GILGUNNIA STATION – BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie were driven to seek new ideas on sustainable rangeland management after arriving on the run-down property that was Gilgunnia Station. By implementing a dual grazing system focused on managing total grazing pressure and forage rest and recovery time, they are now building a reliable and productive enterprise that is increasingly resilient to the effects of drought.

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

FARM FACTS

38 km north west of Cobar, Central West NSW

ENTERPRISE: Dorper Sheep and Boer Goats, opportunistic feral goat harvesting

PROPERTY SIZE: 10,00 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400 mm

ELEVATION: 260 m

PRACTICES COMMENCED: 2005

RESILIENCE BUILDING PRACTICES

  • Implementing total grazing pressure fencing to control the access of unmanaged goats and kangaroos to pastures.
  • Developing two grazing systems, one intensive, applying all available management techniques to improve landscape performance on developed areas of the property, and one extensive, using fewer resources and maintaining a degree of production on as yet undeveloped areas.
  • Using a planned (holistic) rotational grazing system on intensively managed paddocks providing periods of rest for pasture to fully before re-grazing.
  • Constructing water-spreading contour banks to slow and spread surface running water after rain.
  • Selected mechanical and chemical removal of invasive native scrub to reinstate a grassy open woodland mosaic.
  • Trapping feral goats and reinvesting income into further infrastructure developments to reduce goat impact on the landscape.

KEY RESULTS

  • Building a more resilient business and landscape by improving landscape ecological function.
  • Continually increasing groundcover and diverse palatable perennial species in intensively managed paddocks regardless of seasonal conditions, delivering greater consistency of production and growth response to rainfall.
  • Producing biomass of over 4000kg per hectare on initial intensively managed paddock in April 2014, up from 125kg per hectare in the same paddock in 2005.
  • Ability to run four-times the Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) assessed stocking capacity on 20% of the property.
  • Stopping erosion and improving rainfall infiltration, lifting previously bare paddocks to a new level of productivity within the intensive area.
  • Developing a management system that allows advanced planning and improved ability to take advantage of stock sales and changes in seasonal conditions.
  • Establishing a program of continual landscape and production improvement, reinvesting to expand high-performance managed areas of the property.
  • Building a stable and reliable business that has reduced personal and family stress and markedly improved family lifestyle.

BUILDING RESILIENCE TO THE IMPACTS OF DROUGHT

A landscape that is most resilient to the impacts of drought is one with high proportions of continual groundcover, supporting healthy soils and effective rainfall infiltration and retention. Such a landscape supports a biodiverse ecosystem with healthy nutrient cycles of growth, breakdown and decay.

Many years of over-utilisation of natural resources in the Western Division have resulted in significant degradation of landscape condition, leading to sparse groundcover, widespread incursions of invasive native shrubs and trees, exposed hard-capped soils and a cycle of continuing degradation. Combined with the extremes of climate this region is subject to, the landscape and pastoral production are particularly susceptible to the impacts of drought.

Innovative farmers in the region however, are illustrating that this vulnerability is not a result of any fragility in the landscape, but conversely, that active management can restore landscape health, build a regenerative cycle and deliver sustainable production regardless of seasonal conditions.

Ashely and Carolyn McMurtrie, of Gilgunnia Station north of Cobar, have, over the last 10 years, commenced a program to build a successful enterprise and regenerate their 10,000 hectare landscape. They now run a successful Dorper flock ram and commercial lamb breeding business, and, having significantly improved 20% of their property, are well on their way to building all of Gilgunnia into a resilient state.

The key factors influencing the resilient landscape and business being built on Gilgunnia are:

  • Implementing total grazing pressure fencing, enabling control of wild and domestic grazers and allowing pasture rest and recovery.
  • A focus on increasing and maintaining groundcover, particularly palatable perennial species, which also protect the soil and increase rainfall infiltration and retention.
  • Starting with development of one high-performing paddock to produce biomass that can be relied on when conditions require, then expanding across the property.
  • Running the greatest value stock on the feed available to maximise profits within the carrying capacity.
Ashley McMurtrie shows the Soils for Life team around Gilgunnia Station.

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AGRICULTURE ON THE COBAR PENEPLAIN

GILGUNNIA STATION

Gilgunnia Station is part of Australia’s extensive rangelands which cover 75% of the continent. Gilgunnia comprises 10,000 hectares on the Cobar Peneplain, on the eastern edge of the Western Division of NSW. The Cobar Peneplain is one of six bioregions that lie in Australia’s semi-arid climatic zone. Summers are characterised by hot, persistently dry weather interspersed with rare storms with often heavy rainfall. Since the current series of measurement began in 1962, Cobar has received an average annual rainfall of 398mm, ranging from 101mm in 1982 to 710mm in 2010.

There are no natural surface waters on Gilgunnia, and few elsewhere in the area. Stock and domestic water supplies are provided by ground tanks (dams) of up to 10m deep filled by surface run-off. Water supply from these tanks is generally reliable due to their depth and there is usually sufficient rainfall in summer to replenish them, despite high evaporation rates.

Gilgunnia consists mainly of rangeland in a natural state but of varying condition. Soils on the property are predominantly red earths, shallow on the gravelly rises but deeper on the drainage flats. Nutrient stores in soils, particularly in the rangelands, are generally held within the upper few centimetres of the soil, but on Gilgunnia, like many properties in the region, most of this material had been lost through sheet erosion. Soils become hard-capped through this declining surface structure which consequently reduces rainfall infiltration. Bare ground and a lack of perennial grass presence have contributed to hard-capping and low levels of soil carbon and subsequently the landscape is highly susceptible to the impacts of short term and multi-year droughts.

Typical landscapes in the region are degraded, comprising red gravelly earths and thickets of invasive native species.

The soil landscapes of Gilgunnia support typical plant communities found across the Western Division. The natural vegetation on the gravelly rises is mulga (Acacia aneura) woodland with a shrub layer of turpentine (Eremophila sturtii), budda (Eremophila duttonii), punty bush (Cassia eremophila) and emu bush (Eremophila longifolia). These also host sparse groundcover of copper burr (Sclerolaena parallelicuspis) and occasionally speargrass (Heteropogon contortus). The broad drainage flats support sparse poplar box (Eucalyptus populnea) with a dense shrub cover of mainly turpentine with sparse groundcover and isolated perennial grasses.

Over a century and a half of continuous grazing in the region, combined with periods of carrying large stock numbers into multi-year droughts caused considerable and widespread land degradation and obvious changes in the condition of the native vegetation. A particularly damaging period occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s which coincided with devastation caused by rabbit plagues. Likely as a result of these historical management practices, turpentine, budda, punty bush, emu bush and mulga now act as invasive native species (INS) in this landscape, forming dense thickets across broad areas.

Left unmanaged, this landscape is vulnerable to further degradation. Linear surface features such as tracks and grader windrows are a known cause of rill and gully erosion. Dispersed sheet runoff flows are concentrated by these features, causing extensive erosion systems that drain moisture from surrounding areas.

REGIONAL MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

Feral goats place significant unmanaged grazing pressure on forage in this part of the Western Division.

Conventional management in the district over many decades has typically consisted of continuous or set stocking of Merino, and more recently Dorper sheep and the opportunistic harvesting of feral goats (Capra hircus). An absence of predators and abundance of man-made water supplies has allowed populations of feral goats and kangaroos to proliferate. Many properties in the Western Division are not able to manage forage resources, particularly in times of drought due to the presence of these unmanaged grazers, which can comprise up to 50% of total grazing pressure on the landscape. 1C. Waters, G, Melville, A. McMurtrie, W. Smith, T. Atkinson, and Y. Alemseged (2012), The influence of grazing management and total grazing pressure fencing on groundcover and floristic diversity in the semi-arid rangelands

Goats are hardy under drought conditions due to their ability to browse trees and shrubs and utilise a wider range of forage than other stock. Moreover, these unmanaged grazers are not constrained by conventional pastoral fencing and actively migrate to where the feed is growing, regardless of paddock boundaries.

Both these nomadic grazing animals ensure that pastures in the region are constantly over-utilised and that groundcover is minimal. This leads to reduced infiltration of available runoff and the replacement of palatable and perennial pastures with unpalatable or annual species. Such high grazing pressure causes groundcover to be dominated by annuals, and pasture production occurs in short episodic growing seasons followed by induced ‘drought’ conditions. Under these conditions and with the onset of seasonal dry periods, animal production is dependent on the ability of stock to browse trees and shrubs.

Consequently, pastoralists are unable to conserve feed for drought and stock must continually compete with the unmanaged goats and kangaroos. The downward spiral of bare ground, degraded nutrient levels, poor infiltration of rainfall, limited recruitment and rehabilitation of adapted plant communities results in these landscapes being highly susceptible drought and to the impacts of post-drought heavy rains.

When Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie arrived at Gilgunnia in 2004, the landscape and soils had experienced many decades of traditional pastoral management and were depleted and degraded. The conventional business model previously used on the property did not demonstrate the ability to manage natural resources for either production or natural resource goals.

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CHANGING PRACTICES

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

The McMurtries arrived in the region from the east coast and settled on Gilgunnia. The property was run-down without a single paddock that effectively held stock and in the early stages of what was later to become known as the Millennium drought 2A.I.J.M Van Dijk, H. E. Beck, R. S. Crosbie, R. A. M. de Jeu, Y. Y. Liu, G. M. Podger, B. Timbal, and N. R. Viney (2013), The Millennium Drought in southeast Australia (2001–2009): Natural and human causes and implications for water resources, ecosystems, economy, and society, Water Resources Research, Vol 49, Issue 2. It was evident that previous management models were not working. Ashley and Carolyn were consequently driven to seek new ideas on rangeland management in order to make a viable living.

Their research suggested that when originally settled, the Cobar Peneplain comprised grassy open woodlands, a legacy of Aboriginal burning practices. In the mid to late 1800s of settlement and pastoral development the Western Division vegetated landscape carried a much higher number of sheep than it does today. The gravelly rises would have supported open shrubby vegetation with a groundcover of annual and low perennial grasses such as bandicoot (Monachather paradoxa) and mulga Mitchell grasses (Thyridolepis mitchelliana). The drainage flats would have supported an open woodland of poplar box with a dense cover of robust perennial grasses including kangaroo (Themeda triandra), Queensland blue (Dichanthium sericeum), red-leg (Bothriochloa macra) and curly windmill grasses (Enteropogon acicularis).

In the face of the reality of Gilgunnia, Ashley and Carolyn decided to investigate what management practices they could apply to restore a productive landscape with such vegetation.

EDUCATION & TRAINING

The McMurtries sought local advice and easily identified who to approach as these people were running viable businesses despite the drought conditions. This included those who used traditional business models but maintained an extraordinary work ethic, as well as those who were actively applying new ideas to work with nature and natural cycles.

Through these local relationships they were introduced to Holistic Management, which has since been consolidated with formal training with Holistic Management educator Brian Marshall. Holistic decision making provides a framework for considering all resources and management tools in working towards a specified goal.

Planned rotational grazing (also referred to as holistic planned grazing) is a key Holistic Management practice. This practice aims to replicate the natural behaviours of large grazing animals on the landscape – where large herds graze an area intensively for a short period and then move on, not returning until pastures have fully recovered. These grazing methods encourage more abundant and diverse pastures and the opportunity for pastures to rest.

Management of total grazing pressure combined with planned rotational grazing provide the tools to restore landscape health and maintain production.

The McMurtries participated in a Resource Consulting Services (RCS) Grazing for Profit course in 2006 and a follow-up Pasture to Pocket course in 2009. The Grazing for Profit course involves holistic integrated management training which focuses on the use of natural plant, animal and water cycles as an integral part of on-farm decision making 3RCS Core Courses, Grazing for Profit www.rcsaustralia.com.au/products/family-business/grazing-for-profit-2/. Whilst informative, Ashley found that some of the teachings from this course were less applicable to the drier conditions of the Western Division and his breeding enterprise, than to the eastern environment for which they were developed.

Ashley and Carolyn also established a relationship with the Western Catchment Management Authority (CMA), now Local Land Services (LLS) Western Region, for advice, funding opportunities, and participation in programs and research, a relationship which they have maintained ever since.

They participated in the Western CMA Western Innovators Program, a farmer to farmer mentoring program which aimed to increase the capacity of landholders to manage their properties for the protection of soil, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as both a participant in 2012 and later in 2013 as a mentor.

Ashley and Carolyn also developed skills in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping and completed a year of an Environmental Science degree. However, the latter was discontinued as much of the material presented was found to be dated and not helpful for practical property management.

Ultimately the McMurtries identified that management of total grazing pressure, the combined grazing pressure exerted by all stock – domestic and wild, native and feral – on the vegetation, soil and water resources of the property landscape, combined where possible with planned rotational grazing, would provide the tools by which they could restore landscape health and ecological function and maintain production – regardless of seasonal conditions. And so they conceived the dual system grazing model.

