THE FFL WINLATON STORY

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THE FFL WINLATON STORY

“We have a genuine drive to protect and restore Australian landscapes by marrying production, ecological and social outputs.”

FFL (Future Farming Landscapes) at Winlaton is an investment model – the brainchild of Kilter Rural founders. It involved turning agriculture into a mainstream investment for institutions and professional investors. The company, Kilter Rural, is succeeding where many have failed.

FARM FACTS

Winlaton, Victoria

ENTERPRISE: Merino ewes; ecological estate; irrigated cotton; tomatoes; lucerne; lamb; Queen Garnet plumb;

PROPERTY SIZE: 8,900 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 310 mm

ELEVATION: 70 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Recognition of the intrinsic agricultural potential of the floodplain soils and under capitalised farms, plus valuable water entitlements

INNOVATIONS

  • Ecological estate’ has been progressively fenced, protected and restored;
  • Rotational grazing on the native forage for a flock of 3,000 merino ewes;
  • Heavy infusion with composts and organic matter

KEY RESULTS

  • Returns in excess of 8% on capital invested per year, through blending three income sources – agricultural produce, interacting with the water market and through available eco-market

INTRODUCTION

In the early 2000s, Kilter Rural had convinced VicSuper to commit more than $200 million into a “greenfields” farm investment. From 2007 onwards it selected 35 farms and had completed the bulk of these acquisitions by 2012. The vendors were tired of decades of dwindling production, falling milk prices and the Millennium Drought.

The Kilter Rural founders were trained in natural resource management (NRM) with a passion for the environment. Lake Boga is located near five RAMSAR Wetlands – the Barmah Forest, the Kerang Wetlands, the Gunbower Forest, the Hattah-Kulkyne Lakes and, just across the border, the NSW Central Murray State Forests. In essence it is an ecological hotspot of international significance, making it ideal as a focus for environmental regeneration.

Decades of leaky flood irrigation had adversely affected the landscape’s ecological function. There was a need to make the best land productive, while, at the same time, attending to soil and biodiversity imperatives to ensure a sustained commercial enterprise.

The least promising land – with poor, long-depleted soils – was to become habitat for vulnerable wildlife with the regrowth of chenopod (saltbush and bluebush) and woodland communities.

This ‘ecological estate’ has been progressively fenced, protected and restored, and there are around 4000 hectares of native vegetation

The most arable land has been heavily infused with composts and organic matter. Sub-surface watering, centre pivots and levelled paddocks for gravity irrigation have been installed on the most productive areas – currently 3,150 hectares. Another 1,000 hectares are being readied for future irrigation.

THE FFL WINLATON STORY

“Nothing we do in that landscape, we do for free; key soil assets have to make money or contribute to creating long-term value,” CEO Cullen Gunn told the SFL team. He believes there is a great deal of irrigation land in the Murray-Darling Basin which is underutilised or undercapitalised, and could be dealt with in a much more sustainable way. “We are about delivering profit, with impact, that’s what we have been doing for 10 years”. Cullen adds “We have a genuine drive to protect and restore Australian landscapes by marrying production, ecological and social outputs.”

ECOLOGICAL HEALTH

The FFL Winlaton property development model was based on renewal of an area of agricultural and social decline by investing expertise, time and capital to restore the land’s agricultural productivity, in part by activating local social capital. While agricultural productivity was a key focus, there was a realisation that this could only be sustainable if supported by improvements in the ecological health of the degraded land holdings.

ECONOMIC HEALTH & PRODUCTIVITY

Kilter Rural’s returns in excess of 8% on capital invested a year is achieved by returns generated from the blending of multiple business units – agricultural produce, irrigation water services and environmental markets (to the extent that they are available), and the operational returns generated as capital appreciation of the land.

HEALTH AND WELLBEING

Kilter Rural has an inclusive leadership and management style, which has led to a positive team based culture. 


‘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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‘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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‘MILGADARA’ – PUTTING LIFE BACK INTO THE SOIL WITH HUMUS COMPOST

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PUTTING LIFE BACK INTO THE SOIL – HUMUS COMPOST

Bill and Rhonda Daly are producing sweet smelling and fertile soils after investing in understanding their landscape and producing humus compost to attain profitable biological agriculture.

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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

20km east of Young, NSW South West Slopes

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Compost.

PROPERTY SIZE: 1182 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 600 mm

ELEVATION: 386 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Health concerns and disillusion with ‘chemical’ farming

INNOVATIONS

  • Development and application of humus compost
  • Focus on soil structure, biology and mineral balance
  • Legume under-sowing of crops
  • Innovations commenced: 2001

KEY RESULTS

  • Restored soil health
  • Increased wool staple strength and lambing percentages of up to 150%
  • Increased crop yields with reduced inputs; pest and disease free
  • Established compost business with client base of over 2000

INTRODUCTION

Bill and Rhonda Daly transitioned from a farming system that was well known to them but causing a deal of discomfort, to one that is building the natural resource base and delivering great personal rewards. The Dalys rely on an extensive understanding of the potential of the landscape, in particular a profound respect for their soils. In ‘reading’ what is happening on their property, through the health of their animals, pastures, cropping activity, soil, water courses and vegetation, they now find they can be proactive in their management and anticipate what needs to be tackled to achieve their aims. This is a big step from their approach to farming prior to 2001 when they acknowledge that they were essentially reacting to weed and pest problems, increasing inputs with limited productivity gain and sensing that they were doing more harm than good to their environment.

Bill and Rhonda have invested in educating themselves in grazing management, minimum till cropping and, in particular, the role of humus compost in promoting beneficial soil life. Production increases were experienced within six to nine months of adopting changes on their property. The Dalys have now included a commercial composting operation on their farm and have helped others establish their own composting operations in over 42 regions across Australia and New Zealand. In addition to providing diversity in their income stream, the results from using humus compost on their farm are clearly positive and for all to see.

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ABOUT MILGADARA

image of Milgadara landscape
Milgadara

The Dalys are the fourth generation on Milgadara, which is located about 20 minutes outside of Young, NSW. The 1182 hectare property has a south westerly aspect and the landscape consists of soft rolling hills. Their north eastern boundary is bordered by the Douglas Range which forms 200 hectares of the property.

The open country is lightly timbered with trees consisting of stringy bark (Eucalyptus macroryncha), white box (Eucalyptus albens), yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora), red gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi) and rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda). Thirty hectares have been reforested to form shelter belts for stock and increase biodiversity for protection of native fauna.

Prior to cultivation the landscape had outcrops of eucalyptus with native grasses such as red grass (Bothriochloa macra) and wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp.). Pastures comprised annual rye grass (Lolium multiflorum), sub clover (Trifolium subterraneum), some phalaris and cape weed (Arctotheca calendula), and species diversity was low. There was relatively low weed pressure, only a few thistles, marshmallow (Malva parviflora) and cape weed. Army worm, red legged earth mite and other pests and weeds were sprayed with chemicals for control.

The property relies on natural rainfall and dams for water supply. There are natural underground water streams, accessed by windmills and bores.

PREVIOUS PRODUCTION PRACTICES

Fertility was just geared to growing a crop, not sustainably managing the soil to improve overall fertility for future generations.

Prior to 2001 Bill and Rhonda ran a mixed farming enterprise of a self-replacing merino flock, prime lamb production and backgrounding of steers. They used set stocking and their regime included autumn lambing and early spring shearing.

Crops were managed as a rotation of oats, wheat, lupins, wheat, and canola, using four passes of cultivation and sowing with a tyned instrument. Fertiliser programs were based on using 100kg of mono-ammonium phosphate (MAP), 100kg of anhydrous ammonia gas and urea a hectare and stubble burning. Rhonda describes that production practices were reliant on “an overuse of chemicals”.

“This business model led to the mining of our natural resources, destruction of soil structure – greatly diminishing the capacity of the soil to support soil life – as well as making roots unable to penetrate and deliver nutrients to the plant. Minerals were imbalanced and there was low enumeration of microbes”, remarks Rhonda. “Fertility was just geared to growing a crop, not sustainably managing the soil to improve overall fertility for future generations.”

She continues, “Lack of diversity did not allow for natural cycles. An increase in applied fertilisers led to a ‘watery’ plant, increasing both pest and disease issues. There were declining fertility parameters, particularly soil humus and ever-increasing soluble minerals inputs. Ever-increasing amounts of chemicals were being used to control weeds, disease and pests. Nutrient lock-up, leaching and evaporation of nutrients were all occurring”.

In time, the Dalys reliance on inputs of fertiliser, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, resulted in increasing problems of more weeds, diseases and pests and correspondingly, low yields and profitability. There was a total dependence on feeding the crop and pasture rather than recycling nutrients and fixing atmospheric nitrogen.

Bill and Rhonda suffered increased personal stress due to the higher impact from drought, lower yields and animal health problems. They both note that it was “a downward spiral”.

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MAKING THE CHANGE

image of well-vegetated creekline
Healthy waterways are now a feature on Milgadara.

The Dalys initially began questioning the direction of conventional farming in the mid 1990s. In searching for alternative approaches, Bill attended a bio-dynamic course in 1995. However, bio-dynamics was considered very ‘new thinking’ and it was not until 2001 when Rhonda was diagnosed with chronic meningitis and heavy metal poisoning that their questioning of what they were doing came to a head. The Dalys say that it was, “A guided message ‘to heal the soil and help others’” that was the catalyst for change.

A combination of thoughts contributed to their desire to change their practices. These included concern about how much farm waste was being burnt rather than being utilised to produce fertiliser for use back onto local soils; disillusion with chemical farming and ever increasing fear surrounding its use; and a sense that they were being sold more ‘bandaids’ to fix things that did not work, rather than address the underlying cause of the problem.

Rhonda says, “We needed to get the eco back into agriculture, not agribusiness. Fundamentally we were greatly concerned about the future sustainability of our farm and children and wanted to adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach”.

Their overall approach was founded on achieving success on three levels – environmental, financial and social – and they now strive to achieve this balance across everything they do.

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RESTORING THE SOILS

The soils on Milgadara are granodiorite soils, with sandy loam and a cation-exchange capacity (CEC) varying from three to seven. Soil organic matter had previously been measured at 1.5 to 2.5%.

