Curious about exploring what conservation and revegetation options are available to you? We have compiled a list of government, NGO and charity programs both nationally and at a state level to help you find the program you need. Click the tiles to learn more about the programs.
Why revegetation is important in agricultural landscapes
Without vegetation, life would be impossible. Vegetation plays a critical role in supporting life on the planet by providing habitat and food, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. It also moves water from the soil to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration and ensures rainfall is absorbed into the soil where it falls.
Extensive clearing of vegetation to create cities and towns for human habitation (and agricultural land to feed them) occurs worldwide. This ultimately results in species extinctions. The effects of vegetation clearing are particularly evident in south-east Australia where it is estimated that only 5% of the ecological community of White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Woodland remains from its pre 1788 state. A decline in native fauna species, such as the Superb Parrot, is an example of the ramifications of a decrease in vegetation in this area. Significant erosion damage has also occurred in agricultural landscapes within Australia, partly due to vegetation clearing.
The importance of woody vegetation within the Australian landscape was recognised at a Government level in 1989 with the formation of Landcare Australia. With the assistance of Landcare, many Australian land owners undertook tree plantings on their properties. The image of a few lonely paddock trees, however, is still a common sight across much of south-east Australia.
This raises the question, ‘what happens when those trees die’? The species which are reliant on tree hollows only found within mature trees may disappear from the landscape. The ramifications of past land clearing will continue to be felt as long as inaction occurs today.
Revegetation in action
Fairhalt is a property that straddles the Great Dividing Range just south of Crookwell. Fairhalt is owned and managed by Garry Kadwell, a regenerative potato and lamb farmer who has featured as a Soils For Life case study. A major component of Garry Kadwell’s regenerative land management is his approach to native vegetation on Fairhalt. During his youth Garry was taught by his grandfather and father to value vegetation and grew up planting trees alongside them with an eye for the future. Over the years Garry has fenced off areas of remnant vegetation from livestock and allowed natural revegetation to occur unimpeded by livestock grazing. Garry has also planted habitat corridors across Fairhalt to link the areas of remnant vegetation and allow fauna to move through the landscape. Currently 30% of Fairhalt is covered in native vegetation reserved for conservation purposes.
Revegetation at Illawong
Bryan Ward has transformed his property Illawong, located in the hills north of Albury, from a highly deforested landscape into a mosaic landscape covered with patches of native vegetation. When Bryan was conducting the revegetation work on Illawong he specifically targeted problem areas of the property such as hill tops, eroded areas, gullies above dams and around lone paddock trees. By doing so, Bryan has repaired much of the past erosion damage and ensured minimal erosion can occur into the future.
Direct seeding methods were used to conduct revegetation work on the property. Bryan reserved specific conservation areas by fencing them off from livestock. He used a rock hopper machine to navigate the steep rocky country and spread seeds within them.
The benefits of revegetation
The benefits of the revegetation projects on Fairhalt and Illawong are not limited to the landscape. Garry Kadwell and Bryan Ward both gain an immense amount of satisfaction from the revegetation work that they have completed on their properties. The feeling that they are leaving the landscape in a better state than what they found it is a legacy which can be handed on to the next generation.
The benefits of conducting revegetation projects are not limited to environmental and social factors. On farm productivity can also be influenced by revegetation projects. Revegetation in the form of shelter belts for livestock have been found to halve lambing mortality rates in areas with cold, wet and windy weather conditions. In hot conditions, trees also provide shelter for livestock which can reduce stock losses caused by heat stress. (Heat stress has also been found to reduce fertility rates in cattle and sheep).
The first step of conducting a revegetation project is to map the property with enterprise and landscape features to identify suitable areas for vegetation. Following this, an appropriate method of revegetation must be selected. Regional organisations, such as Greening Australia, Landcare Australia and state government agencies such as Local Land Services NSW provide revegetation information including the correct species to plant and where to purchase seeds and seedlings. These organisations may also provide funding assistance, for example the Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation project offered by Greening Australia pays land owners to conduct revegetation projects in degraded treeless paddocks.
Methods utilised to conduct revegetation projects include; direct seeding; tube stock planting and natural regeneration. Prior to direct seeding or tube stock planting the ground is often prepared by ripping along contour lines to create disturbance in the soil and a place for the seeds or seedlings to grow. Tree guards are often used when planting tube stock to offer protection from grazing and the elements whilst the plant matures. Natural regeneration is more likely to occur in areas which have been recently excluded from heavy livestock grazing and where mature plants are present in the landscape. Typically tube stock plantings are the most expensive followed by direct seeding and natural regeneration respectively. When deciding upon which method of revegetation to undertake expert local advice should be sort.
Thinking for the future
Revegetation is a process that requires time, patience and a forward-thinking mindset. Though its benefits may not be observed for many years, current generations must adopt this mindset and act to rectify the land clearing of the past.
“You may delay, but time will not.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
How to build soil organic matter: Lessons from three different Australian landscapes
Most of the soils across Australia contain only a small proportion of organic matter. So it’s not surprising that many farmers think about building up the organic matter in their soil as a cost-effective way to boost productivity as well as reduce input costs. But there isn’t simply a one-size-fits-all way to do it. As these three examples from our case study properties show, methods for building soil organic carbon are as diverse as the landscapes these properties inhabit.
At Clover Estate on the sandy soils of south-east South Australia, the strategy was to inoculate the soil with fungi, bacteria and biologically-derived fertilisers to provide a substrate for microorganisms. Dealing with low and variable rainfall in the wheat belt of Western Australia, the Prospect Pastoral Company used direct sowing of compost-coated grain seed to encourage root growth to contribute to organic matter in the soil. On the Liverpool plains of NSW, Inveraray Downs took an integrated approach using livestock, compost-based fertiliser and crop rotation to achieve their goals. In all cases, as we outline below, the results speak for themselves.
What is soil organic matter?
We frequently hear about ‘building soil carbon content’. That phrase a bit misleading (unless we are actually talking about burying coal or charcoal!) What most people mean when they say this is ‘building soil organic matter’. This used to be commonly referred to as humus – but humus is only one of four components comprising soil organic matter. Carbon is merely one of the many constituents of soil organic matter, where it is inextricably bound up in all sorts of complicated organic molecules.
