In the 1980s, portions of Salisbury were fit for one
thing and one thing only: landing an aeroplane. Since then, the MacAlpine family
has rehabilitated much of this scalded land and developed a number of
strategies to make their property ready for both the droughts and flooding
rains that this part of the country is prone to.
The Salisbury property is
located on the floodplain and associated relict red duplex terraces of the
Marra Creek, to the west of the Macquarie Marshes about 160 km north-west of
Warren in north-central New South Wales. The Queensland border is about 160 km
further north. Carinda – the nearest town – is about 60 km north-east. Marra
Creek runs through the region. It adjoins Salisbury on the property’s western
side and potentially flows north into the Barwon River, a tributary of the
Salisbury is about 20,000 hectares. The MacAlpines consider that area can support a self-replacing merino flock totalling about 10,000 dry sheep equivalents, typically comprising 5000 breeding ewes (1.5 DSE each) and 2500 ewe lambs, on average in the long term (and allowing for the kangaroos!). The property is subdivided into 22 main paddocks and a few holding yards and transport routes.
Salisbury was previously part
of the Womboin Station, which was owned by the Dalgety company. Womboin was
subdivided in 1972. The MacAlpine family purchased the Salisbury part in 1977
and added two adjoining blocks soon after. Half of Salisbury is on dark heavy
clay soil that is relatively impervious to erosion. This rest is red soil that
has a better natural potential for grazing has been degraded by wind and water
Salisbury, The Marra, NSW
ENTERPRISE: Self-replacing merino flock
PROPERTY SIZE: 20,000 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: Approximately 450 mm
ELEVATION: 133 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Improve the health and condition of the sheep, primarily through improving the health and condition of the pastures
Reclaiming scalded red duplex country through “waterponding”
Manage total grazing pressure with wildlife-proof fencing
Manage sheep numbers via trigger point assessments at key points in the annual cycle
Manage water infrastructure
Supplementary feeding to assist breeding
Approximately a quarter of the property (most of the scalded red country) has been treated with waterponds.
Several paddocks have been enclosed with wildlife proof fencing.
Sheep numbers are being managed via decisions on numbers to join and disposal to sale or to brother’s property at Grenfell, NSW.
Three of the four artesian bores on the property have been capped and piped to tanks – each with two troughs.
Supplementary feeding infrastructure established.
Ready for drought, ready for rain
Salisbury is typical of
Dorothea McKellar’s ‘land of droughts and
flooding rains’. There are no permanent watercourses on Salisbury. Water
supply is rain and bores that tap the Great Artesian Basin. Average annual
rainfall is about 450 mm on the property or 405 mm as measured at the nearest
meteorological station, perhaps indicating high local variability. The average
and median monthly rainfall sometimes falls in a single day, sometimes causing
regional flooding. Conversely, very little rain falls for substantial periods.
Will MacAlpine is clear that
for the grazing business to cope, obtaining maximum benefit from rainfall events
and minimum damage during dry periods, ‘we
must be ready for drought, and we must be ready for rain’. The strategy to
achieve that comprises a number of tactics:
Increase the area of
productive grazing land by rehabilitating scalded land.
Cap the artesian bores
to control water supply.
Manage sheep grazing
pressure in dry periods by moving sheep to holding pens and hand feeding them,
and by deferring joining young ewes.
In practice, these tactics
are interlinked or interdependent.
Although rehabilitation work was begun on Salisbury in the 1970s by the previous owners, when the MacAlpines took over the property Grant MacAlpine could land his light plane almost anywhere on the property. After seeing promising results on properties nearby, the MacAlpine family continued rehabilitation in the 1980s and 1990s. Works ramped up in 2009 and 2012 when government grants were available.
The methods that have been used successfully for several years on Salisbury involve using a grader to build low ponding banks to hold rainwater to a depth of 10 cm or so. These are circular on flat ground and semi-circular (a ‘horseshoe’ shape) on scald with a mild slope. The opening of the horseshoe is to the up-slope side, so that run-off collects within the banks. Each pond covers about 0.4 hectares. The grader used to construct the banks is also used to disturb the soil surface within the ponds in strategic locations (Thompson 2008). Saltbush seed – some of it collected on the property – is sown over the disturbed surface. Running cattle over the ponded area after the surface had been softened by rain was used to disturb the soil surface in a previous Soils for Life case study of a property near Brewarrina.
The effect of the ponding banks and disturbance is to hold water from the intermittent heavy falls. This then infiltrates – albeit slowly – to leach salts from the surface and provide moisture down the soil profile. The banks and disturbance within them provide a barrier to wind-blown sediments and plant material, which collects and starts to form an organic-rich surface layer. The saltbush seed, together with whatever seed is delivered by wind, sheep and birds, then has somewhere to germinate and moisture to tap in the soil profile. The natural processes of ecological succession have effectively been given a ‘kick-start’ and can take their course. To date, about half of the scalded areas on Salisbury have been treated in this way.
Four artesian bores that were installed early in the 20th century and have been flowing ever since supplement Salisbury’s intermittent water supply from rainfall. The aggregate potential flow rate is 9 L/second (284 ML/year, or about 114 Olympic swimming pools). However, the volume required to support grazing stock is estimated at around 1 L/second, so the rest (around 250 ML/year) runs away to waste via bore drains. The wasted water supports a kangaroo population far in excess of what would be there naturally, whereas a tank and trough system can be managed to restrict water supply.
Capping the bores maintained the pressure of the underground artesian aquifer and used only the amount of water needed for stock. A threat by governments to charge for water used in excess of stock requirements focused the MacAlpines’ action. A subsidy from the NSW Government  helped too. Following the mandated specifications, each tank supplies two nearby troughs – the second being presumably for backup in case one failed. So far, two of the four bores on Salisbury have been capped.
This is the biggest concern
for the viability of the Salisbury business is a seemingly endless supply of
kangaroos willing to move on to the property. Generally, they come from the
north and arguably in far higher numbers than would have been possible before
graziers started providing water sources.
Managing the kangaroo population requires a massive investment in specifically designed fencing. Fences like that will also exclude wild dogs that be-devil sheep graziers elsewhere and that the MacAlpines expect in the Marra region before long.
The cost of kangaroo-proof
fencing is around $4,000/km for materials and the property boundary is about 50
km, so a substantial investment is required. Fortunately, the NSW Government
has provided a low-interest loan for this.
Sheep grazing pressure is managed in dry periods by moving sheep to holding pens and hand feeding them with grain and straw. This is especially useful for ensuring that ewes chosen for breeding have optimum nutrition.
Further tactics to reduce
grazing pressure include:
deferring joining young
ewes so that their grazing requirements are minimised; and
selling older ewes or
passing them on to the farm run by Alex MacAlpine at Grenfell, NSW.
Will and Grant MacAlpine make these decisions from time to time , taking particular note of animal and pasture health.
In summary, the grazing enterprise at Salisbury is well adapted to the highly variable, semi-arid climate. Amongst their many benefits, the water ponds bring more areas into production and generally improve the appearance of the property. Capping the bore, erecting wildlife-proof fencing and managing stock numbers controls the total grazing pressure and ensures sustainability so that the MacAlpines are ready for drought and ready for rain.
 Not as generous as the subsidy in Queensland.
 Especially over the summer period when a “feed gap” would develop if rain was inadequate.
Cunningham, G.M. 1987.
Reclamation of scalded land in western New South Wales. Journal of Soil
Conservation New South Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of
Rhodes, D. 1987. Waterponding
banks – design, layout and construction. Journal of Soil Conservation New South
Wales, Vol. 3, number 2. Soil Conservation Service of NSW, Sydney.
Herczeg, A.L. and Love, A.J.
2007. Review of Recharge Mechanisms for the Great Artesian Basin. CSIRO Land
and Water, Glen Osmond, South Australia.
Thompson, R. 2008.
Waterponding: Reclamation technique for scalded duplex soils in western New
South Wales rangelands. Ecological Management and Restoration 9:
170-181. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-8903.2008.00415.x
Garry Kadwell has been managing Rosedale and neighbouring property Fairhalt since the 1970s. His family acquired the first parcels of the properties in 1901. The properties are located on the Great Dividing Range south of Crookwell, New South Wales. Up until 1980 the main enterprise of the Kadwell family was an apple orchard. Under Garry’s management the enterprise of the property has changed to producing seed stock potatoes and fat lambs.
Over the years Garry has worked tirelessly protecting remnant stands of vegetation as well as planting habitat corridors to connect stands of vegetation across the properties. Currently 32% of Fairhalt is protected for conservation. Garry has also created numerous wetlands across the property providing vital habitat for birds and other fauna, such as the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).
Fairhalt, Crookwell, NSW
ENTERPRISE: Seed stock potatoes and fat lambs
PROPERTY SIZE: 730 acres
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 813 mm
ELEVATION: 1000 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
An awareness about the environmental health of the property and its values was instilled in Garry during his youth by his father and grandfather, this helped shape the management strategies and regimes that Garry has implemented.
Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:
Increased time between potato crop rotations to allow soil health to repair.
Lucerne and grass species cropping post-potato crop to improve soil health. Compost and lime applications to provide soil nutrients and fix pH levels.
Utilisation of a “one pass” tilling machine to reduce tilling impact on soil.
Habitat corridors planted across the property to link stands of remnant vegetation.
Set aside 32% of the property for conservation purposes.
Constructed wetlands on the property to provide habitat for birds and other fauna.
Rotationally grazing fat lambs to maintain ground cover.
Significant increases in production, now one of the largest potato producers in the region. High levels of organic matter and carbon are stored within the soil profile. Conservation works have provided critical habitat for endangered species of flora and fauna.
Garry Kadwell’s family have managed Fairhalt for over 100
years. Garry’s early ancestors conserved remnant stands of vegetation from land
clearing across the property. Some of Garry’s earliest memories are of planting
trees with his grandfather and being instructed of their value in the landscape.
Garry has continued on planting trees and other vegetation throughout Fairhalt.
Currently 32% of Fairhalt is protected for conservation purposes.
Garry has significantly increased production levels on the property in the form of seed stock potatoes and fat lambs. The increases in production levels have coincided with improvements to soil health and ecosystem health of the entire property. Garry has achieved this through careful management and understanding of the many layers of the system that comprise Fairhalt.
The conservation work Garry Kadwell conducted has provided significant natural capital benefits to Fairhalt. Threatened and vulnerable species of flora and fauna are thriving within the bounds of Fairhalt.
Throughout our analysis, we noted that the regenerative practices Garry has implemented on Fairhalt have led to significantly increased production levels when compared to the Average Farm. With increased productivity, the income generated on Fairhalt is also significantly higher than that of the average Farm. In addition, the increased productivity has allowed Garry to deploy a more diversified production mix – leading to a more sustainable enterprise as a whole.
Garry’s first recollection is of planting trees with his grandfather. In the early 1970s, they planted Yellow Box together, and the elder Kadwell said, ‘Garry, when you look at these trees you will remember me, and we will have made a difference.’
See the difference this attitude has made in our photo essay of Fairhalt.
Taking over the family farm can be challenging in itself. Leaving a secure job in the public service, a young family and relatives watching over a farm that extends back generations, now that’s a challenge!
History of the Kane family runs deep in Coleraine, Western Victoria. Since 1878 four generations have farmed this area. John and family made a tree change in 1996 to take over the farm from his uncles and thus began a journey of transformation.
Through self education, independent thinking and the support of immediate family, John was able to turn Collingwood around to be the thriving black Angus cattle breeding property that it is today. A focus on soil through an integrated approach to managing physical, chemical and biological processes has seen Collingwood get the balance between soils, water, plants and animals just right.
CollingwoodFarm, Coleraine VIC
ENTERPRISE: Cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 242 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 620 mm
ELEVATION: 90-100 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Opportunity to embrace biological farming to regenerate run down enterprise with potential for improved profit and farm landscape improvement.
Fencing of stock water and improved fencing along creek line
Stock medication (supplements added to water troughs)
Stock mineral supplement powders
Effective weed management
Consistently high levels of ground cover all year round
Improved extent of tree and shrub cover along the creek
Significant reduction in input costs
High level of consistency of cattle breeding
Rotational grazing of high quality pastures
Cash flow all year round
High level of personal satisfaction in outcomes achieved
John Kane, his wife Jenny and their three children, Andrew,
Christopher and Melissa took up an offer from two elderly uncles to manage
their farming enterprise, Collingwood, near Coleraine in western Victoria in
1996. The family moved onto the property, but John also undertook work from the
local council while he found his feet in managing the farm.
The property consisted of two main blocks comprising a
complex set of titles left over from the World War 1 Soldier Settlement Scheme.
One block, Evestons, is 102Ha and the other, Collingwood, is 140 Ha. There were
thirteen paddocks that were set stocked with sheep and cattle. Some fences were
run down and dams and watering points did not match the paddock subdivisions, a
must if rotational grazing was to be introduced.
There were three paddocks totalling 36 ha under hay when
John took over the property. He increased that to four paddocks totalling 48 ha
as part of his feeding out strategy.
Kanes Creek runs through the property and poor land
management in the 1930-40s led to the formation of a 12 metre deep erosion
gully. In the 1960’s, as part of Soil Conservation Service work, the creek was
fenced-off and partially revegetated. Its intermittent flow carried water and
soil nutrients off the property to the Glenelg River and out to sea. The creek
bed was a haven for rabbits and foxes and home to a considerable number of
snakes which prey on the proliferation of frogs which share the habitat.
In 1996, the enterprise carried 12 DSE set stocked on
pastures heavily infested with Cape Weed and lesser infestations of Onion Weed,
Rush, Wild Geranium and Dandelion. About one third of the stock was sheep and
two thirds cattle. Poor quality grazing combined with poor cattle genetics and
underweight calves being dropped at inopportune times of the year.
Planning and Implementing Change
Initially, John opted to improve the cattle genetics. He
soon realised that he had the wrong strategy. Even with top quality bulls, poor
pasture was leading to poor returns from cows grazing sub-standard pastures and
dropping underweight calves. Above and
beyond soil test results, poor quality pasture indicated poor nutrient density
and nutrient deficient soils. John decided to improve the soil as a first
In 2000, at some risk to the economic viability of the
enterprise, John decided to streamline his workload by selling off his sheep
and concentrating on breeding Black Angus cattle. The strategy has paid off,
but he now has two fully function shearing sheds to maintain in case of a
future decision to bring back sheep.
Today John’s annual production cycle is geared to producing
consistent numbers of high grade weaner steers (calves) that are sold locally.
John’s cattle are finished on farms in NSW and Queensland.
Soils and Soil Fertility
John first conducted his soil tests in 1996 to establish a baseline. Initial tests and associated observation and research highlighted an average pH of 4, an imbalance of the Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) ratio, soil compaction, indications of over-use of superphosphate, poor soil hydrology and considerable bare ground after broad leafed annuals died off. Since that time subsequent soil tests have been used to inform progress and to adjust management regimes to improve soil condition. John dispensed with the services of the agronomist and took over the fertiliser program himself. He opted for a program of mineral fertilisers and foliates. He introduced Bubas bison dung beetles, in addition to extant native varieties for greater aeration, water penetration and nutrient sequestration of the soils.
In the early years John used a soil aerator to break through the hard pan that had established historically through ploughing with a mouldboard plough. Soil compaction is a thing of the past.
The fertiliser program includes regular applications of lime and recent soil testing indicates an average pH of 6. Organic matter content has increased significantly. Water infiltration has increased considerably due to physical soil aeration, dung beetle activity and rotationally resting paddocks that are dominated by deep rooted perennials such as cocksfoot and phalaris. Periodically, John renovates the pasture to increase diversity of species by direct drilling of clovers and ryegrass.
Vegetation and Ground Cover
When John took over management of the farm in 1996, the
pastures were run down, they were weed infested and fertilised with
John’s new fertiliser program has dramatically changed that
situation. John describes himself as a biological farmer with a strong focus on
soil function (refer to the annual production cycle below). As a result, his
pastures have high nutrient mixed species of high density pastures with very
little weed burden.
Most paddocks comprise improved pasture including phalaris,
clover and rye. One paddock is set aside and managed as native pasture including
Kangaroo Grass, Wallaby Grass and Weeping Grass.
John’s uncles had begun a program of tree planting (Red Gum
and Blackwood) and had, with the assistance of the Soil Conservation Service,
planted some 7,000 trees. John and Jenny continued this program and planted a
further 10,000 trees and shrubs of a variety of species.
In the early years, annual weeds and seasonal bare ground
favoured outbreaks of the red legged earth mite and the Lucerne Flea. While weeds
are much less of a problem today, John addresses the annual weeds with a targeted
program of spraying with a broad leaf herbicide mixed with fulvic acid. John
advises that “It is important to spray in Autumn when plants are small – the
clover at two leaf stage – to gain maximum effect using low spraying rates”.
The hay paddocks are sprayed annually with foliar sprays,
trace elements, biologic agents and kelp. This spraying program encourages the
growth of the pasture grasses and tends to effectively control the annual weeds
When John first came to the property, the watering
infrastructure consisted only of a number of dams. Kane Creek was fenced off from grazing and was
not used as a source of reticulated water. Only half the paddocks had water and the fenced
dams did not coincide with the number of paddocks which made John’s intention
of introducing rotational grazing somewhat problematic.