Their relationship with local innovators Andrew and Megan Mosely of Etiwanda has provided an ongoing mentorship and helped the McMurtries to develop a holistic framework for making decisions on their property. The Moselys have vast experience in implementing total grazing pressure management and holistic grazing systems in the Western Division, and they initially assisted Ashley and Carolyn in developing a property management plan for their dual system grazing model.

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

The dual system grazing model applied on Gilgunnia includes a combination of intensively managed grazing across 1,000 hectares and extensively managed opportunistic grazing over the rest of the property.

Gilgunnia Station property map, illustrating areas currently surrounded with TGP fencing.

The dual system was developed as a risk management approach. Implementing the intensive grazing system and with best practice techniques was capital intensive with – at the time – unknown outcomes, although others had used similar approaches with success. There were no case study examples of the range of best-practice approaches being used together. Risk was mitigated by developing the extensive system at the same time, as results were better understood with this model. The intensive system was also developed incrementally, trialling each new technique in a test paddock to see how the landscape responded, before application to other paddocks, as time and resources allowed.

The first stage of implementing the new grazing management system was the construction of goat trap facilities on all water sources to provide cash-flow to fund total grazing pressure (TGP) fencing and to begin reducing goat impact.

INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

Intensively managed grazing attempts to increase production or utilisation per unit area or production per animal through a relative increase in stocking rates, forage utilisation, labour, resources, or capital.

In some paddocks, invasive native species are mechanically removed to re-create an open woodland. This paddock was ploughed just weeks before this photo.

On Gilgunnia this has involved the construction of secure TGP fenced paddocks, with all wild grazers removed. There are currently seven paddocks of between around 48 and 156 hectares over a total of 1000 hectares in the intensive grazing system. The aim is for paddock sizes to eventually be between 120 and 160 hectares, which are considered small for the Cobar district. Smaller paddock sizes enable accurate pasture monitoring, are easier to keep free of unmanaged grazers and easier to maintain infrastructure.

The McMurtries have applied a range of best practice techniques in most of these paddocks, most trialled in one paddock first. As resources have allowed, in a number of paddocks Ashley has performed mechanical and chemical removal of INS to restore open woodland. Though acknowledged as not ideal due to risk of wind and water erosion of the exposed soil, Ashley has ploughed a number of paddocks to fully remove the pervasive turpentine bush. A side benefit of this practice however, is that it helps to break up the claypan and kick-start conditions for moisture infiltration and germination opportunities. Such a result is often achieved by large mobs of cattle in other holistically managed properties.

Water-spreading banks slow and distribute runoff, reducing erosion and improving infiltration. The banks were constructed 12 months prior to this photo and the paddock grazed 4 months prior.

Water-spreading banks (explained in more detail below) have also been constructed on a number of paddocks. Depending on rainfall, it does not take long for colonising pioneer species to appear in these areas of improved water retention. After a period of rest to let plants establish, planned rotational grazing is implemented and timed according to a desired level of pasture utilisation and the trigger points of specific species that are being encouraged.

The rest and recovery time provided by Holistic planned grazing and TGP fencing alone is sufficient to improve groundcover.

Other paddocks in the intensive grazing system have not been cleared, ploughed or had water-spreading banks constructed, but are still showing continuous improvements to ground cover and forage growth through the TGP control and recovery time allowed by planned rotational grazing alone.

The intensive grazing system requires more skill in management and attention to detail. For example, grazing strategies are based on regular monitoring of pasture species and the identification of trigger points. Close monitoring of unwanted grazing animals is also necessary to ensure that pasture objectives are met during the spelling phase.
 

EXTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

Extensively managed grazing areas are larger and still impacted by uncontrolled grazing pressure. Stock have access to graze only when conditions are good.

Extensively managed grazing uses relatively large land areas per animal and a relatively low level of labour, resources, or capital.

The McMurtries practice this over the 9,000 hectares of their property not yet developed for intensive management. This area is usedfor opportunistic grazing when there is adequate forage, while maintaining the capacity to destock when conditions deteriorate.

Two paddocks within this system of 690 and 741 hectares are also enclosed with TGP fencing and provide more reliable feed availability than remaining paddocks during poorer seasons. This system is evolving as funds become available to erect further perimeter TGP fencing. In the interim, unmanaged goats are strategically harvested to reduce their impact on groundcover and forage resources.

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INFRASTRUCTURE

Fencing using hingejoint and barbed or plain wire is essential to manage total grazing pressure and ensure pastures have the opportunity to recover.

Both grazing systems incorporate TGP management through the use of hingejoint fencing systems. This TGP fencing to control the goats and kangaroos generally consists of 7/90/30 hingejoint fencing supported by top, middle and bottom support wires, topped by plain or barbed wires.

The fencing is designed to provide a strong physical and psychological barrier to prevent unwanted grazers access to the paddock. Higher fencing that provides a complete physical barrier in all places at all times was assessed as too prohibitive a cost.

The hingejoint fencing used is seen as relatively easy to erect and maintain, and cost effective given the distances required and its long lifespan. Fencing designs on Gilgunnia have evolved with experience over time, with initial fences incorporating both hingejoint wire and electric offsets. However, based on personal choice, the typical fencing arrangement now comprises 7-line hingejoint with 9 metre post spacing.

Originally the ten ground tanks situated across the property and filled by surface water runoff and rainfall provided all stock water. These were open to stock and unmanaged grazing animals at all times, providing no checks on unwanted consumption or contamination. All ground tanks have now been fenced and stock water is supplied by a combination of concrete and plastic troughs and some direct access to the ground tanks, which is slowly being replaced by a trough system. Where possible water is supplied in corners of interfacing paddocks to lessen costs of infrastructure and to ease mustering.

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GILGUNNIA STOCK

The Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) provided an initial assessment, based on standard practice in the region, of a carrying capacity of 1400 DSE across the then entire property of 13,000 hectares. However, initially the property could only run goats due to the poor condition of pasture and the only forage available being by browsing trees and shrubs. Boer goats were introduced and used as a land management tool as they were able to browse certain shrubs aggressively and remove pasture weeds such as Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum) and Bathurst Burr (Xanthium spinosum). With improving landscape condition after TGP fence erection, pastures became better suited to running sheep.

Dorper sheep provide a greater value product than goats.

A Dorper flock ram and commercial lamb production enterprise was then developed, producing a much higher value animal than Boer or feral goats for similar grazing pressure. Dorpers are of robust build, provide good meat and are highly suitable for variable rangeland conditions. Their strong survival drive does mean they will push through less substantial fencing if feed is required. However, with TGP fencing and the regular quality feed provided by planned rotational grazing, they are a valuable product on Gilgunnia. Ashley currently runs a flock of 900 DSE over 2000 hectares – four times the LHPA assessed rate. These numbers are increasing as the intensively managed system expands and matures.

Cattle complement the animal impact of sheep, disturbing soil, crushing litter and spreading fertiliser.

In the last 12 months a few cattle have also been introduced on to the property. Run in a single mob with the sheep, the impact of the cattle complements the management of the other stock within the intensive system, delivering the benefits of multi-species grazing.

To most effectively respond to changing seasonal conditions and feed availability, Ashley still maintains a herd of Boer goats, which are run in the same mob as the sheep and cattle. These Boer goats are maintained as a self-replacing flock of lower dollar and emotional value, which can easily be sold to reduce stock numbers and grazing pressure if conditions require. This enables Ashley to maintain his Dorper production flock regardless of conditions and ensures that landscape condition is always improving, as matching the stocking rate with carrying capacity is fundamental to this grazing management system.

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FERAL GOAT MANAGEMENT

Specially constructed gates allow feral goats to pass through to the watering point until they are locked when trapping takes place.

Opportunistic harvesting of feral goats comprises a significant income stream for many properties in the region and on Gilgunnia has been the principal stream for financing property improvement and furthering development of both grazing systems. The opportunistic harvesting of feral goats is highly dependent on local populations, seasonal water supply – goats are hard to trap when surface water is abundant – and a fluctuating price from processors in response to demand, supply and international prices.

Feral goats in the trapyard enclosure.

Each of the ground tanks on Gilgunnia has now been fully enclosed by TGP fencing, with specific gates and pens constructed to form the trap yard. Access to the water is only possible through the specially designed trap gates. These gates work by allowing access through a set of spring-loaded spears, and exit through a second set. These are both left open so that the goats become accustomed to moving through the gates to access the water. The exit gates are then locked closed so that the goats cannot escape.

Ashley typically traps feral goats four to five times a year, mostly during the warmer seasons from October to April when there are no alternative sources of water. Trapping is generally performed across the whole property at the one time, which also enables Ashley to perform a form of census of the goat population. Trap yards are generally set across a three day period to trap not only the nannies and kids, but also the billy goats which can be more suspicious and hold out longer to access the water. The goats are then moved through a wing in the enclosure up to a set of yards where they are sorted and moved to a central set of yards to be transported for sale.

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WATER MANAGEMENT

In unmanaged landscapes in the region groundcover levels can be less than 20% for much of the time, so heavy rainfall rapidly runs off the gravelly rises and through the flats without infiltrating. Runoff typically forms as sheet flows into broad drainage flats that traverse the property, flowing on to neighbouring land. Ground tanks fill rapidly during storm rain, reflecting poor infiltration across the landscape.

In order to help address this issue, the McMurtries have invested in landscape engineering in the form of water-spreading banks in a number of paddocks in their intensive system. This technique includes the construction of a series of earth contour banks and channels that repeatedly reduce the velocity of runoff and spread flows across broad areas. It also provides the landscape with the maximum benefit from isolated or smaller rainfall events. This improves infiltration, reduces the concentration of flows and promotes the growth of perennial pastures towards the ridge lines. The then Western CMA provided the layout service to deliver the specific design required for the banks to be effective.

Water-spreading banks at work after a 25mm rainstorm.

Water-spreading is suited to broad flats between 100 metres and 1 kilometre wide. The system contains a series of banks on the contour, holding and spreading water through the system. The banks serve to stabilise erosion (gully or rill erosion) and increase water infiltration. Water-spreading systems increase soil nutrients and groundcover over time.

Seeds withinthe soil are quick to germinate with the increased water and rest from grazing. This image shows 12 months growth with one graze period.

In this region of the Western Division, the full benefits of water-spreading can only be realised if it is part of a TGP control system with managed planned rotational grazing, in order for the land to be rested for new pastures to establish.

The environmental benefit of these water-spreading banks on Gilgunnia is obvious to an on-site observer. The banks are slowing runoff and improving infiltration on otherwise degraded soils. For example, a paddock completely cleared of INS 12 months previously is now covered with a diverse range of plants and increasing numbers of desirable perennial species, all from existing seed bank reserves in the soil.

The initial ‘trial’ paddock now comprises thriving perennial pastures.

The initial trial paddock, already recovering prior to the construction of water-spreading banks in 2012, appears dramatically different to the surrounding landscape with a dense cover of red-leg grass and increasing numbers of other palatable perennial species.

Recently, landscape engineering changes have also been made to reduce runoff diversion and erosion resulting from roads, tracks and fencelines. Channels have been created to direct this runoff towards the paddocks with the waterspreading banks, further adding to the water being provided to these increasingly productive paddocks.

These improved areas across Gilgunnia are more reliable in pasture production in deteriorating conditions, and are more able to retain groundcover and protect soils against seasonal impacts.
 

IMPLEMENTING AN INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

  • After erection of the TGP fence, feral goats within the area are removed
  • INS removed and water spreading banks constructed (in selected paddocks and as resources allow)
  • Initial rest period of up to 12 months allows existing pasture to recover
  • First grazing is timed according to plant germination to ensure desirable species have the opportunity to seed
  • A longer rest period after first grazing allows all juvenile plants time to establish and also give mature plants extra resting time
  • Then grazed at different times of the year, always allowing for germination of preferred plant species
  • Paddocks are grazed two or three times per year to 40-60% pasture utilisation

4 A. McMurtrie, J. Sandow, and P. Theakston (2010), A comparative analysis of two feral goat management methods commonly used in the Cobar districts to restore native ground cover

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SUMMARY OF COSTS

The capital required came from the McMurtrie’s own savings, cash flow from the harvesting of feral goats together with cost-share incentive funding from the Western CMA.

The return on investment is easy to see on Gilgunnia. Good perennial groundcover provides substantial resilience to the impacts of drought, enabling production to continue for longer and recover more quickly after dry times.
  • TGP fencing: approximately $4000/km.
    The McMurtries have erected approximately 60 km of TGP fencing. Some of these costs have been partly subsidised by works undertaken in partnership with the Western CMA.
  • TGP trap yards: average $7000 each.
    These have been constructed at ten waterpoints, involving full TGP fencing around the ground tank, trap gates, yard and ramp.
  • Water-spreading banks: Total of $12,000, averaging around $950/km or $85/ha.
    The length of banks varies depending on the landscape. Construction across two paddocks of 140 hectare total was 12.6 km.
  • Troughing: $950 per pump, $300 per tank for fittings, $800 per trough, $1100/km for 50 mm polypipe.
  • Land clearing: Depends on INS density and property location. Up to $150/ha, if contracted.
    Ashley has cleared some land himself at a third of this cost.
  • Machinery: $60,000 for purchase and equipping of machinery to implement changes, including a front end loader and TGP fencing equipment.