Organic matter is practically always present in soil. Proportions range from very little (for example, less than 0.5% in a bleached sand soil) to nearly 100% in the peatiest of peats. Peat is decayed plant material that accumulates in bogs where decomposition of the organic matter is inhibited by wet and cold conditions. Australia has plenty of sandy soils, most notably in southern South Australia and in south-western Western Australia. However, we also have vast areas of soils in between these extremes (1% to 4% organic matter is common) that could benefit from higher proportion.
Organic matter contains essential plant nutrients that become available to plants through the action of biochemical processes. These nutrients become available to plants as the organic matter decomposes. Organic matter also holds moisture, which therefore increases soil moisture holding capacity, especially on sandy soils.
What builds soil organic matter?
Wherever plants grow, roots die and decompose in the soil. Plant leaves and stems also die and fall to the ground, where they may be incorporated into the soil by the combined action of fungi, bacteria, insects, other invertebrates (such as worms), and by vertebrate animals that burrow or dig into the soil.
Native marsupials (like potaroos, bettongs and bandicoots) that dig for fungi, roots, tubers and invertebrates both cultivate the soil and help incorporate organic matter. However, most of these marsupials need dense ground cover vegetation as habitat. The lack of that on some farms, as well as predation by cats and foxes, means these marsupials may no longer occur on most farmland.
Manure can be another source of soil organic matter. In the absence of marsupials, dung beetles that help manure infiltrate the soil by burying it provide an important service to agriculture.
Lessons from Clover Estate, South Australia
The Clover Estate farm in south-east South Australia is located on a land system comprising low, wide sand ridges that developed along the coast as sea levels rose and fell over the past several million years. The deep sandy soil has low natural fertility and organic matter. Water supply is good because there is an aquifer not far below that carries ground water from the east. They found they could add enough fertiliser, irrigate, and pasture productivity was good. But such a solution wasn’t cost-effective in the long-run. Building up soil organic matter was seen as the way to reduce dependence on chemical inputs and to improve animal health at the same time.
They inoculated the soil with plant residue-digesting fungi and bacteria together with biologically derived high-carbon fertilisers to provide a substrate for the microorganisms. Over a period of about 10 years these stimulants increased the measured soil organic carbon content from around 2% to 3%. That might not sound like much, but the combined effects were dramatic: pasture vigour and production improved to the extent that stock output increased by 33%. At the same time, chemical weed control was eliminated and irrigation requirement was reduced from 7–8 Ml/hectare/year to 5–6 Ml/hectare/year, so that input costs were significantly lower.
Similar methods have been applied in the wheat belt of Western Australia by the Prospect Pastoral Company farm at Wyalkatchem, 160 km north east of Perth. Producing wheat here, on the poor, sandy soils that are prevalent, depends entirely on low and highly variable rainfall. Critical to crop production, soil moisture holding capacity is even more important here than in southern South Australia where irrigation is available. Soil organic matter can play an important role in this.
This case study practices direct sowing of grain seed to minimise soil disturbance, which helps maintain ground cover, helps with weed control and avoids loss of soil organic matter. The grain seed is coated with a compost extract that is found to encourage root growth and leads to a healthier and more productive plant. Soil organic matter is also increased by the vigorous root growth. Once grain is harvested, crop stubble is grazed by sheep bred on the property and adapted to maximise nutrient extraction from roughage. Dung and stubble trampled into the ground also leads to increased soil organic matter.
Building soil organic matter has also proved valuable in the quite different landscape on the deep clay soils of the Liverpool plains, north-eastern New South Wales. Soils For Life case study property Inveraray Downs is a grain production property, growing crops such as wheat, sorghum, corn, sunflower and barley. Since the ‘green revolution’ of the mid 20th century, the introduction of higher-yielding varieties of these sorts of grains was associated with considerably increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. By the later years of the 20th century, productivity was declining and the cost of those inputs was becoming prohibitive on Inverary Downs.
Maintaining productivity while breaking the dependence on those inputs required an integrated approach to building soil organic matter comprising:
changing crop rotation practices to include cattle, green manure crops and longer fallow periods that gave time for soil micro-organisms to break down the green manure crops and crop residues
using compost-based fertilisers produced on the property from organic wastes obtained from places such as feedlots, chicken farms and stables
using cattle to break down stubble, which was previously burned, so that the organic matter is incorporated into the soil.
How do you build soil organic matter on your property? We’d love to hear what you are doing to improve the soil organic matter in your part of Australia. You can let us know here or continue reading more inspiring stories from our other case studies in regenerative agriculture.
Have you been able to keep track of all the regenerative agriculture podcasts that have sprung up in the last few months? There’s been so many good ones it has been hard to keep up! So we’ve collected them all in one place. Covering topics from sustainable farms to Indigenous fire management you are bound to find something that’s just right for you.
Webinar Series: Soil Health
The National Landcare Facilitator partnered with Soils for Life to deliver a series of webinars to help drive a national conversation around soil health. The webinar series shares information and ideas from leading figures, scientists and some of our case study farmers who have implemented landscape management changes. See the recordings below:
The RegenNarration features conversations with high profile and grass-roots leaders everywhere who are enabling the regeneration of life on this planet. They’re sharing their stories, and changing the stories – the stories we live by. And the systems we create in their mould. Hosted by Anthony James, award-winning facilitator and educator, widely published writer, Warm Data Lab Host, and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Western Australia.
Hosted by John Kempf, Founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, this podcasts helps professional growers improve there regen practices while increasing crop quality, yield and profit. John and his guests describe why most growers have crop challenges, and how to resolve them. You will find straightforward, actionable information about growing that can be implemented right away to increase crop quality, yields, pest resistance, and climate resilience — to regenerate soil health, and most importantly, increase farm profitability.
Podcast: The Regenerative Journey with Charlie Arnott
The Regenerative Journey podcast is a must for anyone who is curious about regenerative agriculture and the wide ranging and significant benefits of its adoption and practice, not just for farming communities but also for anyone who eats food and cares for the planet!
