddy) at the turn of the 20th Century. When the Dunnicliff family took over the lease in 2002, the land had been managed for a century in the traditional ‘Top End’ manner with few infrastructure improvements and a reliance on seasonal watering points, a few bores and dams and whatever grassland was available within cattle walking distance to water. Landsborough’s comment that the grasses were “old and dry” has proved remarkably perceptive. It reveals a fundamental reality that is still relevant today: while the region has considerable potential for grazing, much of it is not being used. Pasture growth is prolific when there is ample rainfall. But nearly all of the rain falls in the few months of the wet season. This rapidly dissipates in the hot climate of the dry season. The pastures then go to seed and senesce, by which time they are of little use for fattening cattle.

There are only two ways to ensure that the grasses remain useful for grazing: animal impact or burning. The grasses regenerate readily after burning, but at the cost of loss of organic matter, soil biota and volatile nutrients. Frequent burning degrades the soil. Conversely, brief periods of high pressure grazing consumes or knocks down the pasture before it goes to seed and senesces. This maintains pasture in a vigorous growing condition.

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WATER ACCESS

Grazing in the vast expanses of northern Australia depends entirely on access to water. Cattle can travel only limited distances each day to reach water without loss of condition. While the landscape is extensive, very little of it is sufficiently close to water to be effectively used for stock grazing. The small number of (relatively) permanent water sources has been increased significantly since the realisation that there was a significant underground source of artesian water. While bores had been sunk by previous owners to access this water, by 2002 the distribution of bores was grossly insufficient to provide water to much of Beetaloo.

Water provision in traditional local grazing management was to pump bore water to open earth tanks then troughs, resulting in substantial evaporation

Traditional grazing management on the Barkly Tablelands was to drill a bore, from which water was pumped by windmill to an open earth tank and then to a trough. A large percentage of the water pumped evaporated, which meant that, where used, a large amount of the diesel fuel used was wasted.

Sparsely distributed bores typically led to serious over-grazing close to the bores and steadily decreasing grazing with increasing distance from the bores.

Over years of grazing, this leads to the elimination of the native perennial pasture species close to the bores and colonisation of annual species. The annual species have grazing value but do not persist for long through the growing period. This low-value ground cover steadily spreads out from the bores year after year. Immense areas too far from the bores are left unused – like the “old and dry” grasses noted by Landsborough in 1860. Perennial pasture species also die through stagnation.

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ADDING WATER

THE INFRASTRUCTURE

Each bore supplies around nine tanks, and each tank supplies four paddocks.

To extend the use of land on Beetaloo Station, John’s basic strategy is to establish a network of bores to provide a reticulated water supply system. The previous paddocks that were scores of square kilometres can then be reduced in size. Building on his observation that the maximum effective distance that cattle can travel is less than 2km, the goal initially was to reduce paddock size to 4km by 4km (1600 hectares). Observing that it is still difficult to get grazing pressure high enough to use the pastures effectively at that paddock size, this is in the process of being reduced to 3.3km by 3.3km (1200 hectares). Consequently, as John points out, “This water development is being carried out in conjunction with an extensive fencing program”.

The necessary stockpile of fencing materials, water tanks and polypipe stretches to the horizon

A network of bores is being installed and connected with 75mm diameter pipe installed at a depth of 800mm running along the fence lines. Burying the pipe 800mm deep ensures it does not expand and contract with temperature changes, which could cause leaks to develop. A steel tank of 170,000 litres useable capacity or a plastic tank of 20,000 litres capacity is installed at each fence intersection. The tanks are filled from the bores by diesel pump. Windmills could not generate the pressure required for this and solar-powered systems are far too costly. Despite the long distances to travel to them, the pumps are manually operated because remote electronic switching systems have been found to be unreliable.

 
Concrete or steel troughs installed in the corner of each of the four nearby paddocks are filled from the tanks by gravity. Each bore supplies around nine tanks and each tank supplies four paddocks. The pipelines being linked in a grid arrangement means there is multiple back-up in the event that a bore fails. Similarly, having four troughs in each paddock provides a backup in case a tank is unserviceable.

Left: A diesel bore pump. Right: Water infrastructure now comprises a network of steel or plastic storage tanks, concrete or steel troughs and bores

One person is employed full-time during the dry season to maintain the bores, tanks and trough system, including refuelling, servicing and repairs.

Work place safety is a major concern in this remote region. As well as ensuring all staff attend safety briefings, providing safety equipment and ensuring appropriate signs are in place around the sheds and homestead area, staff at Beetaloo Station are trained in first-aid. Using a helicopter for travel around the property has the dual benefits of enabling faster travel for work purposes and providing a means of rapid evacuation of an injured person.

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THE COST

Developing the water supply is a massive investment. Each kilometre of laid pipe costs around $3000. Even with the most cost-effective methods, the bores, tanks, fencing and other costs incurred to develop each water point come to around $60,000. This seems a lot until the capital cost is divided by the number of cattle each unit of the investment can support, making it much more achievable.

Besides financial obstacles in obtaining capital, John has encountered other challenge in implementing his watering program across Beetaloo Station. He has experienced “resistance and scepticism from some members of the grazing community and industry bodies in relation to the changes”, and regularly battles the restrictions on availability and supply of resources due to isolation. John states that trial and error and working closely with suppliers has been essential to resolve various technical issues, such as tanks failing.

Regardless, John continues to fund the development incrementally, investing all outputs from production increases back into the watering program.

THE BENEFITS

Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity [of 100,000 head] is conservative.

John has sought to implement his changes using a holistic approach to livestock management with minimal chemical and artificial inputs. His fundamental focus is on soil, plant and animal health and animal welfare.

Providing many smaller paddocks with troughs in each corner has delivered many benefits. John notes, “By increasing the available watering points, and control of the cattle with associated fencing systems, pasture availability has increased dramatically. This has enabled the spelling of paddocks, to assist with the regeneration of plants, and in turn soil health”.

The pastures and soils are benefitting from the new grazing regime

Stock density can be increased to force cattle to graze a much higher proportion of the pasture than they would if left to roam much larger areas. The perennial pasture species are high value for grazing provided they are grazed early in the growing season. If they are not grazed early in the season they go to seed and soon lose nutritional value. Grazing each area in turn with a high stock density for a brief period – three days grazing with a mob of 6000 cattle units is the current aim – prevents loss of pasture value.

At the same time, heavy grazing for a short period, together with the trough location that distributes cattle movement to four points within each paddock, prevents overgrazing, which discourages regeneration of annual species, and reduces soil degradation. Most importantly, short periods of intensive grazing build up soil condition and encourage pasture growth in the long term by breaking down senescent vegetation and litter and adding dung.

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THE STOCK

John believes that with full infrastructure implemented across the property that he will be able to achieve a target carrying capacity of 100,000 cattle, and says, “Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity is conservative”.

The planned carrying capacity with the current water infrastructure implementation is 75,000 cattle units, based on a 400kg animal; a breeding cow is 1.5 units and a mature bull 2.0 units. Herd bulls run permanently with the herd.

At that carrying rate, annual production is expected to be 25,000 cattle units. These are young bulls (maximum weight 350kg) grown for the Indonesian market and larger animals grown for other export markets. Bulls produced other than for this prime export line provide herd bulls for the local and Indonesian markets and for meat markets in the Philippines and the Middle East. Most heifers are retained for herd growth and replacement. Heifers not in calf at 24 months age and culled cows are also sold to the overseas meat markets. John is active in building relationships with his markets, travelling overseas and also receiving visitors to Beetaloo. This has given him confidence in regards to his animals’ welfare after export. His clients are also satisfied that they are receiving quality, grass-fed stock, meeting their needs and expectations.

Cattle are bred to cope well in the tropical environment and for resistance to ticks

The Brahman cattle have advantages in the hot climate, being resistant to ticks and tolerant of the heat. However, fertility is generally lower than for other breeds. Crossing the Brahmans with Senepol, a short-haired breed originating in Senegal, West Africa, and developed on the Caribbean Island of St. Croix specifically also to cope with a tropical environment, has been found to provide some resolution to this issue. In addition, John’s practice of culling ‘empty’ 24 month old heifers ensures that the breeding herd is gradually being selected for fertility.

Ticks are a common problem with cattle in the tropics and sub-tropics. Selecting tick-resistant cattle breeds helps, but does not eliminate the problem. Resting each paddock from grazing for long spells breaks the life cycle of the tick and therefore saves on other control treatments. This provides a further key benefit of the change from uncontrolled set stocking across large areas.

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AN INNOVATIVE VISION FOR GRAZING?

The experience on Beetaloo Station has demonstrated that cattle production can be significantly increased in northern Australia by providing adequate water supply to areas with grazing potential. There is also scope for the increasing carbon build-up in the restored soils to be achieved across vast tracts of land.

John knows that he is developing “…a well organised, productive, sustainable business operation that will benefit the whole environment and landscape, without any unnatural side effects. The changes being implemented have already been attracting attention from other graziers, advisors, industry bodies and NT Government”.

However, he advises, “The cost of infrastructure on the scale required is enormous. The sheer size of the lease limits the pace of change that can be achieved. Make haste slowly, because the costs of getting it wrong are huge”.

But this innovative approach also brings other opportunities. Beetaloo is too big for one family. The family’s vision for the property is to enable it eventually to be divided into a number of units, each of which can support an efficient family run business. This could ultimately be a model for efficient and sustainable cattle production applicable to the vast areas of northern Australia, which, as John says, “Is essential for the long term survival of the industry and its participants”.


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

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‘BOKHARA PLAINS’ – REACHING THE REAL POTENTIAL OF THE NSW RANGELANDS

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REACHING THE REAL POTENTIAL OF THE NSW RANGELANDS

Graham and Cathy Finlayson have used stock to convert claypans to pastures, significantly improving their carrying capacity, while diversifying into cattle trading and tourism to drought-proof their property, Bokhara Plains.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

35 km north of Brewarrina, NSW North West

ENTERPRISE:  Cattle, tourism. Beef cattle agistment and trading; accommodation and event venue

PROPERTY SIZE: 7200 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 380 mm

ELEVATION: 115 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Identifying the potential to improve the landscape and production

INNOVATIONS

  • Using stock to break up claypan
  • Holistic Management techniques to regenerate the rangeland
  • Stock trading to balance stocking rate with pasture availability
  • Diversifying into tourism
  • Innovations commenced: 2001

KEY RESULTS

  • Carrying capacity almost doubled to over 100 DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall
  • Revegetation of claypan landscape
  • Strong, positive community relationships

INTRODUCTION

Disturbed surface and early claypan regeneration.

When Graham and Cathy acquired Bokhara Plains in 1999 they accepted that the property was run down. Ground tanks were bogging sheep every summer, they needed to cut scrub for fodder to keep sheep alive and large areas of the property were claypans. But they felt that things should be better than they were.

Graham and Cathy turned this belief into action after identifying potential in the claypans from observing new plant growth where the surface had been disturbed. Stock were eventually used to break up the claypans, allowing water to penetrate and seeds to germinate. Combined with Holistic Management techniques, the claypans are now being reverted to productive, pastured rangelands with an increasing carrying capacity. Further diversifying into cattle trading and tourism to ensure that they remain viable regardless of the rainfall, Graham and Cathy are well on the way to reaching the real potential of the NSW rangelands, and are providing a shining light for others to follow.

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SEEING THE POTENTIAL

Bokhara Plains is located on the Goodooga road some 35km north of Brewarrina, NSW. The property has frontage on the Bokhara and Birrie Rivers, tributaries of the Barwon River and is part of the Murray Darling Basin and the Western Catchment Management Authority.

The property was traditionally farmed for wool production based on the sparse seasonal pasture growing on the flood plains of the two rivers.

When Cathy and Graham took over the property in 1999, about 50% of the area was claypan or otherwise bare ground. The claypans added nothing to the feed potential of the property. Even in good seasons, the land had struggled to maintain one of the lowest stocking rates in the district.

Graham realised that merinos were not profitable in this environment, and set stocking without matching numbers to carrying capacity was exacerbating ecological problems in the landscape. He explains, “We were almost totally reliant on my wife and I both working off farm to make ends meet. Continually running into dry periods and wishing / praying for rain was having a terrible emotional effect on my mental attitude, and a feeling of helplessness seemed to prevail”.

“I had read Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and realised that we could change the way we did things. One of two things drives fundamental change – pleasure or pain – and for me it was pain!”

Potential in the landscape was identified after the former owners carried out work on some of the claypans. A 400mm high bund was graded to form large shallow ponds. The theory of this method was that the water would soften the clay seal and allow seed to germinate.

The impact of ponding on the claypans was minimal but Graham noticed that there was significant growth on the edges of the claypans where the surface had been disturbed.

Graham states, “In 2001 the place was pretty well degraded and the whole ecological system had broken down. I felt that if we could restore the health of the rangeland that it could withstand drought… low rain in a healthy system could still be productive. It seemed to me that rangeland science was about understanding how the rangeland currently works, not about trying to change or improve it”.

Graham chose to build on the former owner’s ponding operations, initially by using their small Ferguson tractor to mimic the use of a larger grader, and then later using a mouldboard plough to break up the hard capped surface. At this point, he did not have the numbers of cattle that he needed to create the disturbance necessary, and recognised that using a small tractor, although relatively economical, was not nearly as efficient or effective as using cattle. Particularly someone else’s cattle.

Graham eventually identified that regeneration of the claypans and planned rotational grazing could allow the property to develop into productive rangeland with prolific native grasses and herbage suitable for cattle grazing. Agisting cattle allowed Graham to increase his numbers, which he then used to break up the surface of the claypans.

The results were significant, with earlier colonisers like copper burr (Sclerolaena spp.) responding quickly to the changed conditions, followed in due course by a variety of native grasses spreading over the bare surface.

Left: Grass seeds in disturbed claypan. Right: Regeneration of early coloniser, copper burr.

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REALISING THE POTENTIAL

In achieving the potential they envisaged on Bokhara Plains Graham recognised that claypans were not a natural formation and could be restored to rangeland. Combined with Holistic Management principles, Graham determined that rangelands would respond positively to managed grazing practices, using livestock as partners.

After reading Allan Savory’s book, Graham undertook a RCS Grazing for Profit course followed by four years in the Executive Link program. “We also became inaugural participants in a program called Enterprise Based Conservation (EBC) through which we accessed some financial help to undertake a significant water and fencing project for much better control of grazing management.” This pilot program was run by WEST2000 Plus and included a five-year conservation agreement on land placed under voluntary conservation management.

Graham and Cathy also undertook major changes in their livestock enterprises, moving from sheep breeding to trading, then to agistment sheep to agistment cattle and now also cattle trading. They specialised in the larger herbivores from 2007 when they recognised that cattle were giving much better ecological and management benefits.

Graham follows three guiding principles for Bokhara Plains:

  • Match the stocking rate with the carrying capacity of the land.
  • Plants need adequate recovery.
  • Monitor what is going on across the property, make plans, then manage against these plans.

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INFRASTRUCTURE CHANGES

Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount…

Graham and Cathy planned their infrastructure around their grazing strategies. The fencing forms a number of ‘wagon wheels’ with a watering point at the hub, producing a number of ‘cells’. For additional fencing to match stocking rates to carrying capacity, they rely on electric fencing supplied from an inverter connected to mains supply at the house.