John has established a system of troughs in each paddock. Potable
water is pumped from the dams by solar power to storage tanks on the high
ground, holding 80,000 litres and 120,000 litres, respectively. This allows all
troughs to be gravity fed. John achieved
this through the purchase of a “Ditch Witch” machine to trench piped water 650
mm under the ground.
John’s water infrastructure hosts his program of water
medication. Trace elements and food
supplements are fed into the drinking water by vacuum pumps that are worked by
water pressure. The pumps require a 2 metre head of water to operate and on
average they are situated some 200m below the water storage tanks. The medication is fed into the stock watering
system 3 to 4 times a year. When the water medication is operating, this
program ensures that each animal gets the required amount of trace elements and
John has a highly disciplined approach to farm management with his task organisation and time management of a very high order. This approach is essential as Collingwood is a one-person operation. An example of the Collingwood production management program is at Annex A to this report.
The days of a stocking rate of 12 DSE faded into memory. In the really good
seasons of 2000 to 2010, the stocking rate peaked at 18 DSE. John has reduced
that to a modest 15DSE as a conservative hedge in case of a down turn in stock
prices or seasonal conditions.
High Impact Hay
were three paddocks totalling 36ha under hay when John came to the property. He
has increased that by four more paddocks totalling 48ha as part of his feeding
out strategy. John pays great attention to the fertility of the soil in
the hay paddocks and to the nutrient density of the phalaris, clover and rye
that comprises the makeup of the hay cut in October each year. The resulting hay production of some 600
large round bales is fundamental to John’s animal nutrition and soil biology
strategy. All of the hay produced on the property is retained on the property
as part of this strategy.
John feeds out daily from mid-February to the end of July,
covering the crucial calving period from March to April. The dung reflects the
soil fertility of the hay paddocks and the nutrient density of the hay, and is
transferred into the grazing paddock soil by the dung beetles, notably the
imported Bubas Bison. This is a flying variety that scents andflies to new dung pats, therefore
expediting the burial of dung across the paddocks. This cycle is critical to
John’s biological farming.
Over the years, the burgeoning rabbit
problem has been tackled by local landholders using at different times, Sodium
fluoroacetate (“1080”) impregnated carrots, Myxomatosis and Calici Virus. These
operations have reduced the rabbits to negligible numbers and the foxes that
also inhabit the creek bed keep them that way. There are no other pests
affecting the management of the property.
Outcomes and End State
John Kane has worked both hard and smart for 22 years and
Jenny was part of that effort for 18 of those years. John started with little
knowledge and little standing as a farmer in the eyes, not only of his uncles,
but also many of his peers. He sought knowledge through training courses, field
days and practiced what he learned innovating on the farm.
John can now look across pastures and vegetation that
represent his goal of 100% ground cover 100% of the time. He can see healthy,
unstressed cattle in good condition grazing on pastures of high nutrient
density. This ideal situation has eventuated from his initial adoption of a
fertility-first strategy for his soils all those years ago.
Over a century of conventional farming practices had caused deep erosion gullies and a hardpan 200 mm below the soil surface. Through perseverance, education and a little ingenuity the ecological assessment for this farm leaves no doubt about the improvements and ongoing resilience of Collingwood.
Collingwood is productive and profitable, but it wasn’t always like that. Through an investment in soil health and the smart acquisition of some second hand machinery, the returns from this farm and the potential for future capital gain look promising.
Health and wellbeing
The potential of Collingwood was evident but you had to look beyond the weeds and erosion gullies. A cursory look back then would never have foreseen what is evident today. If John had his time again, what would he change? “Nothing”
Maddy Coleman grew up in the city, and her love of horses introduced her to agriculture. Years of experience working in diverse farming practice and ongoing training and education followed. Maddy has made changes to their initial Rothesay business model, proving that flexibility, formal and applied education and conversations with mentors are key factors in managing ongoing drought conditions.
Management changes on Rothesay include preserving ground cover using a different stocking model and fencing to allow rehabilitation of creeks and gullies. Maddy shares her experience in managing Rothesay using regenerative farming practices in this transition case study.
Rothesay, Blackville NSW
ENTERPRISE: Cattle trading
PROPERTY SIZE: 1,620 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 691 mm
ELEVATION: 426 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Maintaining a high level of ground cover
Optimising soil hydrology
Conservative stocking rates
Delivering cash flow in drought
Maddy and Malcolm Coleman (her father) purchased Rothesay in 2016. They added the adjoining Springfield block two years later and now the combined Rothesay property comprises 1,629 hectares. While Malcolm visits to help occasionally, Maddy makes all the day-to-day decisions about managing the farm.
Rothesay is located on the foothills and lower slopes of the Liverpool Ranges, in the catchment of the Mooki River. Omaleah Creek and Black Creek run through and join on the property. The creeks only flow intermittently, so water for stock is obtained from bores. The long-term average annual rainfall as recorded at Blackville (2 km south of the farm) is 691 mm, with summer dominant rainfall pattern.
Deep cracking clay soils found on Rothesay
Subdividing paddocks cost-effectively; one new trough can water up to four or more paddocks depending how paddocks are set up. Electric tapes are used to separate paddocks as required. Turning off water to the trough when the cattle have been moved on removes the attraction for kangaroos, and therefore helps reduce grazing pressure.
Carefully planned grazing enables paddocks adjoining creek lines to be rested long enough for tree regeneration to become established. The build-up of vegetation then retards storm flows, prevents erosion and leads to increased infiltration of run-off into the water table.
Shallow level channels carry water from the gully and allow it to disperse across the paddocks where it can infiltrate, rehydrating the soil.
Ground cover on Rothesay after two drought years. Maintaining ground cover during a drought ensures that topsoil is protected and rain that falls is able to penetrate, meaning pastures will grow back rapidly.
THE ROTHESAY STORY
While it is early in the story, indications are that Maddy Coleman is showing the way to considerably improve the resilience of her farm business.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Looking back, Maddy recognises that she made mistakes, but also knows they were learning experiences.
This is a common story in the history of Queensland farming, but it’s an inspirational story too. It’s a story of persistence, resourcefulness and resilience, self-sufficiency, acute observation of nature, the adoption of practical and cost-effective innovations and resilience to droughts and floods due to the property’s conservative grazing system.
Soils For Life has chosen Glenelg as a case study because it presents strong arguments for conservative stocking, comprehensive ground cover, soil hydrology and available water, thus preserving soil and biodiversity. The result is a profitable and productive enterprise. Our study took place when Glenelg had been in drought for 6 years.
Glenelg, Mungallala QLD
ENTERPRISE: Sheep, cattle grazing
PROPERTY SIZE: 4,000 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 504 mm
ELEVATION: 432 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Need to reduce grazing pressure and improve pasture
Introduction of Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris)
An exclusion fence
Commitment to permanent pasture cover
Management of kangaroos and wild dogs
Dramatically improved and sustainable pasture
No supplementary feeding for stock during drought
Reduction in desertification
This is hard country – prone to desertification – but the Chambers family saw that it could be profitable with some major changes, including the introduction of Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), an exclusion fence and a commitment to permanent pasture cover.
Glenelg is near Mungallala, in a semi-arid part of Australia with pastoral activities being the dominant land use. Most rain falls in the summer months. The main pre-1750 (pre-European) vegetation types were Poplar Box, False Sandalwood, Wilga and various acacias, notably Mulga, Bendee and Bowyakka. The property carries sheep and cattle, with kangaroos contributing to total grazing pressure.
In line with State Government extension advice at the time, large areas of Glenelg were cleared by pulling a chain between two bulldozers from 1978 to 1981, and again in 1989, to control regrowth and promote pasture growth. These practices helped make the property a viable grazing operation and can be compared with many other properties in similar landscapes in Queensland and New South Wales where “woody weeds” rendered much of the landscape only suitable for goats.
During the 1980s, poisoning by Pimelea (probably P. trichostachya – Flaxweed, Spiked Riceflower) led to the loss of cattle. The maintenance of good ground cover was found to control the problem. In the late 1980s, Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) became well established over much of the property. This is in line with existing pastoral practice across large areas of northern and arid Australia.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Chambers constructed an exclusion/predator proof fence around the property. Kangaroos were herded off the property before sealing the fence and the remaining population was controlled and maintained at a sustainable level. This has resulted in a dramatic reduction in total grazing pressure and improved maintenance of pasture cover. The parts of the fence across Mungallala Creek are hinged, such that the fence lies flat in floods and can be easily restored to vertical afterwards.
This is a story of persistence and resourcefulness of the Chambers family (Harry and later Graham and Jan) over five decades on Glenelg station, Mungallala. The property exhibits remarkable resilience to the current drought – even posting a profit in adverse circumstances.
THE GLENELG STORY
In line with State Government extension advice at the time, large areas of Glenelg were cleared by pulling a chain between two bulldozers from 1978 to 1981, and again in 1989, to control regrowth and promote pasture growth.
This ecological assessment commences in 1970, when Harry Chambers purchased the first parcel of Glenelg.