RegenWA has an impressive library of webinars they have hosted covering a variety of topics in regenerative agriculture. From the operation of a regen farm, carbon 101 and informative conference material, these webinars are useful and important resource for anyone wanting to learn more about regenerative agriculture.
Welcome to Ground Cover. A podcast created for farmers, by farmers. Ground Cover is a uniquely Australian podcast series exploring real life stories of land managers who have undertaken the transition from conventional farming to regenerative agriculture. In this series, we share unique and honest conversations about the challenges and opportunities of regenerative agriculture, so you can make informed decisions about how to best manage your land. Proudly brought to you by The Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and Southern Cross University.
Sustainable Farms is a project by the Australian National University (ANU). ANU has researched and collected data from over 300 farmers engaged in sustainable farming from north-east Victoria to south-east Queensland. It is one of the largest, long-term studies of its kind in the world and now translates these findings to help all farmers better manage the balance between agricultural production and long-term sustainability, and be more profitable along the way. Learn more about they work they do through their podcast series, joining host Gordon Taylor as he interviews project staff and external experts for regular insights into the latest research.
Dr Kelvin Montagu summarises the potential role of cover crops in managing mycorrhizal fungi in vegetable production.
The webinar covers:
– Why mycorrhizal fungi – Do Australian vegetable crops have mycorrhizal fungi – a survey of 50 vegetable crops – Levels of mycorrhizae in vegetable growing soil – Trials adding inoculant to cover crops
As part of the Soil CRC’s research program, a team at the University of Tasmania is working with Soils for Life and other grower groups to develop a simple, affordable and easy to use device which will monitor the activity of soil microbial communities. This device, popularly referred to as an eNose (or electronic nose), can detect many different compounds at the same time. It will measure something similar to an “aroma fingerprint”, and provide useful and useable information to farmers to help them monitor their soil. We held a workshop earlier this year to find out what farmer’s need, join us on the 25th of August for a webinar and Q&A with Soil CRC Project Leader Dr Shane Powell Dr Robert Hardy from the University of Tasmania to find out more.
This podcast series is designed for food producers seeking to increase the nutrient density, flavour and medicinal value of their produce. You will discover multiple strategies to increase profitability, productivity and sustainability, in a wonderful win/win scenario. Nutrition Farming will help you reclaim your passion for the most important of all professions.
Victor Steffensen is an Indigenous writer, filmmaker, musician and consultant applying traditional knowledge values in a contemporary context, through workshops and artistic projects. He is a descendant of the Tagalaka people through his mother’s connections from the Gulf Country of north Queensland . On the Pip Permaculture Magazine podcast, listen to an interview with Victor on how he became the face of indigenous fire management over the 2019/20 bushfire season and his thoughts on burning regimes of the future.
AgTech have released a new podcast series on regenerative agriculture. The podcasts mission is to connect the agtech and agriculture communities by digging in to the “so what” of agtech. They profile innovators working at the intersection of agriculture and technology. The podcast explores the implications of increased venture funding for agtech startups, and talk to farmers about what’s really adding value (or not) on farm.
A podcast about threatened species and what farmers, business and NGOs are doing to protect them. The podcast speaks scientists, conservationists and farmers sharing their experiences and knowledge around threatened species conservation. We’ll explore how plants and animals deliver significant ecosystem services on farm and why biodiversity is simply good for business.
The Climactic Collective is a podcast network of shows engaged with the climate crisis, and other pressing social issues. The network now numbers more than ten shows, with more in development – and we welcome new members.
Can African lovegrass be beaten? Three strategies that are working
African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) is one of the major
scourges of pastoral agriculture in New South Wales and is a declared noxious
weed in most states of Australia. It has negligible nutritional value for
grazing animals and can suppress growth of more nutritious pasture species by
blocking access to sunlight, soil moisture and nutrients. It can go unseen at
first because it looks like other tussock grasses until seed is set, but can easily
spread to dominate the pasture.
While lovegrass is a strong,
persistent competitor once established, it is a weak competitor while becoming
so (Firn 2009). It is therefore more likely to become a problem in degraded
pastures, where there is insufficient competition to retard it. The good news
is that once established, it develops a strong and deep root system and is
therefore drought tolerant and can add valuable organic matter to the soil.
The examples below, from two
past Soils For Life case studies as well as a new look at the practices at
Coolringdon in southern New South Wales, provide some insights into how this
weed has been dealt with in three different contexts.
Located in the New South Wales Northern Tablelands, Soils For Life case study property Shannon Vale shows how this scourge was controlled by an integrated strategy of fastidious attention to soil nutrition together with carefully planned pasture and stock management. Stock management on Shannon Vale posed particular logistical issues because the main stock product is pedigreed bulls. These animals need extra space or they become irritable, so using grazing pressure to control weeds (ie rotational grazing) is problematic.
Conventional fertiliser and
herbicide application and pasture re-sowing practices had led to a situation at
Shannon Vale where costs were increasing while productivity
could not be sustained. Seeing that the weeds, particularly African lovegrass,
were winning led to the realisation that the practices that had been used were
steadily degrading soil structure and fertility. Advice was obtained on pasture
nutrient and compost production. Old practices were abandoned and replaced with
ones based on organic fertilisers, preventing soil disturbance and regularly mulching
the lovegrass before it set seed. Within 10 years, the soil organic carbon
content and available phosphorus had increased markedly and lovegrass was no
longer a problem.
The team at Coolringdon, a merino wool property west of Cooma NSW,
have also been working out how to deal with African lovegrass. A team from
Soils For Life visited Coolringdon in July 2019 to understand their approach.
Coolringdon is historically significant in the context of the early settlement of the Monaro region. Stewart Ryrie, one of NSW’s pastoral pioneers, established it in 1829. From 1854, it was the centre of William Bradley’s vast Monaro holdings and was subsequently owned by John and Betty Casey. Having no dependents, the Caseys established and bequeathed the property to the John and Betty Casey Research Trust. The profits from Coolringdon support the University of Sydney to conduct research and education relevant to agricultural industries in the Monaro region on the property. Management policies since 1999 have been determined on behalf of the John and Betty Casey Research Trust by a committee of trustees as well as the farm manager.