The training the McMurtries have participated in has largely been undertaken with the financial assistance of various government entities. The major costs to Ashley and Carolyn have been in regards to time. Ashley has found that accessing expert advice along the way has helped to avoid costly mistakes.

If starting again, Ashley notes that they would spend finances differently, focusing firstly on those factors that produce better results. For example, this would have included more strategic fencing, constructing broader scale perimeters first to reduce the per-hectare cost. 

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OUTCOMES

BUILDING A RESILIENT LANDSCAPE

Active decision making and innovation in management can restore the landscape towards its previously productive and resilient state.

The management practices applied on Gilgunnia have transformed the property from a district average situation of declining natural resources, trading terms and infrastructure into an enterprise with increasing productivity and a focus on higher value products. This has been because the McMurtries understand the effects that land management practices have on ecological function of landscapes and the integrity and productivity of native vegetation. This has resulted in a dual outcome: increasing economic resilience and increasing the capacity of the property as a whole to handle seasonally dry times and multi-year droughts.

Ashley disagrees that the landscape is ‘fragile’ as is often claimed. Instead, being long subjected to overgrazing and over-utilisation has left the landscape vulnerable to seasonal changes and climatic conditions. Ashley has demonstrated that active decision making and innovation in management can restore the landscape towards its previously productive and resilient state.

Effective management of TGP maintains groundcover, minimises soil loss, maximises rainfall capture and infiltration, protects the potential to grow forage and enables the managed grazing of wildlife and livestock to produce quality products. It is the combination of intensive TGP control and planned rotational grazing – allowing pasture the time to rest and recover – that has delivered such dramatic results on Gilgunnia.

Active management shows that what is often considered a ‘fragile’ landscape can be regenerated to profitable and resilient pastures.

Ashley notes that the primary ‘resilience’ he has achieved has been the security obtained by having one paddock he can always rely on. Initially this was the first trial paddock, and now more of the intensively managed paddocks as they are developed. Pasture biomass can be banked for future use. Having a few smaller but more reliable areas of pasture provides the opportunity for weaning or fattening stock and offers some resilience to changing conditions. As these areas increase in size it should allow for a considerable increase in stocking rate and even greater flexibility in dealing with varying conditions.

Ashley believes that developing a proportion of any property as an intensive grazing area should provide positive economic and environmental outcomes from a small beginning, especially when developed in conjunction with larger TGP control paddocks.

PRODUCTION

Management practices on Gilgunnia have enabled the land’s carrying capacity to be increased significantly.

The property is no longer dependent on the vagaries of the feral goat meat market for survival. Today Gilgunnia is producing high quality Dorper ram replacements and fat lambs with a premium value. To the future, options exist for agistment-based enterprises in the extensively managed component of the property as well as the potential for ecotourism through birdwatchers seeking to spot uncommon species.

Gilgunnia now offers an alternative enterprise model to the district average that is less dependent on season-to-season variation and has inbuilt feed reserves as buffers for dry times. Ashley has observed that stock can be maintained in a healthier condition due to the higher abundance of palatable perennial grasses.

Planning and management is now much easier as feed usage can be budgeted, confident that spelled country will not be grazed out by feral goats and kangaroos in the absence of domestic stock.

The improved carrying capacity on Gilgunnia provides clear evidence of the production benefits of building a diverse and healthy landscape. Ashley and Carolyn have achieved a four-fold increase in productivity, running 900 DSE on 2000 hectares of their property, in comparison to the initial assessment by LHPA of a 1400 DSE carrying capacity on the then 13,000 hectares (ie, 2.2ha/DSE compared with 9.3DSE/ha).

Using the trap yards to capture the feral goats is very efficient. After the initial investment they only require a small amount of money and time to maintain. Depending on the market, goats can bring between $0.70 and $1.00 per kilogram. The density of rangeland goats varies quite widely throughout the Western Division. Local knowledge and a reasonably accurate estimate of the goat density should allow other farmers to discern whether or not this method is suitable for use as a funding source for property development.

Key to the value of the trapping performed on Gilgunnia is that it is used as an income stream to re-invest into the property to ultimately remove the goat population through TGP fencing and replace the grazing pressure with higher value Dorper stock. Commonly seen as a ‘free’ resource in the region, the challenge with feral goats is that the ongoing damage they cause to the natural resource base is rarely acknowledged or calculated.

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VEGETATION

A significant increase in biomass has been produced as a result of the management practices on Gilgunnia.

The change in pasture management is most evident in the intensively grazed system, through the capacity to spell areas for significant periods then stock intensively to a trigger point determined by the level of utilisation of key perennial species. Improved groundcover and perennial species resulting from control of TGP and planned rotational grazing have significantly improved landscape stability and capacity to generate pasture growth.

No vegetation has been sown or planted on the property, and all regrowth is a result of natural seed banks contained within the soil. Desirable species regenerating include red-leg grass, hairy panic (Panicum effusum), cane panic (Panicum subxerophilum), finger panic grass (Digitarias coenicola), curly umbrella grass (Digitaria hystichoides), wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp.) and Minnie Daisy (Minuria tridens).

DPI research validating the outcomes of the intensive system has now been presented to several natural resource management conferences and has been submitted to peer-reviewed journals 5Society for Ecological Restoration Rangeland Conference Kununurra WA 2012; 5th World Conference on Ecological Restoration, Wisconsin USA 2013. In comparison to average district management of areas with open continuous access by unmanaged grazers plus domestic stock, the study showed the intensively-managed system has:

Far more groundcover and less bare ground was evidenced on Gilgunnia in comparison to a nearby property using standard regional practice

The drainage flat areas that formerly supported less than 5% groundcover (including leaf litter) and 125 kg of biomass per hectare now support 70% groundcover and a yielded between four and five tonnes of biomass per hectare prior to grazing in April 2014.

These results have been achieved during a period when seasonal conditions have been adverse and stocking numbers have been increased.

The ability to manage access to water through the construction of trap yards has also contributed to improved vegetation condition in the extensive grazing system. However, improvements within the extensive system have been slower since the control of unmanaged grazers is less effective. Gradual development of TGP fencing will improve this control.

SOIL

Substantially more organic matter is visible in the soil of the intensively managed paddocks, improving rainfall infiltration and retention.

Maintaining high levels of groundcover has resulted in obvious improvements in soil characteristics especially on the broad drainage flats throughout the intensively managed system. This has been validated by DPI investigations. Core samples revealed perennial grass root systems penetrating to a depth of more than 1.2 metres.

Higher levels of groundcover and resultant organic matter in the soil brings a substantial improvement to rainfall infiltration and retention. Now light rainfalls, which previously would have evaporated or failed to penetrate the bare soil, are able to be captured where they land. Even during drought small, scattered showers are received, and the ability for plants to make use of this moisture greatly assists their resilience and capacity to survive in these times.

Improved infiltration across the property has now reduced runoff to the point that less water is being collected from surface flows into ground tanks. As the remaining 8000 hectares of Gilgunnia are regenerated, this will have to be monitored carefully to ensure that sufficient ongoing stock water supplies will be available.

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BIODIVERSITY

Land management innovations on Gilgunnia have resulted in a healthier landscape with more biodiversity – which delivers increased resilience. The grazing system has demonstrated a substantial shift in native pasture species composition and the re-establishment of grassland biota, especially in relation to birdlife. In areas where invasive native scrub management has resulted in more open landscapes and improved grassland habitat, the grasslands have attracted a range of seed-eating species such as quail. Concurrently there is a change in the balance of predatory species with a notable increase in the abundance of small raptors. The return of top level predators is seen as an indication of improving biodiversity. Thick shrubby landscapes appear to favour stealth based predators such as foxes, whereas the more open grassy areas are known to carry a much higher biomass providing habitat for small ground dwelling animals including insects, arthropods, reptiles and mammals and a hence increased diversity for foraging raptors.

A recent survey identified eight species of raptor within the intensively managed area, including sightings of the endangered grey falcon. There is evidence of two pairs of these rare falcons on the property. These raptors were absent prior to improved grazing management. DPI has contracted a formal biodiversity survey in late 2014 to examine these changes.

PERSONAL & SOCIAL OUTCOMES

Ashley McMurtrie is deservedly proud of the increasing plant diversity growing in his intensively managed paddocks.

On the personal front, the McMurtrie family has gained much through the learning and property development process they have undertaken over the last decade.

They now have a greater understanding of the ecological function of landscapes and how land management practices can be used to improve the integrity and productivity of the native vegetation. This understanding has given them greater confidence in decision making as outcomes are more predictable.

They have developed a solid network of innovative natural resource management professionals and are easily able to access knowledge, education and greater experience. These lasting friendships with like-minded people support free information sharing. Ashley and Carolyn have an open policy on information and access to their improvements in order to expand the community understanding of rangeland management systems and options.

Overall, Gilgunnia is now a more enduring and successful local business. The family experiences more stability and less stress as the business is more reliable – and there are only further improvements to come.

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

Ashley and Carolyn McMurtrie moved into the Western Division with no pre-conceived ideas on how their property should be managed. This perhaps, gave them the unfettered opportunity to investigate best-practice in landscape management.

What they learnt along the way was that what was best for production was also best for environmental regeneration – and building a landscape that is resilient in the face of seasonal and multi-year droughts and other climatic extremes.

Now the McMurtries provide a case study of what can be achieved in the highly variable environmental conditions of the Western Division, hopefully for others to now learn from and follow.

In Ashley’s words:

The process we have undertaken over the last nine years has taken our business from a struggling opportunistic feral goat harvesting business that was completely exposed to seasonal conditions to a business that is far more resilient.

We have now developed and continue to expand a dual system business with high value stock that is dynamic in seasonal conditions, and is continuing to develop under its own financial success, with documented increases in groundcover, biodiversity and biomass. This has occurred during a period in which we had only 2 years of average or above rainfall. The majority of profit each year is directly put back into expanding these systems and will be for the next 5-7 years in order to create TGP control over the entire property. Without the development and success of this model we would have remained in a financially static position, with no domestic stock and still completely exposed to seasonal rainfall variation.


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 2014 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE / ROTARY CLUB OF SYDNEY, WESTERN DIVISION RESILIENT LANDSCAPES PROJECT AIMED AT HELPING FARMERS TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE THEIR PROPERTIES TO MINIMISE THE IMPACT OF DROUGHT ON PRODUCTION AND LANDSCAPE HEALTH.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

‘GUNNINGRAH’ – SHIFTING MINDSET FROM ANIMALS TO THE LAND

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

SHIFTING MINDSET FROM THE ANIMALS TO THE LAND

Initially inspired to perform a trial of new management practices to better manage received rainfall, Charlie and Anne Maslin ended up following their instincts – fully changing focus from their animals to the land – and they have never looked back.

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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

20 km north-west of Bombala, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle, sheep, goats. Angus beef, sheep and goat meat production; medium wool Merinos

PROPERTY SIZE: 4200 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 550 mm

ELEVATION: 800-1000 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Ecological deterioration and dependence on rainfall for profit

INNOVATIONS

  • Constructing leaky weirs across creeks and gullies
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing matching stock numbers to land carrying capacity
  • Introducing goats for weed control
  • Innovations commenced: 1995

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased profit stability – even with decreased rainfall
  • Labour inputs reduced by 40%, providing increased time to pursue other activities
  • Healing erosion gullies
  • Greater water retention in pastures
  • Flexible stock management

INTRODUCTION

Upon assuming management of Gunningrah in 1987, Charlie Maslin observed significant annual variations in rainfall and profit. Examination later revealed the significant impact of rainfall on the cost of production. Additionally, a mid-1990s comparative pasture analysis undertaken by an external agency revealed alarming outcomes in terms of actual ground cover available for stock feed.

Charlie realised that while you cannot change how much rain falls, you can change how you manage the rain you are lucky enough to receive. By changing their mindset to focus on the health of the land, the Maslins found themselves managing poorer years more effectively and not over-using resources in abundant years. Maximising the retention of available rainfall and striving for much improved ground cover has in turn delivered more consistent profits on reduced inputs. In addition, erosion is being controlled, weed invasion has reduced, stock are healthier and management is more flexible.

Charlie sums up their new approach, “Rather than us dictating to the land what stock it has to carry, we try to evaluate what the land has to offer and then attempt to stock it accordingly – and hopefully learn as we go”.

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GUNNINGRAH

image of Gunningrah landscape
The Gunningrah landscape.

The Maslin family have managed Gunningrah for 100 years. A property of 4200 hectares, it is located at the southern end of the Monaro Tablelands of south-eastern New South Wales. Currently, 3700 hectares of the property is grazed with cattle, sheep and goats.

Native grasslands make up approximately 60% per cent of the farm area. In the other 40% per cent, which had been pasture improved, introduced species of grasses coexist with the native grasses, in some cases the introduced dominate, in others, the natives.

Approximately 20% of the property has scattered remnant to heavier tree cover, mostly on the sedimentary soils adjacent to the Meriangah Nature Reserve, located along the western boundary. Soils are approximately 75% derived from basalt, 20% sedimentary rock and 5% granite.