Due to over-tillage and other conventional farming practices, soil humus levels had declined to a point where soils had become compacted and lifeless. A hardpan had been created at a depth of around 20cm. Low ground cover and the tight compacted soils created runoff and low water infiltration. Contour banks were built to stop excessive runoff and erosion. Practices such as stubble burning and the use of nitrogen gas resulted in no visible signs of earthworms and soils did not smell sweet, meaning low microbial activity in the soil.

In March 2001, 14 soil tests of cropping paddocks were undertaken and independently analysed. The results indicated that the soil nutrients were imbalanced.

SOIL NUTRIENT BALANCE 2001

Low                       High                       
CalciumPotassium
MagnesiumIron
PhosphorusAluminium
ZincHydrogen
Copper 
Boron 
Sulfur 

The Dalys undertook extensive education to understand how to balance soils, creating greater soil pore space for oxygen and water, enabling the chemical and biological aspects to function to their potential. This also provided an understanding of the function of trace minerals in enzyme production and animal health. Their expertise in ‘reading’ soil health had begun.

Further study was undertaken in the United States in the Advanced Composting System (Humus Technology®) to produce humus compost and extracted compost tea from local waste.

This set the new direction in overall farm management.

Cropping management was overhauled to change to ‘thoughtful tillage’ or No-Till, stubble retention, reduction and buffering of soluble ‘down the tube’ fertilisers, introduction of Microbial Liquid Injection system and introduction of biological fertilisers and inoculums.

The Dalys moved away from monoculture crops on the 350 cropped hectares of the property, and instead began under-sowing legumes such as clover under crops to supply nitrogen. A focused effort was made to reduce chemical use. Instead, they considered what had led to the problem and what might provide alternatives to using chemicals.

SOIL NATURAL BALANCE

pie chart showing the physical, biological and chemical components of soil

The key innovation implemented intended to restore humus back into the soils and restore the natural biological balance to soils. Rather than what seemed to be a total focus on the chemical dimension of soil fertility, they set about developing humus compost to build productive soils by impacting all three aspects: chemical, physical, and microbiological.

The Dalys follow a specific process in making their compost. Compost materials are combined to ensure a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1. This ratio enables the correct temperature and carbon dioxide cycle, ensuring pasteurisation of any e-coli, salmonella and weed seeds. Feedstocks are tested for heavy metals prior to use and excluded if measurements are too high.

Application rates of humus compost for broadacre farming are around 500kg a hectare. The improvement in soil structure and plant health does not come from the quantity of compost applied, instead, it is a catalyst that supports natural system functioning. The humus compost application rate for vineyards, fruit production or vegetable production is greater, at two tonnes a hectare as these crops have higher requirements.

image of healthy soil
Soil on Milgadara has a vastly improved structure, mineral and biological balance.

Rhonda points out, “Humus improves soil structure by aggregating soil particles and stimulating soil microbes to do the same. Improved structure allows air and water to enter the soil, and allows roots to access more water and nutrients”.

“Humus buffers the reactions of minerals and nutrients in the soil, preventing losses through tie up, leaching and volatilisation. Minerals are made available to the plant and microbes in the right quantities, leading to healthy balanced plants and efficient use of inputs. Humus also reduces the effects of salts and toxic chemicals in the soil.”

Rhonda describes the humus compost as being packed with a diverse range of soil microbes, along with their food source and their home. The Dalys have experienced that, with a little encouragement, the soil microbes perform a wide range of functions that will improve crops and pasture health – nutrient availability, nitrogen fixation and disease suppression.

The success of their compost regimes on Milgadara enthused the Bill and Rhonda to establish a commercial composting operation, YLAD Living Soils. Involving up to two full time compost makers, the Dalys now have a client base of over 2000 people.

PINE HILL TRIALS

graph showing improved cation balance
graph showing organic matter increase


Pine Hill is a paddock on Milgadara that runs off the Black Range with a westerly aspect. The light sandy low CEC soil (CEC 4.03) prior to the trial was compacted, lifeless with low fertility. Pastures were vey sparse and of low nutrient value to animals.


Within two years of spreading YLAD Compost Mineral Blend, using the YLAD Down the Tube granular fertiliser blend at 94kg/ha and biological liquid injection and full stubble retention, the soils have now become soft and well structured with no hardpan, and with visible earthworm and fungal activity. Independent soil tests indicate that mineral balance has improved. The sown pastures are thriving and full of nutrition.

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SOIL OUTCOMES

Since 2002 Milgadara has seen a significant improvement in soil structure to a tilthy, well aggregated soil with higher humus levels. Rainfall that is received penetrates further into the soil profile and is retained in the soil for longer. Any excess now flows through the profile without taking nutrients with it. This provides a strong example of how water can be best conserved and used by plants and animals where it falls, reducing the amount lost to run off or evaporation. Increased infiltration and retention is also important, as average rainfall in recent years has varied from as little as 187mm in 2006, to 680mm in 2011.

Rhonda says, “By balancing soils with humus compost mineral blends we have been able to achieve the ideal mineral balance, creating aggregated living soils. As humus has the greatest magnetic attraction to minerals known to man, when minerals are blended with humus compost, nutrients do not leach or lock up but stay available for plant uptake”.

“The addition of trace minerals is essential for enzymatic reactions in the soil. Overall mineral balances have nearly reached ideal balance. Earthworm activity has increased and visible signs of soil fungi present. Soils are now sweet smelling and stubble residues are breaking down rapidly. Organic matter levels have increased to two to four per cent.”

“The cation-exchange capacity of the soil has increased creating a greater store of nutrients.”

image of crop stubble with fungi
Left: Crop stubble is now retained to be broken down on the soil. Right: Soil fungi at work

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PRODUCTION OUTCOMES

image of diverse pasture
Pasture diversity in the sown pastures.

Complementary to their education on soil and humus compost, Bill and Rhonda attended the Resource Consulting Services (RCS) course on stock management and grazing practice. Now, in addition to the overhaul of the cropping management, closer monitoring of pasture is now performed to determine stock movements. The Dalys run a self-replacing merino flock on Grogansworth bloodlines and undertake prime lamb production using crossbred ewes and merino ewes with Dorset Sire. Lambing has now been changed to early spring with shearing in late winter. Bill and Rhonda also background weaner cattle from time to time.

The carrying capacity of the farm has increased. Lambing percentages are up to 150% in cross bred ewes and 120% in Merino ewes. Staple strength of wool has improved with nothing measuring under 36 Newtons per kilotex (N/tex). Wool buyers are now sourcing the Daly wool due to its increased quality.

Bill points out, “We now have more diverse pasture species, including bi-annual and perennial. Species include cocksfoot, fescues, perennial rye, lucerne, clover, plantain, and chicory. With rotational grazing management pastures are now becoming stronger and more diverse with less weeds”.

With the reduced use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, an increase in the biodiversity of beneficial insect populations as well as native fauna has been observed. Mulching of weeds prior to seed set has reduced weed pressure. Soil structure improvements have changed the environment making the conditions not conducive to certain weeds, particularly tap rooted weeds. There is now minimal spraying for weeds, only to manage annual rye grass in cropping, and no spraying for pests.

image of grazing sheep
Lambing rates and wool quality have both improved.

The Dalys cite some of their other production highlights as:

  • Producing crops with less soluble fertilisers with higher yields and higher quality.
  • Crop yields have increased with no spring application of urea, however protein levels are higher than under the previous conventional approaches of the 1990s.
  • Canola yields up to 3t/ha and 47% oil using only 14 units of N as well as biological nitrogen fixing products.
  • Wheat crops now yielding 5-6 t/ha with less fertilisers.
  • Independent trials have shown an increase in biomass, tiller count, yield and protein using microbial liquid injection at sowing.
  • No signs of disease in any crops, no striped rust, black leg, rhizoctonia or sclerotinia.
  • No pests or insects that are causing damage or reducing production.

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THE VALUE OF HUMUS

We succeeded through courage, passion, trial and error and never giving up.

The Dalys experience has demonstrated the ability of humus compost to restore and expand biological activity in the soil, further enhancing the physical and chemical properties while reducing soluble fertilisers and chemical inputs. They believe that improving their soils has been their major achievement.

In 2011, the overall profits of the business had increased over 30% in the previous twelve months. Bill notes, “With nine years of drought from 2001 to 2010 the business profits were still increasing each year. More enjoyment is now gained from farming”.

image of compost pile and turner
The commercial compost operation.

The opportunity to help others in understanding how their farming enterprise can be enhanced and how to bring soils to life provides a sense of fulfilment for the Dalys. The social importance and community benefits that come from the ability to produce more nutrient dense food with less soluble fertilisers and chemicals is also a satisfying outcome.

“If necessary we could totally produce all required fertiliser inputs on our farm, for our farm, by turning local waste into humus compost. Knowing we can be self reliant is very satisfying”, Bill says.

A lot has been invested into the management changes at Milgadara, and learning the technology to produce humus compost and humus soil fertility has required concerted effort. Education has continued over the past ten years and would amount to over $100,000 including over 15 trips to the United States for study, and courses including RCSSoil Foodweb and Nutri-Tech Solutions.

image of humus compost
Humus Compost – the finished product.

“By increasing our knowledge we have been able to pass on ‘know how’ to other farmers at much less cost to them”, Rhonda notes. Bill and Rhonda introduced Humus Technology® into Australia in 2006 and have now set up 42 composting operations throughout Australia.

On farm, Bill and Rhonda have also invested around $150,000 in purchasing an Aeromaster PT-170 Compost Turner and Water System to establish their commercial composting operation.

One of the biggest challenges to Bill and Rhonda has been having the courage to stay true to their beliefs regardless of others’ opinions. “We succeeded through courage, passion, trial and error and never giving up.”

Performing trial work to evaluate the benefits of the system and innovation was important. “Ideally we would have started earlier and not bothered about buying more land to expand, just improving what we currently own to increase productivity”, Rhonda notes.

The Dalys would encourage others to consider the benefits of nurturing soil microbiology for increased production. They strongly acknowledge the benefits they have attained through creating their own fertility product from local waste residues to support local food production naturally.

“We could not be happier with the improvements and successes we have introduced. Of course changed management practices have enabled all systems to work together”, Rhonda says.