There are several challenges
The main farm income is from wool so a large breeding flock of merino sheep must be maintained.
While native vegetation regulations now prevent native pastures from being replaced with improved pastures, half of the pastures are improved pastures (sown to phalaris, clovers, etc.). There are also substantial areas of native pastures (Poa species, Stipa, etc.). The native pastures tend to be sparser than the improved, which poses a challenge to maintaining adequate ground cover. The improved pasture species are notably more vigorous than the native pasture species so that with careful rotational grazing ground cover can be maintained to minimise the ability of lovegrass to invade.
There are substantial areas of rocky ridges and hilltops on Coolringdon, many with original forest or woodland cover, where lovegrass can go unseen until it is too late to spray to prevent seed sources from developing. Together with sources on other farmland and road reserves in the area, this means that it is not practical to totally eliminate incursions.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries advises that healthy pastures are the best
long-term defence against African lovegrass. Thin, bare patches and pastures
with less than 70% ground cover are at more risk of invasion. The strategy adopted
at Coolringdon is to minimise the opportunity for lovegrass to take hold. This
strategy comprises a number of elements, the first two of which reflect the DPI
according to soil type, vegetation and other landscape features to increase the
number of paddocks/reduce paddock size to enable more precise control of
grazing. Native pastures are separated so that they can be de-stocked when
necessary to maintain ground cover. There are now 80 paddocks compared with 30
Using small ‘sacrificial’
paddocks – simplified feedlots – where sheep are fed with grain when pasture
cover is in danger of getting over-grazed (see photo). The sheep are moved into
these when, due to inadequate rain, regrowth has not caught up towards the end
of the grazing cycle. While groundcover is sacrificed in these paddocks, weed
incursion is easily managed with herbicides because these paddocks are small.
Supplementing grass feeding
with lucerne, which can be grown on a few of the lower-lying paddocks.
Fertilising improved pastures
to sustain vigour and productivity.
In 2020, several projects are
ongoing studying the both ground cover and African lovegrass control.
Also on the NSW northern
illustrates an alternative approach to dealing with lovegrass. Along with
Shannon Vale, Lana
was one of the first Soils For Life case studies. As at Shannon Vale,
traditional agricultural management was found to be running the property into
the ground. The solution implemented since the 1990s started with adopting
time-controlled rotational grazing. Many kilometres of fencing reduced paddock
sizes from 100 – 120 hectares to 10 – 15 hectares so that grazing pressure
could be managed precisely.
African lovegrass is
prevalent at Lana,
but isn’t found to be the problem it is at Coolringdon and elsewhere. Indeed, on
this property lovegrass has an advantage over the other (mainly native) pasture
species because it can produce some fibre even in the driest of dry spells.
That fibre might not be as
nutritious for grazing animals as preferred pasture species but it does provide
some grazing potential when the animals diet is supplemented by by-pass protein (a protein source that resists
degradation in the cow’s rumen
so that it passes into the lower gastrointestinal tract, and can therefore
provide essential amino acids to the cow).
The key at Lana
is that carefully managed rotational grazing using a ‘leader and follower’
system (in which cattle are rotated followed soon after by sheep) ensures that
the lovegrass is eaten down to a minimum, is suppressed and does not take over
the pasture. Trying to eliminate it with herbicide, as has been tried at Lana
in the past, was found to create a worse problem because sprayed areas tended
to remain barren for too long.
So, can African lovegrass
actually be beaten? Reflecting on the above examples, an answer to that question
is: maybe, but if not, at least it is possible to learn how to live with it. It
might be a scourge and practically impossible to eliminate, but careful
management tailored to the production system and landscape can minimise or
avoid the problems that African lovegrass causes. What might work for you?
Firn, J. 2009. African
lovegrass in Australia: a valuable pasture species or embarrassing invader?
Tropical Grasslands 43: 86-97.
Read more about the
innovative strategies and regenerative agriculture solutions being implemented
on Soils For Life case study farms here.
Last week we learned woody vegetation in New South Wales is being cleared at more than double the rate of the previous decade – and agriculture was responsible for more than half the destruction.
Farming now covers 58% of Australia, or 385 million hectares, and accounts for 59% of water extracted.
It’s painfully clear nature is buckling under the weight of farming’s demands. In the past decade, the federal government has listed ten ecological communities as endangered, or critically endangered, as a result of farming development and practices.
So how can we accommodate the needs of both farming and nature? Research shows us how – but it means accepting land as a finite resource, and operating within its limits. In doing so, farmers will also reap benefits.
Healthy grazing landscapes
In the 1990s, I worked as a research ecologist in the cattle country of sub-tropical Queensland. The prevailing culture valued agricultural development over conservation. Yet many of these producers lived on viable farms that supported a wealth of native plants and animals.
They made a living from the native grassy eucalypt woodlands, an ecosystem that extends from Cape York to Tasmania. In these healthy landscapes, vigorous pastures of tall perennial grasses protected the soil, enriched it with carbon and fed the cattle.
By 2006, 4.5 million hectares of box-gum grassy woodland – or 90% – in temperate Australia had been destroyed.
A template for sustainability
Back in Queensland in the 1990s, my colleagues and I devised a template for sustainable land use. Funded by the livestock industry and a now-defunct federal corporation, we worked with producers and government agencies to find the right balance between farm production and conserving natural resources.
Our research concluded that for farming to be sustainable, intensive land uses must be limited. Such intensive uses include crops and non-native pastures. They are “high input”, typically requiring fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and some form of cultivation. They return greater yields but kill native plants, and are prone to soil and nutrient runoff into waterways.
But our template was not adopted as conventional farming practice. In the past 20 years, Australia’s cropping area has increased by 18,200 square kilometres.
By 2019, 38,000 square kilometres of poplar box grassy woodland in Australia had been cleared – more than half the size of Tasmania. The ecosystem was listed as endangered in 2019. Until that point, it had been considered invasive native scrub in NSW – exempting it from clearing regulations – and was systematically cleared for agriculture in Queensland.