Fencing was initially based on the original infrastructure but Graham has modified the layout to reflect his requirement that stock should preferably not travel more than 1.5km to access water. On Bokhara Plains fencing cost about $400 a kilometre for material and labour. Graham points out that the cost can be recovered in a year with increased production from the planned rotational grazing and Holistic Management strategies. Much of the labour for fencing was on-farm, comprising Graham, Cathy and their daughter, Harriett.

STOCKING

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Graham discussing his stock trading chart

Graham and Cathy plan their grazing on availability of pasture at any one time. Graham explains, “Agistment is the basis of our operations and we trade against the variation of available pasture. Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount, along with creating the ‘beneficial impact’ described previously. We monitor pasture availability and plan and manage against that”.

The agistment runs at $/head/week basis for 6-12 months. Stock trading is used to balance the agistment with pasture availability. Stomach and skin parasites are not an issue in the region and stock are not drenched or treated for lice.

In their stock trading operations, Graham and Cathy use strategies developed by Bud Williams in the USA, and now taught by KLR Marketing in Australia. These are based on keeping the three inventories of price, available pasture and stock holding in balance. Using a ‘sell-buy’ process rather than a ‘buy-sell’ process, in the balanced inventory context, they can decide on selling and re-stocking options.

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Increased pasture availability has enabled a significant increase in stocking rates

Graham and Cathy use a 12 month rolling rainfall figure to calculate the stocking rate per hectare by month and annually per 100mm of rain. Using this method, they can reduce stock accordingly when conditions deteriorate and do not have to purchase feed. While they have de-stocked in earlier times, they are confident that they will not have to do so again.

Using these methods, stocking rates have increased exponentially on Bokhara Plains. Graham and Cathy have been measuring their stocking rate or DSE* days per hectare per 100mm of rain since 2002, and have seen their benchmark capacity lift from 56 DSE days per hectare to over 100.

Standing at a watering point where six paddock fences join, Graham points to a 60 hectare paddock with 1100 cattle spread throughout the tall grass, “That paddock would typically only carry about four head year round in a set-stocked operation”.

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WATER MANAGEMENT

Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!

Graham acknowledges, “Water supply is the limiting factor for our grazing enterprise”.

Previously, Bokhara Plains had a very poor water cycle, with substantial runoff from the bare eroding soils. Livestock water was all supplied through open ground tanks, and the two river systems that transect Bokhara Plains, had a long history of set stocking.

Graham’s current sources are the two rivers and access to a bore. The rivers do not always flow, but when it is at high flow he stores water from the Bokhara River in a dam. Both rivers have now been fenced off to allow for strategic grazing. The old ground tanks have been blocked off or fenced in, and 35km of poly pipe has been laid to nine poly tanks and troughs. Water from the dam is pumped to stock watering points. The header tanks at the water points gravity feed to the troughs.

Graham structures his grazing plan around water availability and understands how much water is required on a daily basis per 1000 head of cattle. He works on his principle of, “Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!”

The waterpoints are the ‘hub’ for multiple paddocks in the wagon-wheel design. They are high-use areas when accessible (left), but the pasture can recover after rest (right)

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SOIL

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Improving the soil has enabled increased ground cover and nutrient cycling – visibly different to remnant claypan

The soils across Bokhara Plains, which have not yet been subject to soil testing, are varied. The country off the Bokhara and Birrie rivers comprises typical black soils, with lighter Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), Neverfail (Eragrostis setifolia), Queensland bluegrass (Dichanthium sericium) and bladder saltbush (Atriplex vesicaria) country interspersed with scalded claypans in between the rivers.

Claypans are a dense, compact, slowly permeable layer in the subsoil with a much higher clay content than the overlying material. The subsoil claypan layer becomes exposed when original topsoil is lost or degraded, exhibiting very different physical properties and behaviour. Claypans are usually hard when dry, and plastic and sticky when wet. They limit or slow the downward movement of water through the soil.

The techniques applied by Graham however, have enabled the bare ground to be converted to productive rangeland. The vastly increased ground cover has demonstrably increased overall soil biological activity, particularly the visible beneficial decomposing fungal activity in the soil, which regenerates healthy topsoils. Reducing paddock size and the successful grazing strategies are pointing towards potentially even higher stocking rates and therefore towards greater soil fertility as animals spread more dung and seed.

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

At acquisition, the Bokhara Plains was a dustbowl. Approximately 50% of the total land area was bare ground, and aerial photographs showed huge areas of claypan. However, there were reasonable patches of Mitchell grass and bladder saltbush in places. Besides providing some basic stock feed, this existing vegetation provided a seed bank.

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Vegetation diversity and coverage has significantly increased

The WEST2000 Plus Project on EBC, that predated the intervention of the CMA, was aimed at increasing ground cover. The project paid on percentage of ground cover achieved. Graham and Cathy had a personal target of 70%, although the EBC target was 40% which is recognised as a critical threshold point to stop wind and water erosion, and was measured in the most likely month for being dry – October. Graham and Cathy noticed that the areas of high-impact grazing recovered better and they could see that, over time, stocking rates could be increased. They amended their own target to “100% ground cover 100% of the time”, and although difficult to achieve, Graham believes it should be every land managers goal whatever the environment. It had become obvious to Graham and Cathy that grazing strategies had to be part of their vegetation management and enterprise-based conservation.

The planned rotational grazing practices have given young trees and shrubs respite from literally being ‘nipped in the bud’. Independent monitoring from the beginning of the EBC Project has shown a steady increase in the number of native trees, increased ground cover and the presence of perennial grasses.

They also noticed that the best gains came from improving good land and not necessarily from regenerating claypan. They therefore concentrated their efforts on the good land first.

Weeds were not previously a significant concern on Bokhara Plains, and now, besides small and decreasing outbreaks of Bathurst Burr (Xanthium spinosum), which they deal with by hand, there are no appreciable weed and pest issues on the property

DIVERSIFYING

Graham and Cathy are admirers of the Joel Salatin approach of many synergistic enterprises stemming from the one farm. Aligned with this approach they have a willingness to diversify with complementary enterprises. One such enterprise has seen the development of a tourism venture ‘Bokhara Hutz’, which they have grown over the last ten years into a reliable source of income, particularly through the four separate occasions when they have totally de-stocked the property.

This successful 30 person capacity farm stay business also provides a venue for local events, such as weddings and parties. Plans for the future include generating more farm produce, to be less reliant on off farm purchases.

Cathy notes, “Our diversification into tourism has allowed us to reach toward our goal of drought proofing our business”.

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A SHINING LIGHT, ON THE FARM…

The infrastructure design and layout, the ready availability of water to stock, the rested and fresh pastures and the careful management of all farm operations combine for exemplary Holistic Management practices. This is a far cry from when Graham and Cathy took over six dusty paddocks and a flock of struggling sheep in 1999.

Graham summarises, “This has so far been a ten year learning process, which we expect to continue for some time yet. Installing infrastructure, etc., was implemented with some financial help through the EBC project involvement, however much of our innovation has been off the back of work done by many friends, colleagues and other people I’ve met while learning and studying all over the world [Nuffield Scholarship 2008], due to their desire and preparedness to share their own experiences”.

Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas, is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts

Through intensive cattle grazing using agistment and trading to give flexibility in numbers, Graham and Cathy have revegetated and rejuvenated a much degraded landscape. “We have taken Bokhara Plains from a six paddock extensive layout with poor water security, to a 100 plus paddock planned cell system with fully reticulated and controlled water system. We have also diversified into tourism / accommodation, and have hosted many farming tour groups in our facility, Bokhara Hutz.”

Graham and Cathy’s original goal was to develop their property to be able to run around twice the original estimated 56 DSE days per hectares per 100mm of rainfall. They now see that the potential is much greater, perhaps up to three to four times that DSE rate, whilst continuing to build positive environmental outcomes. These increases are possible, due to the resilience in their pastures through increased diversity of their ground cover and improvements in soil health brought about by their grazing management. Their profitability is now based on a sell/buy approach, where the ups and downs of the markets are smoothed out. And to provide further surety, a careful balance between agistment operations and a trading herd is maintained.

Graham points out that the “economics stack up” – the potential for increased production on the property is better than investing in more property.

“Often people in the area believe that expanding their land holding is the only way to survive in the light country of the region”, states Graham. “A quick cost benefit analysis suggests that this is not the case at all. Enterprises of our size can prosper. At a rate of around $12 per acre to establish water points and fencing will allow intensive grazing approaches to be established, with immediate improvement in the quality of pastures, percentage of ground cover and health of the stock. These improvements come with no additional overheads, unlike purchasing additional land at upwards of $100 an acre and the associated taxes and other costs.”

He continues, “And, it’s all about flexibility. You can’t manage without people and animals. Smaller places are the answer, not more land. We should make the most of what rain we get and develop the land we have. We always plan for no rain. If there is a rain event, then we re-plan”.

However, Graham laments, “Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts”. Reliance on science leading the way, with a lack of supporting policies and unreasonable bias against livestock, provides some of the greatest impediments to wider adoption of the sort of practices that are employed at Bokhara Plains. Indeed, Bokhara Plains is a shining light, in stark contrast to others seen around the landscape when driving through the west of NSW. For the Brewarrina area, a stocking rate of 4 head of cattle (24 DSE) to 60 hectares is considered suitable. That Graham can have 1100 head in that same area for two days might be considered by some to be ridiculous and not sustainable.

Graham points out that it is important to manage equity and debt levels against cash flow to ensure potential to increase carrying capacity and the possibility of increasing the margins from stock trading. In addition, in the context of all the activities, it is necessary to watch for ‘staff burn out’ and to employ additional labour at the right time.

For Graham and Cathy, reduced overheads through increased productivity and the use of contractors for specialised operations has contributed to more satisfying outcomes and better use of family time.

Graham’s practices are regenerative and enable a much greater stocking rate

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…AND IN THE COMMUNITY

Graham and Cathy note, “Since we first had a change in thinking back in 2001 we have endeavoured to be able to help others achieve the same. Our view is that we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours not less, and in a community that is not struggling or welfare reliant”.

Graham is an active mentor to others in developing their enterprises to more sustainable grazing and enjoys the opportunity to encourage others through both mentoring and education programs.

Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.

…we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours, not less, and in a community that is not struggling…

Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.

Graham is considered a role model for other farmers in the wider region wishing to consolidate their formal grazing management training, through his Western CMA sponsored mentoring of four farming business. This activity includes on-farm visits and teleconferencing to help his clients focus on outcomes, not issues.

Graham’s training was based on the RCS Grazing for Profit course and this program allows for expansion of this support through a well developed extension program.

Graham and Cathy now enjoy many social benefits from the enterprise. Bokhara Plains has hosted ‘Keep In Touch’ days for graduates of earlier grazing management courses, and field days (including hosting his mentors – Allan Savory and Terry McCosker at different times). On these days around 150 people, many of them young farmers, eager to learn and talk about a wide range of challenges both on farm and more strategically are able to share experiences.

Cathy remarks that one of the clear positive community aspects of their lives now is the opportunity to sit down at dinner most nights with a wonderful and varied group of people from all walks of life.

Graham was adjudged the NSW Young Farmer of the Year in 2005, relatively early in the transformation of Bokhara Plains, and has gone on to be recognised with Carbon Cocky and CMA awards.

Graham and Cathy have been involved in the P & F at a local school, the Rural Financial Council, and in the local Show and Rodeo committee. They also host an annual visit to Bokhara Plains by the Warringah school group as part of a sister city relationship with Brewarrina.

The Bokhara Hutz accommodation package has also delivered welcome benefits for the family. Cathy and Graham both enjoy the opportunity to interact with their visitors and interested farming groups coming to visit the property. “It provides another opportunity to show people what we have done over the years and to learn from those around the table.”


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.

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‘BRIANDRA’ – USING RAISED BEDS AND BENEFICIAL FUNGI TO RESTORE SOIL HEALTH

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

USING RAISED BEDS AND BENEFICIAL FUNGI TO RESTORE SOIL HEALTH

Upon learning the links between soil health and waterlogging, Brian and Sandra Wilson concentrated on improving their soils, adopting a technique to improve drainage and biologically managing stubble.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

Mingay, 16km north of Lismore, 170km west of Melbourne, VIC Western Plains

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Cereal, oilseed and pulse crops; Merino sheep grazing

PROPERTY SIZE: 1073 hectares, 700 cropped

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 20 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Needing to diversify to maintain production and address waterlogged soils

INNOVATIONS

  • Raising crop beds
  • Using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing to manage cereal stubbles
  • Spreading biological blend on soils
  • Innovations commenced: Raised beds 1993/Biological blend 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased the area available for cropping through improved drainage
  • Adoption of practices across a community
  • Improved soil health and fertility
  • Increased sheep weight gain

INTRODUCTION

By creating raised narrow beds of soil Brian and Sandra Wilson achieved major improvements in drainage and the structure of their soil. This led to more reliable crop yields and the production of considerable amounts of stubble.

A stubble digestion program was initiated to manage cereal stubbles, using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing. The wheat stubble is now incorporated into the soil and is used to renovate the beds.

A biological blend, a mixture of brewed microbes, humates, basalt, soft rock phosphate and various trace elements, was spread to rectify soil deficiencies.

As a result of the various techniques applied, the changes to the soil both physically and chemically are remarkable, transforming from hard setting grey clay to a red/brown non-sticky loam. The ratio of calcium to magnesium moved towards a desirable 5:1, improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.

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BRIANDRA

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Sugar gum shelterbelt originally sown in the late 19th century.

Briandra was originally part of the ‘Gala’ estate, which was settled by a scot named John Brown, probably in the early 1840s. This estate was broken into smaller properties later in the 19th century and the government acquired part for soldier settlement blocks in 1919 1Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool.

The policy to subdivide large pastoral properties into soldier settlement blocks assumed that smaller-scale farming would be viable 2Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool. This was often not the case on Western Victoria’s basalt plain. Although rainfall is generally reliable, poor drainage caused by the heavy clay soil was a problem during the winter months.

The climate in the region is temperate and average yearly rainfall is around 650mm. The local topography is flat to undulating, with some deeply incised drainage lines where streams have cut through the basalt plain to underlying sedimentary strata. A watercourse, Brown’s Water Holes, runs from north to south through Briandra, continues to the town of Lismore and terminates in Lake Gnarpurt, one of the western district of Victoria’s saline lakes. Soils are typically heavy, deep hard-setting clay that has developed on basalt.

Sugar gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) shelterbelts run along several road and paddock boundaries. The shelterbelts are about 50 metres wide and occupy a total area of about 10 hectares. They were originally established in the late 19th century because there was little tree cover or timber available.

The people from whom Brian and Sandra bought the property had held it since 1912. When they were first in the area, the Brown’s Water Holes watercourse was a flood plain through the tussocks, which could be crossed by horse and cart anywhere along its length.

During the 1950s, most of the native pasture was replaced with phalaris and sub clover. The former owners felt that these grasses were becoming too invasive on the higher fertility soil, and they had ceased using any phosphorus fertilisers some fourteen years before. As a consequence, the pastures were very phalaris dominant, and together with their conservative stocking rate, were also very rank. Cropping was only performed in a limited area, mainly oats for sheep feed and wheat, and was not very successful due to high prevalence of waterlogging. The flock was mainly Corriedale, which was common in the district at the time.