“By allowing plants to grow and reach their full potential without forcing them has shown profound benefits that can be adopted by all farmers around Australia in any enterprise.”

image of humus compost

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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‘NORTH EAST CMA’ – EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE

The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) is running an innovative project to help over 500 farmers improve the soil carbon content of their properties and empowering them with the knowledge to improve production sustainably, whilst meeting catchment environmental goals.

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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

The North East Victoria Catchment Management Authority (CMA) region is bounded by the Murray River in the north, the Victorian Alps in the south, the NSW border in the east and the Warby Ranges in the west. The North East CMA region takes in the local government municipalities of Wodonga, Indigo, Wangaratta, Alpine and Towong, plus parts of Moira and East Gippsland Shires. Approximately 95,000 people live in the region.

ENTERPRISE: The main industries in the region are agriculture (dairy, beef, lamb, wool, cropping and horticulture), forest products, tourism, value-added processing industries and manufacturing.

CMA RESPONSIBILITIES:

  • River Health
  • Floodplain Management
  • Water Quality
  • Wetlands
  • Environmental Water Reserve
  • Permits – Works on Waterways
  • Waterwatch
  • Land Stewardship – including Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Management Systems
  • Monitoring, Evaluation & Reporting
  • Caring for Our Country projects including: Landscape Scale Conservation – Threatened Grassy Woodlands Project and the Soil Carbon Programme

Within the North East CMA Regional Catchment Strategy, the CMA conducts a wide range of activities addressing these responsibilities.

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Identifying that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret results

INNOVATIONS

  • Providing soil testing for land managers and independent agronomic advice on the results
  • Running field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects
  • Delivering free eFarmer training
  • Activities commenced: 2009

KEY RESULTS

  • Over 500 landholders participating in the project
  • Combined area of involved properties over 116,000 hectares
  • Wide adoption of trial agricultural and management practices to improve soil carbon

INTRODUCTION

Chris Reid and the Land Stewardship team at the North East CMA recognised a critical gap in the knowledge of many farmers was how to practically manage soil fertility, its structure and the contribution of healthy soil to improved farm production. Assisted by funding from the Federal Government the team developed the Sustainable Farm Practices – Soil Carbon Programme to fill this knowledge gap and realise positive environmental outcomes.

In the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, the team have balanced stakeholder needs with desired environmental outcomes to develop a successful and well-received project. The team is now delivering up to six information activities a month, including field days, forums and workshops. Through these North East CMA is connecting with landholders involved in existing and/or recently completed projects, Landcare groups and networks, industry groups and individuals with an interest in improving their soil organic carbon levels. Participating farmers now have the skills and knowledge to interpret their own soil tests offered by the project and have access to independent agronomy advice on how best to respond – in a sustainable manner.

Managing such a project requires dedication, commitment, and flexibility to address challenges as they arise. The team at the North East CMA demonstrate all these attributes and share how their project came into fruition and is making a difference across the entire catchment

image of NE CMA region
The North East CMA region

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BACKGROUND

image of soil testing
A critical knowledge gap in understanding soil tests was identified by the NE CMA

The North East CMA Soil Carbon Programme was developed by Chris Reid and his Land Stewardship team in 2009 to take advantage of potential funding available from the Caring for Our Country initiative of the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). The Land Stewardship team had built up considerable knowledge from numerous previous projects and they knew what contribution healthy soil could make to production as well as the environmental benefits it delivers. They identified a significant opportunity to build on their own previous work and that already undertaken by some Landcare groups in the region to spread this knowledge to the diverse farming community.

The team were not fully convinced by some of the arguments being aired in support of the economic advantages of mooted pasture-based carbon farming under carbon trading schemes. However, they were convinced, by their own surveys and practical engagement with farmers, of the need for land holders to increase organic soil carbon as part of a strategy of farm landscape regeneration, and, ultimately, for improved production. The team had access to data that showed rates of soil carbon in the region in the 1830s as high as 12% and yet the current figures averaged less than 2%. The potential for improvement was clear.

It was apparent to the Land Stewardship team that the majority of farmers did not understand the benefits of soil testing and how to interpret their own results. Farmers were therefore inhibited in making choices for strategies for improving soil fertility and structure.

An issue arising from this lack of understanding was the use of fertilisers, what occurs as a result of continued application and the effects on soil nutrition. This was leading to issues including widespread but localised soil acidity problems, aluminium toxicity and grass tetany. Grass tetany is a reaction in livestock caused by magnesium deficiency often resulting from a mis-match of low-magnesium pastures and fertiliser use. In the view of Chris and his team, better education of farmers on understanding soil structure, soil carbon management grazing management and soil fertility would be inherently valuable.

To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term.

Promoting the idea of improving soil carbon levels in the face of one of the worst droughts on record and falling farm production generally, was going to be a very difficult task. If stakeholders were to be convinced of the advantages of joining in the Soil Carbon Programme in such an environment, the possibility of improving production had to be demonstrable. The other significant part of the equation was that improving carbon levels was potentially a slow process. Results would not be obvious for some time into the future. The potential for increasing farm production therefore had to be clearly linked to the initiatives for improving soil carbon levels.

Chris and his team worked to identify what would help motivate farmers to join the Soil Carbon Programme in this challenging environment. Chris says they decided to offer a benefit for participants up front, in the form of, “Soil testing that produced results that farmers could understand and from which they and their agronomists could make sound decisions on soil fertility and management”.

Given this starting point, the team then developed the concept further to include independent agronomy workshops to explain to farmers how to read soil analysis and to provide guidance for further decision making. They would offer access for farmers to an agronomist of their own choosing from a panel of eight to provide follow-on support in the workshop program. The team would also seek out speakers from across Australia – and even international experts – who had practical experience in building soil health, with a focus on carbon, to pass on their experiences to land managers across the catchment.

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PROJECT OBJECTIVES & ACTIVITIES

image from a field day
Field days provide a valuable opportunity for information sharing and maintaining engagement

Chris defines the key objective of the program as, “To achieve long term and continuing change to farm management practices that will raise the capacity of farmers to improve the soil carbon content of their properties in the long term”.

Overall, the project activities developed were quite straightforward. The CMA team determined that it would pay for soil testing for the participating landholders; provide free agronomic advice to these landholders on the soil test outcomes; run field days, workshops and forums on soil organic carbon and related subjects; and deliver free eFarmer training through adult education approaches. A final soil test would be provided at the end of the program to measure improvements in soil health.

In turn, the project would require specific actions from participating landholders:

  • Committing to changing their management practices for the term of the project on a nominated area of their property.
  • Agreeing to participate in farm planning and soil management training and information sessions, in which they would have access to free soil testing and agronomic advice.
  • Selecting an agronomist from a panel nominated by North East CMA who would provide up to four free on-site advice sessions.
  • Attending free eFarmer workshops conducted by North East CMA, for which the project team would set up an eFarmer help desk in support.

eFarmer is a web-based application which supports the capture, viewing and sharing Natural Resource Management information across farms, landscapes and catchments. The web application, together with a simple matrix, informs private land managers of the natural resource management priorities of the CMA within which they reside and allows them to identify proposed and voluntarily implemented activities on their properties that may contribute to the achievement of CMA catchment wide targets.

SOIL CARBON PROGRAMME TARGETS

2800 land managers would improve their natural resource management knowledge.

1500 landholders would begin using improved soil management practices.

1300 land managers would attend soil management forums.

500 land managers would commit to the whole project and attend farm planning and soil management training and conduct prescribed management practices on a nominate area of their land. These would be the key stakeholders of the project and its champions.

PLANNING PROCESS

The majority of the planning for the project was conducted as part of compiling the submission for DAFF funding. Suzanne Johnstone from the team explains that the North East CMA team found developing the Program Logic document, required for an application for DAFF funding, was a useful methodology for scoping the project. The Program Logic has since provided the basic guidance for all further project documentation.

Another key document that was developed during the planning phase was the Community Engagement Plan. This Plan identified stakeholders and set out strategies for dealing with the issues that their research had shown were the keys to the success of the project. Identified communication activities included actions such as attending meetings and discussing the project with community groups, mainly local Landcare groups, and a whole-of-catchment mail out using tailored postcards supplying project information and contacts.

The team identified its stakeholders for the Soil Carbon Programme to include:

  • Landholders of the CMA region
  • Landcare groups of the CMA region
  • Local industry supporting farming activities
  • Conservation management networks
  • CMA staff

The landholders of the region were the communication priority. Key messages for the communications were the ‘no strings’ soil testing, the independent agronomy advice, the use of the eFarmer planning tool and the field services provided for training and education. The communication activities would also be subject to the continuous improvement based on documented stakeholder feedback.

Credibility at all stages of the project was identified as essential. All of the stakeholders needed to have trust in the CMA team and in what the project could deliver. The farmers, in particular, needed to have trust in the information they received from the CMA team, the soil testing reports and in their chosen agronomist.

The team was certain that, only when this mutual trust and credibility was established, could they expect a commitment from farmers to the project and its outcomes.

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OBTAINING FUNDING

In developing their grant funding proposal, the project team identified three streams that required funding for the Soil Carbon Programme:

  • soil testing
  • agronomists and associated training and information delivery
  • staffing of the project

The CMA Board reviewed and supported the soil carbon initiative proposal and recommended it to DAFF as one of a number of North East CMA proposals recommended for funding. DAFF agreed to fund the Soil Carbon Programme to $2.2 million over four years, running from July 2009 to June 2013. The allocated funding supported all the proposed soil carbon activities as well as salaries for 3.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions.

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RISKS & CHALLENGES

Early in the planning phase, the project team expected that continuous risk and impediment management would form a large part of project management. The team identified risks to the project and developed strategies to manage them.

One of the major risks identified was the potential for staff turnover, and thus a loss of competencies from the project, as project funding was expended and staff sought other secure employment. To address this, the management team set to identifying opportunities for future projects and associated funding to ensure ongoing tenure and retain and use existing competencies.

Another significant risk identified was the difficulty of engaging 500 landowners in the program and keeping them committed for the four year duration. The team determined that maintaining ongoing communication and ensuring continued engagement through active participation in regular events would be the best way to manage this risk.

The planning phase also identified a number of likely impediments to the success of the project.

Being conducted at the height of a major and long term drought, many of the landholders would be focussed on surviving the drought and would not necessarily be interested in improving soil structure, carbon content and fertility. Additionally, many landholders were accustomed to dealing with a number of organisations, entities and individuals who were committed to traditional farming practices. Farmers had long followed their advice and support and may, therefore, be reluctant to abandon comfort zones and begin something new.