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EMBRACING CHANGE

Measuring and documenting the important variables was essential to our change process…

After managing the property for almost a decade, Charlie realised that Gunningrah was gradually facing ecological deterioration and profitability was becoming increasingly variable. Two main factors provided the initial impetus for change.

Firstly, a Meat and Livestock Australia trial conducted on the property in the mid 1990s revealed some alarming results. Whilst the property appeared to have sufficient pastures to support stock grazing, actual ground cover levels measured were substantially below perceived coverage. The agricultural assessment of ground cover showed approximately 30% bare ground. This was seen as unsatisfactory.

Secondly, the impact of the varying annual rainfall on the cost of production also presented a stark reality. Charlie reports, “Comparative analysis of inputs showed wool production costs could double, varying from $2.50 to $5.00 a kilogram, and beef more than triple, ranging from $0.40 to $1.40 a kilogram”. These variations were largely dependent on the rainfall received, accounting for supplementary feeding or agistment costs when existing pastures were insufficient.

A neighbouring property to Gunningrah holds continuous rainfall data from 1858 and Charlie accessed this to try to obtain a better understanding rainfall in the region. However, little evidence of rainfall patterns or consistency over months or years was found. Charlie notes, “The only recurring theme appeared to be that for every year of above-average rainfall, there were two years below average”.

This information made it clear to the Maslins that effective management of inconsistent rainfall was a key factor in maintaining profitability.

image of regenerating erosion gully
Capturing sediment through establishing weirs has helped to fill erosion gullies.

Learning about the principles of Natural Sequence Farming, the Maslins identified an opportunity to make the most of the rainfall they received. They found that through this technique the health of watercourses could be significantly restored by slowing the rate of water flow, especially after rain, by a series of physical interventions in the landscape. These would enable the capture of sediment to help repair eroded watercourses, also holding nutrients to improve soil health and feed plant roots. As a result, water would be captured in the soil for longer, better supporting vegetation regeneration and continued pasture growth. This process would also aid in reconnecting streams to natural floodplains and wetlands, reforming the chain of ponds that used to dominate the landscape.

The Maslins also learnt about stock rotation from others in the region and through attending grazing courses, such as Grazing for Profit. The cell grazing method they chose to adopt is based on the observations and trials of Allan Savory and Terry McCosker. This technique involves dividing the land in some cases into an increased number of smaller paddocks which then are intensively grazed for short periods followed by sufficient recovery periods to allow pasture to regenerate.

Applying the principles required a detailed understanding of pasture management, particularly the ability to accurately assess pasture growth, recovery rates and their differences site by site across the property.

After around six months of deliberation on changing their management methods, the Maslins initially decided to trial the new practices on 20% of their property. However, taking the opportunity to capitalise on an above average rainfall event, they ended up following their instincts that the technique would work, and instead committed to implement across 100% of the property.

Changes to infrastructure were made incrementally, to allow for the learning process. An extensive capital outlay was needed in water reticulation as the water cycle slowed down and dams could not be relied upon. Additional expenditure was required for fencing and other necessary structural changes. Whilst these new capital costs were significant, they did not restrict implementation of the new methods.

Overall, the new business plan for Gunningrah comprised specific aims for managing the land to support production outcomes, focusing on water management and cell grazing methods to improve stock and soil health, vegetation, pasture, and weed control. Indicators were developed to monitor progress in these areas. “Measuring and documenting the important variables was essential to our change process,” says Charlie, “we regularly took photos from strategic points so that changes could be monitored and evaluated”. Though substantial records were kept, Charlie indicates that he would capture even more data and keep better track of changes if he were to undertake the change process again.

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BETTER USE OF THE RAIN, WHERE IT FALLS

Annual rainfall on Gunningrah averages 550mm and has varied from 250mm to 1000mm over the past 100 years. The main source of water inflow to the property is the Cambalong Creek, which rises around 15km to the north. It flows though the property for 16km, and then 10km downstream flows into the Bombala, Delegate and Snowy Rivers. Three smaller streams also flow into the farm.

In the past, three of the four streams were permanent, however, over the last two decades all have been intermittent at various times.

Ninety per cent of runoff from Gunningrah land flows down the Cambalong Creek, the remaining 10% flows to the west to the Maclaughlin River.

image of pipe outlet of leaky weir
Leaky weirs slow the flow of water courses (note pipe).

Prior to the introduction of grazing to the region, the valley floors were resilient, with substantial wetlands along the main creeks and streams. Charlie indicates points across the landscape, “There is clear evidence of many earlier chains of ponds, on convex valley floors – the result of silt build up where water would slowly flow through the landscape. However, due to many years of traditional grazing methods and stock damage along water courses, the streams became incised and the surrounding land, which was once wet, became dry”. Dams and existing water courses were long relied on for watering stock, which had continual access.

To reduce dependency on rainfall for profit, the Maslins adopted three main approaches to more effectively use rainfall and manage water flowing through the landscape. These incorporated the construction of leaky weirs, changing from set stocking to cell grazing and fencing off the most degraded stream corridors.

Charlie explains, “Leaky weirs serve to slow down runoff through water courses, converting intermittent torrents into constant gently flowing streams. Trapped by the weirs, sediment is deposited, reducing erosion and consequently downstream water quality is improved”.

images of weir construction and regeneration
Weir construction (2006) and regeneration (2008) in erosion gully.

Since the mid 1990s, the Maslins have constructed over 30 weirs across Gunningrah streambeds and gullies. Charlie points out, “The weirs vary in size and have been constructed with excavators, tractors, and in some instances by hand with whatever resources were available, such as old fencing materials”. The construction of two major weirs in the late 1990s cost $2500, however, since that time only $200-$400 has been spent per weir on most of the remaining structures. The Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority (CMA) has viewed the water management practices applied.

With the introduction of rotational cell grazing and by fencing off selected riparian areas, water courses are now only exposed to animal activity for short periods of time, or not at all. This protects banks from damage and further allows sediment build up. Vegetation has been given time to rest and a chance to germinate in the riparian areas. As a result there have been vast changes to bank stability, also providing much greater ability to handle high flood flows.

Application of these approaches has had significant impacts on riparian areas. Whilst in some areas it has taken 10 to 15 years for water courses to heal, other areas showed dramatic improvement in just two years. Charlie notes, “There is abundant evidence of silt deposition in streams with weirs. An estimated 50 tonnes collected in one weir in the first three years after it was built, significantly filling eroded areas. Downstream, a neighbour was puzzled to see a ‘clear flood’ after rainfall, as opposed to the usual silty runoff”. This was a result of the sediment remaining trapped in the weirs, rather than flowing off the landscape.

image of sediment build up in gully
Evidence of silt build-up upstream of an established weir.

“In one small stream, a one-off flood filled weirs, and the usual one to two day flow lasted six weeks at 10,000 litres a day. Another larger stream flowed for 12 weeks. This slowing of the water is now a consistent feature on the property.” Charlie now has greater access to water for longer, retains more of his soil on his property and his neighbours enjoy the benefits of quality water runoff from Gunningrah.

Vegetation coverage has also improved as a result of the increased water in the landscape, as well as through the cell grazing methods. Growing periods have extended as the water is now held in the pasture for longer, rather than running off straight into the dams, which are no longer a reliable storage for rainfall capture.

Establishment of cell grazing and reduced dam water did also necessitate other changes to water management, with water provision one of the main logistical issues with having mobs of stock in multiple paddocks. The Maslins constructed additional water points in paddocks without other water courses. All troughs are gravity-fed, so no fuel is required for pumping. Charlie points out, “While costly, establishing the troughing system is ultimately much more water efficient than dams. There is now less evaporation, wastage, land damage, and the stock have access to cleaner water”.

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GRAZING ON GUNNINGRAH

Focusing on the land rather than animals does not reduce the importance of the stock on Gunningrah. Instead, the health of the land and the natural resource base is better understood as the source of profit rather than the animals. The animals still have a very important role to play in maintaining the health of the land.

“We believed that grazing could be profitable and sustainable by shifting the focus from maintaining a set level of stocking to varying the stocking level according to the productive potential of the pasture.”

Charlie recalls previous management methods, “Gunningrah was traditionally set stocked with around 75% sheep and 25% cattle. Creeks and dams provided watering points and feed was trucked in during lean years. Rainfall may have varied by 60%, yet stocking by only 30%”.

The rotational grazing program was identified as a tool to deliver a number of benefits to Gunningrah. Using this method would help to increase ground cover levels, from a then base of around 70%, ensuring a continual feed supply. This would also help to generate healthy soils by increasing the organic component of the soil and subsequently enhance rainfall infiltration to maintain water in the landscape.

image of cattle grazing
Stock is grazed at a high density for short periods of time as per the determined carrying capacity.

The program would also improve the composition of the pastures from a quite high annual species base, to a predominantly perennial base and reduce weeds. As a result, animal health would improve through more diverse species to graze and the pasture worm burden would be reduced through the spelling of pastures. Additionally, labour efficiencies would be gained through less manual inputs to production operations.

Charlie describes their method, “We chose to match our stock numbers with the carrying capacity of the land, using a formula to determine a stocking bandwidth within which we try to operate”.

The formula involves calibrating the relationship between available feed and stock numbers. Rainfall and stock numbers are measured monthly to evaluate stock pressure. Computer software is used to continually monitor the carrying capacity of the property and adjust stocking rates of a mix of sheep, cattle and goats to ensure profitability. The Maslins use a formula of DSE* days per hectare per 100mm of rain to determine the carry capacity of their land.

graph showing DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall

To implement the rotational grazing system, stock were combined into larger herds. This presented a logistical challenge and used all the available infrastructure at the time. Charlie notes, “Refinements were made to overcome problems as they arose, as we continue to do today”. Paddocks of approximately 100 hectares were established. Each paddock is intensively grazed for five to seven days, with approximately 10% of land stocked and 90% rested at any one time. In winter this is varied to accommodate requirements with available pasture, with approximately 40% of land stocked and 60% rested.

Charlie speaks positively of the greater flexibility they have experienced in terms of managing their land and animal requirements as a result of adopting rotational cell grazing. This includes the ability to:

  • ‘finish’ stock better, for example, by fattening lambs on best paddock prior to sale;
  • prioritise stock for best feed, such as for breeding ewes at joining or twin bearers at lambing;
  • adjust rotation times to account for season growth or animal requirements, such as lambing;
  • skip paddock rotation for recovery or if different terrain has inherently different recovery rates;
  • target certain paddocks to reduce risk of fire or provide greater recovery time; and
  • achieve early identification of when feed is getting low and allow selective reduction of stock numbers.
image of sheep
Stock health and ease of handling has improved on Gunningrah.

Stock management is much more informed when numbers are tied to carrying capacity. The Maslins are now better able to manage their stock rates according to the seasons and the resources available in poor or abundant years. Charlie points out, “Stock rotation provides an early warning system of land recovery. If the pasture in the first paddocks is not fully recovered after a rotation cycle has been completed, an informed decision can be made on stocking rates. With set stocking, it was only when stock condition started to deteriorate that pasture problems were identified” .

Other benefits the Maslins have experienced include improvements in stock health. “The worm burden has been substantially reduced by the continual stock movement. Animals are now only drenched once or twice annually, as opposed to four times a year previously. Twin lambing pregnancies are 20% higher than two decades ago and stock classing is more consistent.”

In terms of inputs, larger mobs enable more efficient management. Movement, drenching and stock checks now require less human input. Stock are becoming easier to handle with more even temperaments due to greater human exposure.

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IMPROVED NATURAL RESOURCE BASE

Grass diversity, particularly native species, increased quite quickly after establishment of cell grazing.

Vegetation improvement was an inherent outcome of the Maslin’s new water and stock management programs. This directly addressed Charlie’s initial concern at the results of the Meat and Livestock Australia assessment of ground cover.

Providing all plants with adequate rest to grow well, establish deep roots, to keep in a vegetative state, and to be able seed, is the essence of the stock rotation theory.

As a result of the new practices, the ground cover improved from 70% to around 85% in the first five years. In 2011 some areas had close to 100% ground cover. Native pastures have increased substantially.

Charlie says, “Our aim is to maintain 90% ground cover 90% of the time with as much plant diversity as possible. 100% would be the ideal but with the vagaries of climate this goal is unattainable for the long term, so we are content with the average 85-90% coverage that tends to be the plateau”.

image of young trees
The Maslins have undertaken broad planting of tree species found to thrive in the region.

The changes to grazing practices at Gunningrah have also benefited the soil in a number of ways. Most importantly, managing stocking to ensure close to complete vegetation cover at all times prevents or minimises erosion by wind and runoff. At the same time, vegetation cover ensures that rainfall infiltrates, and coupled with the leaky weirs, the water cycle has slowed, minimising runoff and reducing or halting sheet and gully erosion. The increased plant biomass also leads to increased soil organic content, which improves water holding ability and nutrient cycling. Reducing chemical use has also enhanced the soil health.

The grazing changes and increased ground cover have also assisted in reducing weed invasion.