The Chambers’ deliberate decision to maintain a consistent level of productivity through conservative stocking rates has translated into improved profitability despite poor seasonal conditions.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
For Jan and Graham Chambers, 2019 is looking good, with the expectation of a bumper profit in this tax year.
Bryan Ward’s property, Illawong, comprises 160 hectares and carries up to 140 beef cattle at any one time. While this is a relatively small property, it is perhaps typical of thousands of farms producing beef in Australia. There’s a trend to smaller holdings, many operated by people with little farming background.
But Bryan’s achievements over 24 years of managing Illawong provide valuable lessons for producers seeking to maintain production while also regenerating and improving the condition of the land. Watch a 1-minute summary of Bryan’s key practices and achievements here.
ENTERPRISE: Grass-fed cattle finishing
PROPERTY SIZE: 160 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm
ELEVATION: 205 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Turning two paddocks of neglected hill country into a profitable, pasture rich operation
Contour ripping; direct drilling of eucalypts, acacias and understory species in fenced off remnant vegetation patches
Rehydrating the landscape
Removal of rabbits
Establishment of perennial pasture
Illawong cattle now consistently achieve amongst the highest level of compliance, earning Bryan an award from Meat and Livestock Australia for being one of the Top 100 producers in New South Wales.
Bryan found two paddocks of neglected hill country, a small part of a large sheep grazing property called Table Top Station located at Bowna, about 10 km north of Lake Hume and 20 km north-east of Albury. In late 1994, these run-down paddocks, comprising undulating slopes with clay loam soils rising to rocky granitic soils on steep slopes, became Illawong.
After decades of set stocking on annual pastures, Patterson’s curse, rabbits and gully erosion were prevalent on Illawong and the remaining woody vegetation comprised remnant red box, yellow box, red stringybark, Blakely’s red gum and long-leaf box trees. Average annual rainfall in the area is a respectable 650 mm, but that is little use if it falls on bare impenetrable soil and most of it rushes down the gullies, taking topsoil with it.
Carrying capacity was a low 1.5 DSE. This was the condition of the property when Bryan acquired it. 1996 was around the beginning of the ‘millennium drought’, which saw 10 years of severely below average rainfall across southern Australia.
When the drought set in, Bryan feared that massive soil erosion would ensue when the rain returned. He was keen to contour-rip so that when rain eventually came it would penetrate, rather than run off, be wasted and exacerbate the gully erosion. That work was assisted by a drought relief program subsidy available at the time from the Commonwealth Government through the Natural Heritage Trust. Today the contour ripping is indistinguishable, but the dams constantly have water because the rain that falls infiltrates and seeps in to the dams from the water table.
Over a ten-year period, the fencing was re-designed using electric fences so that rotational grazing could be introduced, rotating the stock around seven paddocks, leaving the pasture height at least 100 mm (1500 kg dry matter per hectare). Cattle spend 5 to 7 days in each paddock at a time, fewer in the unimproved pasture paddocks, at a stocking rate of 36 DSE/ha. This ensures that the cattle receive sufficient nutrition and provides time for pastures to recover.
Bryan buys Angus trade steers, selecting from producers whose stock he has found suitable for finishing on pasture. Three different genetic lines typically make up the annual herd. These arrive in spring at an average live weight of around 370 to 400 kg and leave by the following winter at around 630 kg live weight. The number of steers bought each year depends on seasonal conditions, ensuring that the pasture available at the time can sustain the grazing pressure.
Over 24 years of changing from sheep to cattle, introducing rotational grazing, establishing perennial pastures and improving stock shelter, productivity has increased from 1.5 DSE to 12–14 DSE. Cattle growth rates of over 2 kg live weight per day have been recorded in winter. Most importantly, the business can adjust to seasonal conditions so that pastures do not suffer from over-grazing in dry periods and there is no loss of soil capital.
THE ILLAWONG STORY
The practices adopted by Bryan at Illawong are not ground breaking or revolutionary. It is simply common sense land management based on self-evident principles.
In 1995, Bryan developed a farm plan for Illawong by matching the establishment and development of pasture types to land capability classes.
Bryan has achieved the same level of productivity and efficiency on Illawong as other farming enterprises, with significantly larger footprints.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Bryan has transformed Illawong with great satisfaction and, the result he says is, “the pinnacle of total improvement of landscape, and restoration to its original state”.
This is the story of an historic farm which almost failed. It’s a story which goes back 200 years, when the pasture at Brownlow Hill, just near Camden, supplied Sydney with milk.
A number of crises, including the deregulation of the dairy industry in the 1990’s and the threat of Coal Seam Gas exploration, forced Edgar and Lynne Downes to drastically review how they farmed.
This case study tracks the ecological, production and social changes on the property over the entire period.
ENTERPRISE: Dairying, beef cattle, lucerne cropping, Bio Banking
PROPERTY SIZE: 1,215 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 715 mm
ELEVATION: 87 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Deregulation of the dairy industry; possibility of Coal Seam Gas extraction; urban encroachment
Natural Sequence Farming; organic fertlisers for pastures including poultry manure, horse manure, sawdust, straw and urine on lucerne paddocks; pilot farm for Bio Banking; organic practices
Increased sustainable revenue from lucerne, beef, dairy, Bio Banking, and entertainment venue, and reduced costs due to cessation of all chemical use and regenerative practices
Brownlow Hill is one of Australia’s most significant early agricultural and settlement sites, providing opportunities for research into change and development over more than 200 years. It was the first dairy farm to serve the fledgling settlement of Sydney. Current ownership and occupation stems back almost 160 years. The whole property has been heritage listed and will never be developed for housing.
Soils For Life visited Brownlow Hill Estate several times during 2018, just as the widespread drought which affected New South Wales and Queensland tightened its grip. However, the river flats and alluvial woodland on the lower sections of the farm were proving resilient, as a result of the intensive integration of stable waste and organic fertlisers applied over 12 years.
From 1985 onwards, Edgar started to use poultry manure instead of synthetic fertilisers and also installed sub-surface drip irrigation. He reduced the cropping intensity and turned more land over to lucerne, both for the dairy herd and for sale as hay.
The deregulation of the milk market was a turning point. Edgar’s land also became subject to a Coal Seam Gas Exploration Licence, and the city of Sydney was encroaching.
Edgar adopted Natural Sequence Farming methods and started spreading a mixture of horse manure, sawdust, straw and urine on his paddocks. This was provided by a recycling business for free.
In a major development, the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage introduced BioBanking and Brownlow Hill became the pilot for this program. The rarity of remnant Cumberland Plain Woodland and the need for developers and the Government to offset destruction of this threatened ecological community has meant that Edgar’s least productive agricultural land has become his most valuable asset.
Edgar’s changed management practices have meant that he no longer uses chemicals. He rotates his crops and renovates his pastures as needed and his cattle don’t require drenching or inoculations. His heifers and cows are naturally mated and his crops are resistant to mites, aphids and other pests. There is no salinity evident in either the river water or the soil, and his cows don’t bloat, even when consuming wet lucerne, clover or summer forage. With these regenerative practices, Edgar is able to sustainably farm Brownlow Hill and continue his family tradition.
THE BROWNLOW HILL STORY
Brownlow Hill is one of Australia’s most significant early agricultural and settlement sites, providing opportunities for research into change and development over more than 200 years.
This ecological assessment commences in 1973 when Edgar Downes returned to Brownlow Hill to run the property. Two examples of regenerative landscape management are found, corresponding to two very different land types; river flats and shale hills.
Dairy has been the mainstay of Brownlow Hill for over 100 years. There have been five dairies on the farm, and three still operate today.
Brownlow Hill’s production systems are based on two main land types found on the property – river flats characterised by deep alluvial soils and shale hills on the upper and lower slopes.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
The current owners of Brownlow Hill, Edgar and Lynne Downes, are the fifth generation to call Brownlow Hill home. Their sense of responsibility and attachment to this property is strong.
This is the story of Jillamatong, a grazing property in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands with a history going back to 1951. In 1985, Martin Royds – the third-generation family member to manage Jillamatong – took over the running of the property. And he was forced to make big changes.
Southern Tablelands (near Braidwood NSW)
ENTERPRISE: Prime lamb, cattle, garlic, truffles, yabbies
PROPERTY SIZE: 457 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 655 mm
ELEVATION: 650-750 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Reducing input costs and increasing productivity (230% over 9 years)
Holistic management techniques
restored eroded areas
vastly improved water quality through development of chain of ponds
improved soil nutrients and soil carbon
sustained high levels of reproductive potential of pastures
the maintenance of consistently high levels of ground cover in summer and in winter.
significant reduction in costs
230% profit between 2005 and 2014
satisfaction across all levels
A snapshot of Jillamatong’s history is relevant to the condition in which Martin inherited his land. From 1951 until 1985, when Martin began to take a more active role in the management of the Royds holdings, the property was stocked and rather degraded.