As part of their impediment management program, Chris and his team decided that their impediment management approach would include:

  • Soil testing for the 500 participants undertaken by a trusted scientific entity that was used in a previous large scale Landcare soil testing project.
  • Free explanations from experts on how to interpret soil testing results.
  • Providing free advice to farmers from a CMA-identified panel of independent agronomists.
  • Conducting field days and seminars with guest presenters suggested by farmers who were not committed to any particular method of farming or landscape regeneration to the exclusion of other ideas.
  • Ensuring that all advice came from independent sources and was not delivered by local, state or commonwealth agencies.
  • Ensuring that the project team members and the agronomists listened to the landholders and reported back their comments, ideas and suggestions.

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MANAGING THE PROJECT

Although the communications activities were relatively unsophisticated, Suzanne explains, “We were swamped with Expressions of Interest, to the extent that we had a backlog that we were having trouble dealing with”. Overall, 505 landholders have been selected to participate in the initial soils testing component of the project, from a range of farming enterprises including grazing, cropping, horticulture, viticulture, dairy and mixed enterprises.

As the project got underway, North East CMA organised and funded the initial soil sampling, comprising 22 soil cores extracted from 2 x 100m transects from each property. Soil was subdivided into four depth categories between 0-30cm and pooled prior to laboratory analysis for soil carbon as well as other chemical and physical soil characteristics. Group on-farm soil advice from their nominated panel of agronomists through field days and forums was also funded and organised. Landcare groups and networks, industry programs with similar focus, and individuals with an interest in improving their soil carbon management were identified and engaged. Regular newsletters and soil improvement information sheets were distributed to maintain interest within in the project.

The project was fortunate in that the staff carried over from a previous project had a broad range of natural resource management and agricultural skills and also had the advantage of tapping into existing Landcare coordinators and project managers that had great field and community experience. The team built on the previous experience and took on new skills. Chris notes, “Training in other areas was conducted, such as use of the soil sampling machine and preparing a formal process and following it for consistency of data and for reducing sampling error”.

Chris and his team manage from the project baseline plan and the original brief. The project is managed across three streams into which individual components have been grouped.

  1. Soil Testing – soil testing and seminars for interpreting results.
  2. Training and Education – agronomy sessions, field days, seminars and the eFarmer training.
  3. Quality Management – post-activity surveys, eFarmer help desk feedback and ongoing communications including CMA Internet site updates.

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CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

The Quality Management stream of the project aims to ensure continuous improvement of activities and information resources. Anonymous post-activity surveys administered to review training outcomes and take-up provide an opportunity for respondents to comment on content, speakers, activities and to suggest changes and improvements. This information is analysed by the CMA team and changes made to programs and activities according to need and available budget.

The CMA team depends on these anonymous surveys to check achievement of objectives and targets and to provide input to improvement of future activities.

The information from surveys is also vetted and commented upon by the agronomists participating in the program and compared with anecdotal information from North East CMA staff.

FIELD DAY FEEDBACK

Feedback from field days held in February 2012 showed that all attendees answered ‘yes’ to the question “Has your knowledge of Soil Health improved from this session?”, each marking five out of five that they had “learned a lot”.

In response to the question “Having participated in the Soil Carbon Programme, do you consider that your approach to farm management practices may change to incorporate some more sustainable practices?” those that answered ‘yes’ also provided comments of the changes they may make including:

  • “Less emphasis on spray and more emphasis on management”
  • “Use less chemical, rely on biodiversity”
  • “Improve grazing management”
  • “Look at a longer management cycle to grazing”
  • “Understanding your landscape”
  • “What weeds are telling me about my management”
  • “Ground cover management is now my top priority”
  • “I will manage to increase local biodiversity”
  • “Floodplain management”
  • “Maintaining water in the soil profile and using carbon to do this”

Suzanne Johnstone, as the lead in the eFarmer training, provides information based on her help desk role and hits on the eFarmer Internet site.

All the information gathered contributes to the continuous improvement of project activities and content and targeting of supporting publications. The project team regularly reviews activities and outcomes for opportunities to implement changes to the project and activities.

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LESSONS LEARNED

image of soil testing
NE CMA staff were trained to use the soil  sampling machinery.

The well developed continuous improvement program ensures that any shortfall in expectations, of which there have been very few, becomes the basis for improvement. For example, when the manual collection and storing of information became onerous, a database was established. The database continues to be developed and its numerous functions are major contributors to efficiency in the project and have reduced resource overheads by the equivalent of half the workload of one full time staff member.

The hand auger sampling was an idea that did not stand up to early optimistic expectations and was soon abandoned with the arrival of a suitable mechanical option.

“In the first instance, we had a three months wait for suitable soil sampling machinery and undertook a program of manual sampling in rock hard, drought affected soils. We found that we did not have the resources to continue with the manual taking of soil in accordance with our planned timetable and, in any event, from an OH&S viewpoint, manual sampling was not a good idea. However, suitable machinery was eventually sourced and staff trained to use the machinery and to follow a constructed soil sampling process.”

Initial team grouping of participants did not always work out in all instances. There was a need to move some participants to other groups as their interests were not well aligned with the majority of the participants in their area.

Similarly, choice of agronomists by some participants did not align well with requirements. “Two to three of the agronomists were exchanged by some participants for others – we always planned to offer choices to participants – even offering them to other groups such as similar enterprises, independent of their geographically location. This worked well.”

Other key lessons from the project include the importance of:

  • Establishing credibility through empowerment of stakeholders.
  • Maintaining continuing contact with stakeholders and responding positively to suggestions and feedback.
  • Continuous improvement of project activities and outcomes based on stakeholder feedback, such as:
    • using independent consultants;
    • adaptive management; and
    • initially offering an obvious benefit to project participants (in this case, soil tests and agronomic sessions).

In addition, to align with the expectations of landholders, it was essential for success that the program focussed broadly on soil health, not carbon sequestration alone, but to ensure that the program did not exclude information on carbon sequestration.

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SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES TO DATE

image of healthy pasture
Improved pasture on the property of Soil Carbon Programme participant, John Paterson.

Some interesting insights were provided by one of the projects participants, John Paterson, a beef producer in the Mitta Mitta Valley. John and his wife ‘retired’ to the area after many decades of dairy farming in the Cobram Area. Their approach to farming over that time might be considered conventional and John recognised their reliance on superphosphate and chemical inputs to keep the pastures growing.

Over recent years, with the costs of these inputs continuing to increase, John began to ponder alternatives. The Soil Carbon Programme seemed to offer an insight on other management options and the free soil testing and access to alternative agronomists were appealing. He ‘put his hand up’ and has enjoyed the experience immensely, particularly in joining others from the district and hearing their experiences.

John has learned much about soil health including getting mineral balances right, the beneficial work of dung beetles, the ability for native and clover pasture species to re-emerge and the positive effects that improved grazing methods can have on the enterprise. He has experimented with rock phosphates which support the soil biology and the pasture results are readily apparent when compared to adjacent untreated paddocks. The program has exposed John to new possibilities in grazing and he says he will, “Keep giving it all a go and see what happens”.

So far, more than the target number of landholders have become involved in the farm planning/soil management training, have accessed free soil testing and agronomic advice and agreed to change their management practices on a nominated area of their property.

New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince… and the cost is minimal.

Suzanne reports, “The offer of free soil tests with an obligation to attend four free soil agronomy sessions with a soil specialist of their choosing attracted 505 land holders – covering a significant area of the north east region. The attendance at each of the sessions has indicated the strong interest in soils in general and soil organic carbon in particular”.

The combined area of all the properties involved in the Soil Carbon Programme is over 116,000 hectares, noting that not all of this area is subject to changed soil management practices at this stage.

“The overall objectives of the project have been largely met due to the need and interest of the region’s landholders to improve their productive resource (soil) due to the years of degradation through general inattention and drought; and genuine interest in improving their soil health for long term sustainability.”

The training and education activities have been very successful and high demand has meant that, in some cases, there have been up to six seminars/field days in a single month to different locations in the North East CMA region.

image from a field day
Interest in the North East CMA Soil Carbon  Programme has been ongoing.

Highlighting some of the significant outcomes of the program so far, Suzanne observes, “New people keep coming to our events. Involving local people in local events empowers them. Empowered people are easier to convince… and the cost is minimal. We now have over 2000 landholders on our database from attendance at our events!”

The team also points out that credibility is the key, “Farmers can see that we respond to their suggestions and that there are no strings attached”.

The anonymous exit surveys conducted by the team have shown that the field days on farms have developed promoters and champions of change, who, in themselves are not usually promoters of new ideas.

While noting that it is too early to point to dramatic changes in soil carbon levels where changed farming practices are in place, the team are confident that participants can show improvements in soil structure, pasture cover and stocking rates. 

As an indicator of the success of the program, the team point out that no participants have really separated from the Soil Carbon Programme and, indeed, some from the wider population have sought to join.

“From a provider of integrated catchment management programs, the delivery and uptake of information from this project has been very successful. We will be going back to all 505 landholders in the last year of the project to undertake soil carbon testing and interview each landholder to understand what changes they have adopted as a result of attending the information sessions and the general heightened level of information that has been made available through this program. The data base of information collected as part of this project through interviews and soil tests will be assessed to understand the health of the regions’ farming soils and opportunities to improve the environmental service the soil provides.”

Interim reports are demonstrating that, as a result of being involved in the Soil Carbon Programme, many participants are adopting agricultural and management practice changes across their whole property, not just on the sites committed to the soil testing activities. Changes already adopted include:

  • Increasing paddock numbers and transition to rotational grazing management
  • Improved ground cover maintenance
  • Promotion or sowing of perennial species
  • Maximising species diversity in pasture
  • Increased stubble retention
  • Changes to fertilisers used, such as seaweed and trace element application rather than only annual NPK application
  • Application of more precise Calcium products, such as sulphur/calcium/magnesium mixes

Once the final interviews and soil testing are complete a thorough assessment of the Soil Carbon Programme will be undertaken.

This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities… there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember.