Gunningrah previously suffered from a range of dominant invasive weeds, including serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma), scotch (Onopordum acanthium) and nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), Bathurst burr (Xanthium spinosum), sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa), and saffron (Carthamus lanatus), black (Cirsium vulgare) and variegated (Silybum marianum) thistles. Fireweed (Senecio madagascariensis), love grass (Eragrostis curvula) and Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana) were seen as having the potential to be problematic in the future.

image of goats
Goats provide weed control and complementary meat production.

However, with the increased ground cover and competition, weed problems have declined. This was especially observed with serrated tussock. Attending a field day to see the use of goats for weed control also provided insight to the Maslins, “We saw goats as an opportunity to reduce labour and the use of chemicals on the property.” Understanding the different grazing preference of goats for weeds such as briars and thistles rather than pasture highlighted the possibility of a complementary enterprise which now comprises approximately 10% of stock. The Maslins happily report, “Goats are strategically grazed to address specific weed problem areas and have now almost completely suppressed the briars and have had a strong impact on thistles, to the point that spraying is rarely required”. By selecting a mixed breed to maximise meat production as well as weed control, extra income has also been achieved through the sale of kids.

The Maslins have undertaken broad tree planting activities, supported by Landcare. Paddock trees have also been replaced and replanted in main watercourse area with fast-growing species found to thrive in the region as advised by a neighbouring tree nursery, not just with local species of eucalypt.

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INNOVATION SUCCESSES

Get together with like-minded people to discuss plans, problem solve and dream – broaden the range of achievable outcomes.

The Maslins have found that grazing can be profitable and sustainable if pastures are maintained by matching stocking rates to carrying capacity.

Charlie describes the success of their innovations, “Gunningrah is only a moderate/conservative producer, so not necessarily comparative to high performers, however there is strong evidence of consistent profit increase with stock rotation methods despite lower rainfall”.

“Net farm income has been graphed against rainfall received for the period four years before we changed the grazing and then for 14 years since. While it is a crude measure, and there are a multitude of variables which affect the result, there appears to be an upward trend in profit, and a reduction in variability. There is one year which goes badly against this trend, when we kept cattle away on agistment for too long, but hopefully we learnt something.”

graph showing net farm income over time

“Human inputs have been greatly reduced, and labour efficiency has improved around 40 per cent since mobs have been put together. Larger mobs are easier to move, muster in and assess for fly strike or other activities. As labour comprises approximately 50 per cent of operating costs, these efficiencies are delivering substantial financial results.”

graph showing reduction in labour requirements

The land has been the ultimate winner with the changed methods on Gunningrah. Changes to water management and grazing practices made by the Maslins ultimately complemented the other, further enhancing outcomes in relation to water use efficiency, soil health and vegetation cover. Improvements to soil and water quality strongly support increased biodiversity. In addition to increases in pasture and birdlife diversity, platypus are regularly observed in the Cambalong Creek running through Gunningrah.

As an added bonus resulting from the changes they have adopted, the Maslins have also found that more time has now been freed to do other activities they enjoy; the extra family time in particular has been greatly appreciated.

Furthering their focus on the land they continue to seek learning opportunities to improve their production management. These have included Landcare group activities and projects on issues such as erosion control, shelter belts and connective corridors; holding and attending field days covering topics such as water and streams (run by Peter Andrews and the CMA) and grazing techniques (run by the CMA and small groups of interested farmers).

Charlie and Anne also dedicate some of this spare time to acting as a change agent in the community to support better land management practices. Charlie notes, “Farmers using different management tools are generally keen to share their experiences. Don’t be afraid to ring up and ask. There are many simple ways to conduct a trial on how you would like to change things with grazing or with water, which don’t involve much risk or cost, to reassure your thought process.”

And overall, he advises, “Get together with like-minded people to discuss plans, problem solve and dream – broaden the range of achievable outcomes.”


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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‘JILLAMATONG’ – DON’T MEASURE SUCCESS BY THE SIZE OF YOUR HERD

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

DON’T MEASURE SUCCESS BY THE SIZE OF YOUR HERD

From struggling farmer to award winner, Martin Royds, along with his partner Trish Solomon, have re-defined their own meaning of success on the land.

GO TO:

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

FARM FACTS

5 km south-west of Braidwood, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Cottage Industries

PROPERTY SIZE: 453 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 719 mm

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Learning about Holistic Management

INNOVATIONS

  • A number of complementary approaches founded on Holistic Management thinking
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing within carrying capacity and designed to facilitate nutrient movement
  • Replacing ploughing with surface cultivation and direct sowing
  • Natural Sequence Farming approach to Watercourse management
  • Use of organic wastes as fertilisers
  • Innovations commenced: 1994

KEY RESULTS

  • Productivity increase from 1.73 to 1.13 hectares per cow
  • Total profit per hectare per 100mm of rain more than 10 times greater than local average
  • Cash flow stability
  • Permanently flowing waterways
  • Year-long green perennial pastures

INTRODUCTION

During the 1982 drought, Martin Royds watched in horror as tonnes of topsoil blew off hillsides and coated fences. Gully erosion was rampant, and when the rains eventually did come, any remaining topsoil and organic matter was stripped and washed away.

Over the years since, Martin Royds and Trish Solomon have turned their property around, battling advocates of traditional methods and regulatory constraints to create an agricultural enterprise example – and gaining well-earned recognition in the process.

Holistic management has helped deliver a property that is still able to fatten cattle during drought periods when neighbours are unable to run stock. Diversification has also enabled the maintenance of cash flow through other industries such as harvesting native grass seed, truffles, garlic and yabbies.

Martin has won or been nominated for a range of awards, including winning the award for ‘Carbon Cocky for East of the Divide’ in 2007. He is tireless in his thirst for gaining and sharing knowledge, attending or presenting at conferences and seminars across the country and maintaining membership with a number of organisations and committees.

Martin and Trish believe that there is a real divide between the farm and non-farm communities and a lack of understanding of the role of each in our present society. They want to set an example for those in towns and cities that farmers can produce nutrient rich food economically whilst also improving the environmental aspects of the landscape. Their story is one of success on many levels – social, financial and environmental.

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THE WAY IT WAS

The Royds family settled in the Braidwood area in the first half of the 19th century and Martin’s maternal grandparents acquired the Jillamatong property in 1952. Martin managed Jillamatong jointly with others in the family from 1985 and took over sole responsibility in 1996.

image of Jillamatong
Jillamatong vista 2012

Jillamatong is about five kilometres south-west of the town of Braidwood on the southern tablelands of New South Wales. It is within the Shoalhaven River catchment, which is part of Sydney’s water supply and managed by Sydney Water and the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority (CMA). Control is with the landholder, they manage water values.

The property comprises 453 hectares of moderate slopes and flats with an elevation ranging from 650 to 750 metres above sea level. Rainfall averages 719mm but has ranged from a low of 302mm in 1982 to 1250mm in 1959.

Soils are moderately to well-drained yellow podsols and are often acid leached and infertile on the slopes with poorly drained black earths around the drainage lines. Soil samples have been collected since 1959 and showed that available phosphorus levels were very low, ranging from nil to a maximum of less than five parts per million (ppm). Soils were moderately acidic with a pH ranging from 6.1 to 5.2. Superphosphate has been routinely applied to help establish introduced grasses and clovers. By 1991 the pH had declined to 4.4 but available phosphorus levels had risen to 13ppm.

Prior to cultivation, the landscape consisted of an open grassy woodland with a native pasture of weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides), kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), Danthonia species, and associated forbs and herbs. Manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) was scattered on the ridges while bogs and a chain of ponds with swamp gums (Eucalyptus ovata) and snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) were common in the lower areas.

Pastures lasted five to seven years, much less than the ten to twelve years needed to recoup their cost of establishment.

Previous management involved ploughing paddocks and sowing three introduced grasses and two clovers after first eliminating previous ground cover with herbicide. In 1991, spraying with various chemicals was intensified to try to establish five introduced grasses, three clovers and two forbs by direct sowing. Monocultures of wheat and oats were used mainly as a break crop to aid the re-sowing of pasture. The survival of rye grass and clovers was used as a bio-assay of when a paddock needed re-sowing.

These soil and management practices resulted in an abundance of weeds including three types of thistles, carrot weed (Cotula australis), sorrel (Acetosella vulgaris), rat’s tail fescue (Vulpia myuros), Paterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) and serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma).

Herbicides were used to try to control these. Martin recalls, “Flat weeds were sprayed with MCPA and 2-4D amine. Paddocks were poisoned at each re-sowing between 1990 and 1995 with Roundup. Most paddock timbers were pushed up and burnt to reduce rabbit middens and increase the area for pasture, while rabbits were poisoned and trapped.”

The paddocks were set stocked until the early 1990s. Sheep were drenched every six weeks with a constant watch for fly outbreaks and other problems. Cattle were also drenched regularly.

Stock water was from surface dams and free access to ponds in the erosion gully running through the property. There were no permanent waterways on Jillamatong.

Different water management strategies were applied in the past, with the NSW Soil Conservation Service involved in the 1960s in establishing a series of contour drains leading to dams the overflow from which was then piped to the bottom of the erosion gully. Water was seen as a problem to be drained away as quickly as possible.

Martin recalls, “There was extensive erosion with a series of headwall cuts working their way up the central erosion gully to a depth of over four metres”.

Financially, environmentally and socially this way of farming was failing.

Pastures lasted five to seven years, much less than the ten to twelve years needed to recoup their cost of establishment.

Sheet and gully erosion were rampant and salt scalds were appearing. The major erosion gully was incised a metre at each headwall cut.

There were few trees left for shade and shelter for stock or pasture and habitat for any other life. The surviving trees were dying. In cold windy weather stock suffered.

Due largely to set stocking and overgrazing 10 to 15 centimetres of topsoil blew off entire hillsides during the drought of 1982. The only pastures that survived and regrew were the native pastures.

As Martin describes, “Many of my farming colleagues felt their land was being taken from under their feet, their backs were to the wall and they were constantly fighting for a fair price for their produce or against environmental catastrophes and the constant onslaught of weeds and regulations.”

“The seemingly endless battle with weeds, serrated tussock in particular, was becoming a major problem. Many paddocks were so thick with thistle that we had to slash tracks to find and get stock out of paddocks. Wool quality was affected.” Farming was hard.

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MAKING CHANGES

I had to learn to laugh with critics and be humble and accept that I have made mistakes along the way.

Martin notes, “I had always set out with the goal to question the ways we farm and had been trialling different ideas from the early 1980s”. The major catalyst for change on Jillamatong however, was attending a Dr Stan Parsons and Terry McCosker talk on holistic management in 1994.

This reinforced the need to focus on building healthy soil, pasture and water cycles. In the past the focus had been on stock numbers and how to fight weeds and pests.

Implementation of some changes required a complete transformation in ways of thinking. Martin says, “We started setting goals that incorporated the triple bottom line. Whole farm management for us meant including the bank managers and other people involved in the business. This included consulting and engaging with Landcare, CMAs, government agencies, and political decision makers, together with innovative thinkers in the agricultural, environmental and educational fields”.

image of Jillamatong waterway
The Jillamatong floodplains have been restored

“We initially implemented tree plantings, changed fencing designs, off stream water points, soil biology enhancement and fertiliser techniques, assisted by grants from Landcare and the CMA.”

The first wagon-wheel fencing structure was built in 1994, providing smaller paddocks meeting at a central watering point. Sheep and cattle were grouped into one mob and rotated around the paddocks so that pastures could be rested.

Martin continued doing courses on soils, pasture identification and farm management systems and gradually changed practices. “Initially I stopped deep ploughing and developed a skimming and direct sowing pasture establishment technique.” Martin says, “In 1995 I realised I was poisoning myself and the landscape via my herbicide use and weed control and have changed to a chemical free property since”.

Martin constructively questioned every management decision involving the whole farm team.

However peer group pressure from the traditional views amongst farmers was strong, including that success is measured by the size of your herd. “Some farmers look for ways to increase their herd size irrespective of the long-term effects on pasture and soil quality. When the low rainfall periods come, pastures are over-grazed and hay bought or cattle agisted. This approach inevitably led to cycles of boom and bust, and consequent long-term land degradation.”

Of course with change come related challenges, and Martin and Trish had to deal with their fair share.

“There was peer pressure from a lot my farming colleagues that I was going against what our forefathers had done. My father felt that I was accusing him of doing the wrong thing.” At other times, “Neighbours have felt that we were ‘stealing their water’. How else could I have green grass when they didn’t?”

Authorities tried to impose different views. The NSW Office of Water questioned the water slowing and erosion control techniques within the gully and Council Weed Inspectors challenged some of the methods of weed control, trying to insist on chemical solutions. The CMA and Landcare wanted to see total stock exclusion from waterways.

The management of riparian areas are now subject to regulatory constraints applied by state government and CMAs. Martin notes, “These new constraints, aimed at water conservation and land protection at a catchment level, can restrict the ability of landowners to apply erosion control methods on third order drainage lines and below. The traditional approach to deal with gully erosion has been to build large concrete structures and to channel flows around problem areas. That approach accelerates water movement off the farm, rather than encouraging infiltration, water conservation and efficient water use.”