The Wilson family, Brian, Sandra and four children, moved to Mingay from South Australia in 1985. The children have since left the farm and Brian and Sandra run the farm with the help of an employee, who lives on an adjoining smaller property. About 700 hectares of the property are cropped and 330 hectares is permanent pasture.

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WATERLOGGED

We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the market.

By the time the Wilson family moved to Briandra, the wool industry had been in decline for many years. The creek had eroded to a depth of up to three metres in places and bridges were needed to cross it.

“Pasture pugging and waterlogging gave us little confidence of achieving good outcomes in crops and pasture growth”, Brian recalls. “We had come from a merino sheep and mixed cropping operation, in 432mm rainfall and sandy soils. It was quite a learning experience to manage waterlogged soils.”

In 1987, after a few wet years, the Wilsons ceased cropping and fully dedicated themselves to wool growing. Failed crops and high wool prices made this a good decision, until the collapse of the wool reserve price scheme.

“We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the market.”

“We realised that we did not know how the basalt plains functioned as an ecosystem and why it was in such poor condition. We lacked detailed technical information. It was not until we went and talked to a wide range of experts that we began to understand why the soil condition and the waterlogging problems were related.”

Brian and Sandra commenced their journey to improve the soil health and fertility over the long term. They sought expert advice, paid for a digital elevation model and collected soil samples and had them analysed and explained. They realised that they would have to restore soil health to address the waterlogging before they could produce productive crops. To achieve these goals Brian and Sandra decided that they would have to do things differently from their neighbours and the way the land had been managed previously.

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RAISING THE BEDS

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Raised crop bed former.

In November 1990 Brian and Sandra installed 40 hectares of sub surface drainage in an endeavour to prevent waterlogging, and to see if they could successfully grow crops. They found that they could produce high yielding autumn/winter sown crops without the constraint of waterlogging. This doubled the potential yield of spring sown crops and was much more reliable.

Brian recalls, “The 1992 wheat crop was planted early May, some of it to the experimental red winter wheat ‘Lawson’. In a very high rainfall spring and summer, this crop survived, and though weather damaged, yielded well with the Lawson giving seven tonnes a hectare. Satisfied that with drainage crops could be grown successfully, we installed a further 40 hectares of underground drains in 1995.” However with the cost of establishing the drains over $1000 a hectare, this was prohibitive, and the Wilsons were unable to convert larger areas.

Around 1994, a small group of farmers met with the director of agriculture in Ballarat to investigate the possibility of improving crop production in the region. Brian was invited to attend, and also had joined the Geelong crop improvement group to learn from others. From this background, the Southern Farming Systems group was formed in 1995. The initial management committee leased land at Gnarwarre for experimental work to trial various methods to improve cropping outcomes in the high rainfall zone.

n 1996 the committee trialled two hectares each of sub surface, wide, and narrow raised beds. Even with an extremely wet winter, canola yields of 3.5 tonnes a hectare proved their worth. Brian points out, “The outcome from this was that yields were similar on all sites, but at $200 per hectare with narrow raised beds, the cost could be factored into the first crop’s gross margin. The crop was more even than the wide raised beds, where the fertile top soil was moved from the drain to the top of the beds”.

At $200 a hectare for narrow beds compared with over $1000 for sub-surface drains, the committee decided to concentrate on the narrow beds. It is estimated that around 500,000 hectares in south-west Victoria now use this practice.

By adopting raised narrow beds of soil on Briandra, the Wilsons achieved major improvements in drainage and the tilth (condition of tilled soil, especially in respect to suitability for sowing seeds) of the soil. They also actively avoid compacting the soil.

“Since moving to raised bed farming we no longer drive machinery or vehicles on the beds. Our own tests have shown that this compacts the soil and reduces biological activity. To overcome this problem in the long term we have moved to control track farming where the tractors and harvesters only move in the furrows. To ensure this happens, machinery is fitted with high spatial precision tracking systems.”

When the paddocks are not cropped they are established and managed as phalaris/sub clover based perennial pastures.

Raised beds on Briandra with stubble (left) and after grazing (right).

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The results of the biological program trialled over small areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now using that system.

While the narrow raised beds were effective in managing waterlogging, with increased productivity the Wilsons found they had to deal with higher stubble loads of up to 10 tonnes a hectare. Stubble burning was a commonly accepted practice in the district, however the Wilsons felt that this was not sustainable in the long term.

Attempts to mulch the stubble and sow directly into them was defeated not by physical restraints, but by chemical limitations. Excess stubble was resulting in allelopathy – exudates from wet straw were poisoning the following crop. In 2001 Brian met Adrian Lawrie at the Wimmera field days. His small biological products company LawrieCo was promoting cellulose-digesting fungi to break down straw.

In 2002 Brian purchased enough product to treat 17 hectares. This was not overly successful, possibly due to poor brewing technique. In 2003, he installed a tank and brewing pump to properly multiply the fungi and applied it to another 17 hectare plot. This time a better result was achieved, so the Wilsons expanded the area treated. The results were successful.

“In 2005 we treated the barley stubble in Weir South on one side of the creek only. Sheep had access to both sides, but only grazed the treated side. Brian removed them in score 3 condition when it was felt that the paddock was bare enough; around 1000kg a hectare dry matter. The untreated side had only been ‘picked at’”, notes Sandra.

“The results of the biological program trialled over small areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now using that system.”

Brewed cellulose fungi and grazing has now become standard practice to manage cereal stubbles on Briandra.

The high biomass produced by pea and barley stubbles tends to clump together with wind, but these are now reduced by grazing. The biological stubble digestion program makes them more digestible to stock, and they become a valuable food source. As the health of the soils improved, Brian and Sandra found the need to incorporate the wheat stubble, which is not eaten as effectively as barley, into the soil to get it to breakdown quickly enough. To overcome the biomass problems the Wilsons invested in specialist machinery to incorporate the wheat stubbles at a shallow level, and then reform the beds.

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ADJUSTING SOIL CHEMISTRY, BIOLOGY & STRUCTURE

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Top: Poor structure of overworked, low organic matter soil.
Below: Soil from the same area, now friable after several years of treatment.

“While we were successfully growing high yielding crops, with high inputs of fertiliser, it seemed that pathogens were an increasing problem. Lucerne flea attacking wheat crops at the 2 to 3 leaf stage became more common, and barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) also prevalent. LawrieCo suggested trying the nutri-blend product [now called ‘biologic blend’]. This dramatically changed the chemical analysis of our soils.”

Previous soil tests on Briandra had shown high levels of iron and magnesium, resulting in tie up of nutrients and poor soil structure. After adding the biologic blend, the Wilsons found that the phosphate available for plant uptake, measured through Olson P levels, had increased dramatically. “Pasture paddocks where Olson P had stabilised in the 12-15 range despite annual dressings of 20+ P increased to 19 with the addition of only 10 P in the form of soft rock phosphate, together with 5kg a hectare of boron humates”, Brian explains.

Calcium levels had also increased. This improved the calcium to magnesium ratios, moving it towards a desirable 5:1, from a previous 1.5:1, thus improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to previous conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.

Soil structure, already improved by minimising waterlogging, changed from light grey clay, to a reddish brown loam. It was less sticky and had increased infiltration rates.

Brian notes, “The results of the biological soil improvement program trialled over small areas initially, then across the whole farm have been very rewarding. Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic soils”.

The Wilsons are proud to note, “We have shared the lessons we have learnt at Briandra. Over many years of serving on local and regional bodies we have been able to influence the focus of several groups on soil health. In 2012 soil has been listed in the top six assets of the regional catchment strategy”.

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PRODUCTION HIGHLIGHTS

Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic…

Crop rotations over four years follow the sequence of canola, barley, pulse, wheat, as shown above. The pulse is either broad beans or field peas, which provide valuable stubbles, giving high protein supplements to lambs (weaner sheep) and ewes. Brian and Sandra have found that an obvious benefit is weight gain, with lambs reaching 50kg or more live weight by joining at 19 months, with conception rates in hoggets comparable to the older ewes as well; usually 90% in one cycle.

Crop production has remained about the same level as before biological inputs were applied on Briandra. The Wilsons spend around the same amount on fertiliser inputs but are finding that the crops appear greener and more robust. Urea applications have been reduced to about 40% of what they were previously.

Brian points out that recent extreme years of 2006 and 2010, when growing season rainfall was 220mm and 714mm respectively, have made it difficult to assess how much production has been influenced by management change, and how much by weather influences. He does note however, “Suffice to say, the best performed paddocks on those extreme years, have been those where the most biology has been added”.

In 2006 barley yielded 6t/ha compared with an average 4t/ha over the rest of farm. In 2010 the beans yielded 4t/ha without any fungicide applications

It would appear that the immune system of the crops and pasture plants have been enhanced as lower levels of pathogenic attack have been experienced. The need for both insecticide and fungicide use have been dramatically reduced, mostly confined to seed dressings. This has made integrated pest management strategies easier to implement, and beneficial insects are now the Wilson’s main control measure. While production assessments are ongoing, Brian and Sandra report that, generally, cash profits are about the same as they were after the drainage was installed and before the biological amendments were applied. However, they are confident that long term outcomes are better.

Most profits are reinvested in improving the farm. Brian notes, “My business model has the philosophy to use ten per cent of farm gross income in experimentation, starting over small areas, and the encouraging results are expanded, and may develop into standard practice. Any failures, and there have been many, are discarded”.

He advises, “Be prepared to try new methods on your own farm. Use on small scale first. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn from others. Join farm groups”.

The Wilsons are content with what they have achieved on their property and in their region in relation to soil health. “We have personal satisfaction that the soils on the property are much healthier now than we first arrived. We have passed the lessons we have learned on to the wider community and region through our involvement in regional NRM bodies.”

“We now observe a gradual awareness and adoption of innovative solutions for solving seemingly intractable management problems such as waterlogging and pugging on our region’s soils.”

No doubt, the establishment of Southern Farming Systems as an organisation providing farmers in high rainfall areas with ‘real world research and information’ has provided the framework for these innovations and their adoption.

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.

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‘CLOVER ESTATE’ – TURNING SAND INTO FERTILE SOIL

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

TURNING SAND INTO FERTILE SOIL WITH APPLIED SOIL SCIENCE

David Clayfield has used applied soil science to create fertile, healthy soils from sand, in turn producing healthy pastures and healthy cows.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

Mil Lel, 15 km north east of Mount Gambier, SA South East

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Contract rearing of dairy heifers

PROPERTY SIZE: 100 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 700 mm

ELEVATION: 56 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Rising production costs and animal health concerns

INNOVATIONS

  • Introducing biologically-based soil conditioners to balance the mineral and microbial status of the soil
  • Strategic use of foliar fertilisers
  • Ceasing chemical inputs
  • Innovations commenced: 1995

KEY RESULTS

  • Stock output increased by 33%
  • 25% reduction in irrigation used per animal weight produced
  • Infertile sand converted into fertile dark soils showing organic matter down to 60cm
  • Thriving pastures with fewer weeds

INTRODUCTION

Faced with rising production costs and animal health concerns, David Clayfield made the link that improving soil health – physically, chemically and biologically – could address the cause of animal health and low productivity problems.

David eliminated the use of chemical and acid-based fertilisers, replacing them with biologically-based soil conditioners tailored to rectify deficiencies identified through soil tests.

Fifteen years on, yellow sands have turned into dark, healthy soils with a substantial increase in soil organic matter. Irrigation requirements have reduced from the region’s typical seven to eight megalitres per hectare each year to five to six, subsequently reducing the energy used for pumping and distribution.

Pastures are thriving, animal health has improved and productivity has increased, while the veterinary bills have plummeted – positive results, all round.

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CLOVER ESTATE

David’s grandfather came to Clover Estate in the mid 1930s to manage a large grazing estate. He bought a portion of it when the estate was subdivided for soldier settlement blocks after World War II. David’s father grew up on the farm and has now retired, leaving David to run the property.

The typical soil in the region is five metres of sand overlying limestone. Native vegetation is low open forest dominated commonly by manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), brown stringybark (Eucalyptus baxteri) and blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). Most of the native vegetation in south-east South Australia has been cleared to make way for farming and plantation forestry, but there is a small remnant left on the Clover Estate property.

There are no surface streams in the limestone plains area of south-east South Australia – rainfall infiltrates into the limestone, which forms an extensive shallow aquifer system. Dairying and cropping in the region depend on pumping irrigation water from this aquifer system.

David’s grandfather and father operated Clover Estate as a dairy farm for many years, irrigating the pastures using water pumped from the shallow limestone aquifer underlying the property. After the dairy industry was deregulated the property proved to be too small to run viably as a milk producing dairy farm. Since 2000, the farm has been used to raise dairy heifers that are bred elsewhere in the district.

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Heifers are reared on contract on a ‘pay for weight gain’ basis. The calves are brought to the property at four to five months age and within one year they have gained about 200 kg, i.e. a young dairy cow. The farm has the capacity to ‘turn off’ 600 to 700 heifers a year.

The current market for these young cows is the Republic of China. The heifers are shipped to China where they are mated upon arrival and begin producing milk before they are two years old.

A total of about 62 hectares of Clover Estate is irrigated and the rest is used for unirrigated grazing and cutting hay to provide feed during winter. A highly modified landscape, almost all native flora on Clover Estate has been replaced with introduced pasture species.

Clover Estate lucerne pastures which are interspersed with rye grass, clover and plaintain.

DEFICIENT SANDY SOILS

South-east South Australia is made up of distinct land systems. The main underlying geological formation comprises limestone layers that have produced fertile soil, including the famous ‘terra rossa’ (red earth) soils of the Coonawarra wine region. Scattered in bands across the plains are low wide sand ridges, running roughly parallel to the present coastline. These sand ridges formed along ancient coastlines in the past few million years as the sea level rose and fell and the land surface was uplifted during ice ages. These sandy soils have low natural fertility.

When the large grazing properties were ‘broken up’ for farming and closer settlement, these sandy soil plots were not in demand. The sandy areas in private ownership were used for grazing, rather than cropping.

Clover Estate and many other properties in the area have been used for dairying, irrigated with groundwater pumped from the limestone aquifer, for many years. This groundwater is rich in calcium, which increases pH from natural levels of around 5, that is, slightly acidic, up to 7 to 8, which is slightly alkaline. This change causes nutrient imbalances and encourages growth of Yorkshire fog or velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), a perennial grass. Holcus lanatus is generally considered in Australia to be a weed of saline and waterlogging-prone sites and has little grazing value. The traditional way to redress the nutrient imbalances in the area is to use superphosphate and potash – potassium-rich fertiliser.

In 1992, a soil test showed organic carbon at 2.1%, total cation exchange capacity 3.5, and deficient levels of 17 macro and micro soil nutrients at Clover Estate. Prevailing advice was to continue to apply higher amounts of chemical fertiliser to maintain production. But high chemical and fertiliser inputs and high water use were proving to be financially unsustainable. Furthermore, excessive weed competition had been developing despite regular use of knock-down and selective herbicides. Insecticides were used regularly for red-legged earth mite and other pests.

These problems, high levels of irrigation per animal production unit, on top of recurring animal health issues – mastitis, prolapse, sore feet – and concern about personal exposure to chemicals, led David to investigate more sustainable ways to improve soil and forage quality.

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IDENTIFYING THE BENEFIT OF HEALTHY SOILS

“The aim was to start with the soil health, by balancing the mineral and microbial status of soil, and the subsequent benefits in forage quality and animal health would follow.”

