Down to Earth- June 2020

June Edition

Alasdair Macleod

Message from Alasdair Macleod,
Chair of the Soils For Life Board

Narelle mentioned in her newsletter last month, the Soils For Life team has been busy during lockdown. Of course, it has not been possible to carry out any fieldwork, but a great deal has been achieved recently to strengthen the organisation and equip it to provide even more support to those farmers who are considering some changes to their management practices. In fact this month’s newsletter is full of resources and information from the Soils For Life team including a catch up with Rhonda and Bill Daly around the recent performance of their case study property Milgadara as well as education resources around bird surveying and water management strategies.
We are also sharing our submission to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review.

Milgadara, Young NSW

Case study catch up:
How is Milgadara performing in 2020?

Bill and Rhonda Daly were one of the first Soils For Life case studies in 2013. They are fourth generation farmers growing sheep, cattle and crops on their property Milgadara in Young, NSW, as well as running YLAD Living Soils – a composting business that allows them to enrich not just the soils on their property but many others across the whole country.

Birds: How and why to measure them on your property

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. 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.

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.

Are you the next Soils For Life Case Study?

We are currently inviting farmers and land managers from across Australia to apply to be case studies. Although we are interested in applications from all enterprises, we are particularly looking for more representation of farmers working in horticulture, viticulture, dairying and cropping enterprises. If you think your property is a good example of the environmental, social, economic and production benefits brought about by your regenerative practices, please fill out our updated application form.

Above: Balala Station; fallen trees strategically placed to catch organic matter and slow water flow down the slope.

Water management in the land of droughts
and flooding rains:
Lessons from our case studies low rainfall areas

The list of challenges facing agricultural land managers could go on and on, but arguably the 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. It is evident from the range of approaches mentioned across all our case studies that there are creative ways to make the most of big rains, with the ways and means depending on the land itself and resources available.

EPBC Submission

The Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act is currently undergoing independent review and recently sought input on a discussion paper. Soils For Life prepared a submission that reflects a consolidated perspective from our engagement with our case study participants and the broader agricultural community interested in regenerating agricultural landscapes and the expertise of the SFL scientists.
A draft report of the review is expected this month and the final report is due to be handed on down in October.

Landcare tribute to Major General Michael Jeffery

Our patron, Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery, is honoured in the latest issue of Landcare in Focus. Landcare Australia presents a special tribute to a man who has long and passionately advocated for improvements in the health of our agricultural landscape.

Talking point: Regenerate Australia

Future Directions International, also established by our founder Major General Michael Jeffery, has recognised the strategic importance of soils and bio-systems in Australia. It has highlighted the declining health of soils as a national issue, and in their latest paper discuss the importance of restorating our soils to improve the productivity and resilience of our landscapes.

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Can African lovegrass be beaten? Three strategies that are working

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.

Shannon Vale

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.

Photo: Mulching on Shannon Vale

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.

Coolringdon

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 at Coolringdon:

  • 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 NSW advice:

  • Sub-dividing paddocks 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 in 1999.
  • 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.
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Photo: sacrificial paddock. Recycled cliplock roofing is used as double-sided troughs for grain feeding. Grain is poured in evenly along the length from a feed truck or trailer that straddles the troughs.
Photo: sacrificial paddock. Recycled cliplock roofing is used as double-sided troughs for grain feeding. Grain is poured in evenly along the length from a feed truck or trailer that straddles the troughs.

Lana

Also on the NSW northern tablelands, Lana 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.

Photo: Lana winter landscape, 2011

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.

Conclusion

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?

References

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.

Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way

Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way

Sue McIntyre, Author provided

July 7, 2020

Sue McIntyre, Australian National University

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.

Grassy eucalypt woodlands used for cattle farming in subtropical Queensland. Tara Martin. Author provided.

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.

Read more: IPCC’s land report shows the problem with farming based around oil, not soil

NSW and Victoria have similar eucalypt grassy vegetation, but farming here has taken a very different path.

Fertilised legumes and grasses grown for livestock fodder have replaced hundreds of native grassland plants. Over time, native trees and shrubs stopped regenerating and remaining trees became unhealthy, destroying wildlife habitat. The transformation was hastened by aerial applications of fertiliser and herbicide.

By 2006, 4.5 million hectares of box-gum grassy woodland – or 90% – in temperate Australia had been destroyed.

Aerial delivery of fertiliser, seed and herbicide transformed grassy woodlands in NSW. F. G. Swain. Author provided.

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.

Farmers should conserve sufficient areas of landscape to support native plants and animals. Sue McIntyre, Author provided

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.

Read more: Three ways farms of the future can feed the planet and heal it too

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.

How to sustain production, natural resources and native flora and fauna on a landscape or farm. Sue McIntyre

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.

Retaining grassy woodland ensures habitat for native animals. Duncan McCaskill/Flickr

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.

Read more: Australian farmers are adapting to climate change

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.

Sue McIntyre, Honorary Professor, Australian National University

To see farmed landscapes managed for biodiversity in action, look at our case studies.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.