Regenerating the land
Hearteningly, our research was recently revived in a multidisciplinary study of regenerative grazing on the grassy woodlands of NSW. The template was used to assess the ecological condition of participating farms.
The study examined differences in profitability between graziers who had adopted regenerative techniques such as low-input pasture management, and all other sheep, sheep-beef and mixed cropping-grazing farmers in their region.
It found regenerative grazing was often more profitable than other types of farming, especially in dry years. Regenerative farmers also experienced significantly higher than average well-being compared with other NSW farmers.
So what does our template involve? First, it identifies four types of land use relevant to farmed grassy woodland regions.
Second, it specifies the proportion of land that should be allocated to each use, in order to achieve landscape health (see pie chart below). The proportions can be applied to single farm, or entire districts or regions.
Intensive land use involves activities that replace nearly all native species. If these activities occupy more than 30% of the landscape, there’s insufficient habitat to maintain many native species, especially plants.
At least 10% of land must be devoted to nature conservation. The remaining 60% of the land should involve low-intensity activity such as grazed native pasture and timber production. If managed well, these land uses can support human livelihoods and a diversity of native species.
Within that split of land use, total native woodland should be no less than 30%. This guarantees connected habitats for native plants and animals, enabling movement and breeding opportunities.
Respect the land’s limits
Australians ask a lot of our land. It must make space for our houses, businesses, and roads. It should support all species to prevent extinctions. And it must produce our food and fibre.
Global population growth demands a rapid rise in food production. But relying on intensive agriculture to achieve this is unsustainable. Aside from damaging the land, it increases greenhouse gas emissions though mechanisation, fertilisation, chemical use and tree clearing.
To meet the challenges of the future we must ensure farmed landscapes retain their ecological functions. In particular, maintaining biodiversity is key to climate adaptation. And as many of Australia’s plants and animals march towards extinction, the need to reverse biodiversity loss has never been greater.
Farmers can be profitable while maintaining and improving the ecological health of their land. It’s time to look harder at farming models that respect the limits of nature, and recognise that less can be more.
Water management in the land of droughts and flooding rains: Lessons from our case studies in low rainfall areas
Managing grazing pressure, maintaining soil fertility,
controlling weeds … the list of challenges facing agricultural land managers
could go on and on. But, arguably the biggie, the black beast always lurking
out there, is water. Sometimes there is too much of it, but that is rare in our
land of droughts and flooding rains. Usually the problem is that there isn’t
enough. Perhaps a solution in some circumstances is to focus on the flooding
This article looks at the
different approaches taken on our case study properties to manage big falls of
rain when they come. It is evident from the range of approaches mentioned
across all our case studies that there are creative ways to make the most of
the available rainfall. The principle shared by each of the examples is an
approach that slows the movement of water and allows it to seep into the soil.
The ways and means vary depending on the land itself and resources available.
Water management: Scalds on Salisbury
Soils For Life’s Salisbury case study, about the MacAlpine family’s property in
the north of central-western New South Wales
illustrates the problem, and the potential solution. Salisbury and
several prior case studies provide lessons in water management that might be
useful for many agricultural land managers.
There are no permanent
watercourses on Salisbury. Water supply is rain and bores that tap the Great
Artesian Basin. Average annual rainfall is about 450 mm, probably less. The
average and median monthly rainfall sometimes falls in a single day, sometimes
causing regional flooding. Conversely, little or no rain falls for substantial
periods. As if that doesn’t make life complicated enough, there are also the
‘scalds’ to deal with.
The early period of sheep
grazing in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of western New South Wales was a
disaster for topsoil. Overgrazing encouraged by high wool prices destroyed
ground cover, which in dry periods led to widespread wind and water erosion
that created ‘scalds’ where the coarser textured surface material has been
completely lost, leaving the finer textured and less permeable subsoil [Figure
1]. This was reported as being an extensive problem as long ago as 1901
(Cunningham 1987). By the 1960s, tens of thousands of square kilometres of
rangeland sites in western NSW were moderately bare or completely ‘scalded’
Water soaks into scalded land
so slowly that soil moisture recharge, and the potential for revegetation, is
negligible. The rare events of flooding rains do little more than cause more
soil erosion. This land is perpetually barren, or would be without
Methods for reclaiming
scalded soils in Western NSW have been researched since the late 1940s
(Cunningham 1987). Surveying and construction methods developed over several
decades have made rehabilitation of scalds more and more cost-effective (Rhodes
1987). These involve using a grader to build low ponding banks to hold
rainwater to a depth of 10 cm or so. These are circular on flat ground and
semi-circular (a ‘horseshoe’ shape) on scald with a mild slope. The opening of
the horseshoe is to the up-slope side, so that run-off collects within the
banks. Each pond covers about 0.4 hectares. The grader used to construct the
banks is also used to disturb the soil surface within the ponds in strategic
locations (Thompson 2008).
The effect of the ponding
banks and disturbance is to hold water from the intermittent heavy falls. This
then infiltrates – albeit slowly – to leach salts from the surface, recommence
soil swelling and cracking and provide moisture down the soil profile. The
banks and disturbance within the pond area provide a barrier to wind-blown
sediments and plant material, which collects and starts to form an organic-rich
surface layer. The saltbush seed, together with whatever other wind-blown or
sheep- or bird-delivered seed arrives, then has somewhere to germinate and
moisture to tap in the soil profile. The natural processes of ecological
succession have effectively been given a ‘kick-start’ and can take their
The results on Salisbury can
be seen in Figure 2.
Breaking the surface on Bokhara Plains
About 150 km north-west of Salisbury, on the Goodooga Road north of Brewarrina, is Bokhara Plains. In 1999 around 50% of the 7200 hectares property was
clay pan or otherwise bare ground.Ponding had been tried on Bokhara
Plains but, except at the edges of ponds where the soil had been disturbed, the
effects were minimal. A cost-effective way to break up the hard capped surface
to accelerate water penetration to capture the infrequent falls of rain was
The most cost-effective
method found was to use cattle. The trick was, after a fall of rain when the
surface was wet, to pack on a big enough mob of cattle so that the hooves could
break the surface. However, because of the low carrying capacity on the
property there weren’t sufficient numbers to do the job, so the landholders
agisted cattle when the time was right to help break up the surface.