David had realised that management of animal health with medicines was only addressing the symptoms of animal health and performance, rather than the causes. Equally, chemical management was only creating recurring problems at extra cost. Conversely, improving soil health and mineral balance and availability in pasture would address the cause of animal health and low productivity problems.

David found that experimentation and mineral supplementation redressed some animal health problems. Success with this process indicated the strong link between animal nutrition and health. This prompted David to undertake further investigation to address animal health problems through the soil and fodder.

David’s aim was to stop using chemical or acid-based fertilisers and pesticides. He wanted to improve soil fertility and water-holding capacity by adding biologically-based stimulants that increase soil organic matter.

He encountered challenges with adopting new methods, the initial impediment being a lack of information about alternatives to the ’single super’ use way of farming. He was required to perform ongoing research, education and trial and error to identify his options and learn more about the links between soil and animal health.

David initially drew on information from Pat Coleby, a practitioner of animal health through soil health, which provided a useful guide. He also attended short courses in different approaches to fertiliser management, increasing his understanding and confidence in soil mineral and microbial management. David notes, “I have utilised interactions with agronomists and soil scientists from biological product supply companies to assist in fertiliser program management and planning”.

David also read widely to supplement the courses and consultation. His collection of reference books include Charles Walters and C.J. Fenzau’s Eco-farm; Arden Andersen’s Science in Agriculture: Advanced Methods for Sustainable Farming; and Pat Coleby’s Healthy Land for Healthy Cattle.

David Clayfield with bags of soil treatment
  used on the property.

An equally significant challenge was the lack of interest from other farmers, extending even to ridicule of some of the changes made and methods tried.

egardless, David advises, “Work it out, stick to it, no matter what everyone thinks. With the experience and knowledge now available, you could build carbon and fertility in your soil in much less time than it took us to learn how by trial and error”.

TURNING SAND INTO SOIL

Understanding the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of soil through applied soils science and putting this knowledge into practice over time, has been the fundamental innovative practice applied at Clover Estate.

“Testing the soil and observing the plants and animals, it became obvious that use of chemicals and acidic fertiliser were not a long-term solution”, David says. He stopped using chemical fertilisers in the mid 1990s, five years before the switch from milking to raising heifers.

“The aim was to start with the soil health, by balancing the mineral and microbial status of soil, and the subsequent benefits in forage quality and animal health would follow.”

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Spraying biological liquid fertiliser.

The process began with soil testing to assess the situation. Soil treatments were applied with the objective of addressing mineral balance, improve soil biological processes and overall soil fertility specific to paddock soil test results. The key ingredients are residue-digesting fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, including strains of Azotobacter, Bacilus, Pseudomonas, and Trichoderma 1LawrieCo (2009) Sustainable update Winter 2009, LawrieCo Sustainable Farming, Wingfield, South Australia. Nutrients, carbohydrate and minerals are added to enable the bacteria and fungi to multiply in temperature-controlled 5000 litre aquaculture tanks. The minerals included a carbon, humic base to stimulate soil biological processes and organic matter building activity. The resulting brew is applied to the paddocks yearly at 50 litres a hectare.

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Microbe brewing.

In addition to soil building programs, a range of bio-fertilisers, such as foliar and fertigated (application through an irrigation system) mineral, microbial, kelp, fish, humic and fulvic fertilisers have been applied over the past 15 years. Leaf tests are taken to identify lacking nutrition, enabling application of nutrients to address imbalance in plants.

Animals’ performance and grazing preference, along with observing the plant species that are growing, are used as an additional guide as to excess and deficit minerals in the soil.

To target these treatments accurately, David has equipped himself with a refractometer, to measure the sugar concentration in plant sap, and other measurement devices and has soil tested by an agricultural laboratory in Adelaide.

In David’s words, the three rules for the soil remediation techniques he has developed and applied are “balance, balance and balance – carbon to nitrogen ratio, calcium to magnesium ratio, etc. … look at the whole picture from soil to human health”.

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HEALTHY SOIL OUTCOMES

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The results are evident in the soil profiles of remnant and treated soils. Soil carbon has increased by 45% in the top 150mm, and potentially substantially more at depth. Organic carbon measurements show an increase from 2.07% in 1992 to 2.92% in 2011.

David estimates that, since the mid 1990s, stock output has increased by 33% while he is using 25% less irrigation water per animal weight produced.

As is usual in the region, centre pivot systems are used at Clover Estate to irrigate with water pumped from the shallow limestone aquifer. Centre pivot irrigation uses sprays fitted on a boom that travels in a circle around the centre pivot point. Electric motors are used to drive the wheels that carry the boom. Two such systems operate at Clover Estate, one of about 300 metres radius, covering about 28 hectares, and the other a 330 metres radius, covering 34 hectares. A neutron probe is used to measure soil moisture levels and determine when watering is needed.

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Clover Estate centre pivot irrigation layout.

Due to the improved structure of the soils, David has found that his total water use is now around 5-6 Ml/ha/year compared with the 7-8 Ml/ha/year commonly used on sandy soils in the region. This is particularly noteworthy in relation to rainfall, with eight of the last ten years receiving below-average annual falls. As well as using less water, David’s energy costs from pumping and driving the boom have halved.

Cessation of chemical weed control and David’s soil management has ensured vigorous growth of preferred pasture species, combined with rotational grazing. The property is fenced into 50 paddocks, ranging from two to six hectares. The rotational grazing cycle also aims to break the life cycle of intestinal gut parasites.

David highlights, “Pasture plants grow better and there are now a lot fewer weeds. Lucerne varieties that had been abandoned due to poor performance by most typical, chemically managed properties perform exceptionally well on our property. Lucerne, rye grass, clovers, are the predominant species, along with a variety of herbs for balanced pasture. Animal health issues are primarily averted, due to the density and balance of the minerals in our pasture”.

“Strategic use of selected foliar fertilisers… reduces or eliminates sap sucking insects attacking the pasture. We have found also that foliar fertilisers strengthen our desirable forage species, making them more competitive over weeds.”

David believes that “Holistic management includes an appreciation of natural processes and an understanding of applied soil science. If soil biology functions to its best ability, the availability of minerals to plants will be at its best. If animals and people have access to adequate mineral diversity in diet, then disease is less … and performance is better. Our farm enterprise is more profitable, and more enjoyable. We will leave an improved legacy.”

“Our example has inspired other farmers, particularly dairy and graziers, to adopt aspects of soil management as we have. Looking at our soil profile, black to the depth that it is, speaks for itself. Most farmers appreciate that something is different and improved on our property. We are happy to share our journey, as it appears to give confidence to other food producers to take on similar management. Less chemicals affecting the environment, with improved quality of food for consumers is a better outcome than prior to adopting biological farming system.”

FROM SAND TO SOIL

The typical condition of the original infertile sand is indicated by the profile under the patch of remnant native vegetation on the southern edge of the property, where no treatments have been applied (left). The results of 15 years of organic-based treatments are evident in the much darker colour, resulting from higher organic matter content down to 600mm where it used to be devoid of biological activity (right), which means that nutrient and water holding capacity are far higher.

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.

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‘DUKES PLAIN’ – CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT OF THE FARM RESOURCE

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

DELIVERING CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT OF THE FARMING RESOURCE

Shane and Shan Joyce have been involved in farm landscape regeneration for over 37 years. They believe that mixing their own and other peoples’ experiences has helped them in their successes and in achieving their vision for the landscape at Dukes Plain.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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

INTRODUCTION

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.

Grazing management on Dukes Plain sees maximum animal density matched to the carrying capacity of the land

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DUKES PLAIN

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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GILGUNNIA STATION – BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie were driven to seek new ideas on sustainable rangeland management after arriving on the run-down property that was Gilgunnia Station. By implementing a dual grazing system focused on managing total grazing pressure and forage rest and recovery time, they are now building a reliable and productive enterprise that is increasingly resilient to the effects of drought.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

FARM FACTS

38 km north west of Cobar, Central West NSW

ENTERPRISE: Dorper Sheep and Boer Goats, opportunistic feral goat harvesting

PROPERTY SIZE: 10,00 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400 mm

ELEVATION: 260 m

PRACTICES COMMENCED: 2005

RESILIENCE BUILDING PRACTICES

  • Implementing total grazing pressure fencing to control the access of unmanaged goats and kangaroos to pastures.
  • Developing two grazing systems, one intensive, applying all available management techniques to improve landscape performance on developed areas of the property, and one extensive, using fewer resources and maintaining a degree of production on as yet undeveloped areas.
  • Using a planned (holistic) rotational grazing system on intensively managed paddocks providing periods of rest for pasture to fully before re-grazing.
  • Constructing water-spreading contour banks to slow and spread surface running water after rain.
  • Selected mechanical and chemical removal of invasive native scrub to reinstate a grassy open woodland mosaic.
  • Trapping feral goats and reinvesting income into further infrastructure developments to reduce goat impact on the landscape.

KEY RESULTS

  • Building a more resilient business and landscape by improving landscape ecological function.
  • Continually increasing groundcover and diverse palatable perennial species in intensively managed paddocks regardless of seasonal conditions, delivering greater consistency of production and growth response to rainfall.
  • Producing biomass of over 4000kg per hectare on initial intensively managed paddock in April 2014, up from 125kg per hectare in the same paddock in 2005.
  • Ability to run four-times the Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) assessed stocking capacity on 20% of the property.
  • Stopping erosion and improving rainfall infiltration, lifting previously bare paddocks to a new level of productivity within the intensive area.
  • Developing a management system that allows advanced planning and improved ability to take advantage of stock sales and changes in seasonal conditions.
  • Establishing a program of continual landscape and production improvement, reinvesting to expand high-performance managed areas of the property.
  • Building a stable and reliable business that has reduced personal and family stress and markedly improved family lifestyle.

BUILDING RESILIENCE TO THE IMPACTS OF DROUGHT

A landscape that is most resilient to the impacts of drought is one with high proportions of continual groundcover, supporting healthy soils and effective rainfall infiltration and retention. Such a landscape supports a biodiverse ecosystem with healthy nutrient cycles of growth, breakdown and decay.

Many years of over-utilisation of natural resources in the Western Division have resulted in significant degradation of landscape condition, leading to sparse groundcover, widespread incursions of invasive native shrubs and trees, exposed hard-capped soils and a cycle of continuing degradation. Combined with the extremes of climate this region is subject to, the landscape and pastoral production are particularly susceptible to the impacts of drought.

Innovative farmers in the region however, are illustrating that this vulnerability is not a result of any fragility in the landscape, but conversely, that active management can restore landscape health, build a regenerative cycle and deliver sustainable production regardless of seasonal conditions.

Ashely and Carolyn McMurtrie, of Gilgunnia Station north of Cobar, have, over the last 10 years, commenced a program to build a successful enterprise and regenerate their 10,000 hectare landscape. They now run a successful Dorper flock ram and commercial lamb breeding business, and, having significantly improved 20% of their property, are well on their way to building all of Gilgunnia into a resilient state.

The key factors influencing the resilient landscape and business being built on Gilgunnia are:

  • Implementing total grazing pressure fencing, enabling control of wild and domestic grazers and allowing pasture rest and recovery.
  • A focus on increasing and maintaining groundcover, particularly palatable perennial species, which also protect the soil and increase rainfall infiltration and retention.
  • Starting with development of one high-performing paddock to produce biomass that can be relied on when conditions require, then expanding across the property.
  • Running the greatest value stock on the feed available to maximise profits within the carrying capacity.
Ashley McMurtrie shows the Soils for Life team around Gilgunnia Station.

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AGRICULTURE ON THE COBAR PENEPLAIN

GILGUNNIA STATION

Gilgunnia Station is part of Australia’s extensive rangelands which cover 75% of the continent. Gilgunnia comprises 10,000 hectares on the Cobar Peneplain, on the eastern edge of the Western Division of NSW. The Cobar Peneplain is one of six bioregions that lie in Australia’s semi-arid climatic zone. Summers are characterised by hot, persistently dry weather interspersed with rare storms with often heavy rainfall. Since the current series of measurement began in 1962, Cobar has received an average annual rainfall of 398mm, ranging from 101mm in 1982 to 710mm in 2010.

There are no natural surface waters on Gilgunnia, and few elsewhere in the area. Stock and domestic water supplies are provided by ground tanks (dams) of up to 10m deep filled by surface run-off. Water supply from these tanks is generally reliable due to their depth and there is usually sufficient rainfall in summer to replenish them, despite high evaporation rates.

Gilgunnia consists mainly of rangeland in a natural state but of varying condition. Soils on the property are predominantly red earths, shallow on the gravelly rises but deeper on the drainage flats. Nutrient stores in soils, particularly in the rangelands, are generally held within the upper few centimetres of the soil, but on Gilgunnia, like many properties in the region, most of this material had been lost through sheet erosion. Soils become hard-capped through this declining surface structure which consequently reduces rainfall infiltration. Bare ground and a lack of perennial grass presence have contributed to hard-capping and low levels of soil carbon and subsequently the landscape is highly susceptible to the impacts of short term and multi-year droughts.

Typical landscapes in the region are degraded, comprising red gravelly earths and thickets of invasive native species.

The soil landscapes of Gilgunnia support typical plant communities found across the Western Division. The natural vegetation on the gravelly rises is mulga (Acacia aneura) woodland with a shrub layer of turpentine (Eremophila sturtii), budda (Eremophila duttonii), punty bush (Cassia eremophila) and emu bush (Eremophila longifolia). These also host sparse groundcover of copper burr (Sclerolaena parallelicuspis) and occasionally speargrass (Heteropogon contortus). The broad drainage flats support sparse poplar box (Eucalyptus populnea) with a dense shrub cover of mainly turpentine with sparse groundcover and isolated perennial grasses.

Over a century and a half of continuous grazing in the region, combined with periods of carrying large stock numbers into multi-year droughts caused considerable and widespread land degradation and obvious changes in the condition of the native vegetation. A particularly damaging period occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s which coincided with devastation caused by rabbit plagues. Likely as a result of these historical management practices, turpentine, budda, punty bush, emu bush and mulga now act as invasive native species (INS) in this landscape, forming dense thickets across broad areas.

Left unmanaged, this landscape is vulnerable to further degradation. Linear surface features such as tracks and grader windrows are a known cause of rill and gully erosion. Dispersed sheet runoff flows are concentrated by these features, causing extensive erosion systems that drain moisture from surrounding areas.

REGIONAL MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

Feral goats place significant unmanaged grazing pressure on forage in this part of the Western Division.

Conventional management in the district over many decades has typically consisted of continuous or set stocking of Merino, and more recently Dorper sheep and the opportunistic harvesting of feral goats (Capra hircus). An absence of predators and abundance of man-made water supplies has allowed populations of feral goats and kangaroos to proliferate. Many properties in the Western Division are not able to manage forage resources, particularly in times of drought due to the presence of these unmanaged grazers, which can comprise up to 50% of total grazing pressure on the landscape. 1C. Waters, G, Melville, A. McMurtrie, W. Smith, T. Atkinson, and Y. Alemseged (2012), The influence of grazing management and total grazing pressure fencing on groundcover and floristic diversity in the semi-arid rangelands

Goats are hardy under drought conditions due to their ability to browse trees and shrubs and utilise a wider range of forage than other stock. Moreover, these unmanaged grazers are not constrained by conventional pastoral fencing and actively migrate to where the feed is growing, regardless of paddock boundaries.