Chris and the team see a clear need to communicate their successes beyond the farming community. The region includes some major urban population centres, in particular Wodonga (and nearby Albury) and Wangaratta, that are home to schools, community groups and business and agricultural production organisations and also industrial entities that support agriculture. In addition, the team has identified a number of complementary programs being run by Landcare that could provide opportunities for mutual benefit in widening awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of farm landscape regeneration. These areas will be addressed through the regional media as an enhancement to the existing stakeholder engagement activities.

As another aspect of soil carbon improvement, the project team are involved in, is an in house experimental program which is using willows extracted from stream regeneration projects to produce bio-char in a portable charcoal furnace. Further bio-char funding has been received by the Soil Carbon Programme, to implement field trials in bio-char and test its value for local agricultural enterprises.

Chris and the team believe that the momentum created by the Soil Carbon Programme could well be the starting point of a further projects that deal with the integration of soil hydrology, soil fertility and vegetation in triple bottom line outcome for CMA landholders. Project of this nature could logically build on the considerable amount of data collected a part of the Soil Carbon Programme.

Perhaps the success of the project to date can be best summed up by Suzanne Johnstone, who comments, “This has been the most rewarding project in the 15 years I have been involved in NRM activities… there have been more ‘light-bulb’ moments associated with our work with farmers than I can ever remember”.

SHARING THE SUCCESS

This project is achieving catchment-wide change in knowledge of how to build healthy soils, using a range of methods that best suit the individual farmers. This closing of a critical knowledge gap, supported by practical advice and action on the ground, provides a positive example that others could follow. With funding of $2.2 million over four years, over 500 farmers are actively involved and up to 1500 are beginning to use improved soil management practices. This equates to around $1500 investment in each farmer over a four-year period.

The project demonstrates a very cost efficient way of encouraging change in farming practice. If extended across Australia’s 53 other CMA/NRM organisations it would realise 25,000 farmers actively changing their soil health for the better, together with another 50,000 looking to make a change.

Through an expanded communications program, the results can be explained to not only land managers but also to local government, businesses and schools to provide wider community awareness of the importance of soil health and the methods of achieving improved fertility.

The knowledge gained and then successfully applied through such a program could also be recognised through the awarding of a formal qualification through local training providers.


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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‘NRM SOUTH’ – WORKING WITH THE WILLING

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

WORKING WITH THE WILLING

The team at Tasmania’s NRM South are tailoring solutions to meet the needs of landholders in their catchment and are offering low risk trials for farmers willing to try new land management practices.

GO TO:

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

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FARM FACTS

Southern Tasmania

ENTERPRISE: Grazing, cropping, perennial horticulture and other sectors

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400-2400 mm

ELEVATION: Sea level to 1450 m

SOILS: Varied, on dolerite, mudstone and sandstone, ranging from podzol, podzolic to brown, black and alluvial

NATIVE VEGETATION COVER: 60-70% on average, less than 50% in the Jordan catchment (mostly within the Southern Midlands municipality)

INNOVATIONS

  • Engaging farmers through supported activities to encourage trial and adoption of regenerative landscape management
  • Tailoring support to land manager requirements
  • Activities commenced: 2010

KEY RESULTS

  • Farmers adopting trials of planned grazing
  • Gaining a sound understanding of farmers’ interests in improving their landscape
  • Developing the ability to set-up and monitor farm trials
  • Exceeding engagement targets

INTRODUCTION

Southern Tasmania’s natural resource management organisation, NRM South, has determined that the best way to encourage regenerative land management practices in their region is to give farmers what they want. Surveys of landholders participating in the Woolworths drought landcare project showed that soil health, pasture management and irrigation were the areas of most interest to farmers in NRM South’s region. Understanding that everyone is at a different stage of learning, with different priorities for the management of their land, the team at NRM South has developed a range of activities and learning strategies most suited to individual landowners to improve knowledge and practice in these areas. Their methods provide a model of coordination and cooperation for organisations helping landholders to embrace change in land management.

The NRM South Sustainable Farm Practices program has two components: Living Soils delivers education, engagement and support, and Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture incorporates a range of projects to develop a body of evidence for the application of low input, biological farming practices in southern Tasmania. Central to this, NRM South is working with farmers to perform monitored trials, particularly in holistic planned grazing. With comprehensive support and guidance, willing participants are learning new methods and obtaining evidence to help them decide whether to adopt new practices on their land.

With a focus on landscape health, NRM South is providing tools to help identify and support farming goals through an approach that targets outcomes across the triple bottom line – social, environmental and financial.

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ABOUT NRM SOUTH

NRM South is the natural resource management body for southern Tasmania and engages with government, business, scientists and the community to protect and manage the natural assets of the region.

The Southern Tasmanian NRM Region covers 2.5 million hectares, including Hobart, its urban fringes and numerous towns and hamlets, and supports almost half of Tasmania’s population of 500,000. It spans the twelve urban and rural municipalities of Brighton, Central Highlands, Clarence, Derwent Valley, Glamorgan Spring Bay, Glenorchy, Hobart, Huon Valley, Kingborough, Sorell, Southern Midlands and Tasman and the state and federal electoral divisions of Franklin, Denison and roughly one third of Lyons. NRM South has five priority areas for investment in its region, established on the bases of threats to natural assets and community readiness.

Approximately 1200 landholders reside in the NRM South region, however, due to the nature of the region, only 12% of these consider themselves full-time farmers. Around 240 landholders have some form of active engagement with NRM South.

map of NRM South Region
The NRM South region

Eighteen staff work at NRM South implementing a range of programs, projects and initiatives. These activities seek to address the corporate priorities, namely:

  1. Develop and share knowledge of the region’s natural resource condition, values and threats
  2. Build partnerships and engage the community in positive action
  3. Deliver on-ground and sustainable practice programs in priority areas
  4. Optimise the use of available resources for NRM and secure additional resources
  5. Govern and manage the NRM South business effectively

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TAILORING SUPPORT

Group processes are powerful learning experiences.

NRM South engagement activities aim to develop “a productive and ongoing relationship based on mutual respect, trust and benefit”. Central to this is jointly meeting landholder and NRM requirements. NRM South understands that the landholders in their region have varying motivations and needs. Dr Magali Wright, the NRM South Biodiversity Coordinator, points out, “People are at different places [with their land management practices and knowledge] and need different things”. This understanding has led NRM South to tailor their information and support as much as possible within their available resources to meet landholder needs.

Using their base funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for Our Country program and funding from the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the team at NRM South have developed a range of activities to meet these goals.

Drawing on survey information that showed that soil health, pasture management and irrigation were the areas of most interest to landholders in the region, information and activities are targeted to address these areas, but always within the context of overall environmental, economic and social health. The team at NRM South attempt to provide broader land health solutions to address specific problems being experienced by landholders (for example, weed invasion), to better support triple bottom line outcomes.

The ability of the local facilitators, who work in each of NRM South’s priority areas, to build relationships in local communities is essential to the success of the program. They initiate engagement with landholders through advertised workshops or field days and one-on-one farm visits. Interest in regenerative farm practices is also spread more broadly through word of mouth between the range of long-term landowners, sea-changers and tree-changers which comprise the region’s populations.

LIVING SOILS

Field Day image
Landholder visits provide the opportunity to share experiences

Living Soils activities provide a range of methods of education, engagement and support. The team attempts to manage activities that best engage landholders and facilitate communication. Workshops and field days are fundamental to the program. Barry Hardwick, the Regional Landcare Facilitator notes, “Group processes are powerful learning experiences. As are visiting other landholders to share experiences”.

The Living Soils workshop series addresses a range of methods and techniques including but not limited to Keyline ploughing, compost, compost teas, holistic planned grazing and pasture cropping. Local facilitators also deliver workshops addressing issues such as weed management, salinity, tree decline, erosion, pasture decline, soil health and native grass management. On farm visits are also performed, providing advice and action planning with expert consultants or advice and support from local facilitators.

NRM South also supports existing farmer groups in the region and facilitates the formation of new groups to further spread their engagement and enable information sharing.

On-Farm Action grants are available as an alternative method of supporting engagement and practice change, These have received strong interest from the community and further extends NRM South’s reach. These incentives provide financial and in-kind support for various areas of landscape regeneration, such as weed management, biodiversity and riparian protection. The On-Farm Action grants encourage co-investment from landholders and align with available service provision and ongoing support advice or activities from local facilitators.

LIVING SOILS CONTRIBUTES TO
SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

  • Promote and support the uptake of sustainable management practices, attain 20% uptake
  • Promote innovation in agriculture
  • Build evidence in the application of sustainable practices in a Tasmanian context as an engagement mechanism
  • Engage 400 landholders with the program
  • Support practice change in 60 landholders
  • Measure area (hectares) under improved management
  • Measure the amount and type of resource condition and change monitoring conducted

Living Soils is a key project delivered through the Regional Landcare Facilitator role. As at December 2011, halfway through the three-year project, it has:

  • assisted 43 landholders to prepare action plans to improve the environment both on-farm and off-farm, from a target of 60
  • provided advanced training activities on sustainable farm and land management practices that deliver improved ecosystem services to 116 landholders, from a target of 360
  • engaged 452 landholders through workshops and field days, already exceeding the three year target of 400.

The team want their projects to empower and build capacity in their landholders, rather than relying on external supports. In Barry’s words, NRM South wants to help landholders “To find their own solution for their business, for their property, for their family, for their community”.

NRM South is continuously learning from their activities to improve their services and the outcomes in their region. Cathy Limb, the Communications and Engagement Manager, knows that many activities, “Develop and support passion in the land managers”, but that, “follow up is critical – to maintain the momentum.”

To support this, NRM South are moving from the previously typical short-term individual projects, to longer term activity planning to gain continuity of outcomes, including ongoing engagement, support and empowerment.

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BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Trials are a low-risk approach.

To encourage landowners to adopt new regenerative practices and holding a long-term view to landscape regeneration, NRM South has developed the Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture projects.

The primary objective of the Building Evidence trial sites is to demonstrate the application of regenerative agricultural practices on farms in the southern Tasmanian region. The evidence collected through the trials will be used to support farmers interested in these techniques and improve the sustainable management of natural resources on their properties. These are successful in bringing farmers on board, because, as Cathy points out, “Trials are a low-risk approach”.

The experience of team members at NRM South has shown that changing thinking is a very challenging process for some landholders, whereas others find it easier. Only having to commit to a trial helps to ease some farmers into new practices and allows them to test these out for themselves.