His grandfather had subdivided it into 12 paddocks and arranged for some applications of superphosphate to encourage the growth of seeded rye grass. There was no cropping – Jillamatong was only running sheep and cattle.
Martin Royds has instituted whole of farm changes, and these reports detail the striking results.
They include minimising the effects of climate – not just climate change, but droughts and wildfire. Martin’s regenerative practices also prevent erosion; restored eroded areas; maintained ecological health; the productive capacity of the farm and vastly improved water quality.
Ecological changes also include: soil nutrients and soil carbon; sustained high levels of reproductive potential of pastures and the maintenance of consistently high levels of ground cover in summer and in winter.
This report presents the outputs of a 10-year financial analysis of Jillamatong. It contains selected financial indicators, which are compared to industry benchmarks incorporating 146 farms across South Eastern Australia. The benchmarking provides long term averages across a range of financial and production criteria.
Among other outstanding results, it shows a significant reduction in costs, including supplementary feed costs for cattle at less than 10% of the average, and over 26% less than the highest cost of supplementary feeding. Estimated costs and profit per DSE also show a remarkable 230% profit between 2005 and 2014.
This report examines the EBITs (Earnings before interest and Tax) of Jillamatong over the 10 years between 2005 and 2014, and shows consistent profits, from just under $300,000 to an average of just over $120,000.
This report uses a number of productivity indicators and reveals that Martin Royd’s regenerative agriculture processes have reduced his costs incrementally. From a high of $1.90 per DSE in 2004/05, the indicators show that animal health expenses and pasture costs have gradually reduced, with allowance for dry years. Supplementary feed costs across the whole 10-year period are zero per DSE.
The indicators graphically explain some of the lower cost structures in the business. The grazing approach taken by Jillamatong has led to low pasture costs and the capacity to budget feed ahead, and adjust animal numbers accordingly.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
There’s more to farming than profit and loss statements. This report presents the management team’s averaged response to questions completed on the social aspects of the business, using the On-Track Farm Family Business Indicators and questions from the Regional Wellbeing Survey.
In other words, it tells us how the people on the farm feel about their business, and how satisfied they are with the way they’re running their operations.
The results show satisfaction across all levels, with the highest scores related to the ability to try new things on the farm, the ability to be flexible, have clear expectations and social acceptance.
ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Brahman and Brahman-Senepol cross beef production
PROPERTY SIZE: 1,054,700 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 450-650 mm
ELEVATION: 220 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Previous experience that water supply is critical for productive grazing on vast properties
Delivering a reliable water supply to support grazing across vast areas of previously unused native rangelands
Establishing smaller paddocks on a very large scale to concentrate grazing animals to ensure managed use of pastures and continuing improvement of soils
Innovations commenced: 2002
Significant increase in carrying capacity – 100,000 head of cattle viewed as “conservative”
Development of an innovative vision for grazing in Northern Australia
Delivering time-controlled planned rotational grazing on a significant scale
When the Dunnicliff family acquired Beetaloo Station in 2002, it had been managed for the previous century in the traditional way. Much of the country was effectively virgin cattle country, having never really been grazed, while the areas near water had been seriously over-grazed and the pastures and soil were degraded. With experience running grazing properties in various regions of Australia, including the Kimberley region where water supply is an equally important issue, they could see the potential to significantly increase productivity while simultaneously rehabilitating the degraded landscape. The key was the provision of water.
Since taking over the properties, John Dunnicliff has embarked on a massive development program to provide stock water across vast areas of the properties. The scale is based on a model that cattle should not have to walk more than 2km for water. Full implementation of the plan could see production expand from the current carrying rate of 50,000 head of cattle to a potential target of 100,000, with an ultimate production cost of 32 cents per kilogram.
Advice was obtained along the way from tropical animal production expert Dr Steve Petty, who is based at Kununurra, and from holistic management experts, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory.
The Dunnicliff family has been farming in various parts of Australia, starting in northern New South Wales and including King Island and the Kimberley Region of far north-west Western Australia. In 2002, they acquired Beetaloo Station, which encompasses the perpetual pastoral leases of Beetaloo, OT Downs and Mungabroom.
Beetaloo Station is vast. The total area of Beetaloo and OT Downs is 707,800 hectares and the Mungabroom property is 346,900 hectares. Combined, the total area is 1,054,700 hectares or 10,547 square kilometres. The distance from west to east is approximately 130km and from north to south about 120km – as the brolga flies. Approximately 50,000 cattle are currently run on the properties.
The climate in this region is monsoonal. Average annual rainfall ranges from 450mm in the south-east of the properties to 650mm in the north. However, nearly all of this falls in the wet season from November to March. Due to the hot climate, annual potential evaporation is about 2700mm. This means that, while rainfall is not particularly low, there is a substantial water availability deficit in the dry season.
Newcastle Creek runs through the Beetaloo property, providing a series of wet season waterholes and three large wetlands that rarely dry completely. The OT Downs property, part of the northern watershed of Newcastle Creek, also has some wet season waterholes and semi-permanent wetlands. The Mungabroom property has no permanent water, only temporary waterholes along the creeks after the wet season. Large volumes of good quality water are available from shallow aquifers underlying the entire area.
The dominant soil types across the property are heavy, hard-setting alluvial clays that have formed on the flood plains. Lateritic sandy soils and red earths are derived from sedimentary rock, such as sandstone and limestone, which underlies and projects above the alluvial plains.
The natural vegetation includes open plains dominated by Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), which occur on the heavy clay soils. These plains are surrounded by and interspersed with woodlands and low open forests dominated by coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah or Eucalyptus microtheca) and bauhinia (Bauhinia cunninghamii). The sandy soils and red earths support dense low forest of lancewood (Acacia shirleyi) with scattered eucalypts.
Water birds, including pelicans, ducks and brolgas, are prolific on the wetlands, temporary waterholes and earth tanks. Wedge-tail eagles, kites and other raptors are a common sight.
John and Trish Dunnicliff manage Beetaloo Station with the assistance of their daughter, Jane, and her husband, Scott Armstrong. The Dunnicliff and Armstrong families participate in a program with the Barkly Landcare Conservation Association, which has a project to investigate production from differing grazing techniques, and will contrast rotational grazing on Beetaloo with a nearby ‘control’ of the status quo management style, set stocking and with a biodiversity monitoring program run by the Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment, Arts and Sport.
When John purchased Beetaloo there were 40 bores and associated ‘turkey nest’ earth tanks scattered over the properties. John considers that “Less than 10% of the land area was effectively watered. Most of the country was in a relatively natural state, apart from areas affected by heavy stocking, surrounding most of the watering points. Large areas had never been grazed, due to lack of water. As a consequence, fires were a constant problem before each wet season”.
John’s observations of the grazing effect at increasing distance from water points (see images below) suggested that the realistic maximum effective grazing distance from water is less than 2km. Cattle no doubt go further from water to graze when pastures near the bore are depleted – some people argue up to 10km – but John believes that the constant travel to and fro would eliminate any benefit and they will work off any weight gain on the way. This observation has been substantiated by work done by the CSIRO.
There are other management problems associated with using vast paddocks, such as the inability to control grazing intensity, inability to force cattle to graze less palatable areas and the high cost and inefficiency of mustering.
The cumulative effect of this form of grazing management is gradually declining grazing value, as the accessible pasture becomes degraded, increasing vegetation and soil degradation and loss of habitat for native species.
John could see the grazing potential in extensive areas of native pastures which were being very inefficiently used. Drawing strongly on his previous experience in the Kimberly, he saw the opportunity to develop, “A large scale, naturally sustainable cattle operation that is simple to operate, economically viable, environmentally sustainable, productively utilises all the available grazing area and aims at being an industry leader in low cost beef production”.
By developing a water supply and reducing paddock size to distribute grazing pressure across large areas previously inaccessible to cattle, John believed that he could relieve pressure from previously overgrazed areas and facilitate rotational grazing that would enhance soil fertility and pasture growth.
The solution was providing many additional water points to encourage the cattle to graze areas previously not accessed. Now about three quarters of the way through implementing this solution across the million hectare property, the evidence is becoming clear, and John says, “We are looking for an increase in perennial pastures, and opening up of previously unwatered, unutilised country is increasing carrying capacity dramatically. As a consequence stocking rates are being increased to utilise this capacity”.
Undoubtedly, the expense of developing the necessary water supply infrastructure was a major impediment. However, arguably the more problematic impediment was overcoming the traditional paradigm, that cattle production in the open rangelands of northern Australia is effectively based on practically uncontrolled grazing across vast areas. John notes that uncertainty and self doubt were a challenge to overcome in implementing innovative methods in the region. Advice received from Dr Steve Petty, Terry McCosker and Allan Savory assisted in reinforcing his plans and concepts.