Both these nomadic grazing animals ensure that pastures in the region are constantly over-utilised and that groundcover is minimal. This leads to reduced infiltration of available runoff and the replacement of palatable and perennial pastures with unpalatable or annual species. Such high grazing pressure causes groundcover to be dominated by annuals, and pasture production occurs in short episodic growing seasons followed by induced ‘drought’ conditions. Under these conditions and with the onset of seasonal dry periods, animal production is dependent on the ability of stock to browse trees and shrubs.

Consequently, pastoralists are unable to conserve feed for drought and stock must continually compete with the unmanaged goats and kangaroos. The downward spiral of bare ground, degraded nutrient levels, poor infiltration of rainfall, limited recruitment and rehabilitation of adapted plant communities results in these landscapes being highly susceptible drought and to the impacts of post-drought heavy rains.

When Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie arrived at Gilgunnia in 2004, the landscape and soils had experienced many decades of traditional pastoral management and were depleted and degraded. The conventional business model previously used on the property did not demonstrate the ability to manage natural resources for either production or natural resource goals.

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CHANGING PRACTICES

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

The McMurtries arrived in the region from the east coast and settled on Gilgunnia. The property was run-down without a single paddock that effectively held stock and in the early stages of what was later to become known as the Millennium drought 2A.I.J.M Van Dijk, H. E. Beck, R. S. Crosbie, R. A. M. de Jeu, Y. Y. Liu, G. M. Podger, B. Timbal, and N. R. Viney (2013), The Millennium Drought in southeast Australia (2001–2009): Natural and human causes and implications for water resources, ecosystems, economy, and society, Water Resources Research, Vol 49, Issue 2. It was evident that previous management models were not working. Ashley and Carolyn were consequently driven to seek new ideas on rangeland management in order to make a viable living.

Their research suggested that when originally settled, the Cobar Peneplain comprised grassy open woodlands, a legacy of Aboriginal burning practices. In the mid to late 1800s of settlement and pastoral development the Western Division vegetated landscape carried a much higher number of sheep than it does today. The gravelly rises would have supported open shrubby vegetation with a groundcover of annual and low perennial grasses such as bandicoot (Monachather paradoxa) and mulga Mitchell grasses (Thyridolepis mitchelliana). The drainage flats would have supported an open woodland of poplar box with a dense cover of robust perennial grasses including kangaroo (Themeda triandra), Queensland blue (Dichanthium sericeum), red-leg (Bothriochloa macra) and curly windmill grasses (Enteropogon acicularis).

In the face of the reality of Gilgunnia, Ashley and Carolyn decided to investigate what management practices they could apply to restore a productive landscape with such vegetation.

EDUCATION & TRAINING

The McMurtries sought local advice and easily identified who to approach as these people were running viable businesses despite the drought conditions. This included those who used traditional business models but maintained an extraordinary work ethic, as well as those who were actively applying new ideas to work with nature and natural cycles.

Through these local relationships they were introduced to Holistic Management, which has since been consolidated with formal training with Holistic Management educator Brian Marshall. Holistic decision making provides a framework for considering all resources and management tools in working towards a specified goal.

Planned rotational grazing (also referred to as holistic planned grazing) is a key Holistic Management practice. This practice aims to replicate the natural behaviours of large grazing animals on the landscape – where large herds graze an area intensively for a short period and then move on, not returning until pastures have fully recovered. These grazing methods encourage more abundant and diverse pastures and the opportunity for pastures to rest.

Management of total grazing pressure combined with planned rotational grazing provide the tools to restore landscape health and maintain production.

The McMurtries participated in a Resource Consulting Services (RCS) Grazing for Profit course in 2006 and a follow-up Pasture to Pocket course in 2009. The Grazing for Profit course involves holistic integrated management training which focuses on the use of natural plant, animal and water cycles as an integral part of on-farm decision making 3RCS Core Courses, Grazing for Profit www.rcsaustralia.com.au/products/family-business/grazing-for-profit-2/. Whilst informative, Ashley found that some of the teachings from this course were less applicable to the drier conditions of the Western Division and his breeding enterprise, than to the eastern environment for which they were developed.

Ashley and Carolyn also established a relationship with the Western Catchment Management Authority (CMA), now Local Land Services (LLS) Western Region, for advice, funding opportunities, and participation in programs and research, a relationship which they have maintained ever since.

They participated in the Western CMA Western Innovators Program, a farmer to farmer mentoring program which aimed to increase the capacity of landholders to manage their properties for the protection of soil, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as both a participant in 2012 and later in 2013 as a mentor.

Ashley and Carolyn also developed skills in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping and completed a year of an Environmental Science degree. However, the latter was discontinued as much of the material presented was found to be dated and not helpful for practical property management.

Ultimately the McMurtries identified that management of total grazing pressure, the combined grazing pressure exerted by all stock – domestic and wild, native and feral – on the vegetation, soil and water resources of the property landscape, combined where possible with planned rotational grazing, would provide the tools by which they could restore landscape health and ecological function and maintain production – regardless of seasonal conditions. And so they conceived the dual system grazing model.

Their relationship with local innovators Andrew and Megan Mosely of Etiwanda has provided an ongoing mentorship and helped the McMurtries to develop a holistic framework for making decisions on their property. The Moselys have vast experience in implementing total grazing pressure management and holistic grazing systems in the Western Division, and they initially assisted Ashley and Carolyn in developing a property management plan for their dual system grazing model.

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

The dual system grazing model applied on Gilgunnia includes a combination of intensively managed grazing across 1,000 hectares and extensively managed opportunistic grazing over the rest of the property.

Gilgunnia Station property map, illustrating areas currently surrounded with TGP fencing.

The dual system was developed as a risk management approach. Implementing the intensive grazing system and with best practice techniques was capital intensive with – at the time – unknown outcomes, although others had used similar approaches with success. There were no case study examples of the range of best-practice approaches being used together. Risk was mitigated by developing the extensive system at the same time, as results were better understood with this model. The intensive system was also developed incrementally, trialling each new technique in a test paddock to see how the landscape responded, before application to other paddocks, as time and resources allowed.

The first stage of implementing the new grazing management system was the construction of goat trap facilities on all water sources to provide cash-flow to fund total grazing pressure (TGP) fencing and to begin reducing goat impact.

INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

Intensively managed grazing attempts to increase production or utilisation per unit area or production per animal through a relative increase in stocking rates, forage utilisation, labour, resources, or capital.

In some paddocks, invasive native species are mechanically removed to re-create an open woodland. This paddock was ploughed just weeks before this photo.

On Gilgunnia this has involved the construction of secure TGP fenced paddocks, with all wild grazers removed. There are currently seven paddocks of between around 48 and 156 hectares over a total of 1000 hectares in the intensive grazing system. The aim is for paddock sizes to eventually be between 120 and 160 hectares, which are considered small for the Cobar district. Smaller paddock sizes enable accurate pasture monitoring, are easier to keep free of unmanaged grazers and easier to maintain infrastructure.

The McMurtries have applied a range of best practice techniques in most of these paddocks, most trialled in one paddock first. As resources have allowed, in a number of paddocks Ashley has performed mechanical and chemical removal of INS to restore open woodland. Though acknowledged as not ideal due to risk of wind and water erosion of the exposed soil, Ashley has ploughed a number of paddocks to fully remove the pervasive turpentine bush. A side benefit of this practice however, is that it helps to break up the claypan and kick-start conditions for moisture infiltration and germination opportunities. Such a result is often achieved by large mobs of cattle in other holistically managed properties.

Water-spreading banks slow and distribute runoff, reducing erosion and improving infiltration. The banks were constructed 12 months prior to this photo and the paddock grazed 4 months prior.

Water-spreading banks (explained in more detail below) have also been constructed on a number of paddocks. Depending on rainfall, it does not take long for colonising pioneer species to appear in these areas of improved water retention. After a period of rest to let plants establish, planned rotational grazing is implemented and timed according to a desired level of pasture utilisation and the trigger points of specific species that are being encouraged.

The rest and recovery time provided by Holistic planned grazing and TGP fencing alone is sufficient to improve groundcover.

Other paddocks in the intensive grazing system have not been cleared, ploughed or had water-spreading banks constructed, but are still showing continuous improvements to ground cover and forage growth through the TGP control and recovery time allowed by planned rotational grazing alone.

The intensive grazing system requires more skill in management and attention to detail. For example, grazing strategies are based on regular monitoring of pasture species and the identification of trigger points. Close monitoring of unwanted grazing animals is also necessary to ensure that pasture objectives are met during the spelling phase.
 

EXTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

Extensively managed grazing areas are larger and still impacted by uncontrolled grazing pressure. Stock have access to graze only when conditions are good.

Extensively managed grazing uses relatively large land areas per animal and a relatively low level of labour, resources, or capital.

The McMurtries practice this over the 9,000 hectares of their property not yet developed for intensive management. This area is usedfor opportunistic grazing when there is adequate forage, while maintaining the capacity to destock when conditions deteriorate.

Two paddocks within this system of 690 and 741 hectares are also enclosed with TGP fencing and provide more reliable feed availability than remaining paddocks during poorer seasons. This system is evolving as funds become available to erect further perimeter TGP fencing. In the interim, unmanaged goats are strategically harvested to reduce their impact on groundcover and forage resources.

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INFRASTRUCTURE

Fencing using hingejoint and barbed or plain wire is essential to manage total grazing pressure and ensure pastures have the opportunity to recover.

Both grazing systems incorporate TGP management through the use of hingejoint fencing systems. This TGP fencing to control the goats and kangaroos generally consists of 7/90/30 hingejoint fencing supported by top, middle and bottom support wires, topped by plain or barbed wires.

The fencing is designed to provide a strong physical and psychological barrier to prevent unwanted grazers access to the paddock. Higher fencing that provides a complete physical barrier in all places at all times was assessed as too prohibitive a cost.

The hingejoint fencing used is seen as relatively easy to erect and maintain, and cost effective given the distances required and its long lifespan. Fencing designs on Gilgunnia have evolved with experience over time, with initial fences incorporating both hingejoint wire and electric offsets. However, based on personal choice, the typical fencing arrangement now comprises 7-line hingejoint with 9 metre post spacing.

Originally the ten ground tanks situated across the property and filled by surface water runoff and rainfall provided all stock water. These were open to stock and unmanaged grazing animals at all times, providing no checks on unwanted consumption or contamination. All ground tanks have now been fenced and stock water is supplied by a combination of concrete and plastic troughs and some direct access to the ground tanks, which is slowly being replaced by a trough system. Where possible water is supplied in corners of interfacing paddocks to lessen costs of infrastructure and to ease mustering.

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GILGUNNIA STOCK

The Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) provided an initial assessment, based on standard practice in the region, of a carrying capacity of 1400 DSE across the then entire property of 13,000 hectares. However, initially the property could only run goats due to the poor condition of pasture and the only forage available being by browsing trees and shrubs. Boer goats were introduced and used as a land management tool as they were able to browse certain shrubs aggressively and remove pasture weeds such as Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum) and Bathurst Burr (Xanthium spinosum). With improving landscape condition after TGP fence erection, pastures became better suited to running sheep.

Dorper sheep provide a greater value product than goats.

A Dorper flock ram and commercial lamb production enterprise was then developed, producing a much higher value animal than Boer or feral goats for similar grazing pressure. Dorpers are of robust build, provide good meat and are highly suitable for variable rangeland conditions. Their strong survival drive does mean they will push through less substantial fencing if feed is required. However, with TGP fencing and the regular quality feed provided by planned rotational grazing, they are a valuable product on Gilgunnia. Ashley currently runs a flock of 900 DSE over 2000 hectares – four times the LHPA assessed rate. These numbers are increasing as the intensively managed system expands and matures.

Cattle complement the animal impact of sheep, disturbing soil, crushing litter and spreading fertiliser.

In the last 12 months a few cattle have also been introduced on to the property. Run in a single mob with the sheep, the impact of the cattle complements the management of the other stock within the intensive system, delivering the benefits of multi-species grazing.

To most effectively respond to changing seasonal conditions and feed availability, Ashley still maintains a herd of Boer goats, which are run in the same mob as the sheep and cattle. These Boer goats are maintained as a self-replacing flock of lower dollar and emotional value, which can easily be sold to reduce stock numbers and grazing pressure if conditions require. This enables Ashley to maintain his Dorper production flock regardless of conditions and ensures that landscape condition is always improving, as matching the stocking rate with carrying capacity is fundamental to this grazing management system.

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FERAL GOAT MANAGEMENT

Specially constructed gates allow feral goats to pass through to the watering point until they are locked when trapping takes place.

Opportunistic harvesting of feral goats comprises a significant income stream for many properties in the region and on Gilgunnia has been the principal stream for financing property improvement and furthering development of both grazing systems. The opportunistic harvesting of feral goats is highly dependent on local populations, seasonal water supply – goats are hard to trap when surface water is abundant – and a fluctuating price from processors in response to demand, supply and international prices.

Feral goats in the trapyard enclosure.

Each of the ground tanks on Gilgunnia has now been fully enclosed by TGP fencing, with specific gates and pens constructed to form the trap yard. Access to the water is only possible through the specially designed trap gates. These gates work by allowing access through a set of spring-loaded spears, and exit through a second set. These are both left open so that the goats become accustomed to moving through the gates to access the water. The exit gates are then locked closed so that the goats cannot escape.

Ashley typically traps feral goats four to five times a year, mostly during the warmer seasons from October to April when there are no alternative sources of water. Trapping is generally performed across the whole property at the one time, which also enables Ashley to perform a form of census of the goat population. Trap yards are generally set across a three day period to trap not only the nannies and kids, but also the billy goats which can be more suspicious and hold out longer to access the water. The goats are then moved through a wing in the enclosure up to a set of yards where they are sorted and moved to a central set of yards to be transported for sale.

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WATER MANAGEMENT

In unmanaged landscapes in the region groundcover levels can be less than 20% for much of the time, so heavy rainfall rapidly runs off the gravelly rises and through the flats without infiltrating. Runoff typically forms as sheet flows into broad drainage flats that traverse the property, flowing on to neighbouring land. Ground tanks fill rapidly during storm rain, reflecting poor infiltration across the landscape.

In order to help address this issue, the McMurtries have invested in landscape engineering in the form of water-spreading banks in a number of paddocks in their intensive system. This technique includes the construction of a series of earth contour banks and channels that repeatedly reduce the velocity of runoff and spread flows across broad areas. It also provides the landscape with the maximum benefit from isolated or smaller rainfall events. This improves infiltration, reduces the concentration of flows and promotes the growth of perennial pastures towards the ridge lines. The then Western CMA provided the layout service to deliver the specific design required for the banks to be effective.

Water-spreading banks at work after a 25mm rainstorm.

Water-spreading is suited to broad flats between 100 metres and 1 kilometre wide. The system contains a series of banks on the contour, holding and spreading water through the system. The banks serve to stabilise erosion (gully or rill erosion) and increase water infiltration. Water-spreading systems increase soil nutrients and groundcover over time.

Seeds withinthe soil are quick to germinate with the increased water and rest from grazing. This image shows 12 months growth with one graze period.

In this region of the Western Division, the full benefits of water-spreading can only be realised if it is part of a TGP control system with managed planned rotational grazing, in order for the land to be rested for new pastures to establish.