The Building Evidence trials ultimately aim to bring landscape change across southern Tasmania grazing land and improve landscape function, in particular retention of resources in the landscape and improved water and nutrient cycling. Holistic planned grazing was selected as the trial method, as improved grazing regimes have the potential to lead to large scale change – a large proportion of private land in the NRM South region is grazed. Many threats to the region’s natural assets have also been linked to inappropriate grazing practices.

The trials follow principles that build on the concept of ‘holistic decision making’ which provides tools to help identify and support farming goals across the triple bottom line – considering economic, social and environmental aspects. The trials incorporate holistic planned grazing treatments with a focus on dealing with causes of land management issues, not the effects or symptoms. They aim to develop skills to improve soil health and landscape function.

The short to medium term outcomes of the Building Evidence trials are communication, engagement and capturing qualitative and quantitative data based on changes in pasture and soil resources. In the longer term, in addition to ongoing communication and engagement, the project aims to provide a research base, and the potential for scientifically rigorous comparisons to reference sites.

Over 25 trial sites have been established across the region, with a number of other less formal trials taking place on other farms. Fifteen of the trials are undergoing formal monitoring processes, and five have been set up as demonstration sites. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation is helping to identify issues and is an integral part of the project.

NRM South staff are now building sufficient skills to set up trials on farms, reducing previous reliance on consultant support. This both assists with minimising expenses and helps achieve credibility and trust from landholders.

Approximately six staff work on the Living Soils and Building Evidence projects, however, most of these also have other responsibilities, so all are on a part-time basis, ranging from around one to three days a week on the project. Budget allocated to the projects vary each year, depending on the activity and focus. In Financial Year 2011-12, $76,000 has been allocated to Living Soils and $70,000 to the Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture project. These figures do not include salary components.

BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

  • Encourage improved grazing management in southern Tasmania
  • Trial the effectiveness of planned grazing to address a range of land management issues and landscape goals with landholders willing to host long term demonstration sites
  • Establish 5 sites in 2010-11 and 10 new sites in 2011-12
  • Monitor results of resource condition improvement
  • Record how many landholders extend the practice beyond trial scale

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THE PARTICIPANTS

Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture trial participants are private landholders with different enterprises, values, land management issues and production. The majority are conventional agricultural enterprises, however there are also two organic farms with conventional grazing regimes. Each landholder is trialling the use of holistic planned grazing on a small half to one hectare paddock. However, Barry reports, “A number have gone to whole of farm first up”, with two landholders making a full transition to holistic planned grazing across their entire properties.

All of the 15 trial sites with formal monitoring have poor landscape function and most have been selected to focus on the poorest soils and pastures on the properties. The trial sites have been set up to address a range of land management issues including herbaceous and woody weeds, salinity, soil erosion, poor ground cover and water-logging. Water cycling is an issue on all sites.

The trial locations range from costal scrub to wet forest, however the majority would originally have been grassy woodland. All sites comprised degraded native or introduced pastures and would have previously functioned more effectively. Some sites contain or are linked to native vegetation, and the majority of the 15 trial sites had low cover of perennial grasses prior to changing grazing management.

Most common weeds being addressed on the trial sites include ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), horehound (Marrubium vulgare) and gorse (Ulex europeaus).

The prime motivation of landholders to participate in the trial appeared to be an interest in improving soil health through encouraging biological activity. The goal of many of the landholders in participating in the trials was to increase the cover and diversity of palatable perennial grasses on their land.

Additional information is also being captured through the trial on landholder motivations, drivers and barriers to adopting new practices. Interviews have been conducted with the 15 landholders hosting trials and these will be revisited in 3-5 years to help understand what influences the uptake of regenerative farm practices.

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THE TRIALS

Participants have set up two small half or one hectare paddocks for the trial and selected an area of conventional practice to be their ‘control’ or reference site. Some increased fencing has been required on the majority of properties in order to establish the trials.

The trials comprise a short grazing event with intense stock density followed by a long recovery period (greater than 150-180 days). These recovery periods are determined by monitoring the recovery of perennial grasses. For the landholders that have extended holistic planned grazing across their entire property they have either increased the fencing or started to run their stock in larger mobs.

With the assistance of expert consultants, NRM South has produced a comprehensive, yet simple to understand Guide to Planned Grazing to support this project. The first part of the guide shows how landholders can conduct a trial of planned grazing on their land to see how the method works. The second part of the guide provides planning and monitoring tools to help those who have already trialled the method to refine it for their property.

Five field days have been held at grazing trials sites with practical demonstration on how to monitor for changes in pasture following the methods in the Guide to Planned Grazing. Demonstration sites have provided a great opportunity for people to get together and talk. Common points of discussion at these activities include:

  • How small scale trials relate to whole properties
  • Perennial grass recovery
  • Animal performance
  • Applying planned grazing using existing farm infrastructure

SETTING UP A PLANNED GRAZING TRIAL 

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the
 Guide to Planned Grazing.
 The full guide is available on the NRM South Internet site.

 
 

image of Guide to Planned Grazing

STEP 1: Fence off a small area. Choose your smallest paddock or fence off a corner so that with your mob size the animals are at stockyard densities. For example, if you have sheep in mobs of 500 put them into an area of less than 0.5 ha (1 acre). The closer you can get to stockyard density the less time the stock will need to be in the trial area.

STEP 2: Make a record of the current health of the pasture. It can be helpful to take photos before, during and after this treatment so you can easily monitor any improvement. Take the photo looking straight down from around chest height so that you can see the soil surface.

STEP 3: Add stock. You might need to leave the animals there for as little as four hours, so keep a close eye on your trial area.

STEP 4: Remove stock. It’s important to take stock out at the right time… when the animals have trampled most of the area but the soil surface is still 100% covered either by plants or litter.

STEP 5: Record the date, for how long and how many stock were in the trial area.

STEP 6: Leave the area to recover. It typically takes between 6 and 12 months in temperate regions such as southern Tasmania for the best perennial grasses to recover. Grasses are considered to be recovered when they contain fresh litter (dead leaves still attached to plants) and there is no evidence of previous grazing such as chewed tips.

STEP 7: Repeat the process. By doing this you should continuously improve biodiversity of your pasture and the land function. Recovery time varies with season and from year to year, so you need to keep monitoring and make sure you do not put animals into an area to graze before it is ready, or leave them so long that they create bare ground, otherwise you won’t produce the healthy, diverse landscape you need for your farm. Remember to keep records of stock movements and take photos to see how the length of the recovery time affects your pasture.

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NRM SOUTH TRIAL – FULHAM

image of Sandy Gray
Sandy Gray on Fulham.

Sandy Gray leases his 1000 hectare farm, Fulham, for sheep grazing, but has dedicated a couple of hectares to the NRM South grazing trial. His property falls in the Tasman catchment and is part of NRM South’s priority Tasman Sorell area.

When asked why he decided to adopt the trial Sandy responds, jokingly, “Because they spun me too good a yarn to refuse”.

Jokes aside, ultimately it was the suggestion that sustainable regeneration of the landscape to support production could be achieved without dollar input that piqued Sandy’s curiosity. He had previously attended a course on a similar grazing technique, cell grazing, so was aware of some of the concepts, however his own current management preference is a slow rotation over a small number of large paddocks.

Sandy shows an open interest in the results of the trial, with a half and a full hectare paddock dedicated to the trial. He has also fenced off an additional hectare where he is experimenting with a slightly different rest period to the trial paddocks and monitoring the outcomes for his own interest. He agrees that the trial paddocks are already clearly healthier than those still under conventional methods.

images from trial paddock
Fulham 1 hectare trial paddock, February 2011 (left) and May 2012 (right) six weeks after 24 hours of 700 sheep grazing.
 Note improved groundcover and concentration of manure.
image of Sandy Gray
NRM South team members with Sandy Gray.

Observable differences are apparent at Fulham after only 12 months and two grazing periods. The soil in the trial paddocks is softer underfoot and more fibrous, have more litter, healthy regrowth and an even spread of sheep ‘fertiliser’. Thistles are also less than in the ‘control’ paddock, which is subject to slow rotation grazing, where they have seeded in bare soil exposed by over grazing.

Based on the formal monitoring as part of the project, the NRM South 12 month report for Fulham notes, “There is evidence of improvements in both the soils and pastures in the Fulham holistic planned grazing trial site with increases in sown perennials, organic soil carbon, soil water content and decreased bulk density as early as 12 months into the trial. Increases in cover of perennial grasses mean that more of the soil surface will be covered throughout the year where increases in organic carbon improve the ability of the soil to hold water and supply more fuel for soil biological activity”.

Sandy is happy to continue with the trial and is positive about results so far. The lessee is also becoming engaged and is watching the results from the trial activity. Sandy appreciates the support and engagement offered by NRM South and the opportunity to share experiences with other landholders.

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MEASUREMENT & MONITORING

NRM South is conducting site specific biophysical monitoring at each trial site with measures of the soil and pasture in the holistic planned grazing trial plots and reference sites (in good condition with similar soil, topographic and vegetation characteristics). This monitoring includes the following methods and is tailored to the test the site-specific landscape changes desired by the landholders:

  • Landscape Functionality Assessment (LFA) of treatment and reference/control areas
  • Basic soil nutrient analysis (N, P, K, organic C, etc.)
  • ScarP soil carbon tests
  • Bulk density samples
  • Soil compaction
  • Soil invertebrate samples
  • Tasmanian vegetation condition assessment benchmarks (VCA)
  • Permanent transect-guided quadrant-based studies of pastures measuring the relative composition of native perennial pasture species
  • Permanent transect-guided quadrant-based studies of pastures measuring presence of exotic annual and perennial pasture species and understorey vegetation
  • Density measures of species of interest such as weeds
  • Landscape context for farming enterprise (e.g. patch connectivity)

Baseline and 12 month follow up reports have been performed for five properties in collaboration with researchers from the Tasmanian institute of Agriculture. Fifteen of the properties will undergo follow up monitoring in three to five years. First year data for changes in percentage of organic soil carbon and soil water content for the five demonstration trial sites is presented in the graphs below. After the first year, measurement shows that there have been increases in soil organic carbon and soil water content in both planned grazing treatments (0.5 and 1 ha) at Farm 3 and Fulham.