As well as Salisbury and Bokhara Plains, interventions to make the most of intermittent and
unreliable rainfall have been implemented at Gilgunnia Station and Wyndham Station.
Clay pans were not such a problem on these properties, further west in New
South Wales, but the need to maximise the benefits of limited available
rainfall is no less important. Rothesay, in the central west, illustrates the use of a
similar technique in hillier country.
Water-spreading at Gilgunnia Station
Gilgunnia comprises 10,000 hectares on the Cobar Peneplain.
Rainfall ranges from 101 mm in 1982 to 710 mm in 2010, and averages 398 mm. As
is common in the region, rainfall comes in heavy falls. Here, the tendency is
for it to run off the gravelly rises and through the flats without infiltrating
and therefore exacerbating soil erosion. To add to the soil erosion hazard,
turpentine bush and other invasive native shrub and tree species had taken over
the original grassy woodland, considerably reducing grazing capacity. Removing
that vegetation posed the risk of increasing soil erosion. Landscape
engineering in the form of water-spreading banks was implemented to help
address these issues.
Water spreading is suited to broad flats between 100 metres and 1 kilometre wide. The system at Gilgunnia comprises concentric curved banks constructed along the contour, spaced a few hundred metres apart (Figure 3). The banks prevent runoff from accumulating down drainage lines, and therefore stabilise erosion, and increase water infiltration. A gap is left in the bank at alternating points along the length of each bank. Runoff ponds behind the banks and infiltrates through the gaps, making its way to and fro gradually down through the broad flats. Organic matter accumulates behind the banks, trapping seeds and accelerating revegetation.
Improving water distribution on Wyndham Station, Rothesay and Balala
Wyndham Station on the lower Darling River is even further west in
New South Wales – in fact it’s not much further to get to South Australia. The
average annual rainfall here is only 260 mm. Rothesay is in central NSW at the foothills of the Liverpool
Plains, where the average annual rainfall is a rather more generous 691 mm. But
the same problem arises: there are good years, and there are drought years.
The topography on Gilgunnia and at Rothesay is more pronounced than at Gilgunnia or Salisbury, so different solutions apply. Low banks
and channels are constructed at a shallow down-grade from drainage lines
towards the ridges. Runoff follows the channels and disperses down the slopes.
A different approach has been taken at Balala, west of Uralla in northern New South Wales. Following a long history of set stocking, woody native vegetation over substantial parts of Balala had become substantially denser than the original grassy woodland, to the extent that the grasses were suppressed and there was little grazing potential. Approval was obtained to thin some areas of overly dense stands. That helped pasture rejuvenation but created the problem that there was woody debris to deal with. Turning that problem into an asset, piles of stems and branches were laid along the contour on gentle slopes (Figure 4). The effect of the piles was to impede surface water flow, which increases infiltration, and to trap organic matter. As well as making better use of available rainfall, research has found that this method improves soil nitrogen and carbon content and nutrient exchange properties (Tongway and Ludwig 2006).
Bundles of woody debris or
“Brush Packs” were installed in the Mulloon Creek catchment as part of the Green Army program. The Mulloon
Institute produced a guide to the use of “Brush Packs” following the bushfires of 2019/20. Retaining organic
matter and nutrients after fires increases the speed of landscape recovery and
protects water systems.
Cunningham, G.M. 1987.
Reclamation of scalded land in western New South Wales. Journal of Soil
Conservation New South Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of
Rhodes, D. 1987. Waterponding
banks – design, layout and construction. Journal of Soil Conservation New South
Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of NSW, Sydney.
Thompson, R. 2008.
Waterponding: Reclamation technique for scalded duplex soils in western New
South Wales rangelands. Ecological
Management and Restoration 9: 170-181. doi:
Tongway, D. and Ludwig, J.
2006. Rehabilitation of Semiarid Landscapes in Australia. I. Restoring
Productive Soil Patches. Restoration Ecology. 4. 388–397.
Birds: Why and how to measure them on your property
By Richard Thackway and Greg Hosking
Results of repeated bird surveys, like repeated soil tests, can provide land managers with valuable information on how their land management is performing over time. In fact, the number and different types of birds found in different types of vegetation on a property can be used as a measure of management performance.
Why measure birds in your landscape
Birds are a practical indicator to monitor biodiversity. Any changes that you make to vegetation on your property will influence the type and number of birds by changing the availability of food, habitat or shelter. For instance, you might choose to remove exotic weed species and replace these with locally indigenous native plant species. Or you could decide to fence and revegetate an area of your property. Both management practices are likely to see some kind of change in food, habitat and shelter for birds.
Before you change the management of an area, it’s a good idea to establish a repeatable way to measure bird life. By establishing a robust survey, then repeating it in the same season each year over following years, you will measure the impact on biodiversity that the changes your management practices have on the landscape.
Birds and vegetation
You can expect that establishing native plant shelterbelts or fencing out remnant patches of native vegetation will provide more habitat for local bird species to occupy. As a patch of vegetation matures (i.e. becomes more vertically complex and provides more resources like food, shelter and nest sites) it’s usual for a greater number and variety of birds to be present. However, one factor that strongly influences the variety and number of birds found in such sites is how well the native vegetation on the property is connected with larger patches of mature native vegetation in the surrounding landscape.
Garry Kadwell’s property ‘Fairhalt’, a Soils For Life case study, illustrates how this works in practice. His well-considered approach to the size, connectivity and proximity of his revegetation projects increased the numbers and types of birds visiting and staying to breed.
Revegetating a site with native plant species and encouraging the regeneration of native tree, shrub and ground cover plants will influence the types of birds and the number of birds over time and in different seasons. However, established non-natives also provide valuable habitat for birds so it’s important to consider their value to bird life and the other roles they play in the landscape (ie shade, amenity, stabilising waterways) before removing them.