The environmental benefit of these water-spreading banks on Gilgunnia is obvious to an on-site observer. The banks are slowing runoff and improving infiltration on otherwise degraded soils. For example, a paddock completely cleared of INS 12 months previously is now covered with a diverse range of plants and increasing numbers of desirable perennial species, all from existing seed bank reserves in the soil.

The initial ‘trial’ paddock now comprises thriving perennial pastures.

The initial trial paddock, already recovering prior to the construction of water-spreading banks in 2012, appears dramatically different to the surrounding landscape with a dense cover of red-leg grass and increasing numbers of other palatable perennial species.

Recently, landscape engineering changes have also been made to reduce runoff diversion and erosion resulting from roads, tracks and fencelines. Channels have been created to direct this runoff towards the paddocks with the waterspreading banks, further adding to the water being provided to these increasingly productive paddocks.

These improved areas across Gilgunnia are more reliable in pasture production in deteriorating conditions, and are more able to retain groundcover and protect soils against seasonal impacts.
 

IMPLEMENTING AN INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

  • After erection of the TGP fence, feral goats within the area are removed
  • INS removed and water spreading banks constructed (in selected paddocks and as resources allow)
  • Initial rest period of up to 12 months allows existing pasture to recover
  • First grazing is timed according to plant germination to ensure desirable species have the opportunity to seed
  • A longer rest period after first grazing allows all juvenile plants time to establish and also give mature plants extra resting time
  • Then grazed at different times of the year, always allowing for germination of preferred plant species
  • Paddocks are grazed two or three times per year to 40-60% pasture utilisation

4 A. McMurtrie, J. Sandow, and P. Theakston (2010), A comparative analysis of two feral goat management methods commonly used in the Cobar districts to restore native ground cover

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SUMMARY OF COSTS

The capital required came from the McMurtrie’s own savings, cash flow from the harvesting of feral goats together with cost-share incentive funding from the Western CMA.

The return on investment is easy to see on Gilgunnia. Good perennial groundcover provides substantial resilience to the impacts of drought, enabling production to continue for longer and recover more quickly after dry times.
  • TGP fencing: approximately $4000/km.
    The McMurtries have erected approximately 60 km of TGP fencing. Some of these costs have been partly subsidised by works undertaken in partnership with the Western CMA.
  • TGP trap yards: average $7000 each.
    These have been constructed at ten waterpoints, involving full TGP fencing around the ground tank, trap gates, yard and ramp.
  • Water-spreading banks: Total of $12,000, averaging around $950/km or $85/ha.
    The length of banks varies depending on the landscape. Construction across two paddocks of 140 hectare total was 12.6 km.
  • Troughing: $950 per pump, $300 per tank for fittings, $800 per trough, $1100/km for 50 mm polypipe.
  • Land clearing: Depends on INS density and property location. Up to $150/ha, if contracted.
    Ashley has cleared some land himself at a third of this cost.
  • Machinery: $60,000 for purchase and equipping of machinery to implement changes, including a front end loader and TGP fencing equipment.

The training the McMurtries have participated in has largely been undertaken with the financial assistance of various government entities. The major costs to Ashley and Carolyn have been in regards to time. Ashley has found that accessing expert advice along the way has helped to avoid costly mistakes.

If starting again, Ashley notes that they would spend finances differently, focusing firstly on those factors that produce better results. For example, this would have included more strategic fencing, constructing broader scale perimeters first to reduce the per-hectare cost. 

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OUTCOMES

BUILDING A RESILIENT LANDSCAPE

Active decision making and innovation in management can restore the landscape towards its previously productive and resilient state.

The management practices applied on Gilgunnia have transformed the property from a district average situation of declining natural resources, trading terms and infrastructure into an enterprise with increasing productivity and a focus on higher value products. This has been because the McMurtries understand the effects that land management practices have on ecological function of landscapes and the integrity and productivity of native vegetation. This has resulted in a dual outcome: increasing economic resilience and increasing the capacity of the property as a whole to handle seasonally dry times and multi-year droughts.

Ashley disagrees that the landscape is ‘fragile’ as is often claimed. Instead, being long subjected to overgrazing and over-utilisation has left the landscape vulnerable to seasonal changes and climatic conditions. Ashley has demonstrated that active decision making and innovation in management can restore the landscape towards its previously productive and resilient state.

Effective management of TGP maintains groundcover, minimises soil loss, maximises rainfall capture and infiltration, protects the potential to grow forage and enables the managed grazing of wildlife and livestock to produce quality products. It is the combination of intensive TGP control and planned rotational grazing – allowing pasture the time to rest and recover – that has delivered such dramatic results on Gilgunnia.

Active management shows that what is often considered a ‘fragile’ landscape can be regenerated to profitable and resilient pastures.

Ashley notes that the primary ‘resilience’ he has achieved has been the security obtained by having one paddock he can always rely on. Initially this was the first trial paddock, and now more of the intensively managed paddocks as they are developed. Pasture biomass can be banked for future use. Having a few smaller but more reliable areas of pasture provides the opportunity for weaning or fattening stock and offers some resilience to changing conditions. As these areas increase in size it should allow for a considerable increase in stocking rate and even greater flexibility in dealing with varying conditions.

Ashley believes that developing a proportion of any property as an intensive grazing area should provide positive economic and environmental outcomes from a small beginning, especially when developed in conjunction with larger TGP control paddocks.

PRODUCTION

Management practices on Gilgunnia have enabled the land’s carrying capacity to be increased significantly.

The property is no longer dependent on the vagaries of the feral goat meat market for survival. Today Gilgunnia is producing high quality Dorper ram replacements and fat lambs with a premium value. To the future, options exist for agistment-based enterprises in the extensively managed component of the property as well as the potential for ecotourism through birdwatchers seeking to spot uncommon species.

Gilgunnia now offers an alternative enterprise model to the district average that is less dependent on season-to-season variation and has inbuilt feed reserves as buffers for dry times. Ashley has observed that stock can be maintained in a healthier condition due to the higher abundance of palatable perennial grasses.

Planning and management is now much easier as feed usage can be budgeted, confident that spelled country will not be grazed out by feral goats and kangaroos in the absence of domestic stock.

The improved carrying capacity on Gilgunnia provides clear evidence of the production benefits of building a diverse and healthy landscape. Ashley and Carolyn have achieved a four-fold increase in productivity, running 900 DSE on 2000 hectares of their property, in comparison to the initial assessment by LHPA of a 1400 DSE carrying capacity on the then 13,000 hectares (ie, 2.2ha/DSE compared with 9.3DSE/ha).

Using the trap yards to capture the feral goats is very efficient. After the initial investment they only require a small amount of money and time to maintain. Depending on the market, goats can bring between $0.70 and $1.00 per kilogram. The density of rangeland goats varies quite widely throughout the Western Division. Local knowledge and a reasonably accurate estimate of the goat density should allow other farmers to discern whether or not this method is suitable for use as a funding source for property development.

Key to the value of the trapping performed on Gilgunnia is that it is used as an income stream to re-invest into the property to ultimately remove the goat population through TGP fencing and replace the grazing pressure with higher value Dorper stock. Commonly seen as a ‘free’ resource in the region, the challenge with feral goats is that the ongoing damage they cause to the natural resource base is rarely acknowledged or calculated.

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VEGETATION

A significant increase in biomass has been produced as a result of the management practices on Gilgunnia.

The change in pasture management is most evident in the intensively grazed system, through the capacity to spell areas for significant periods then stock intensively to a trigger point determined by the level of utilisation of key perennial species. Improved groundcover and perennial species resulting from control of TGP and planned rotational grazing have significantly improved landscape stability and capacity to generate pasture growth.

No vegetation has been sown or planted on the property, and all regrowth is a result of natural seed banks contained within the soil. Desirable species regenerating include red-leg grass, hairy panic (Panicum effusum), cane panic (Panicum subxerophilum), finger panic grass (Digitarias coenicola), curly umbrella grass (Digitaria hystichoides), wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp.) and Minnie Daisy (Minuria tridens).

DPI research validating the outcomes of the intensive system has now been presented to several natural resource management conferences and has been submitted to peer-reviewed journals 5Society for Ecological Restoration Rangeland Conference Kununurra WA 2012; 5th World Conference on Ecological Restoration, Wisconsin USA 2013. In comparison to average district management of areas with open continuous access by unmanaged grazers plus domestic stock, the study showed the intensively-managed system has:

Far more groundcover and less bare ground was evidenced on Gilgunnia in comparison to a nearby property using standard regional practice

The drainage flat areas that formerly supported less than 5% groundcover (including leaf litter) and 125 kg of biomass per hectare now support 70% groundcover and a yielded between four and five tonnes of biomass per hectare prior to grazing in April 2014.

These results have been achieved during a period when seasonal conditions have been adverse and stocking numbers have been increased.

The ability to manage access to water through the construction of trap yards has also contributed to improved vegetation condition in the extensive grazing system. However, improvements within the extensive system have been slower since the control of unmanaged grazers is less effective. Gradual development of TGP fencing will improve this control.

SOIL

Substantially more organic matter is visible in the soil of the intensively managed paddocks, improving rainfall infiltration and retention.

Maintaining high levels of groundcover has resulted in obvious improvements in soil characteristics especially on the broad drainage flats throughout the intensively managed system. This has been validated by DPI investigations. Core samples revealed perennial grass root systems penetrating to a depth of more than 1.2 metres.

Higher levels of groundcover and resultant organic matter in the soil brings a substantial improvement to rainfall infiltration and retention. Now light rainfalls, which previously would have evaporated or failed to penetrate the bare soil, are able to be captured where they land. Even during drought small, scattered showers are received, and the ability for plants to make use of this moisture greatly assists their resilience and capacity to survive in these times.

Improved infiltration across the property has now reduced runoff to the point that less water is being collected from surface flows into ground tanks. As the remaining 8000 hectares of Gilgunnia are regenerated, this will have to be monitored carefully to ensure that sufficient ongoing stock water supplies will be available.

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BIODIVERSITY

Land management innovations on Gilgunnia have resulted in a healthier landscape with more biodiversity – which delivers increased resilience. The grazing system has demonstrated a substantial shift in native pasture species composition and the re-establishment of grassland biota, especially in relation to birdlife. In areas where invasive native scrub management has resulted in more open landscapes and improved grassland habitat, the grasslands have attracted a range of seed-eating species such as quail. Concurrently there is a change in the balance of predatory species with a notable increase in the abundance of small raptors. The return of top level predators is seen as an indication of improving biodiversity. Thick shrubby landscapes appear to favour stealth based predators such as foxes, whereas the more open grassy areas are known to carry a much higher biomass providing habitat for small ground dwelling animals including insects, arthropods, reptiles and mammals and a hence increased diversity for foraging raptors.

A recent survey identified eight species of raptor within the intensively managed area, including sightings of the endangered grey falcon. There is evidence of two pairs of these rare falcons on the property. These raptors were absent prior to improved grazing management. DPI has contracted a formal biodiversity survey in late 2014 to examine these changes.

PERSONAL & SOCIAL OUTCOMES

Ashley McMurtrie is deservedly proud of the increasing plant diversity growing in his intensively managed paddocks.

On the personal front, the McMurtrie family has gained much through the learning and property development process they have undertaken over the last decade.

They now have a greater understanding of the ecological function of landscapes and how land management practices can be used to improve the integrity and productivity of the native vegetation. This understanding has given them greater confidence in decision making as outcomes are more predictable.

They have developed a solid network of innovative natural resource management professionals and are easily able to access knowledge, education and greater experience. These lasting friendships with like-minded people support free information sharing. Ashley and Carolyn have an open policy on information and access to their improvements in order to expand the community understanding of rangeland management systems and options.

Overall, Gilgunnia is now a more enduring and successful local business. The family experiences more stability and less stress as the business is more reliable – and there are only further improvements to come.

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie moved into the Western Division with no pre-conceived ideas on how their property should be managed. This perhaps, gave them the unfettered opportunity to investigate best-practice in landscape management.

What they learnt along the way was that what was best for production was also best for environmental regeneration – and building a landscape that is resilient in the face of seasonal and multi-year droughts and other climatic extremes.

Now the McMurtries provide a case study of what can be achieved in the highly variable environmental conditions of the Western Division, hopefully for others to now learn from and follow.

In Ashley’s words:

The process we have undertaken over the last nine years has taken our business from a struggling opportunistic feral goat harvesting business that was completely exposed to seasonal conditions to a business that is far more resilient.

We have now developed and continue to expand a dual system business with high value stock that is dynamic in seasonal conditions, and is continuing to develop under its own financial success, with documented increases in groundcover, biodiversity and biomass. This has occurred during a period in which we had only 2 years of average or above rainfall. The majority of profit each year is directly put back into expanding these systems and will be for the next 5-7 years in order to create TGP control over the entire property. Without the development and success of this model we would have remained in a financially static position, with no domestic stock and still completely exposed to seasonal rainfall variation.


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 2014 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE / ROTARY CLUB OF SYDNEY, WESTERN DIVISION RESILIENT LANDSCAPES PROJECT AIMED AT HELPING FARMERS TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE THEIR PROPERTIES TO MINIMISE THE IMPACT OF DROUGHT ON PRODUCTION AND LANDSCAPE HEALTH.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

‘GUNNINGRAH’ – SHIFTING MINDSET FROM ANIMALS TO THE LAND

Meet Charlie and Anne Maslin

Initially inspired to perform a trial of new management practices to better manage received rainfall, Charlie and Anne Maslin ended up following their instincts – fully changing focus from their animals to the land – and they have never looked back.

GO TO:

FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

FARM FACTS

20 km north-west of Bombala, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle, sheep, goats. Angus beef, sheep and goat meat production; medium wool Merinos

PROPERTY SIZE: 4200 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 550 mm

ELEVATION: 800-1000 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Ecological deterioration and dependence on rainfall for profit

INNOVATIONS

  • Constructing leaky weirs across creeks and gullies
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing matching stock numbers to land carrying capacity
  • Introducing goats for weed control
  • Innovations commenced: 1995

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased profit stability – even with decreased rainfall
  • Labour inputs reduced by 40%, providing increased time to pursue other activities
  • Healing erosion gullies
  • Greater water retention in pastures
  • Flexible stock management

INTRODUCTION

Upon assuming management of Gunningrah in 1987, Charlie Maslin observed significant annual variations in rainfall and profit. Examination later revealed the significant impact of rainfall on the cost of production. Additionally, a mid-1990s comparative pasture analysis undertaken by an external agency revealed alarming outcomes in terms of actual ground cover available for stock feed.

Charlie realised that while you cannot change how much rain falls, you can change how you manage the rain you are lucky enough to receive. By changing their mindset to focus on the health of the land, the Maslins found themselves managing poorer years more effectively and not over-using resources in abundant years. Maximising the retention of available rainfall and striving for much improved ground cover has in turn delivered more consistent profits on reduced inputs. In addition, erosion is being controlled, weed invasion has reduced, stock are healthier and management is more flexible.

Charlie sums up their new approach, “Rather than us dictating to the land what stock it has to carry, we try to evaluate what the land has to offer and then attempt to stock it accordingly – and hopefully learn as we go”.

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GUNNINGRAH

image of Gunningrah landscape
The Gunningrah landscape.

The Maslin family have managed Gunningrah for 100 years. A property of 4200 hectares, it is located at the southern end of the Monaro Tablelands of south-eastern New South Wales. Currently, 3700 hectares of the property is grazed with cattle, sheep and goats.