Continued monitoring and activities on demonstration sites helps to maintain engagement with participants and other interested landholders. This helps to maintain enthusiasm and also provides the opportunity to share and discuss results or experiences, contributing to NRM South’s goal of ongoing support and empowerment to landholders in their region.

graphs of changes in soil organic carbon and soil water content

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EARLY INDICATORS – TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE OUTCOMES

We are… able to provide support for farmers willing to trial new techniques; those willing to change.

NRM South has encountered some challenges throughout their projects, noting that, “the existing (conventional) agricultural paradigm in Australia does not encourage farmers to trial regenerative farming methods”. They have experienced some resistance from some agronomists, farmers, ecologists and public land managers.

On the whole, however, landholder engagement has been very strong. An independently conducted survey in mid-2011 found that 79% of landholders that NRM South has engaged have gone on to invest additional resources and/or introduce new practices to improve profitability and pasture production and soil health. As Barry notes, “[It is a] challenge to move from linear to holistic thinking, however if it’s worthwhile to the farmers, if they can see money in it, they’ll do it”.

Living Soils activities are attracting increasing interest from landholders, with less advertising and promotion. This program also continues to share the information gained in Building Evidence trials.

In the first 12 months of the Building Evidence trials, changes are already being observed in soil carbon, soil water content and increase biomass and cover of perennial grasses. Due to a good season however, improvements are being seen both on control and planned grazing plots. Across the trial demonstration sites, there are also some site specific changes, and changes vary depending on original practices.

In addition to participating in the trials, some landholders have chosen to trial different practices or methods, seeking their own solutions and evidence – or even trying to disprove the advice NRM South is providing. The team find this positive as it increases farmers’ ownership of results.

images of NRM south vehicle on local farm
The team at NRM South are achieving positive results from their active and tailored engagement in the region.

The tailored approach taken by NRM South directly addresses other challenges that have been experienced. Magali notes, “There are a lot of learnings from the project, especially that everyone does it differently, with different enterprises and social circumstances which can result in different motivations and impediments”.

“Initially we were collecting purely biophysical evidence, however it is clear that social and economic information is need to have a clear evidence base for farmers interested in regenerative farm practices in southern Tasmania.”

NRM South believes that they are achieving positive outcomes for healthy rural profits, communities and environment with the range of activities they are delivering. Encouraging results include:

  • A high interest of landholder engagement for future planned grazing trials and events;
  • High participant satisfaction with demonstration field days;
  • Three landholders hosting trials have applied techniques beyond the original trial sites;
  • Engagement with industry and community groups through field days; and
  • Broader communications and recognition outside of Tasmania, such as an invitation to speak at STIPA conference in Holbrook Nov 2011.

In the future NRM South hopes to build redundancy into the delivery of their programs, with the development of communities of practice, or farmer support networks. The increasing demand, evidenced through the numbers attending courses, suggests that this has the potential to become a commercial venture. Some farmer bodies of practice that have been set up elsewhere are self sustaining due to farmers driving and providing educational activities and NRM South would like to explore these options.

As summarised by Barry, “We work with the willing. If landowners are already happy with their production system, we’ll support them in mutually beneficial activities, but, we are better able to provide support for farmers willing to trial new techniques; those willing to change.”

SHARING THE SUCCESS

The projects run by NRM South are encouraging landholders to adopt sustainable land management practices in a low risk way that suits the situation of individual farmers. By using a method based on coordination and cooperation, a range of options are available to assist farmers to change their practices. These provide sufficient ongoing engagement to support changes beyond the initial enthusiasm experienced at field days or workshops.

Landholders are being empowered to understand new techniques at their own pace through the assisted trials. Trial demonstration sites allow for sharing of results and broader discussion and generate interest across the catchment. The landholders are a part of the change, with minimal disruption to their production, and they can choose whether or not to adopt practices based on their own evidence.

The wider adoption of regenerative landscape management is a strategic imperative for Australia’s future well being. Support mechanisms are clearly required to assist land managers who have attended training activities or demonstration days as a means to gain confidence in changing practices. The NRM South case study provides an example of effective techniques to which could be used to provide the required encouragement and support to farmers and land managers to adopt regenerative landscape management practices.


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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‘PROSPECT PASTORAL COMPANY’ – AGAINST ALL ODDS – TURNING SAND INTO PROFIT

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

AGAINST ALL ODDS: TURNING SAND INTO PROFIT

Initially investing in 660 hectares of marginal and degraded wheat country, Ian and Dianne Haggerty have built up a successful production area of 8000 hectares producing cereals and sheep on limited rainfall and sandy salt-affected soils.

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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

Wyalkatchem, Dowerin, Cunderdin and Meckering districts, around 190 km north east of Perth, WA Central Wheatbelt

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Cereal grains and cereal hay crops; specially-bred sheep for wool and premium grade fat lambs

PROPERTY SIZE: 8000 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 200-300 mm (home farm)

ELEVATION: 320 m (home farm)

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Reducing rainfall and rising input costs

INNOVATIONS

  • Introduction of biological fertilisers and zero tillage to improve soil function and structure
  • Integration of grazing with cropping to enhance nutrient cycling and soil structure
  • Revegetation to limit spread of salt
  • Innovations commenced: 1994

KEY RESULTS

  • Successful crop production on 100mm rainfall
  • Increased soil water-holding capacity
  • Sheep bred to adapt to local environment lambing at 90%-150% and producing high quality 17-20 micron wool

INTRODUCTION

Ian and Dianne Haggerty, and their son James, run a holistic and integrated program of cropping and grazing. The program is underpinned by their shared deep commitment to the regeneration of the fertility of the marginal soils of their area. This is achieved through use of biological fertilisers, zero tillage and the consequent growth of healthy cereal plants to deliver high tonnages of premium grain per hectare. The healthy ground cover of the cropping and pasture also provides the key to maintaining high levels of soil moisture and ensuring weed control.

Over the years, Ian and Dianne have developed their own Merino stud and a working sheep flock from local and South Australian bloodlines. This indigenous flock has been bred to be totally acclimatised to the land farmed by the Haggertys.

Their production area is now spread over a number of holdings equalling 8000 hectares of their own property, leased land and share-farming enterprises. This diversity has enabled more effective management across various landscape conditions and rainfall availability.

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SETTLING IN

image of wheatbelt landscape
Local landscape with salt lake in the distance.

Ian and Dianne came to the original property in Wyalkatchem in 1994 after having run a successful business at Derby in the north west of Western Australia. They had a long shared desire to be farmers and naturally gravitated towards their origins in the Eastern Wheat belt of Western Australia.

The original property purchased by Ian and Dianne lies on undulating semi-arid country to the north of Wyalkatchem WA, bordering on Wallambin Salt Lake. Due to the size and location of the property, farm advisors originally suggested the best alternative was to get out before they got started, however this only challenged the Haggertys to make a good go of things. For the first few years they made a start with the help of machinery from Dianne’s father who owns a neighbouring property.

During the remainder of the 1990s rainfall proved relatively reliable with mostly average rainfall seasons, some excellent seasons and a couple of dry seasons. Following conventional best practise at this time proved profitable and enabled Ian and Dianne to begin acquiring their own machinery.

However, through experiencing the couple of dry seasons, the Haggertys realised the vulnerability of the farming system they were following, as the production decline in these years was significant. Observations of poorly developed root systems and the low resilience of plants to short springs encouraged Ian and Dianne to explore what might be limiting these factors within the soil. This instigated an ongoing pursuit of knowledge regarding soil health and soil productivity.

In addition, rising input costs without a corresponding rise in productivity also provided cause for concern. From this grew a desire to enable the soil to produce an optimum outcome with whatever seasonal conditions unfolded – without expensive inputs.

With the coming of the new decade the rainfall patterns made a determined turn for the worse, with mostly below-average rainfall patterns or significant “dry spells”. This gave the Haggertys a clear indicator that moisture was king, and rainfall preservation and optimal use would be the most powerful profit driver for the enterprise.

Whilst in Derby, Ian and Dianne had made contact with Robyn Tredwell 1Robyn Tredwell was the Australian Rural Woman of the Year 1995., manager of Birdwood Downs Station. It was here that they learnt the principles of using livestock as “weeders, seeders and feeders” in regenerating pastures with appropriate management. This experience was an early trigger for Ian and Dianne to investigate many of nature’s processes; how careful management could enable successful utilisation of nature’s efficiencies at minimal cost. This view was also supported by Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Arden Andersen with whom the Haggertys commenced their education in biological agriculture. Understanding of livestock management and interaction with the soil environment was further enhanced by learning with Jane Hinge of South Australia.

The original 660 hectare purchase has since been expanded over the years by leasing and share farming enterprises throughout the districts of Wyalkatchem, Dowerin and Meckering. These additional properties are not adjacent, so distance is a constant factor in farming management.

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HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT

The grazing operations are integral to the whole. The cropping and hay production contribute to our production of premium wool and lamb, but the sheep are playing their part in fertilising the land and working the soil for us.

Each of the properties managed by the Haggertys produce cereal grains (wheat, oats and barley), cereal hay and sheep for wool and meat. The inclusion of leased land and share-farming enterprises in various locations in their operations has given Ian and Dianne the option of cropping and grazing on different soil types and in different rainfall zones. They can also move sheep to optimise feed on offer and water supply and can choose the location and intensity of cropping operations against landscape conditions and rainfall availability from one part of the enterprise to another.

Ian and Dianne are careful to ensure that each practice that comprises the holistic management of their cropping and grazing operations contributes to the whole. Only the highest quality components underpin the individual and carefully thought out farming practices.

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CROPPING

image of wheat head
Grain head size is seen as a reliable indicator of soil health.

To grow cereals, Ian and Dianne use a process of no-tillage direct drilling of grain seed, supported by application of biological fertilisers, based on high grade worm liquid and compost extract at a cost of $30 a hectare. Cereal stubble and areas of perennial shrubs – Rhagodia spp., saltbush (Atriplex spp.) and tagasaste (Chamaecytisus palmensis), or tree lucerne, – provide grazing for sheep in summer and autumn. Winter and spring grazing is provided by annual volunteer plants, grasses and legumes.

Enhanced microbial activity in the soil and the use of specially-bred sheep as the ‘farm machinery’ above the surface has lifted the resilience and fertility of the land, improving the soil function, structure and water-holding capacity and continuing to value-add to the productivity of the landscape.