Measuring bird life over time
Consistently recording the bird communities found on your property can provide you with valuable information about how the quality and extent of bird habitat has changed over time. We encourage land managers to use the same bird survey technique each time that they survey birds.
To limit the variables, make sure you repeat your survey in the same season every year. An ideal time to survey birds is the first week of ‘spring’ (whatever time that may be in your agro-climatic region). For example, in Canberra it’s best to survey in the first week of October. Whatever time of the year you choose make sure you perform the survey at that same time in following years. Of course, you may wish to survey multiple times each year, depending on the seasonal variation of your climate. In rangelands settings, it is best to do this survey up to three weeks after rain.
Doing your first survey BEFORE you make changes (e.g. removing the weeds or fencing a remnant patch of native vegetation) will give you a fuller understanding of the impact of the changes on the landscape.
The Soils For Life Bird Survey
To assist you to conduct robust and repeatable bird surveys, we have produced an easy to use bird survey template. Filling it out over seasons will provide more detailed and useful information about the bird life on your property than a simple species list. You may need multiple copies if you have a lot of bird life on your property.
Birdlife Australia has information on other types of bird survey techniques available for use on farms. They have also developed an app for mobile devices which can be used to record bird surveys. The Birddata app is free to download/use for both Android and Apple users. A range of different survey methods are available to use within the app. It also gives you the opportunity to trial different survey methods to determine the method that best suits your purposes, once you’ve found what works sticking to that method is the recommended approach.
Things to consider when conducting a survey
Survey at the same time of year every year. The first week of spring each year is a good time.
Use the same survey technique each time you survey.
Set a duration of time that you will spend on the survey (ie one hour) and use that duration consistently each time you complete a survey.
Different types of vegetation-cover and land use deserve a separate survey. For example, do separate surveys for ridges, slopes, river flats, dams etc.
Use binoculars. They don’t need to be expensive, but 8 or 10 x 42 are best for birdwatching.
Pleasant weather – without wind and rain – is best for bird watching.
How to identify bird species
Many of you will have a field guide on your bookshelf or kitchen bench. You can use this to help you identify the species of bird. If you don’t already have one, the commonly used bird identification manuals across Australia are:
The Soils For Life team provides professional assessment of properties that are using regenerative landscape management practices. Our case study program considers the quadruple bottom line of each property by looking at the effects of regenerative agriculture practices on a farm’s production, economics and ecology as well as the social implications of these practices.
As well as conducting extensive desktop research, our ecologists conduct field trips to assess first hand the impacts of regenerative agriculture on the ecology of the farm. They chose ten criteria to represent the regenerative and productive capacity of each major land type on a farm.
Here are the ten things that they are looking at when they visit a farm:
1 – Resilience to major natural disturbances
Resilience to major disturbances includes the following factors depending on the agro-climatic region (wildfire, drought, cyclone, dust storm, flood, frost). A major natural disaster or natural disturbance event can occur at any time. Some disturbances give a warning, such as a windstorm or electrical storm preceding a wildfire or a flood. Once a disaster happens, the time to prepare is gone. Lack of preparation can have enormous consequences on farm life including social, ecological, economics and production.
2 – Soil nutrients including soil carbon
Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a vital role in influencing available soil nutrients. Generally for every tonne of carbon in SOM 15 kg of phosphorus, 15 kg of sulphur and about 100 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen become available to plants as the organic matter is broken down. It is vital to know how much carbon we have in soil so that we can roughly estimate the potential supply of nutrients. SOM releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes the structure, biological and physical health of soil, and is a buffer against harmful substances.
3 – Soil surface water infiltration
Soil texture and structure greatly influence water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity. Of the water entering a soil profile, some will be stored within the root zone for plant use, some will evaporate, and some will drain away. In agro-ecological settings, by increasing water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity this will usually act as a stimulus to improve ecological function. Management regimes that promote the capture and utilisation of rainfall where it falls generally enhances ecological function.
4 – Biological activity in the soil
Soil biology affects plant and animal production
by modifying the soil physical, chemical and biological environment within
which plants grow and persist. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is important for land managers to
understand – too many bacteria can indicate an unhealthy and unproductive soil.
In healthy soils, there is a good balance between
fungi and bacteria; invertebrates including arthropods and worms are usually
present. Collectively these form a vital part of a plant nutrient supply web.
5 – The physical properties of the soil
Soil is a medium for plant growth, given the right environmental conditions. In some agroclimatic regions, the naturally occurring surface layers (A horizon) have historically been adversely impacted by inappropriate land management regimes. Major and moderate loss of the A horizon either through water or wind erosion may have diminished the ecological function of the soil as a medium for optimal plant growth.
6 – Changes and trends in the reproductive potential of plants
Grazing production systems rely on an ecosystem’s inherent capacity to bounce back after grazing and natural climate events (e.g. wildfire and drought). Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented to build or rebuild the reproductive potential of plants and pastures, we look at the observed outcomes on plant/pasture reproduction, germination, establishment, development and maintenance.
7 – The extent of tree cover
Tree cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits, including mitigation of soil erosion; shelter for pastures and crops; improved animal welfare; enabling added revenue from stacked (multiple) enterprises; habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and predatory insects birds and animals; improved salinity management; improved interception of rainfall; and improved aquifer recharge.
8 – Status of ground cover
Ground cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits. The quality of ground cover provides essential protection to keep the soil cool against direct, searing summer heat by reducing evaporation and protecting bare soil against raindrop splash and wind erosion. A dense, matted ground layer of pasture grasses slows overland flows during the intense rainfall events and assists with infiltration of rainfall, thus mitigating soil erosion and replenishing soil moisture. Ground cover also provides essential habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and insects and birds and other biodiversity. Land management regimes that promote higher levels of ground cover and biomass in critical growing seasons generally enhances ecological function.
9 – The diversity of tree and shrub species
Intensively managed agricultural landscapes typically adopt management regimes that simplify the diversity and number of species of trees and shrubs for pasture and crop production. Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented there has been an observed increase in the number of tree and shrub species.