Possibly the first mention of the Barkly Tablelands region by a European is by William Landsborough. Writing in 1860 while searching for the Burke and Wills expedition group, Landsborough, leader of the “Queensland Relief Expedition” described “… a plain with the richest soil, and with grasses of the most fattening nature, but which at this time are old and dry. This tableland I have named Barkly Plains, after His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly. ” 1Reference: Purdie, J., Materne, C., and Bubb, A. (2008) A field guide to the plants of the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory, Barkly Landcare and Conservation Association, Katherine, Northern Territory. *Sir Henry Barkly was the then Governor of the colony of Victoria and president of the Royal Socieity of Victoria.
The lease was first settled by Harry Bathern (also known as Bullwaddy) at the turn of the 20th Century. When the Dunnicliff family took over the lease in 2002, the land had been managed for a century in the traditional ‘Top End’ manner with few infrastructure improvements and a reliance on seasonal watering points, a few bores and dams and whatever grassland was available within cattle walking distance to water. Landsborough’s comment that the grasses were “old and dry” has proved remarkably perceptive. It reveals a fundamental reality that is still relevant today: while the region has considerable potential for grazing, much of it is not being used. Pasture growth is prolific when there is ample rainfall. But nearly all of the rain falls in the few months of the wet season. This rapidly dissipates in the hot climate of the dry season. The pastures then go to seed and senesce, by which time they are of little use for fattening cattle.
There are only two ways to ensure that the grasses remain useful for grazing: animal impact or burning. The grasses regenerate readily after burning, but at the cost of loss of organic matter, soil biota and volatile nutrients. Frequent burning degrades the soil. Conversely, brief periods of high pressure grazing consumes or knocks down the pasture before it goes to seed and senesces. This maintains pasture in a vigorous growing condition.
Grazing in the vast expanses of northern Australia depends entirely on access to water. Cattle can travel only limited distances each day to reach water without loss of condition. While the landscape is extensive, very little of it is sufficiently close to water to be effectively used for stock grazing. The small number of (relatively) permanent water sources has been increased significantly since the realisation that there was a significant underground source of artesian water. While bores had been sunk by previous owners to access this water, by 2002 the distribution of bores was grossly insufficient to provide water to much of Beetaloo.
Traditional grazing management on the Barkly Tablelands was to drill a bore, from which water was pumped by windmill to an open earth tank and then to a trough. A large percentage of the water pumped evaporated, which meant that, where used, a large amount of the diesel fuel used was wasted.
Sparsely distributed bores typically led to serious over-grazing close to the bores and steadily decreasing grazing with increasing distance from the bores.
Over years of grazing, this leads to the elimination of the native perennial pasture species close to the bores and colonisation of annual species. The annual species have grazing value but do not persist for long through the growing period. This low-value ground cover steadily spreads out from the bores year after year. Immense areas too far from the bores are left unused – like the “old and dry” grasses noted by Landsborough in 1860. Perennial pasture species also die through stagnation.
Each bore supplies around nine tanks, and each tank supplies four paddocks.
To extend the use of land on Beetaloo Station, John’s basic strategy is to establish a network of bores to provide a reticulated water supply system. The previous paddocks that were scores of square kilometres can then be reduced in size. Building on his observation that the maximum effective distance that cattle can travel is less than 2km, the goal initially was to reduce paddock size to 4km by 4km (1600 hectares). Observing that it is still difficult to get grazing pressure high enough to use the pastures effectively at that paddock size, this is in the process of being reduced to 3.3km by 3.3km (1200 hectares). Consequently, as John points out, “This water development is being carried out in conjunction with an extensive fencing program”.
A network of bores is being installed and connected with 75mm diameter pipe installed at a depth of 800mm running along the fence lines. Burying the pipe 800mm deep ensures it does not expand and contract with temperature changes, which could cause leaks to develop. A steel tank of 170,000 litres useable capacity or a plastic tank of 20,000 litres capacity is installed at each fence intersection. The tanks are filled from the bores by diesel pump. Windmills could not generate the pressure required for this and solar-powered systems are far too costly. Despite the long distances to travel to them, the pumps are manually operated because remote electronic switching systems have been found to be unreliable.
Concrete or steel troughs installed in the corner of each of the four nearby paddocks are filled from the tanks by gravity. Each bore supplies around nine tanks and each tank supplies four paddocks. The pipelines being linked in a grid arrangement means there is multiple back-up in the event that a bore fails. Similarly, having four troughs in each paddock provides a backup in case a tank is unserviceable.
One person is employed full-time during the dry season to maintain the bores, tanks and trough system, including refuelling, servicing and repairs.
Work place safety is a major concern in this remote region. As well as ensuring all staff attend safety briefings, providing safety equipment and ensuring appropriate signs are in place around the sheds and homestead area, staff at Beetaloo Station are trained in first-aid. Using a helicopter for travel around the property has the dual benefits of enabling faster travel for work purposes and providing a means of rapid evacuation of an injured person.
Developing the water supply is a massive investment. Each kilometre of laid pipe costs around $3000. Even with the most cost-effective methods, the bores, tanks, fencing and other costs incurred to develop each water point come to around $60,000. This seems a lot until the capital cost is divided by the number of cattle each unit of the investment can support, making it much more achievable.
Besides financial obstacles in obtaining capital, John has encountered other challenge in implementing his watering program across Beetaloo Station. He has experienced “resistance and scepticism from some members of the grazing community and industry bodies in relation to the changes”, and regularly battles the restrictions on availability and supply of resources due to isolation. John states that trial and error and working closely with suppliers has been essential to resolve various technical issues, such as tanks failing.
Regardless, John continues to fund the development incrementally, investing all outputs from production increases back into the watering program.
Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity [of 100,000 head] is conservative.
John has sought to implement his changes using a holistic approach to livestock management with minimal chemical and artificial inputs. His fundamental focus is on soil, plant and animal health and animal welfare.
Providing many smaller paddocks with troughs in each corner has delivered many benefits. John notes, “By increasing the available watering points, and control of the cattle with associated fencing systems, pasture availability has increased dramatically. This has enabled the spelling of paddocks, to assist with the regeneration of plants, and in turn soil health”.
Stock density can be increased to force cattle to graze a much higher proportion of the pasture than they would if left to roam much larger areas. The perennial pasture species are high value for grazing provided they are grazed early in the growing season. If they are not grazed early in the season they go to seed and soon lose nutritional value. Grazing each area in turn with a high stock density for a brief period – three days grazing with a mob of 6000 cattle units is the current aim – prevents loss of pasture value.
At the same time, heavy grazing for a short period, together with the trough location that distributes cattle movement to four points within each paddock, prevents overgrazing, which discourages regeneration of annual species, and reduces soil degradation. Most importantly, short periods of intensive grazing build up soil condition and encourage pasture growth in the long term by breaking down senescent vegetation and litter and adding dung.
John believes that with full infrastructure implemented across the property that he will be able to achieve a target carrying capacity of 100,000 cattle, and says, “Experts indicate the targeted carrying capacity is conservative”.
The planned carrying capacity with the current water infrastructure implementation is 75,000 cattle units, based on a 400kg animal; a breeding cow is 1.5 units and a mature bull 2.0 units. Herd bulls run permanently with the herd.
At that carrying rate, annual production is expected to be 25,000 cattle units. These are young bulls (maximum weight 350kg) grown for the Indonesian market and larger animals grown for other export markets. Bulls produced other than for this prime export line provide herd bulls for the local and Indonesian markets and for meat markets in the Philippines and the Middle East. Most heifers are retained for herd growth and replacement. Heifers not in calf at 24 months age and culled cows are also sold to the overseas meat markets. John is active in building relationships with his markets, travelling overseas and also receiving visitors to Beetaloo. This has given him confidence in regards to his animals’ welfare after export. His clients are also satisfied that they are receiving quality, grass-fed stock, meeting their needs and expectations.
The Brahman cattle have advantages in the hot climate, being resistant to ticks and tolerant of the heat. However, fertility is generally lower than for other breeds. Crossing the Brahmans with Senepol, a short-haired breed originating in Senegal, West Africa, and developed on the Caribbean Island of St. Croix specifically also to cope with a tropical environment, has been found to provide some resolution to this issue. In addition, John’s practice of culling ‘empty’ 24 month old heifers ensures that the breeding herd is gradually being selected for fertility.
Ticks are a common problem with cattle in the tropics and sub-tropics. Selecting tick-resistant cattle breeds helps, but does not eliminate the problem. Resting each paddock from grazing for long spells breaks the life cycle of the tick and therefore saves on other control treatments. This provides a further key benefit of the change from uncontrolled set stocking across large areas.
The experience on Beetaloo Station has demonstrated that cattle production can be significantly increased in northern Australia by providing adequate water supply to areas with grazing potential. There is also scope for the increasing carbon build-up in the restored soils to be achieved across vast tracts of land.
