Drought resilience on the Southern Downs
The last drought across Southeast Queensland was incredibly challenging. Every farm had to make tough decisions, and many are still recovering from the financial and personal implications.
Since the drought break in 2020, farmers across the Southern Downs have been looking ahead, thinking about what they can do now to be more ready for and resilient to the next drought.
At the invitation of Junabee Hall Committee – a committee dedicated to ensuring the hall continues as shared space for the local community to learn and socialise together – and Rotary Warwick Sunrise, Soils for Life helped organise and host a conversation at the Hall on how local farms are managing to increase their drought resilience in partnership with BEAR Biologics, Condamine Headwaters Landcare, and Decision Design Hub. Over 60 people participated.
One of the take home messages of the night was the benefits of experimenting with multi-species cropping, even if just in one plot. This could be with eight, ten or even fifteen different species together and without artificial fertilisers.
Multi-species cropping adds incredible benefits to the soil. For example, together the diversity of plants keeps the ground covered, moist, cool in summer, warm in winter and thus maintains the topsoil.
In addition, each species provides a unique nutrient and soil enhancing service, which can help nurture a diverse soil ecosystem back to health. It is this below ground soil ecosystem that reduces incidence of pests and fungal infections, as well as increases the nutrient density.
Multi-species cover cropping can be implemented for the primary purpose of improving soil. But the species can also be harvested with a little bit of fore-planning, based on harvest time or harvest type of the different species. Not only does quality increase but so does production quantity. As panellist Russel Young said of his experience, ‘the more plants you have, the greater your yield.’
Multi-species crops can be terminated before the end of their growing season using a roller crimper, which offers numerous benefits. The plants provide value through mulch and weed protection for the next crop, continue to protect soil moisture, and encourage more essential microbes to grow. Panellist and farmer David Lange, the pioneer who created the Auscrimper in Australia 20 years ago by adopting the Rodale Institute’s design for a roller crimper, brought an Auscripmer to the Junabee Hall for farmers to see up close.
Grazing for croppers
Another important strategy discussed was how to incorporate grazing into cropping practices. David Lange was previously only a cropper, but because of the challenges, he switched entirely to cattle. But now, he sees how the cropping and livestock enterprises could be mutually-beneficial.
David believes the cattle now offer a more reliable source of income, but when the season and conditions are right, he will crop. After harvest, the cattle are brought in to their plot to forage and digest the remaining stubble, fertilizing the soil as they go, before the plot is replanted again with native grasses or multi-species cover crops.
Farmers in the audience were interested in this approach but questions arose about how the farmers could experiment before investing in a whole new enterprise of animals. Facilitators suggested collaborative avenues. For example, nearby crop and livestock farmers could meet and discuss how to match supply and demand for end of harvest foraging with feed requirements.
Another idea for collaboration on a grander scale, is that farmers across the region could group their respective land areas and collectively plan land use of each field and animal movements in order to graze livestock farms on crop farms. This collaboration could be based on practices such as stubble grazing; sacrificial grazing of grain crops; and introducing intercropped forage crops, temporary grasslands, and forage legumes in crop rotations.
Reducing chemical dependence and moving back to natural cycling
Attendees were concerned about the rapidly increasing costs of glyphosate and other chemical additives. Some panellists wondered if this economic crunch might be a tipping point for farmers to investigate transitioning away from expensive inputs and towards the use of soil microbiomes for crop production.
Reducing the reliance on chemical inputs may support healthy soil filled with an incredibly diverse microbiome. Healthy soils store significantly more water, meaning the crops do better in droughts and recover more quickly when rain returns.
However, transitioning away from heavy fertiliser dependence means that the natural soil nutrient cycles might need help to ramp back up. Panellists Neil and Kim Sullivan, organic croppers, spoke about the importance of getting the biology and trace elements right for your soil, through transitional multi-species cover-cropping, as well as biological soil amendments, like NutriSoil. In their farming system, the plants and soil do the hard work for them, so their ‘nitrogen is free, and we can keep more money ourselves.’
In addition to multi-species cover cropping on fallow fields, the Sullivans let the “weeds” grow in some paddocks as a multi-species crop. Not only do the weeds protect the moisture of the soil, but often weeds are providing the very ecosystem service that the soil needs.
Weeds also indicate the condition of the soil. For example, amaranth and St. Johns-wort can indicate your soil is low in calcium and phosphate, but high in potassium and magnesium. Learning to read your landscape as its soil health is restoring is a part of reducing the reliance on additional inputs.
Instead of removing weeds, these croppers both let the weeds provide a soil regeneration service and read the weeds to know which nutrients the soil needs.
Create a drought management plan
Another key message is that a more helpful time to develop a drought management plan is when we are not experiencing a drought period. If you can take steps to prepare your plan and farm before the next drought sets in, you’ll be able to identify key decision points so you don’t have to make tough decisions under stress, like when to sell stock or whether to plant or what to plant. For example, as Helen Lewis, of Decision Design Hub, asks farmers: when the rain fall is below the twelve-month rolling average, what decisions might you need to be thinking about?
Interested in more ideas for drought resilience?
You can check out our grain case studies for inspiration on drought resilient cropping. Farming Revolution also has a series of videos about multi-species cropping. Vic No Till is another self-organised support group which comes highly recommended for croppers interested growing better food and fibre by building soil biology.
If you have any great experiences with multi-species cover cropping, reduced reliance on inputs, or livestock-cropping strategies, we’d love to hear about them. Our next series of cases studies in 2022 will be about cropping for soil health. Please email us if interested or share more on our Facebook page!
We’d like to thank Chris Rubie and the entire Junabee Hall Committee, as well as Warwick Sunrise Rotary for their vision for the event. In addition to also being incredibly insightful panellists, we’d love to heartily thank Sarah Fea for organising the three cropping speakers; Helen Lewis for organising the locally-sourced, regenerative food for the meal before the discussion (from Gleneden Farms and Echo Valley Farms); and Tanya Jobling for promoting the event extensively in Junabee and surrounds.