“We truck our worm juice and compost from the Victoria and New South Wales suppliers with a proven record of providing only the highest grade products. The compost extract is produced by our own centrifuge which was sourced from the United States”, Ian notes.

The Haggertys have a preference for older varieties of grain that were in common use before the introduction of farming methods which rely on high levels of chemical intervention. They are constantly on the lookout for additions to their seed bank.

Seeds are microbiologically coated before sowing. Ian has integrated a low pressure liquid fertiliser circuit into their seeder so that the microbiologically coated seed is drilled into a microbial environment stimulated by the liquid fertiliser. This ensures that the plant is supported from germination to early growth.
 

image of seed drill
The seed drill microbiologically coats the seed and applies liquid fertiliser to stimulate growth.

 
When Ian digs over a shovel full of heavy red soil in the paddock it becomes obvious how each plant growing in it acts as a carbon pump. The plant root growth has broken up sub-surface hard pan in these heavier soils affected by earlier farming methods. By not providing water soluble fertilisers with the seed, extensive root system growth is stimulated and the plant is able to reach wider and more deeply for moisture and nutrition.

image of healthy plant roots
Extensive root growth is a sign of a healthy nutrient system.

Similarly, observation of root growth in the poorer sandy soils in other paddocks being cropped, show the extensive root growth which adds carbon and nutrients to the soils. These roots hold the soils together and spread the microbial environment within the soil.

As Ian describes, “Healthy flourishing plants slow down runoff from the meagre rainfall, that can be as little as 100mm during the growing period, the microbial activity and associated improvement in soil structure maximises the retention of moisture in the soil”.

“Crop quality is checked by periodic testing of tissue nutrient levels and inspection of grain head development during growth. We find this is a more reliable measure of what is available to plants from the soil, rather than testing the soil itself.”TOP

GRAZING

image of sheep amongst crop stubble
Pregnant ewes amongst wheat stubble.
image of sheep
The sheep have been specifically bred to suit the environment.

“Once grain is harvested, the stubble of the crop grown in this high microbial environment provides nutritious grazing fodder for the sheep. In due course, remnant stubble is trampled down and is broken down by fungi to add to the organic carbon in the soil. Together with the dung provided by the sheep and their stimulation of the soil surface by walking on it, the soils become a gift that keeps on giving.”

Ian and Dianne have carefully bred their line of sheep to be adaptive to their local environment. Through a combination of their breeding and grazing practices, including short, controlled periods of grazing in individual paddocks, the sheep are resistant to stomach parasites and do not require drenching. The sheep have been bred for clean legs, faces and crutches; the Haggertys do not practice mulesing but maintain regular crutching.

The sheep thrive on cereal stubble and native shrubs and grasses as their rumen flora is totally adapted to maximising nutrient extraction from roughage. The livestock do not receive any grain supplementation. The sheep are shorn every eight months and produce lambs at a rate between 90 and 150% per annum. As the Haggertys say, “We couldn’t afford to replace our ewes. They have developed into hardy, efficient producers with minimal artificial support highly adapted to our local environment. They could not be replaced easily”.

Alpacas run with each flock of sheep to reduce the threat from foxes.

Dianne points out, “The grazing operations are integral to the whole. The cropping and hay production contribute to our production of premium wool and lamb, but the sheep are playing their part in fertilising the land and working the soil for us”.

The sheep produce high quality 17-20 micron wool (8-9kg average per fleece adjusted for 12 months growth) and premium grade fat lambs. Some of the Haggerty’s stud rams are sold to other farmers looking for robust, economical performance.

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THE WHOLE

None of this would be completely effective without our understanding of the land as a living organism…

The Haggertys note, “The spread of our operations throughout the district enables us to maximise the virtues of each piece of land and minimise its shortcomings. We have learnt what each paddock can contribute to our operations season by season and what we need to do for that paddock to ensure the continuation of its productivity”.

“None of this would be completely effective without our understanding of the land as a living organism and our connection to its life cycle. As we contribute to it, we live from it, we live with it – we must understand its nature and its inner life, what it gives to us and what it needs from us to work on our behalf.”

image of crop growing in sandy soil
Predicted seasons and conditions are strongly considered when choosing land for cropping. The potential for productivity when biological processes are introduced can be clearly seen on these sandy soils.

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WITH WHAT WATER?

The farming operations continue to deliver high quality grains and cereal hay at significant yields even when the rainfall during the growing season has been as low as 100mm. Average annual rainfall has been only 200-300mm since 2000.

Because of the low average rainfall and the predominance of lower rainfall and drought years over higher than average years, Ian and Dianne plan for operations in drier conditions as being the norm. Their cropping strategies and practices emphasise retention of water in the soils through soil quality management and by minimising runoff and evaporation. In this context, they choose cropping land with the best potential for a high yield in the predicted season ahead.

The runoff in all paddocks is so minimal that they do not rely to any great degree on dams for stock water, although at least one dam in one of the cropping/pasture paddocks is fed by ground water. The mainstay of stock watering is water from the wheat belt watering scheme that pipes water from Mundaring Dam.

graph of rainfall 1994-2010 showing 9 years below average rainfall and 3 above

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ON WHAT SOIL?

With the varied properties, the enterprise is spread over diverse soil types. These include the heavier red clay loam known locally as ‘Morrell’ soil, light acidic sands known as ‘Wodgil’ soil, deep leached sand, sand over clay and ironstone gravels. The biological and no-till strategies and practices adopted by Ian and Dianne are aimed at:

sandy and dark soils
The sandy soil (on spade) is visibly improved with organic matter after only two crops.
  • breaking through shallow, sub-surface hard pan in heavy soils caused by previous high till, high chemical farming
  • breaking up clay mosaics
  • opening the soil’s surface to water penetration
  • building up soil structure that allows roots to penetrate deeply and widely
  • efficient breakdown of stubble and litter by microbes and fungi
  • weaning newly acquired land from chemicals while maintaining production

Ian and Dianne are faced with considerable dry land salinity, particularly on land close to Lake Wallambin where salt is picked up by wind and deposited on their land. They have planted lanes of saltbush and acacia in these areas. They use sheep to graze these areas and contribute to soil fertility through dung deposit. In the more saline areas they sometimes put out hay to attract the sheep to these areas and concentrate dung around the feeding point.

Below the surface, the action of microbes, fungi, worms and dung beetles is obvious in any shovel full of paddock soil. Above the surface, trees, shrubs and ground cover sustain other micro bio-diverse environments that support insect life and reptiles, including a few hardy frogs. There are numerous bird species and macro fauna using these areas. This biodiversity can be traced back to the strategies and practices Ian and Dianne have developed under their vision for biological farming.

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

Once grain is harvested, the stubble of the crop grown in this high microbial environment provides nutritious grazing fodder for the sheep…

The saltbush lanes help to control the movement of salt from the salt lake. Ian and Dianne have also planted a number of different species of annuals and perennials to help manage the spread of salt. Many failed, and they learned from that experience that the annual pasture legume, yellow serradella, has proven a good survivor. It does well in acidic soils, has deep roots and is a prolific seed producer. Native grasses are returning to cropping paddocks and grow well if there is summer rain. However, the prime source of grazing fodder in summer and autumn is cereal stubble.

Ian and Dianne are careful not to impact on the residual paddock trees or clumps of bushland. They have also planted salmon gums (Eucalyptus salmonophloia) and other species to foster the growth of stock shelter and wildlife corridors, and to reduce the impact of salt from the nearby Lake Wallambin. Use of a tree planter allows for large numbers of seedlings to be planted quickly. In one location they have fenced off a particularly representative plot of ancient residual Mallee to preserve its integrity.

As they work up and develop the potential of a newly acquired piece of land, Ian and Dianne will immediately use the livestock to begin the process of biologically inoculating soil that may not have had biological activity encouraged for some time. They are quickly able to reduce rates of chemical use by altering the soil surface and not providing the excess nitrogen and phosphorous that weeds seem to thrive on. The main species of weeds are barley grass (Hordeum spp.), annual rye grass (Lolium rigidum) and wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum). The former respond to herbicides, but, in some cases of heavy radish infestation, which is hard to kill with herbicides, Ian prefers to slash whole paddocks and then turns them over to grazing significantly reducing seed set for the following crop season.

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THE TEAM WORKS

image of Ian holding a healthy plant
Ian Haggerty showing the healthy root development of plants grown in sandy soil.

Ian and Dianne are working together in a close partnership, Ian managing cropping and Dianne managing animal production, but working together to integrate both production streams. Eldest son James is also working on the property, having graduated from agricultural college. Other members of their families are located on nearby properties.

Together, the Haggertys are continuing and improving regeneration of farming landscape in every part of the enterprise in terms of both soil fertility and soil water-holding capacity, whilst minimising the impact of ground salinity. Their production is showing a continuing trend to higher yields per millimetre of rainfall and higher quality of cereal grains and cereal hay. The home grown Merino stud and flock ewes acclimatised to the property are producing high grade wool and fat lambs for ‘boutique’ butchers.

Ian and Dianne keep detailed records of inputs to their enterprises and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the success and failures over the years. They believe that landholders must monitor carefully the transitions in their own land and their financial capacity to enact change. They note that there is always good advice out there somewhere but, even when you find it, external input can only help you so far. Ultimately, the farmer is responsible for their own learning and farm development.

The Haggertys also reinforce that farmers must be prepared to try things that may not necessarily work. Ian and Dianne have been involved in trialling many species of perennial pastures, both grasses and shrubs, to extend the ‘green grazing window’ throughout the prolonged dry summer and autumn period which is typical in Western Australia. To date some introduced species are managing to survive including Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana), Gatton panic (Panicum maximum) and tall wheat grass (Thinopyrum ponticum), however the most reliable performers in dry seasons are the saltbush, Rhagodia, native wattle and tagasaste shrubs. Encouraging the right environment for native perennial grasses to flourish in the event of summer rain is a priority.

The Prospect Pastoral Company is very much a busy family enterprise and a personal priority. Ian and Dianne work closely together to integrate cropping and grazing with the geography of their operation enabling much opportunity along with a large commitment of time to monitor and manage. Nonetheless, they are always willing to share their knowledge and experience with others, attending field days on a wide range of topics and themes and maintaining involvement with the local Landcare group.

image of hay bales

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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