Challenges such as these were resolved through continued dialogue, inviting agencies and decision makers to field days and tours, detailed monitoring and providing evidence of the success of the programs. Education has played a significant part. Leading innovators in particular fields were often introduced to the relevant authorities to talk about contested issues such as the role of plant succession or better understanding local water cycles.

In dealing with the many challenges of implementing change, Martin says, “I had to learn to laugh with critics and be humble and accept that I have made mistakes along the way.”

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THE WAY IT IS NOW

The holistic approach adopted by Martin and Trish was founded on the goal of developing a farming system that is economically, environmentally and socially regenerative. It was important for Martin to acknowledge that management decisions caused the erosion, weeds, and economic problems and that only by changing these management decisions could regenerative processes be aided to achieve the desired positive outcomes.

STOCK MANAGEMENT

If pastures are not allowing stock to improve then stock numbers are reduced, if necessary to nil.

Consistent with holistic management principles, planned rotational grazing was introduced across the entire property, requiring fencing into some 50 paddocks. All sheep and cattle were combined into one mob. Initially, a ‘wagon wheel’ paddock configuration that separated valley floors from slopes and ridges was implemented. The preferred layout has since changed to allow cattle to graze from valley floors to ridges at all times.

image of a wet, low-lying area of Jillamatong
The fencing layout allows stock to transfer nutrients from boggy floodplains to timbered hilltops.

Martin describes why changes were made, “Initially stock were managed in a rotational grazing system with wagon wheels and paddocks fenced to landscape categories, i.e. hilltops, slope and floodplain. We have now changed this so that stock can take fertility up the slope. We need to realise that the stock are more in tune with knowing what different feeds they might need on a daily basis.”

“Hence the new fencing layout allows stock to have access to the chain of ponds and then run up the slope to timbered hilltops. This is better for the stock, they can mix their feed during the day from green to different forbs and drier grasses and then sit in the shade at the top of the hill to ruminate, manuring the whole slope to increase its soil fertility.”

The cattle are moved approximately every three days so that one-third of the pasture is grazed, one-third trampled and one-third left to regrow. “The more palatable, more nutritious, grasses will therefore be only partially grazed to let them regenerate quickly, while the less palatable grasses will be trampled or left. The aim is for the pasture composition to evolve towards a predominance of more palatable species.”

Cattle are given free access to mineral supplements and are much healthier than previously as a result.

Animal management is now focussed on weight gain at all times. “If pastures are not allowing stock to improve then stock numbers are reduced, if necessary to nil. We have had to change to a flexible cattle trading/breeding/agistment management. Rather than focusing on stock numbers, we focus on having 100 per cent ground cover 100 per cent of the time so that soil is always protected. We no longer run sheep.”

Because of this cattle trading operation stock occasionally have to be drenched on arrival.

Workloads have changed, and Martin notes, “Cattle soon become accustomed to frequent movement between paddocks, so that they congregate around the gate; moving them only requires opening the gate and closing it behind them. Labour requirements are therefore minimal and Rosie, the old farm dog, gets lots of rest.”

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WATER MANAGEMENT

image of a pond
Erosion gullies have been naturally restored to chains of ponds.

Stock are watered via a trough system connected by 3.5km of 50mm pipe from one end of the property to the other, mainly gravity fed from dams high in the catchment.

Eroding head wall cuts were stabilised with natural weirs in line with Natural Sequence Farming techniques. These practices too have come with constant learning. Martin describes, “We commissioned Peter Andrews to advise us on how rehydrating the landscape could spread flood waters back naturally onto the flood plains. We have since built a number of contour channels to rehydrate large areas of the property. Yabbies and fish have been added to most of the weirs and dams to assist in recycling of nutrients and continue building the biodiversity.” Wetland plant species were established in all watercourses and weirs.

image of a contour channel
Contour channels spread water across the property.

Changes to the property are notable. Martin points out, “In 1986, there was an ephemeral erosion gully through the middle of most of the property; this stopped flowing most summers. With the re-introduction of natural riparian regeneration processes it has become a permanently flowing ‘chain of ponds’ waterway. Shallow drains radiating out from the former gully now divert water across the paddocks.”

As well as slowing and dispersing flood flows to prevent gully erosion, such natural flows replenish sub-surface soil water that sustains pasture growth. Steady sub-surface flows now recharge what has become a healthy semi-permanent stream. Martin recalled, “It was flowing constantly even when the nearby Shoalhaven River and all surrounding creeks had stopped flowing in December 2009.”

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

Pastures are now managed via rotational grazing and no chemicals are used. Ploughing was replaced with surface cultivation and direct sowing where pastures needed to be regenerated. Close monitoring of the species mix determines what and when and how to graze a paddock. “The aim is that there is always a green plant growing to feed the soil biology thus keeping a year round healthy and growing soil and pasture.” With rotational grazing, 95% of the property is in rest and recovery stage at any one time.

Black wattles and some eucalypts have regrown naturally as a result of changed grazing management. Extensive tree lane and clump plantings now connect neighbouring forested hills across the property and to provide cattle shelter. Trees are chosen to best suit the conditions. Martin notes, “Manna gum, the predominant original tree species, is attacked by Christmas beetles and struggles to survive in the changed landscape, and perhaps changed soil conditions. Therefore we plant many different tree and shrub species to help regenerate a flourishing landscape.”

Most paddocks now have trees with an understorey where possible. Tree plantings are now designed to encourage stock and birds to move to the top of the hills and to process and recycle nutrients that can then infiltrate the soil and build natural fertility across the property. If he could have his time again, Martin says he would have made tree lanes much wider and planted higher up on the contour to facilitate this.

With the introduction of rotational grazing and other innovations, major weed problem have disappeared on Jillamatong over the last 10 years. Weeds are now seen as part of the soil and landscape repair process where land has been overgrazed, poisoned or degraded. Stands of thistles are seen as indicators of previous management decisions and can be slashed to prevent seeding but the odd serrated tussock is still chipped out.

image of healthy pasture
Dense, healthy pastures of native grasses.

Martin notes, “Some of the ‘weeds’, i.e. thistles and carrot weed, were observed to have very deep tap roots which bring fertility from deeper down in the soil than the shallow rooted rye grasses and clovers. We have now encouraged similar plants like Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and Plantain (Plantago major) to establish in our pasture to help pump up and recycle nutrients from deeper soils”.

Grazing management, weed trampling, combined with pasture rest and high levels of ground cover are the main tools now used for suppressing and managing weeds. Instead of spraying weeds, the spraying of biological fertilisers and building of soil health is now seen as an essential management tool in promoting a healthy pasture. “We also no longer need to spray for red legged earth mite, scarabs, grasshoppers and fungal diseases”, Martin points out.

Martin sees biodiversity as the base indicator of the health of the system. Biodiversity assessments are taken along transects noting all the different grasses, forbs and weeds. Martin and Trish have a goal to exceed the present 80 species per transect and increase the proportion of perennial species. Litter levels, ground cover, growth/recovery of plants and insect activity are also monitored. Studies of birds and water quality and monitoring programs of riparian plant and invertebrates species are also underway.

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SOIL MANAGEMENT

If you look after the soil, the soil will look after you.

Trials are under way to see if soil organic matter content and fertility can be improved by placing organic matter in strategic heaps in the paddocks to aid their decay and for nutrients to leach across the paddocks. Liquid fertiliser, from worm casts produced on the property continues to be sprayed onto the pastures, with compost teas.

As a result of the holistic management techniques, soils have dramatically changed to be much more friable and porous with increased soil humus levels. Whereas penetrometers previously only penetrated soil a few millimetres at maximum pressures, they now penetrate the soil to a metre at less than 4,000 kPa (kilopascals) pressures. The in-paddock compost heaps and spraying of biological fertilisers appears to have improved the soil and pasture nutrient balances. Available phosphate levels have doubled without the addition of any superphosphate.

Martin confirms, “We have only applied biological stimulant sprays and changed grazing management focusing on building biodiversity and 100% groundcover 100% of the time”.

image of vegetation around a riparian area
Wetland plant species are helping to restore riparian areas.

Salt scalds that were appearing in the 1990s have disappeared due to the increased ground cover and cycling the water and the leaching of salt deeper into the ground.

Available carbon has increased from a range of 0.8% to 2.4% in various paddocks ten years ago, to a high of 2.9% five years ago. Now, best sites have measured close to 7.0% soil organic carbon.

As evidenced by the now semi-permanent streams, infiltration of water across the property has increased with enhanced soil structure, improving the water cycle and reducing flash floods. With greater water infiltration there is less surface runoff. With the soil health improvements grass is now able to grow twelve months of the year. Martin reinforces that, “Prior to change management the old saying was ‘you don’t have cattle feed till the second week of October’. We can now fatten cattle right through the winter”.

Improving the health of the soil has improved all areas of production. “If you look after the soil the soil will look after you.”

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LESSONS LEARNED

The successes to Martin and Trish on Jillamatong have not come easily. To them it is an integrated process that involves continual monitoring, reassessment and decision making. “As a society we have been trained that when there is a problem we can buy an instant solution in a bag or drum or from an engineer. As the degradation of our landscape testifies, just responding to symptoms via more costly inputs often does not work”, Martin states. “This is a lot more satisfying as it involves trying to understand the systems and treating the root cause of the issues rather than the symptoms.”

Lessons learned and important components of their success are noted by Martin to include:

  • Be prepared to change.
  • Seek out the best in their field to provide external advice that suits your goals. For Martin this included soil biology, water management, tree planting, stock management, biological fertiliser production, worm farming and leadership.
  • Continue to educate yourself through courses, seminars, conferences, workshops, field days. Martin notes, “In my case this was though conducting tours of the property, delivering talks at conferences, consulting and organising field days for other groups. This helps me learn and improve through the questions people ask and what they can add to my knowledge.”
  • Be involved with benchmarking groups.
  • Seek to tick all the boxes for the triple bottom line – work with nature rather than fight against it.
  • Remain focussed on passions and goals rather than getting sidetracked with other enterprises.
  • Understand that there will be resistance from the status quo, but also that it has value in you refining more effective solutions, the evidence to substantiate them and the inevitable changes and benefits that can only come from such local practical innovation.

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NO TURNING BACK – LOOKING AT THE BOTTOM LINES

image of grazing cattle
Cattle can be fattened all year round on Jillamatong.

These innovations on Jillamatong have been undertaken by Martin and Trish with the objective of returning profitability, increasing biodiversity and regenerating the health of their soils and landscapes for the long term. It was, and is, important to Martin and Trish to make a business that is environmentally, socially and economically enjoyable. “Our innovations are intended to put ourselves ‘out there’ as an example of good farming practice that can be taken to the wider community.”

The outcomes from such good farming practice are evident. Cattle can now be fattened all year.

During the drought in the past decade there were periods where neighbours were unable to run any stock for up to 11 months due to lack of feed and water and yet cattle on Jillamatong were still being fattened.

Productivity has increased from 1.73 hectares needed to support one cow in 1986 to 1.13 hectares in early 2012, when the environment is still recovering from ten years of low rainfall.

Independent benchmarking programs with farms in the district have shown that production on Jillamatong per 100mm of rain and per labour input was far higher than for any of the other farms studied.

Cost of production was lower than the average in the group and the weight produced per DSE (dry sheep equivalent) was nearly 50% above the average. This, combined with the below average labour input, resulted in a combined profit per hectare per 100mm of rain being 14 times the regional average.

Capital is now spent on improvements such as changed fencing, water and tree planting as opposed to annual spraying of weeds, artificial fertilisers and animal husbandry costs. This has enabled a marked reduction in capital invested on farm machinery.

Water has been slowed down and plant nutrients recycled into the landscape. There is less surface runoff and the pastures now provide year long green perennial grasses. Dew condensing on the tall perennial grasses each night now provides additional water that helps sustain soil moisture and healthy pasture growth.

Biodiversity in the soil, pasture, trees, insect and animal life has increased. Pastures have developed from five species and a few weeds to more than 80 species of useful plants. Soils have changed from compacted to friable and porous significantly enhancing their water infiltration, retention and root proliferation to depth significantly aiding the health, productivity but particularly resilience of these landscapes to climate stresses.

Soil organic matter levels are much higher than under previous management practices. While data is limited, the mass erosion of the top 10-15cm of topsoil from these podsols in the 1982 drought is likely to have removed most of that biosystem’s already degraded soil organic matter and with it its available plant nutrient stores and water holding capacity.

Despite its former degraded state this erosion event may have removed up to 90 tonnes of carbon per hectare leaving highly leached mineral subsoils with often less that 0.5% soil organic matter. The subsequent high additions of fertiliser and bio-cides would have enhanced the oxidation of any residual and new organic matter making these soils highly input dependent and vulnerable to stress. By restoring natural soil carbon bio-sequestration processes, initially via the pioneer ‘weed’ species and then the perennial pastures and rotational management, Martin and Trish have been able to significantly increase their soil carbon levels from the very low 1982 baseline to up to 7.0% soil organic carbon in their topsoil. In doing so, they have also rebuilt the structure, nutrition, hydrology, productivity and resilience of their key natural assets, the health of their soils.

image of native grass seed
Native Microlaena stipoides seeds are being harvested for sale.