John knows that he is developing “…a well organised, productive, sustainable business operation that will benefit the whole environment and landscape, without any unnatural side effects. The changes being implemented have already been attracting attention from other graziers, advisors, industry bodies and NT Government”.
However, he advises, “The cost of infrastructure on the scale required is enormous. The sheer size of the lease limits the pace of change that can be achieved. Make haste slowly, because the costs of getting it wrong are huge”.
But this innovative approach also brings other opportunities. Beetaloo is too big for one family. The family’s vision for the property is to enable it eventually to be divided into a number of units, each of which can support an efficient family run business. This could ultimately be a model for efficient and sustainable cattle production applicable to the vast areas of northern Australia, which, as John says, “Is essential for the long term survival of the industry and its participants”.
ENTERPRISE: Cattle, tourism. Beef cattle agistment and trading; accommodation and event venue
PROPERTY SIZE: 7200 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 380 mm
ELEVATION: 115 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Identifying the potential to improve the landscape and production
Using stock to break up claypan
Holistic Management techniques to regenerate the rangeland
Stock trading to balance stocking rate with pasture availability
Diversifying into tourism
Innovations commenced: 2001
Carrying capacity almost doubled to over 100 DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall
Revegetation of claypan landscape
Strong, positive community relationships
When Graham and Cathy acquired Bokhara Plains in 1999 they accepted that the property was run down. Ground tanks were bogging sheep every summer, they needed to cut scrub for fodder to keep sheep alive and large areas of the property were claypans. But they felt that things should be better than they were.
Graham and Cathy turned this belief into action after identifying potential in the claypans from observing new plant growth where the surface had been disturbed. Stock were eventually used to break up the claypans, allowing water to penetrate and seeds to germinate. Combined with Holistic Management techniques, the claypans are now being reverted to productive, pastured rangelands with an increasing carrying capacity. Further diversifying into cattle trading and tourism to ensure that they remain viable regardless of the rainfall, Graham and Cathy are well on the way to reaching the real potential of the NSW rangelands, and are providing a shining light for others to follow.
Bokhara Plains is located on the Goodooga road some 35km north of Brewarrina, NSW. The property has frontage on the Bokhara and Birrie Rivers, tributaries of the Barwon River and is part of the Murray Darling Basin and the Western Catchment Management Authority.
The property was traditionally farmed for wool production
based on the sparse seasonal pasture growing on the flood plains of the
When Cathy and Graham took over the property in 1999, about 50% of the area was claypan or otherwise bare ground. The claypans added nothing to the feed potential of the property. Even in good seasons, the land had struggled to maintain one of the lowest stocking rates in the district.
Graham realised that merinos were not profitable in this environment, and set stocking without matching numbers to carrying capacity was exacerbating ecological problems in the landscape. He explains, “We were almost totally reliant on my wife and I both working off farm to make ends meet. Continually running into dry periods and wishing / praying for rain was having a terrible emotional effect on my mental attitude, and a feeling of helplessness seemed to prevail”.
“I had read Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and realised that we could change the way we did things. One of two things drives fundamental change – pleasure or pain – and for me it was pain!”
Potential in the landscape was identified after the former owners carried out work on some of the claypans. A 400mm high bund was graded to form large shallow ponds. The theory of this method was that the water would soften the clay seal and allow seed to germinate.
The impact of ponding on the claypans was minimal but Graham noticed that there was significant growth on the edges of the claypans where the surface had been disturbed.
Graham states, “In 2001 the place was pretty well degraded and the whole ecological system had broken down. I felt that if we could restore the health of the rangeland that it could withstand drought… low rain in a healthy system could still be productive. It seemed to me that rangeland science was about understanding how the rangeland currently works, not about trying to change or improve it”.
Graham chose to build on the former owner’s ponding operations, initially by using their small Ferguson tractor to mimic the use of a larger grader, and then later using a mouldboard plough to break up the hard capped surface. At this point, he did not have the numbers of cattle that he needed to create the disturbance necessary, and recognised that using a small tractor, although relatively economical, was not nearly as efficient or effective as using cattle. Particularly someone else’s cattle.
Graham eventually identified that regeneration of the claypans and planned rotational grazing could allow the property to develop into productive rangeland with prolific native grasses and herbage suitable for cattle grazing. Agisting cattle allowed Graham to increase his numbers, which he then used to break up the surface of the claypans.
The results were significant, with earlier colonisers like copper burr (Sclerolaena spp.) responding quickly to the changed conditions, followed in due course by a variety of native grasses spreading over the bare surface.
In achieving the potential they envisaged on Bokhara Plains Graham recognised that claypans were not a natural formation and could be restored to rangeland. Combined with Holistic Management principles, Graham determined that rangelands would respond positively to managed grazing practices, using livestock as partners.
After reading Allan Savory’s book, Graham undertook a RCS Grazing for Profit course followed by four years in the Executive Link program. “We also became inaugural participants in a program called Enterprise Based Conservation (EBC) through which we accessed some financial help to undertake a significant water and fencing project for much better control of grazing management.” This pilot program was run by WEST2000 Plus and included a five-year conservation agreement on land placed under voluntary conservation management.
Graham and Cathy also undertook major changes in their livestock enterprises, moving from sheep breeding to trading, then to agistment sheep to agistment cattle and now also cattle trading. They specialised in the larger herbivores from 2007 when they recognised that cattle were giving much better ecological and management benefits.
Graham follows three guiding principles for Bokhara Plains:
Match the stocking rate with the carrying capacity of the land.
Plants need adequate recovery.
Monitor what is going on across the property, make plans, then manage against these plans.
Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount…
Graham and Cathy planned their infrastructure around their grazing strategies. The fencing forms a number of ‘wagon wheels’ with a watering point at the hub, producing a number of ‘cells’. For additional fencing to match stocking rates to carrying capacity, they rely on electric fencing supplied from an inverter connected to mains supply at the house.
Fencing was initially based on the original infrastructure but Graham has modified the layout to reflect his requirement that stock should preferably not travel more than 1.5km to access water. On Bokhara Plains fencing cost about $400 a kilometre for material and labour. Graham points out that the cost can be recovered in a year with increased production from the planned rotational grazing and Holistic Management strategies. Much of the labour for fencing was on-farm, comprising Graham, Cathy and their daughter, Harriett.
Graham and Cathy plan their grazing on availability of pasture at any one time. Graham explains, “Agistment is the basis of our operations and we trade against the variation of available pasture. Pasture recovery before returning with livestock is paramount, along with creating the ‘beneficial impact’ described previously. We monitor pasture availability and plan and manage against that”.
The agistment runs at $/head/week basis for 6-12 months. Stock trading is used to balance the agistment with pasture availability. Stomach and skin parasites are not an issue in the region and stock are not drenched or treated for lice.
In their stock trading operations, Graham and Cathy use strategies developed by Bud Williams in the USA, and now taught by KLR Marketing in Australia. These are based on keeping the three inventories of price, available pasture and stock holding in balance. Using a ‘sell-buy’ process rather than a ‘buy-sell’ process, in the balanced inventory context, they can decide on selling and re-stocking options.
Graham and Cathy use a 12 month rolling rainfall figure to calculate the stocking rate per hectare by month and annually per 100mm of rain. Using this method, they can reduce stock accordingly when conditions deteriorate and do not have to purchase feed. While they have de-stocked in earlier times, they are confident that they will not have to do so again.
Using these methods, stocking rates have increased exponentially on Bokhara Plains. Graham and Cathy have been measuring their stocking rate or DSE* days per hectare per 100mm of rain since 2002, and have seen their benchmark capacity lift from 56 DSE days per hectare to over 100.
Standing at a watering point where six paddock fences join, Graham points to a 60 hectare paddock with 1100 cattle spread throughout the tall grass, “That paddock would typically only carry about four head year round in a set-stocked operation”.
Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!
Graham acknowledges, “Water supply is the limiting factor for our grazing enterprise”.
Previously, Bokhara Plains had a very poor water cycle, with substantial runoff from the bare eroding soils. Livestock water was all supplied through open ground tanks, and the two river systems that transect Bokhara Plains, had a long history of set stocking.
Graham’s current sources are the two rivers and access to a bore. The rivers do not always flow, but when it is at high flow he stores water from the Bokhara River in a dam. Both rivers have now been fenced off to allow for strategic grazing. The old ground tanks have been blocked off or fenced in, and 35km of poly pipe has been laid to nine poly tanks and troughs. Water from the dam is pumped to stock watering points. The header tanks at the water points gravity feed to the troughs.
Graham structures his grazing plan around water availability and understands how much water is required on a daily basis per 1000 head of cattle. He works on his principle of, “Plan as if there will be no rain, then adjust when it does arrive!”