Native grasslands make up approximately 60% per cent of the farm area. In the other 40% per cent, which had been pasture improved, introduced species of grasses coexist with the native grasses, in some cases the introduced dominate, in others, the natives.

Approximately 20% of the property has scattered remnant to heavier tree cover, mostly on the sedimentary soils adjacent to the Meriangah Nature Reserve, located along the western boundary. Soils are approximately 75% derived from basalt, 20% sedimentary rock and 5% granite.

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EMBRACING CHANGE

Measuring and documenting the important variables was essential to our change process…

After managing the property for almost a decade, Charlie realised that Gunningrah was gradually facing ecological deterioration and profitability was becoming increasingly variable. Two main factors provided the initial impetus for change.

Firstly, a Meat and Livestock Australia trial conducted on the property in the mid 1990s revealed some alarming results. Whilst the property appeared to have sufficient pastures to support stock grazing, actual ground cover levels measured were substantially below perceived coverage. The agricultural assessment of ground cover showed approximately 30% bare ground. This was seen as unsatisfactory.

Secondly, the impact of the varying annual rainfall on the cost of production also presented a stark reality. Charlie reports, “Comparative analysis of inputs showed wool production costs could double, varying from $2.50 to $5.00 a kilogram, and beef more than triple, ranging from $0.40 to $1.40 a kilogram”. These variations were largely dependent on the rainfall received, accounting for supplementary feeding or agistment costs when existing pastures were insufficient.

A neighbouring property to Gunningrah holds continuous rainfall data from 1858 and Charlie accessed this to try to obtain a better understanding rainfall in the region. However, little evidence of rainfall patterns or consistency over months or years was found. Charlie notes, “The only recurring theme appeared to be that for every year of above-average rainfall, there were two years below average”.

This information made it clear to the Maslins that effective management of inconsistent rainfall was a key factor in maintaining profitability.

image of regenerating erosion gully
Capturing sediment through establishing weirs has helped to fill erosion gullies.

Learning about the principles of Natural Sequence Farming, the Maslins identified an opportunity to make the most of the rainfall they received. They found that through this technique the health of watercourses could be significantly restored by slowing the rate of water flow, especially after rain, by a series of physical interventions in the landscape. These would enable the capture of sediment to help repair eroded watercourses, also holding nutrients to improve soil health and feed plant roots. As a result, water would be captured in the soil for longer, better supporting vegetation regeneration and continued pasture growth. This process would also aid in reconnecting streams to natural floodplains and wetlands, reforming the chain of ponds that used to dominate the landscape.

The Maslins also learnt about stock rotation from others in the region and through attending grazing courses, such as Grazing for Profit. The cell grazing method they chose to adopt is based on the observations and trials of Allan Savory and Terry McCosker. This technique involves dividing the land in some cases into an increased number of smaller paddocks which then are intensively grazed for short periods followed by sufficient recovery periods to allow pasture to regenerate.

Applying the principles required a detailed understanding of pasture management, particularly the ability to accurately assess pasture growth, recovery rates and their differences site by site across the property.

After around six months of deliberation on changing their management methods, the Maslins initially decided to trial the new practices on 20% of their property. However, taking the opportunity to capitalise on an above average rainfall event, they ended up following their instincts that the technique would work, and instead committed to implement across 100% of the property.

Changes to infrastructure were made incrementally, to allow for the learning process. An extensive capital outlay was needed in water reticulation as the water cycle slowed down and dams could not be relied upon. Additional expenditure was required for fencing and other necessary structural changes. Whilst these new capital costs were significant, they did not restrict implementation of the new methods.

Overall, the new business plan for Gunningrah comprised specific aims for managing the land to support production outcomes, focusing on water management and cell grazing methods to improve stock and soil health, vegetation, pasture, and weed control. Indicators were developed to monitor progress in these areas. “Measuring and documenting the important variables was essential to our change process,” says Charlie, “we regularly took photos from strategic points so that changes could be monitored and evaluated”. Though substantial records were kept, Charlie indicates that he would capture even more data and keep better track of changes if he were to undertake the change process again.

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BETTER USE OF THE RAIN, WHERE IT FALLS

Annual rainfall on Gunningrah averages 550mm and has varied from 250mm to 1000mm over the past 100 years. The main source of water inflow to the property is the Cambalong Creek, which rises around 15km to the north. It flows though the property for 16km, and then 10km downstream flows into the Bombala, Delegate and Snowy Rivers. Three smaller streams also flow into the farm.

In the past, three of the four streams were permanent, however, over the last two decades all have been intermittent at various times.

Ninety per cent of runoff from Gunningrah land flows down the Cambalong Creek, the remaining 10% flows to the west to the Maclaughlin River.

image of pipe outlet of leaky weir
Leaky weirs slow the flow of water courses (note pipe).

Prior to the introduction of grazing to the region, the valley floors were resilient, with substantial wetlands along the main creeks and streams. Charlie indicates points across the landscape, “There is clear evidence of many earlier chains of ponds, on convex valley floors – the result of silt build up where water would slowly flow through the landscape. However, due to many years of traditional grazing methods and stock damage along water courses, the streams became incised and the surrounding land, which was once wet, became dry”. Dams and existing water courses were long relied on for watering stock, which had continual access.

To reduce dependency on rainfall for profit, the Maslins adopted three main approaches to more effectively use rainfall and manage water flowing through the landscape. These incorporated the construction of leaky weirs, changing from set stocking to cell grazing and fencing off the most degraded stream corridors.

Charlie explains, “Leaky weirs serve to slow down runoff through water courses, converting intermittent torrents into constant gently flowing streams. Trapped by the weirs, sediment is deposited, reducing erosion and consequently downstream water quality is improved”.

images of weir construction and regeneration
Weir construction (2006) and regeneration (2008) in erosion gully.

Since the mid 1990s, the Maslins have constructed over 30 weirs across Gunningrah streambeds and gullies. Charlie points out, “The weirs vary in size and have been constructed with excavators, tractors, and in some instances by hand with whatever resources were available, such as old fencing materials”. The construction of two major weirs in the late 1990s cost $2500, however, since that time only $200-$400 has been spent per weir on most of the remaining structures. The Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority (CMA) has viewed the water management practices applied.

With the introduction of rotational cell grazing and by fencing off selected riparian areas, water courses are now only exposed to animal activity for short periods of time, or not at all. This protects banks from damage and further allows sediment build up. Vegetation has been given time to rest and a chance to germinate in the riparian areas. As a result there have been vast changes to bank stability, also providing much greater ability to handle high flood flows.

Application of these approaches has had significant impacts on riparian areas. Whilst in some areas it has taken 10 to 15 years for water courses to heal, other areas showed dramatic improvement in just two years. Charlie notes, “There is abundant evidence of silt deposition in streams with weirs. An estimated 50 tonnes collected in one weir in the first three years after it was built, significantly filling eroded areas. Downstream, a neighbour was puzzled to see a ‘clear flood’ after rainfall, as opposed to the usual silty runoff”. This was a result of the sediment remaining trapped in the weirs, rather than flowing off the landscape.

image of sediment build up in gully
Evidence of silt build-up upstream of an established weir.

“In one small stream, a one-off flood filled weirs, and the usual one to two day flow lasted six weeks at 10,000 litres a day. Another larger stream flowed for 12 weeks. This slowing of the water is now a consistent feature on the property.” Charlie now has greater access to water for longer, retains more of his soil on his property and his neighbours enjoy the benefits of quality water runoff from Gunningrah.

Vegetation coverage has also improved as a result of the increased water in the landscape, as well as through the cell grazing methods. Growing periods have extended as the water is now held in the pasture for longer, rather than running off straight into the dams, which are no longer a reliable storage for rainfall capture.

Establishment of cell grazing and reduced dam water did also necessitate other changes to water management, with water provision one of the main logistical issues with having mobs of stock in multiple paddocks. The Maslins constructed additional water points in paddocks without other water courses. All troughs are gravity-fed, so no fuel is required for pumping. Charlie points out, “While costly, establishing the troughing system is ultimately much more water efficient than dams. There is now less evaporation, wastage, land damage, and the stock have access to cleaner water”.

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GRAZING ON GUNNINGRAH

Focusing on the land rather than animals does not reduce the importance of the stock on Gunningrah. Instead, the health of the land and the natural resource base is better understood as the source of profit rather than the animals. The animals still have a very important role to play in maintaining the health of the land.

“We believed that grazing could be profitable and sustainable by shifting the focus from maintaining a set level of stocking to varying the stocking level according to the productive potential of the pasture.”

Charlie recalls previous management methods, “Gunningrah was traditionally set stocked with around 75% sheep and 25% cattle. Creeks and dams provided watering points and feed was trucked in during lean years. Rainfall may have varied by 60%, yet stocking by only 30%”.

The rotational grazing program was identified as a tool to deliver a number of benefits to Gunningrah. Using this method would help to increase ground cover levels, from a then base of around 70%, ensuring a continual feed supply. This would also help to generate healthy soils by increasing the organic component of the soil and subsequently enhance rainfall infiltration to maintain water in the landscape.

image of cattle grazing
Stock is grazed at a high density for short periods of time as per the determined carrying capacity.

The program would also improve the composition of the pastures from a quite high annual species base, to a predominantly perennial base and reduce weeds. As a result, animal health would improve through more diverse species to graze and the pasture worm burden would be reduced through the spelling of pastures. Additionally, labour efficiencies would be gained through less manual inputs to production operations.

Charlie describes their method, “We chose to match our stock numbers with the carrying capacity of the land, using a formula to determine a stocking bandwidth within which we try to operate”.

The formula involves calibrating the relationship between available feed and stock numbers. Rainfall and stock numbers are measured monthly to evaluate stock pressure. Computer software is used to continually monitor the carrying capacity of the property and adjust stocking rates of a mix of sheep, cattle and goats to ensure profitability. The Maslins use a formula of DSE* days per hectare per 100mm of rain to determine the carry capacity of their land.

graph showing DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall

To implement the rotational grazing system, stock were combined into larger herds. This presented a logistical challenge and used all the available infrastructure at the time. Charlie notes, “Refinements were made to overcome problems as they arose, as we continue to do today”. Paddocks of approximately 100 hectares were established. Each paddock is intensively grazed for five to seven days, with approximately 10% of land stocked and 90% rested at any one time. In winter this is varied to accommodate requirements with available pasture, with approximately 40% of land stocked and 60% rested.

Charlie speaks positively of the greater flexibility they have experienced in terms of managing their land and animal requirements as a result of adopting rotational cell grazing. This includes the ability to:

  • ‘finish’ stock better, for example, by fattening lambs on best paddock prior to sale;
  • prioritise stock for best feed, such as for breeding ewes at joining or twin bearers at lambing;
  • adjust rotation times to account for season growth or animal requirements, such as lambing;
  • skip paddock rotation for recovery or if different terrain has inherently different recovery rates;
  • target certain paddocks to reduce risk of fire or provide greater recovery time; and
  • achieve early identification of when feed is getting low and allow selective reduction of stock numbers.
image of sheep
Stock health and ease of handling has improved on Gunningrah.

Stock management is much more informed when numbers are tied to carrying capacity. The Maslins are now better able to manage their stock rates according to the seasons and the resources available in poor or abundant years. Charlie points out, “Stock rotation provides an early warning system of land recovery. If the pasture in the first paddocks is not fully recovered after a rotation cycle has been completed, an informed decision can be made on stocking rates. With set stocking, it was only when stock condition started to deteriorate that pasture problems were identified” .

Other benefits the Maslins have experienced include improvements in stock health. “The worm burden has been substantially reduced by the continual stock movement. Animals are now only drenched once or twice annually, as opposed to four times a year previously. Twin lambing pregnancies are 20% higher than two decades ago and stock classing is more consistent.”

In terms of inputs, larger mobs enable more efficient management. Movement, drenching and stock checks now require less human input. Stock are becoming easier to handle with more even temperaments due to greater human exposure.

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IMPROVED NATURAL RESOURCE BASE

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

Vegetation improvement was an inherent outcome of the Maslin’s new water and stock management programs. This directly addressed Charlie’s initial concern at the results of the Meat and Livestock Australia assessment of ground cover.

Providing all plants with adequate rest to grow well, establish deep roots, to keep in a vegetative state, and to be able seed, is the essence of the stock rotation theory.

As a result of the new practices, the ground cover improved from 70% to around 85% in the first five years. In 2011 some areas had close to 100% ground cover. Native pastures have increased substantially.

Charlie says, “Our aim is to maintain 90% ground cover 90% of the time with as much plant diversity as possible. 100% would be the ideal but with the vagaries of climate this goal is unattainable for the long term, so we are content with the average 85-90% coverage that tends to be the plateau”.

image of young trees
The Maslins have undertaken broad planting of tree species found to thrive in the region.

The changes to grazing practices at Gunningrah have also benefited the soil in a number of ways. Most importantly, managing stocking to ensure close to complete vegetation cover at all times prevents or minimises erosion by wind and runoff. At the same time, vegetation cover ensures that rainfall infiltrates, and coupled with the leaky weirs, the water cycle has slowed, minimising runoff and reducing or halting sheet and gully erosion. The increased plant biomass also leads to increased soil organic content, which improves water holding ability and nutrient cycling. Reducing chemical use has also enhanced the soil health.

The grazing changes and increased ground cover have also assisted in reducing weed invasion.

Gunningrah previously suffered from a range of dominant invasive weeds, including serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma), scotch (Onopordum acanthium) and nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), Bathurst burr (Xanthium spinosum), sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa), and saffron (Carthamus lanatus), black (Cirsium vulgare) and variegated (Silybum marianum) thistles. Fireweed (Senecio madagascariensis), love grass (Eragrostis curvula) and Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana) were seen as having the potential to be problematic in the future.

image of goats
Goats provide weed control and complementary meat production.

However, with the increased ground cover and competition, weed problems have declined. This was especially observed with serrated tussock. Attending a field day to see the use of goats for weed control also provided insight to the Maslins, “We saw goats as an opportunity to reduce labour and the use of chemicals on the property.” Understanding the different grazing preference of goats for weeds such as briars and thistles rather than pasture highlighted the possibility of a complementary enterprise which now comprises approximately 10% of stock. The Maslins happily report, “Goats are strategically grazed to address specific weed problem areas and have now almost completely suppressed the briars and have had a strong impact on thistles, to the point that spraying is rarely required”. By selecting a mixed breed to maximise meat production as well as weed control, extra income has also been achieved through the sale of kids.

The Maslins have undertaken broad tree planting activities, supported by Landcare. Paddock trees have also been replaced and replanted in main watercourse area with fast-growing species found to thrive in the region as advised by a neighbouring tree nursery, not just with local species of eucalypt.

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INNOVATION SUCCESSES

Get together with like-minded people to discuss plans, problem solve and dream – broaden the range of achievable outcomes.

The Maslins have found that grazing can be profitable and sustainable if pastures are maintained by matching stocking rates to carrying capacity.

Charlie describes the success of their innovations, “Gunningrah is only a moderate/conservative producer, so not necessarily comparative to high performers, however there is strong evidence of consistent profit increase with stock rotation methods despite lower rainfall”.