In addition to their main cattle enterprise, Martin and Trish have explored other complementary industries to maintain cash flow, such as harvesting native grass seed, growing truffles and garlic and breeding yabbies in their many water courses. Significant economic benefits have also been secured via the changes to regenerative farming practices.

These include the reduced cost of weed, fertiliser, vet and machinery inputs and labour, and increased income from being able to sustain weight gain on healthier cattle for longer due to improved pasture growth.

Natural capital values have also increased significantly as a result of the improved soil carbon levels, soil structure and health and consequent increased rainfall retention, water harvesting, lower evaporation losses, desiccation stressors, capture of flood flows and prevention of soil and nutrient erosion. The benefits from such increased productive and resilient landscapes should become most marked as climate extremes intensify.

While health benefits to the soils, pastures, animals and the people that consume them have not been quantified, these too may be considerable as are the health benefits to the farm workers and families. These include health benefits from the significantly reduced debt and stress associate with such ecologically based farming systems when compared with the high input, high risk, high stress conventional alternatives.

Similarly, while biodiversity benefits are also difficult to quantify and extend well beyond the farm they too have been significant, and range from improved soil life and nutrient dynamics to more diverse species and cycles in healthier, restored habitats.

image of Martin on contour channel
Martin on one of the contour channels used to rehydrate the landscape.

Through this regeneration of his landscape, Martin and Trish have also significantly enhanced their social and personal development and wellbeing. Martin has obtained a Degree in Applied Science, participated in Holistic Management and Biodynamics Courses, Prograze, field days, seminars and conferences. He is a member of organisations such as Landcare, Grasslands Society, Soil Food Web, Carbon Coalition, and a holistic management group. Martin is also a Committee Member on various organisations such as NSW/ACT Serrated Tussock Task Force, Rural Lands Protection Board, Landcare (Treasurer), Upper Shoalhaven Landcare Council, Braidwood Catchment Action Group, and the Natural Sequence Farming Association as the past acting Chair.

Martin has been duly recognised through national media coverage and numerous awards such as Diversification Farmer of the Year finalist, Environmental Landcare award, Carbon Cocky of the Year, Ideas and Innovation Landcare award. He has also been asked to present papers at the National Landcare Conference, Landcare Conference Yass, in Adelaide, and various Braidwood presentations.

“This has given me a positive outlook on farming during a period when a lot of my peers were feeling negative and despondent with the ongoing drought and terms of trade”, Martin says. “It is satisfying to be able to encourage and assist other farmers to change their way of thinking through field days, groups and associations I have chaired or been involved in.”

Martin expresses sincere gratitude to all those who have assisted him in his learning and making paradigm shifts in his thinking as well as those organisations that provided continued support, encouragement, and willingness to lead and embrace new ideas.

See how Jillamatong looks in 2016 in our Facebook gallery.


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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‘LANA’ – PARTNERING FARM ANIMALS TO REGENERATE THE LAND

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PARTNERING FARM ANIMALS TO REGENERATE THE LAND

Ten holistic management principles guide farming operations for Tim and Karen Wright, enabling them to work with nature – and their livestock – to increase production despite reduced rainfall.

GO TO:

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

FARM FACTS

22km west of Uralla, NSW Northern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Sheep, cattle.
Fine (16 micron) merino wool; Merino cross Samm cross white Suffolk fat lambs; cross-bred first cross Hereford/Gelbvieh dams joined to composite (Devon/Angus/Simmenthal) bulls producing steers to 400kg

PROPERTY SIZE: 3350 hectares (also Kasamanca 780 hectares, 50km east)

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 769 mm

ELEVATION: 800-1000 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Excessively high costs of production and the opportunity to better use the grazing animal

INNOVATIONS

  • Holistic Management against 10 key principles
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing using stock for nutrient movement, enhancing soil fertility and vegetation management
  • Innovations commenced: 1990

KEY RESULTS

  • Carrying capacity increased from 8,000 to 20,000 DSE, even through reduced rainfall and drought
  • Wool quality improvement in strength and micron
  • Increased lambing and calving rates
  • Reduced labour requirements from one person per 5,000 DSE to one per 12,000 DSE

INTRODUCTION

The 1990s were a crisis period for Australian agriculture, marked by excessively high production costs and falling profits. The 1990s also brought a realisation for Tim and Karen Wright that they needed to look for a better way to manage their farm. They had an insight that their stock could be used more effectively to provide more than just a source of income. This led to gradual changes across their properties, guided by their own principles for ‘Working with Nature’. After a considerable journey of reading and research, the Wrights were motivated to fully adopt a Holistic Management approach for operation of Lana and Kasamanca.

Principles and practices of Holistic Management were introduced to the Wright’s properties, including establishing smaller paddocks and rotational grazing of their sheep and cattle. Pasture availability now drives stocking levels and rate of rotation. Pastures are heavily grazed for short periods, but for the majority of the time are in recovery phase. A leader-follower system is used, grazing cattle followed by sheep, to maximise pasture availability. Fences have been orientated with contours to facilitate nutrient movement from high ground sheep camps to across the slope. Soil organic matter content and fertility have been improved by this grazing action and the interaction of livestock nutrient deposits with soil biology.

For the Wrights, their grazing practices have driven fertility, which has increased pasture availability and quality, improving production – even with reduced rainfall and during times of drought. Together with their livestock, Tim and Karen Wright have regenerated their property, and their lifestyle.

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ADOPTING HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES

Lana comprises 3350 hectares of moderately treed granite slopes and open riparian zones adjoining two major creeks forming part of the Gwydir River catchment. Tim took over the property from his father, Peter, in 1980, who had farmed it since 1952.

Various strategies of pasture improvement had been used on the property in the past. In 1960, approximately 20% of the property was top-dressed and sown with improved pasture. Later, the whole property was top-dressed with superphosphate and seeded from the air. Oat fodder crops were under-sown with various pasture species, and this pasture improvement enabled stock numbers to be more than doubled between 1981 and 1992.

A 2011 Lana winter landscape

However, with the expensive inputs, the property barely broke even over a five year cycle. In the 1981 and 1992 droughts, production records revealed that the improved paddocks had lower yields than the unimproved paddocks. The land was too susceptible to drought and profit margins were falling. It made sense to seek a change.

Tim recalls, “In 1990 we were motivated by two key considerations to decide what and how we should change. These were the excessively high cost of production, especially labour, but other inputs as well, and the opportunity for better use of the grazing animal within grazing management”.

It was adopting a Holistic Management approach and undertaking both the Holistic Management and Grazing for Profit courses that ultimately made a huge impact and influenced the Wright’s decision-making. They learned that, “Holistic Management is about ‘thinking’; about cause and effect, about weak links and risk management, about testing concepts and ideas against our holistic goal”.

Subsequently, Tim and Karen developed ten principles, which they call ‘Working with Nature’, to guide their farm operations. All of their management decisions are tested against the ten principles. If the decisions do not align, they are reviewed. “We assume we could be wrong. For example, we ask ourselves if we are targeting the weakest link in the production chain, and whether we’re treating the cause or simply a symptom.”

WORKING WITH NATURE


Develop a holistic goal that considers personal values, natural resource base and available finances.

Match the enterprise to the environment, not the other way around.

Match the stocking rate to the assessed carrying capacity of the land and revise assessments frequently.

Manage for the full range of plant species and the whole ecosystem.

Think of livestock as tools.

Design paddocks to suit the topography and the land.

Use a flexible grazing plan and monitor the water and mineral cycles, energy flow, and the plant sward to ensure the plan is on track.

Supplement stock with minerals but not feed substitutes.

Test all decisions against the holistic goal.

The highest return on capital comes from education, not regulation. What looks good in the paddock is not necessarily good on the balance sheet.

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IMPLEMENTING CHANGE

Following their ten principles, the Wrights experimented with cell grazing between 1991 and 1993 and were encouraged by outcomes to move fully to planned grazing in 1995, combining both Holistic Management and cell grazing principles.

FENCING

image of property map marked with paddocks
The Lana control board helps keep track of stock rotation.

In 1980 Lana was originally subdivided into 30 paddocks of generally 100-120 hectares, with varying grazing areas. Since 1990 these have increased to 350 paddocks, averaging 10-15 hectares. Paddock size is seen as crucial to effectively use available pasture in relation to stock density and the stocking rate, which are adjusted accordingly.

Tim describes, “We fenced on contours to prevent sheep camps from developing on high ground and to spread nutrients laterally and more evenly”.

Permanent fences at approximately $400 a hectare were installed using steel, and, Tim explains, “We built our own steel end assemblies. We do not use our own timber for on-farm use because, as well as the trees being useful where they are, the cost of labour to cut posts and clear up debris exceeds the cost of buying steel end assemblies”.

Each subdivision required about three quarters of a kilometre of fencing, costing about $800 per kilometre at the time. More recent costs are closer to $1500 a kilometre. Tim found that two men could build one kilometre of fencing in a day. The bulk of the fencing was built over 15 years and there are plans for further subdivision to better manage the availability of pasture. Tim says, “It is important to note that the cost of development is returned within two years”.

WATER

image of wetland
Improved hydrology has converted the old irrigation dam into a wetland.

Heavily eroded watercourses were fenced off and weirs constructed to stop head-wall erosion and divert water from watercourses onto the flood plains. Wetland plant species were established in all watercourses and weirs. Tim notes, “Stream bank erosion is healed and the old irrigation dam is now like an artificial wetland, with reed beds and fringing dense cover”.

Creeks and dams were initially relied on for stock water, with dams fed by aquifers and clean runoff. A tank and trough system was constructed to supply water to the new paddocks. Watering with a trough system required installation of 3.5km of 50mm pipe from one end of the property to the other, mainly using gravity feed from dams built high in the catchment and, in some cases, by pumping from creeks to header tanks on high ground. Tim notes, “We don’t need troughs in wet seasons, but they are a good drought standby. A mix of dams and troughs gives us the best of both worlds”.

The stock watering system ensures that the stock are provided with clean water. Tim points out, “Troughs are good for a leader-follower system where the cattle disturb the dam water. Nebraska Feedlot research has shown that cattle do better on clean water; stock can lose half a kilogram per day on muddy water in a dam. Now the stock are no longer around water courses long enough to damage them and they always have a clean water supply. We also no longer get dung around the dams nor as many nutrients ending up in the water”.

FINANCING

The new fencing was initially funded by reducing other costs, such as fertiliser and hay, and abandoning pasture renovation. Tim achieved return on his capital investment in two years, particularly through significant reduction of vegetable matter in the wool. Vegetable matter in skirtings has reduced from 9% to 2% since 1982, enabling Tim and Karen to decrease the amount of skirtings, increasing the main fleece lines and subsequently the overall value of the wool clip.

Increased production through the ability to raise stocking rates has also covered financing of fencing and water infrastructure.

The properties now carry 7000 sheep and 700 breeding cows at a stocking rate of 5 DSE* a hectare in winter and 7-8 DSE a hectare in summer. This is without feeding hay or grain – only using Himalayan Salt and occasionally Bypass Protein Supplement, such as Cotton Seed or Coprameal during drought times.

graph of stocking rate vs rainfall, showing increase and maintainance of stock regardless of rainfall

EDUCATION

Tim and Karen believe that innovative farming cannot be done without knowledge and skills development and an understanding of how the land ‘works’. Their investment in knowledge growth, development of skills and the benefits of continuing experience has been necessary for successful innovation in their farming operations.

We manage under the holistic thinking that we assume we could be wrong, and we monitor and replan.

Tim comments, “There is always a certain amount of pressure arising from ingrained attitudes among farmers, academics and bureaucrats, that are resistant to change. Some farmers continue to manage their production cycles irrespective of the long-term effects on farm landscape. Some academics are tied to the knowledge and literature of the past and some bureaucrats are tied to outdated policies and regulations. There were times when many people thought we were stupid”.

“We have received minimal support from government entities, particularly NSW Department of Primary Industry officials, and some scepticism from academics. That is gradually changing as newer thinking takes hold. Training and education are essential at all levels to change attitudes. We manage under the holistic thinking that we assume we could be wrong, and we monitor and replan. This is the holistic feedback loop, which is really important. Tomorrow is another day – nature is changing every minute and we have to change with Mother Nature, and this includes climate change.”

Both Tim and Karen continue to read and research and seek mutual support from others going through similar processes. They host regular field days and visiting speakers to the property, provide mentoring to other landholders and maintain an ongoing relationship with the University of New England. They believe that all education provides high return on investment.

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LIVESTOCK AS FARM TOOLS

image of manure in grass
Nutrient transfer on Lana.