10 – The diversity of grass species
In many grazing production systems, the
implementation of regenerative land management regimes can improve the variety
of pasture plants (annuals and perennials). In turn this can improve pasture
production, animal nutrition, protect natural resources (soil and water) and
build the capacity of farming systems to adapt to future production and
environmental challenges. The intensity of the grazing management system will
determine the health and vitality of pastures and their longevity.
The management and selection of the perennial
pasture species for a grazing production system should be based on
considerations of climate, soil conditions and performance of pasture species
under different management regimes.
Read about how land managers have improved each of these ecological criteria on their farms in latest case study reports. You can search them by state or sector here.
Weeds are one of the major
problems affecting Australia’s natural ecosystems and agricultural vegetation.
Weeds have major impacts on the health, safety, amenity, economic well-being
and quality of life of Australians (McNaught et al. 2006). However, deciding
what is and isn’t a weed is complicated but important. Statements such as “all
plants are good” or “all non-native plants are weeds” are inflexible statements
and do not encourage viewing the environment in question as a system made up of
numerous functioning parts.
The Cambridge Dictionary definition
of a “weed” is any plant that is considered to be undesirable in a particular
location (Dictionary 2016). It is a rather loose definition; it is open for
personal interpretation. For example, the blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.) was brought to
Australia from Britain in the 1840’s, it was introduced for its fruit and
suitability for growing into hedges (DPIE 2020). Shortly after introduction,
the plant spread widely throughout the south-east of Australia choking up
waterways and pastures and by the 1880’s many people considered it to be a weed
(DPEI 2020). However, some people look for the positive effects that weeds can
provide in an environment. In landscapes that have been highly modified for
agricultural production Blackberry bushes provide habitat for smaller bird
species such as the superb fairywren (Malurus
cyaneus) (Nias 1984). Whilst providing habitat for a few species of birds
is important, the value of this service must be considered alongside the
negative impacts weeds can have on the environment.
Some plants are labelled as “weedy”
because of their ability to outcompete other plants, invade and colonise disturbed
land and create monocultures. Monocultures caused by invasive species can have
detrimental effects on local wildlife, reducing their habitat and food supplies
(Ferdinands et al. 1984). A characteristic of many weeds is their ability to more
successfully occupy some locations where native plants once thrived, thus pushing
native plants to the fringes. For some species this results in localised
extinction and in extreme cases can result in total species extinction (Groves
& Willis 1999). In some agricultural landscapes some weed incursions have
proven so extreme that agricultural production is forced to stop completely.
The prickly pear invasion of the 1930s in central Queensland is a case in
Currently in Australia some
plants are considered to be noxious weeds and various state governments legally
require that landholders must undertake methods to control noxious weeds,
failure to do so can result in fines. African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) and serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) are two examples of plants which must be
controlled within the state of New South Wales (NSW DPI 2019). African
lovegrass and serrated tussock are known for their ability to outcompete other
grass species, native and non-natives alike, they are both largely unpalatable
with little nutritional value for livestock or native animals (NSW DPI 2019). Strong
cases have been made for actively controlling and removing African lovegrass
(Curhes et al. 2009) and serrated tussock (Sinden et al. 2004).
There are, however, those who advocate
for the value of weeds: permaculturists use the term “naturalised” rather than
“invasive” species. This term change within the permaculture movement stems
from the consideration that all plants can be useful and provide a function to
the environment (Holmgren 2011). Their argument is that naturalised species
fill an important function/s which was previously lacking from the environment.
An example of a weed which provides an ecological function is galvanised burr (Sclerolaena birchii). It is native to
the rangelands of Australia and appears typically after periods of drought and is
found in areas that have been highly disturbed e.g. overgrazed by livestock. Galvanised
burr acts as a scab, covering bare ground and aiding soil health in repairing
after periods of high stress (Auld 1981). As such, invasive plants like
galvanised burr can be used an indicator of land condition.
Within the regenerative
agriculture movement there is no uniform idea or opinion of weeds. Some land
managers subscribe to the theory that every plant has a function and should be
promoted whilst others recognise the damage particular plant species can cause.
Some regenerative land managers in grazing landscapes have shown that their
understanding of the vulnerabilities of weed ecology and biology can be used to
control and remove weeds. For example, promoting the succession of pasture
species through paddock rotations involving intensive short grazing periods combined
with long recovery times without any grazing can result in weeds being
outcompeted by desired pasture species.
The term “weed” means many
different things to many different people. When assessing if a plant is a
“weed” it is worth considering that some plants that are considered weeds can
provide valuable ecological functions at different times and in certain
circumstances. Conversely, plant species which dominate an ecosystem and cause
extinction of other species through the creation of monocultures should not be
encouraged, either inadvertently or deliberately. Use of the term “weed” should
be used advisedly and should involve consideration of the likely positive and
negative effects that a plant species has on the landscape.
Auld, B.A. (1981). Aspects of the
population ecology of Galvanised Burr (Sclerolaena birchii). The Rangeland Journal, 3(2),
Curhes, S. Leigh, C. and Walton,
C. (2009). Weed risk assessment: African lovegrass Eragrostis curvula.
Dictionary, o. (2016). weed
Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Dictionary.cambridge.org.
Available at: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/weed [Accessed
7 March 2020].
Ferdinands, K., Beggs, K. and
Whitehead, P. (2005). Biodiversity and invasive grass species: multiple-use or
monoculture?. Wildlife Research, 32(5), pp.447-457.
Groves, R.H. and Willis, A.J. (1999).
Environmental weeds and loss of native plant biodiversity: some Australian
examples. Australian Journal of
Environmental Management, 6(3), pp.164-171.
Holmgren, D. (2011). Weeds or
wild nature: a permaculture perspective. Plant Protection Quarterly, 26(3), p.92.
McNaught, I., Thackway, R., Brown, L., and
Parsons, M. (2006). A field manual for
surveying and mapping nationally significant weeds. Bureau of Rural
Nias, R. C. (1984). Territory
quality and group size in the superb fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus. Emu 84:
NSW Department of Primary
Industries. (2019). African lovegrass (Eragrostis
curvula) [online]. Available at: https://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/3
[Accessed 7 March 2020].