“Net farm income has been graphed against rainfall received for the period four years before we changed the grazing and then for 14 years since. While it is a crude measure, and there are a multitude of variables which affect the result, there appears to be an upward trend in profit, and a reduction in variability. There is one year which goes badly against this trend, when we kept cattle away on agistment for too long, but hopefully we learnt something.”

graph showing net farm income over time

“Human inputs have been greatly reduced, and labour efficiency has improved around 40 per cent since mobs have been put together. Larger mobs are easier to move, muster in and assess for fly strike or other activities. As labour comprises approximately 50 per cent of operating costs, these efficiencies are delivering substantial financial results.”

graph showing reduction in labour requirements

The land has been the ultimate winner with the changed methods on Gunningrah. Changes to water management and grazing practices made by the Maslins ultimately complemented the other, further enhancing outcomes in relation to water use efficiency, soil health and vegetation cover. Improvements to soil and water quality strongly support increased biodiversity. In addition to increases in pasture and birdlife diversity, platypus are regularly observed in the Cambalong Creek running through Gunningrah.

As an added bonus resulting from the changes they have adopted, the Maslins have also found that more time has now been freed to do other activities they enjoy; the extra family time in particular has been greatly appreciated.

Furthering their focus on the land they continue to seek learning opportunities to improve their production management. These have included Landcare group activities and projects on issues such as erosion control, shelter belts and connective corridors; holding and attending field days covering topics such as water and streams (run by Peter Andrews and the CMA) and grazing techniques (run by the CMA and small groups of interested farmers).

Charlie and Anne also dedicate some of this spare time to acting as a change agent in the community to support better land management practices. Charlie notes, “Farmers using different management tools are generally keen to share their experiences. Don’t be afraid to ring up and ask. There are many simple ways to conduct a trial on how you would like to change things with grazing or with water, which don’t involve much risk or cost, to reassure your thought process.”

And overall, he advises, “Get together with like-minded people to discuss plans, problem solve and dream – broaden the range of achievable outcomes.”


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.

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‘INVERARAY DOWNS’ – HIGHER QUALITY FOOD THROUGH REGENERATED SOILS AND REDUCED INPUTS

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

HIGHER QUALITY FOOD THROUGH REGENERATED SOILS & REDUCED INPUTS

To overcome productivity declines in some of Australia’s best soils, Cam and Roxane McKellar have re-designed ecological cropping practices, successfully regenerating the structure and nutrient dynamics in their soils. As a result, they now produce better quality and more healthy and nutritious food more sustainably and with lower inputs.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | SOIL MANAGEMENT | WATER MANAGEMENT | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | PRODUCTION | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

10 km south of Spring Ridge, NSW North West Slopes and Plains

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Cattle. Compost. Irrigated grain, seed and legume crops; cattle agistment; organic compost

PROPERTY SIZE: 1250 hectares, 810 hectares irrigated crop production

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 6800 mm

ELEVATION: 330 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Prohibitively high-input crop production system

INNOVATIONS

  • Changing crop rotation to better support soil biology
  • Changing from inorganic to organic fertilisers
  • Application of compost fertiliser to increase soil organic matter
  • Integrating grazing with cropping
  • Innovations commenced: 2000

KEY RESULTS

  • Regeneration of soil and nutrient dynamics
  • Improved crop quality, increased weight and more even yields across the property
  • Reduced input costs
  • Additional revenue from compost sale and cattle agistment

INTRODUCTION

On Inveraray Downs, Cam and Roxane grow grains – wheat, sorghum, various types of corn, sunflower and barley – and other crops, such as chick peas, mung beans and soy beans. Decades of standard management practices such as cultivation, inorganic fertiliser and bio-cide use had degraded the quality and productivity of some of Australia’ best soils on the Liverpool Plains. Essential biological processes and cycles for supplying nutrients to crops had been degraded, pest infestations were high and input costs were increasing.

Cam and Roxane started investigating alternatives to the high-input crop production system, investing time and money to eventually determine that the solution was to work with the soil’s biological activity rather than against it. To achieve this, Cam re-designed ecological cropping systems and successions to restore the soil’s natural high carbon levels, healthy structures, nutrient availabilities and hydrological resilience. Organic matter and nutrients from clean agricultural wastes are also being recycled back into the soils via the on-farm production and use of high quality composts.

Combined with their organic composts and crop rotation the McKellars have also introduced cattle into their systems to break down crop stubble, recycle green manure crops and add fertiliser. As a result Inveraray Downs’ production costs have decreased, crop yields and qualities have improved and the structure, fertility and resilience of soils are being restored.

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THE OLD WAY: FROM STOCK TO CROPS

Inveraray Downs is a small part of the Warrah Estate, a land holding of some 100,000 hectares that was granted to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1833. The McKellar family bought Inveraray Downs in 1962 and Cam McKellar is the second generation of the family to manage the property.

The deep, heavy clay soils (vertisols) which are widespread in the Liverpool Plains region, have high natural fertility. Derived on basalt plains, the vertisols had long been treeless. Denser forests of cypress pine (Callitris endlicheri) with scattered eucalypts typically occur on the sandier soils on the ridges and slopes rising from the plains.

The plains native vegetation is ideal for sheep grazing, which was the main farm business up to the 1960s. Severe drought followed by a period of anecdotally cooler weather in the mid 1960s caused massive loss of sheep. This, together with the declining returns from grazing, forced a re-thinking of the farm business. A bore found readily accessible water for crop irrigation. Additionally, by this time, tractors capable of cultivating the heavy clay soils were readily available. Grazing was phased out and re-development of the property for irrigated crop production proceeded through the late 1960s.

Flood irrigation was introduced in 1970. Whilst the total property area is 1250 hectares, about 810 hectares can be irrigated for crop production. Water, from either or both a bore and the intermittently flowing Yarraman Creek that runs though the property, when flow is sufficient, is pumped into a large ‘turkey nest’ earth tank. From here it can flow by gravity to the crops via earth channels. The average slope across the property is about 1:600. Water from the channels is diverted into the crops down furrows, ploughed at two metre spacing, down the length of each crop field. The furrows are sufficiently close together that sideways infiltration wets the plant root zone.

Cam says, “No fertiliser was used until the early 70s as it was naturally very fertile”. However, in line with common cropping techniques, chemical fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide use eventually became common practice.

The farming practices typical of the period from the 1970s can be illustrated using a three-year cropping calendar. The main features of this former calendar include in years one and three growing corn over summer and autumn, burning the stubble in autumn and growing a legume during winter and spring. In the second year a legume is grown in summer and autumn followed by a fallow in winter.

3yr cropping calendar showing corn, chick peas & soy bean crops & stubble burning


Summer and winter cropping continued for the following decades, using the “best management practices” of the day. However, years of cultivation, inorganic fertiliser and bio-cide use resulted in productivity declines in what were some of Australia’s best soils. Essential biological processes and cycles for supplying nutrients to their crops had degraded. By 1985, Cam suspects that the soil organic matter level had declined from an original level of perhaps 5% to 0.5%. It took Cam a further ten or so years to realise that “… it was stuffed! The worms had gone. Pests were rife. We were on a high input treadmill and couldn’t get off”.

At the same time, the costs of inputs – fertilisers, fuel, pesticides and herbicides – were becoming prohibitive. Cam recalls, “We were going broke. Everyone but me was making money out of the farm!”

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SWAPPING CHEMICAL FOR ORGANIC FERTILISER

image of covered compost heaps
Compost heaps under Gore-Tex sheets.

The McKellars started investigating alternatives to the high-input crop production system. Cam invested thousands of dollars in education, in Australia and overseas. This included a Holistic Management Course and an Arden Anderson Soil Course, various composting courses and seminars. Cam received a Nuffield Scholarship in 1991 and this enabled him further opportunity to study and develop ideas for innovative cultivation and cropping practices.

Cam identified that, “Fundamentally we need to work with nature, not against her. The soil health holds the key, and that is enhanced by the biological activity occurring in the soil and its interaction with the plants/crops”.

As a major innovation, Cam gradually started adopting new practices, changing from costly inorganic fertilisers to organic fertilisers. He slowly reduced the reliance on traditional fertilisers and swapped them for other options, such as kelp, fish emulsions and composts. He experimented by purchasing or obtaining for the cost of transport a range of materials, such as wastes from cattle feedlots, horse stables and chicken breeders, decayed hay and whatever other organic matter was available. It took a lot of effort to learn the methods used to produce compost fertiliser from organic wastes and by-products.

Cam summarises the rationale, “Through improved structure and organic matter content, the soil holds more water, being available to plants and animals for longer”.

image of tractor spraying organic fertiliser
Distribution of organic liquid fertiliser.

Now, these organic materials are brought to the compost production facility, which comprises about four hectares of gently sloping ground, an overhead tank for water supply, a tractor to tow the compost turner to form compost heaps and a front-end loader to move the materials around.

The various raw materials are mixed in carefully managed proportions to achieve the carbon to nitrogen ratio necessary to facilitate aerobic microbiological decomposition. The mix is formed into beds about a metre high, two metres wide and one hundred metres long. These are covered with Gore-Tex sheets that enable water to evaporate while preventing rainfall from infiltrating, so that moisture content in the bed is controlled. The temperature and CO2 levels within the beds are monitored daily and the whole bed turned over and re-formed when benchmark levels are reached. The on-farm composting capability is managed by one full time employee.

The resulting compost is spread across the crop fields at a rate of 4 tonnes per hectare each year

Through this activity Cam and Roxane have also generated an additional source of income. Cam reports, “I can sell compost by the ute load or the truck load to those who are keen to try it for themselves”.

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THE NEW WAY: MIXING CROPS WITH STOCK

image of cattle grazing crop stubble
Grazing Belted Galloway cattle in front of compost heaps.

The other major innovation on Inveraray Downs was to change crop rotation practices and to opportunistically use cattle after cropping to break down stubble and to recycle green manure crops. The Belted Galloway cattle were reintroduced to the enterprise in 2000 and now provide an additional source of fertiliser and revenue.

“I am using cattle as quick stubble digesters – they are eating the sorghum and corn stubble, which keeps the soil microbes thriving while we get ready to sow the next crop.” Agisting cattle, rather than maintaining a herd on the property, allows them to be used when it suits the crop production cycle.

Cam re-designed ecological cropping systems and successions to restore the natural high soil carbon levels, soil structures, nutrient availability and the hydrological resilience of these soils. These practices include direct drilling of crops, use of green manure and the recycling of organic matter and nutrients from clean agricultural wastes back into the soils via the on farm production and use of high quality composts.

The farming practices that are now typical of the McKellar’s farming system since 2006 can be summarised using a three-year cropping calendar. The obvious difference with the earlier calendar is that stubble burning has been replaced by incorporating the stubble and compost into the soil. Green manure crops are now grown in the first and third years. Every year in spring or early summer a brief two-month fallow is provided. The fallow periods provide time for the soil microbes to decompose the green manure, and therefore for the nutrients to be released for use by the next crop.

“When you compare the two cropping calendars, before 2000 with after 2006, you see more flexibility in what we are doing now. Our farming practices are much kinder on the organisms living in the soil”, Cam explains.

3yr cropping calendar showing corn, chick pea, soy bean, & green manure crops, fallow periods & compost treatements
image of chicory root
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) tap roots penetrate deeply, drawing nutrients from lower in the soil.

Because irrigation farms don’t usually need the fencing necessary on grazing properties, Cam had to find a way to control the stock without getting in the way of cropping. Portable electric fencing was found to be the most cost-effective way. To get the maximum stubble recycling and trampling benefit from grazing, he uses a grid of electric tapes to confine the herd to one-hectare cells. The herd is moved to the next cell each day. This ensures that the cows either recycle the stubble and turn it into manure or pound it into the soil, where the soil biota such as insects, micro-fauna, worms, bacteria, fungi and other microbes can do their work of breaking down the organic matter to release the nutrients.

image of penetrometer in healthy soil
A penetrometer test shows deep, friable soil.

The same high intensity grazing approach is used to treat green manure crops. These crops are legumes grown for their nitrogen-fixing capacity, rather than as a cash crop. Before they go to seed, cattle are used to turn the foliage into manure and to break down the residues into mulch, in the same way that crop stubble is treated.

The effect after several seasons is a vastly improved soil structure, organic matter content and balance within the cation exchange capacity, and a soil that provides a better growing medium and holds more water. The evidence of soil structure improvement can be easily seen with a simple probe test.

This process has meant that, in the McKellar’s experience, insecticides and fungicides have virtually been eliminated from the cropping cycle. Cam recognises that “weeds do have a role to play as both indicators and a ‘home’ for microbiological activity. The improved resilience of the soils allows for the weeds to be left longer before being managed”.

Now, the preferred method to control pests and weeds is to use the winter-summer crop rotation and cultivation that breaks the weed regeneration cycle. It has not been practical to eliminate use of chemical herbicides completely, but the volume used has considerably reduced. Cam notes, “Weed spectrum changes with farming culture, however, summer and winter broad leaves and grasses are main challenge, especially [those that are] Glyphosate resistant”.

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INTO THE FUTURE

I should have moved to a more natural system of farming a lot earlier in my life. It is not that hard.

Cam and Roxane’s re-designed ecological cropping practices that have successfully regenerated what were some of Australia’s best soils, particularly the soil structure and nutrient dynamics in their soils. As a result, they now produce better quality and more healthy and nutritious food more sustainably and with fewer inputs.

The crop rotation system now used on Inveraray Downs is more complex than the traditional one, however, organic fertiliser made on the property has replaced chemical fertilisers and herbicide and pesticide use is much reduced. The cash inputs required have therefore decreased substantially.

Of what has been the greatest impact of these changed practices, Cam says, “Definitely building soil carbon (organic matter), enhanced microbial activity to enhance the robustness of crops and pastures and more efficient water holding capacity”.

image of stubble amongst crop
Wheat stubble from the previous grain crop is still visible among
  the ready-to-harvest mung beans.

As a result of the changes made on Inveraray Downs, grain quality has improved, the colour and ‘plumpness’ is noticeably better and bushel weight has increased. Yields are even across the property and there is less disease. As Cam says, “It’s about increasing the fertility of the soil, improving yields and producing better quality food”.

Cam and Roxane feel that overall the changes on Inveraray Downs have been very positive, but acknowledge that there is more to do. Priority activities include:

  • continue to build soil humus levels
  • re-mineralise the soil
  • improve plant and animal nutrition
  • increase livestock numbers

Looking into the future Cam notes, “My biggest risk in the enterprise remains the markets for my crops. As these fluctuate, I must seek to find efficiencies in the inputs applied. To that end, I am routinely applying biological amendments that are cheaper per hectare than conventional equivalents,”.

In recent years Cam has left a buffer strip along the creek, which is no longer cropped. “I refer to this as my biodiversity patch. Over time I have observed new and different types of plants in the strip. Every few months I turn the cattle in there for a few days just to knock down some of the weeds.”

These buffer zones around the perimeter of the farm are now managed for timber and biodiversity. Numerous signs of increased biodiversity can be observed across the property. Macro and micro soil life has returned. Insects are abundant. Kites, kestrels, hawks and eagles have returned, showing that there are ample small animals around to support them.

Soil microbial activity has been enhanced through the cycle of decomposition of organic matter that releases and makes these nutrients available. Cam notes, “I use worms as an indicator of how healthy my soils are. Worms can now be found anywhere you dig”.

Cam concludes, “I should have moved to a more natural system of farming a lot earlier in my life. It is not hard. Start small, experiment, then expand”.

image of healthy cropland soil

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.

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