The soils across Bokhara Plains, which have not yet been subject to soil testing, are varied. The country off the Bokhara and Birrie rivers comprises typical black soils, with lighter Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.), Neverfail (Eragrostis setifolia), Queensland bluegrass (Dichanthium sericium) and bladder saltbush (Atriplex vesicaria) country interspersed with scalded claypans in between the rivers.
Claypans are a dense, compact, slowly permeable layer in the subsoil with a much higher clay content than the overlying material. The subsoil claypan layer becomes exposed when original topsoil is lost or degraded, exhibiting very different physical properties and behaviour. Claypans are usually hard when dry, and plastic and sticky when wet. They limit or slow the downward movement of water through the soil.
The techniques applied by Graham however, have enabled the bare ground to be converted to productive rangeland. The vastly increased ground cover has demonstrably increased overall soil biological activity, particularly the visible beneficial decomposing fungal activity in the soil, which regenerates healthy topsoils. Reducing paddock size and the successful grazing strategies are pointing towards potentially even higher stocking rates and therefore towards greater soil fertility as animals spread more dung and seed.
At acquisition, the Bokhara Plains was a dustbowl. Approximately 50% of the total land area was bare ground, and aerial photographs showed huge areas of claypan. However, there were reasonable patches of Mitchell grass and bladder saltbush in places. Besides providing some basic stock feed, this existing vegetation provided a seed bank.
The WEST2000 Plus Project on EBC, that predated the intervention of the CMA, was aimed at increasing ground cover. The project paid on percentage of ground cover achieved. Graham and Cathy had a personal target of 70%, although the EBC target was 40% which is recognised as a critical threshold point to stop wind and water erosion, and was measured in the most likely month for being dry – October. Graham and Cathy noticed that the areas of high-impact grazing recovered better and they could see that, over time, stocking rates could be increased. They amended their own target to “100% ground cover 100% of the time”, and although difficult to achieve, Graham believes it should be every land managers goal whatever the environment. It had become obvious to Graham and Cathy that grazing strategies had to be part of their vegetation management and enterprise-based conservation.
The planned rotational grazing practices have given young trees and shrubs respite from literally being ‘nipped in the bud’. Independent monitoring from the beginning of the EBC Project has shown a steady increase in the number of native trees, increased ground cover and the presence of perennial grasses.
They also noticed that the best gains came from improving good land and not necessarily from regenerating claypan. They therefore concentrated their efforts on the good land first.
Weeds were not previously a significant concern on Bokhara Plains, and now, besides small and decreasing outbreaks of Bathurst Burr (Xanthium spinosum), which they deal with by hand, there are no appreciable weed and pest issues on the property
Graham and Cathy are admirers of the Joel Salatin approach of many synergistic enterprises stemming from the one farm. Aligned with this approach they have a willingness to diversify with complementary enterprises. One such enterprise has seen the development of a tourism venture ‘Bokhara Hutz’, which they have grown over the last ten years into a reliable source of income, particularly through the four separate occasions when they have totally de-stocked the property.
This successful 30 person capacity farm stay business also provides a venue for local events, such as weddings and parties. Plans for the future include generating more farm produce, to be less reliant on off farm purchases.
Cathy notes, “Our diversification into tourism has allowed us to reach toward our goal of drought proofing our business”.
The infrastructure design and layout, the ready availability of water to stock, the rested and fresh pastures and the careful management of all farm operations combine for exemplary Holistic Management practices. This is a far cry from when Graham and Cathy took over six dusty paddocks and a flock of struggling sheep in 1999.
Graham summarises, “This has so far been a ten year learning process, which we expect to continue for some time yet. Installing infrastructure, etc., was implemented with some financial help through the EBC project involvement, however much of our innovation has been off the back of work done by many friends, colleagues and other people I’ve met while learning and studying all over the world [Nuffield Scholarship 2008], due to their desire and preparedness to share their own experiences”.
Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas, is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts
Through intensive cattle grazing using agistment and trading to give flexibility in numbers, Graham and Cathy have revegetated and rejuvenated a much degraded landscape. “We have taken Bokhara Plains from a six paddock extensive layout with poor water security, to a 100 plus paddock planned cell system with fully reticulated and controlled water system. We have also diversified into tourism / accommodation, and have hosted many farming tour groups in our facility, Bokhara Hutz.”
Graham and Cathy’s original goal was to develop their property to be able to run around twice the original estimated 56 DSE days per hectares per 100mm of rainfall. They now see that the potential is much greater, perhaps up to three to four times that DSE rate, whilst continuing to build positive environmental outcomes. These increases are possible, due to the resilience in their pastures through increased diversity of their ground cover and improvements in soil health brought about by their grazing management. Their profitability is now based on a sell/buy approach, where the ups and downs of the markets are smoothed out. And to provide further surety, a careful balance between agistment operations and a trading herd is maintained.
Graham points out that the “economics stack up” – the
potential for increased production on the property is better than
investing in more property.
“Often people in the area believe that expanding their land holding is the only way to survive in the light country of the region”, states Graham. “A quick cost benefit analysis suggests that this is not the case at all. Enterprises of our size can prosper. At a rate of around $12 per acre to establish water points and fencing will allow intensive grazing approaches to be established, with immediate improvement in the quality of pastures, percentage of ground cover and health of the stock. These improvements come with no additional overheads, unlike purchasing additional land at upwards of $100 an acre and the associated taxes and other costs.”
He continues, “And, it’s all about flexibility. You can’t manage without people and animals. Smaller places are the answer, not more land. We should make the most of what rain we get and develop the land we have. We always plan for no rain. If there is a rain event, then we re-plan”.
However, Graham laments, “Our potential to improve our ecological resource, particularly in the semi-arid areas is far greater than conventional rangeland science understands or accepts”. Reliance on science leading the way, with a lack of supporting policies and unreasonable bias against livestock, provides some of the greatest impediments to wider adoption of the sort of practices that are employed at Bokhara Plains. Indeed, Bokhara Plains is a shining light, in stark contrast to others seen around the landscape when driving through the west of NSW. For the Brewarrina area, a stocking rate of 4 head of cattle (24 DSE) to 60 hectares is considered suitable. That Graham can have 1100 head in that same area for two days might be considered by some to be ridiculous and not sustainable.
Graham points out that it is important to manage equity and debt levels against cash flow to ensure potential to increase carrying capacity and the possibility of increasing the margins from stock trading. In addition, in the context of all the activities, it is necessary to watch for ‘staff burn out’ and to employ additional labour at the right time.
For Graham and Cathy, reduced overheads through increased productivity and the use of contractors for specialised operations has contributed to more satisfying outcomes and better use of family time.
Graham and Cathy note, “Since we first had a change in thinking back in 2001 we have endeavoured to be able to help others achieve the same. Our view is that we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours not less, and in a community that is not struggling or welfare reliant”.
Graham is an active mentor to others in developing their enterprises to more sustainable grazing and enjoys the opportunity to encourage others through both mentoring and education programs.
Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.
…we want to live in a more profitable farming environment, with more neighbours, not less, and in a community that is not struggling…
Many people who attend various training courses that educate people on the possibilities of changing what they do, still find it difficult to take the first step when they return to the farm. Support needs to be provided to people to help them on their way. This fact has been recognised by the Western CMA who has ‘hired’ successful grazing course graduates to mentor locals to assist them in their transition.
Graham is considered a role model for other farmers in the wider region wishing to consolidate their formal grazing management training, through his Western CMA sponsored mentoring of four farming business. This activity includes on-farm visits and teleconferencing to help his clients focus on outcomes, not issues.
Graham’s training was based on the RCS Grazing for Profit course and this program allows for expansion of this support through a well developed extension program.
Graham and Cathy now enjoy many social benefits from the enterprise. Bokhara Plains has hosted ‘Keep In Touch’ days for graduates of earlier grazing management courses, and field days (including hosting his mentors – Allan Savory and Terry McCosker at different times). On these days around 150 people, many of them young farmers, eager to learn and talk about a wide range of challenges both on farm and more strategically are able to share experiences.
Cathy remarks that one of the clear positive community aspects of their lives now is the opportunity to sit down at dinner most nights with a wonderful and varied group of people from all walks of life.
Graham was adjudged the NSW Young Farmer of the Year in 2005, relatively early in the transformation of Bokhara Plains, and has gone on to be recognised with Carbon Cocky and CMA awards.
Graham and Cathy have been involved in the P & F at a local school, the Rural Financial Council, and in the local Show and Rodeo committee. They also host an annual visit to Bokhara Plains by the Warringah school group as part of a sister city relationship with Brewarrina.
The Bokhara Hutz accommodation package has also delivered welcome benefits for the family. Cathy and Graham both enjoy the opportunity to interact with their visitors and interested farming groups coming to visit the property. “It provides another opportunity to show people what we have done over the years and to learn from those around the table.”