It was the understanding that grazing management needed to change to better use the grazing animal that led the Wrights to develop their fifth principle, ‘think of livestock as tools’. They recognised that stock could be used to transfer nutrients off sheep camps, reduce weeds and intestinal worm infection; in effect, be used as the farm machinery for slashing, fertilising, sowing and managing pasture. Tim emphasises, “Stock density, the herd effect, and planned rest from grazing are as much tools as is a plough”.

“We use the farm livestock as the tools to enhance the land as well as their being a source of income. The slasher in their teeth, the plough in their feet and the fertiliser equipment in the rear. Animals distribute nutrients across the grazed areas and build soil. Earthworms, dung beetles and other soil builders are critical to the development of healthy soil. ”

Planned grazing based on Holistic Management guidelines involves intensive grazing with a high stock density for short graze periods followed by long rest periods. Tim reiterates that they now “manage the whole ecosystem, using the livestock as ‘tools’ – no conventional farming methods are practised. We use ‘strategic rest from grazing’ to enhance the environment. At any one time, 95% of the property is in recovery mode”.

Each paddock gets an average of eight to ten days grazing per annum, or two to three days grazing in each season. Livestock are moved more rapidly during fast pasture growth and less rapidly during slow growth periods, for example, winter or times of drought. No hay or grain has been fed to the livestock since 1990, and Tim notes, “We were only using mineral and bypass protein supplements, as of 2010 we are only using Himalayan salt”.

image of wetland
Sheep and cattle are grazed separately or together depending on desired outcomes.

Cattle and sheep on Lana are grazed separately in a ‘leader-follower’ system. Cattle are grazed first for two days, opening up the pasture for the sheep and reducing the worm burden. Sheep then follow for two days. Intestinal parasite cycles have been broken by rotational grazing. With the flexibility provided, cattle are sometimes grazed with the sheep to stop the cattle getting too fat and to reduce the risk of bloat if there is too much clover. A ‘split-leader’ system is also used on occasion, for example, with calf heifers first or for fattening special stock for market.

Pastures are now altered by using grazing management and no chemicals are used. Tim notes, “Chemical fertiliser has not been applied for the past five years, yet our carrying capacity is slowly increasing due largely to the improved biological activity in the granite soils”. Close monitoring of the different species determines what and when and how to graze a paddock. Tim aims for one-third of the pasture to be eaten, one-third trampled, and one-third left for recovery.

Tim illustrates, “We do not sow in any conventional sense. Our animals spread the seed through dung and the increasing fertility of the soil becomes an ever improving seed bed”. The growing availability of pasture is driving further subdivision of paddocks to ensure correct grazing pressure and avoid pasture becoming rank from under-utilisation. The most productive area on Lana has an average of four hectares per paddock, with an average stocking rate of 20 DSE per hectare and density of up to 500-600 DSE per hectare. Tim believes that, “The productivity is largely due to the smaller paddock size resulting in improved soil biological activity due to greater animal impact”.

The productivity is largely due to the smaller paddock size resulting in improved soil biological activity due to greater animal impact.

The stock provide all the ‘farming’ required to maintain and enhance pasture and the soil. “We focus on having 100 per cent ground cover 100 per cent of the time so that soil is always protected. Litter is money in the bank. Softer soils attract fertility and generate regrowth. We rely on an increasing variety of native pastures to provide carrying capacity all year round. We rely on the stock to manage the fertility of soils and the availability of pasture.”

The cattle breeding herd on Lana now comprises 70% spring calving and 30% autumn calving. As Tim points out, “The increase in cool season native perennial grasses has resulted in improved native pasture growth to allow more nutritional pastures during the winter”.

The grazing operations have had a positive impact on watercourses, riparian zones, dams and wetlands. There is no erosion of stream banks. Regeneration of vegetation in riparian zones is increasing from natural seeding. Water quality is high and dam levels are maintained from soil hydrology well after rainfall event runoff ceases. This is due largely to the effects of adopting a holistic grazing plan, resulting in an improved water and mineral cycle, community dynamics and sunlight conversion. The Wrights consider these their four foundation blocks.

images of sparse pasture with bare ground and lush pasture
Left: Pasture on Lana prior to Holistic Management and rotational grazing. Right: Dense pasture now provides full ground cover and crowds out weeds.

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SOIL & VEGETATION

Soils across Lana are well-drained coarse and fine granites. In the 1990s, Christine Jones from the Botany Department of the University of New England helped look at the mineral cycle during grazing trials being performed. A four to five times increase in available phosphorus was found in areas that hadn’t been fertilised over a three year period, along with increases in total nitrogen and potassium. The findings confirmed that the Wrights were on the right track, as the soil health was due to:

image of soil in paddock
Healthy soils build under healthy pastures.
  • the rest factor – the pasture roots were growing deeper, drawing up the previously unavailable nutrients;
  • the pasture was in recovery phase 95% of the time, meaning more litter is being laid down, enriching the topsoil with organic matter and building soil organic carbon without additional artificial fertilisers; and
  • the transfer of nutrients off the sheep camps. It takes about ten days for nutrients to pass through the animal, and by moving stock every two to three days, nutrients were being passed into a number of other paddocks.

Prior to farming, the land was open native grass woodland with Blakely’s red gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi), yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora), white box (Eucalyptus albens), rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda), apple box (Eucalyptus bridgesiana), stringybark (Eucalyptus caliginosa) and mountain gum (Eucalyptus dalrympleana). In contrast to earlier management practices, timber regrowth is now welcomed and encouraged. About one third of Lana is timbered. Trees provide shelter in hot and cold weather and the mild temperatures in tree belts shelter some species of grass in winter. Trees also support wildlife and species diversity. Kangaroos are widespread and there are wallabies in the hills. Koalas have been observed in some areas, as well as brush tailed possums and sugar gliders. The property also has numerous species of birds, including water birds, and platypus and water rats inhabit a number of creeks. Lana has been a gazetted wildlife refuge since the 1960s.

“Trees are an integral part of our ground cover and of our ecology. We encourage tree growth to extend shelter corridors and to provide habitat for wildlife. Seedlings come from natural seeding and survive because of the low impact on seedlings from rotational grazing. If there is over production of some species in a particular area, selective thinning may be required, but this is rare.”

Pastures are no longer sown, and the property is managed for biodiversity, particularly of native species.

Trees are an integral part of our ground cover and of our ecology.

In terms of pasture variety, there is some vestigial sub-clover, phalaris and fescue from previous improved pastures that survived the drought. Lana receives an average annual rainfall of 769mm, though an all-time low of 397mm was experienced in the drought of 2002. No hay or grain needed to be fed during that period. Overwhelmingly, native pastures now dominate, with a continuing variety of species regenerating. Natives, such as weeping rice grass (Microlaena stipoides), crowd out not only weeds, but also remnant exotics.

Prior to present management, saffron thistles (Carthamus lanatus), blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and briars were commonplace. Large quantities of herbicides were used to control these. Chemical spraying of thistles was stopped around 15 years ago, and with the introduction of rotational grazing and other innovations, there has been no major weed problem for the last ten years.

In the 1990s, Tim had originally tried pasture cropping, but, with the increased ground cover from the native pastures, the operation was not viable, and, in due course, the need for a pasture crop was overtaken by adequate winter pasture from native species. It was an activity worth trying, but was ultimately not necessary to achieve the desired outcomes.

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NOW & BEYOND

Change requires knowledge and understanding. We hope that all land managers will one day appreciate the need for life-long learning and demonstrate an awareness of the importance of sustainable land management.

On Lana and Kasamanca, Tim and Karen have focussed on having their grazing practices drive fertility. “Fertility drives pasture availability. Pasture availability drives production. Stocking rates have improved steadily and continuously, even during drought. We have also managed to diversify and widen production lines.”

Since adopting Holistic Management practices, their production, workload and lifestyle has changed. Production has increased and inputs have decreased.

On average, carrying capacity has increased from around 8000 DSE to 20,000 DSE. Management practices have improved the natural resource to such an extent that this has been possible even through reduced rainfall and period of drought.

Production improvements have seen wool staple strength increasing from an average 40 N/Ktx (Newtons per kilotext) to 48 N/Ktx. Average fibre diameter has improved from 17.5 micron to 16 micron. Merino lambing has increased from 80% to 90% and quality is improving allowing Lana to produce 1st and 2nd cross prime lambs. Calving rate has also increased from 80% to 90%, most likely due to the improved nutritional value of the stock feed.

Over the last ten years, permanent labour requirements on the farm have reduced from one person per 5,000 DSE to one person per 12,000 DSE. Tim and Karen have more time for family and off-farm social, community and consulting activities. Labour is less intense except for key periods such as lambing and shearing.

“We can be, and are, involved in off farm activities to a greater extent, but we must cover the need to open and close gates to rotate stock and we must be here for key activities like lambing.”

Overall, the Wrights believe that successful farmers must have a flexible grazing plan to support long term management of pastures, livestock, biodiversity and personal wellbeing. “‘There is a need to read, consult and understand how the pieces of the grazing plan come together. Define goals, decide on actions, identify weak links, manage risk, and be prepared to change if things don’t work out. Everything is connected to everything else.”

“The threat of drought is always with us and we must plan that into our farming strategies. Old ideas of drought subsidies are not sustainable. Farmers must manage the impact of drought on their businesses.”

The Wrights also believe that there should be incremental, modular certificate and diploma courses in applied farming techniques aimed at working farmers at University of New England and other agricultural campuses. They believe that this training could be sponsored by Landcare and the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Farmers talking to farmers and sharing knowledge and experience is also seen as vital to spreading better practice in farming.

Tim and Karen understand that everyone has their own situation, but feel that their model can be broadly applied, “We have ten principles that underpin our Holistic Management strategy. Our principles work for us, but they may not suit everyone. It depends on your own holistic goal and the resource base you are dealing with. We test all our decisions against the holistic goal. If the test fails, the decision is faulty”.

“Change requires knowledge and understanding. We hope that all land managers will one day appreciate the need for life-long learning and demonstrate an awareness of the importance of sustainable land management. This would help reduce the burden of extensive regulation and legislation for future generations.”

Reference: Southern New England Landcare Ltd (2005) Land Water & Wool Case Study: Tim and Karen Wright working for Wool production and biodiversity. Land and Water Australia, Canberra, ACT.  http://lwa.gov.au/


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.

GO TO:

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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‘PINE LODGE’ – THE INFLUENCE OF EFFLUENT

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

THE INFLUENCE OF EFFLUENT – THE POWER TO DO GOOD

Ian and Wendy Klein have taken recycling to a new level, treating dairy effluent to provide rich fertiliser and effectively managing their on-farm water supplies to operate a profitable and organic farm.

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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

Shepparton, VIC Central North

ENTERPRISE: Organic irrigated dairy

PROPERTY SIZE: 261 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 500 mm

ELEVATION: 110 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Health concerns and the desire to try natural farming methods

INNOVATIONS

  • Using beneficial bacteria to treat dairy effluent for use as fertiliser
  • Laser levelling of paddocks and enhancing the water reticulation system
  • Composting, foliar and bio-fertilisation
  • All organic practices
  • Innovations commenced: 1996

KEY RESULTS

  • Irrigation requirements reduced by 30%
  • On-farm waste producing cost-effective fertiliser, improving soil health
  • 10% price premium on product
  • Reduced veterinary costs

INTRODUCTION

After 24 years of conventional dairying, Ian and Wendy began using organic farming methods, actively turning away from the use of chemical or artificial fertilisers, drugs, antibiotics and hormones that are common in today’s food production. Their underlying principles were to not pollute the environment or use toxic chemicals and to reduce their environmental footprint – while producing a wholesome food and remaining profitable.

The Kleins no longer have problems with excessive amounts of harmful or toxic nutrients and offensive odours from the dairy effluent. By treating their dairy effluent with beneficial bacteria, they are able to use the modified slurry as a fertiliser, returning nutrients to the soil and lowering costs of fertilising the pasture.

Using foliar sprays and bio-fertilisers to address the condition of the soil has also promoted the storage and cycling of organic matter in the soil, making the pastures more productive. The cows are healthier and require fewer interventions to prevent animal health problems.

The Kleins are also using a third less water after establishing a state-of-the-art water reticulation system for irrigating the pastures, linked to laser levelling of the paddocks.

By focusing on keeping nutrients and water on the farm, Ian and Wendy have developed a successful recycling and composting program. In the Klein’s experience, changing from conventional farming practices to working with more natural inputs and processes has reduced their input and veterinarian costs and supports a profitable organic dairy.

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BECOMING ORGANIC

…be open to ideas about investigating and using biological and ecological solutions.

Ian and Wendy moved to Pine Lodge from Dandenong in 1972. Ian had previously farmed in the Heatherton Road area, which is now part of Melbourne’s sprawling suburbs.

After arriving in the district, Ian and Wendy practiced conventional dairy farming on the property for 24 years using skills and knowledge they acquired and learned from local producers and industry experts.

The Kleins recall, “In the early 1970s we were dealing with some personal health issues that were not responding to treatment using conventional medicines. Together we decided to look into natural remedies and soon observed benefits. This realisation soon caused us to question why we were continually working with conventional farm management practices year after year with our cows and pastures”.

“In 1996 we attended a public lecture given by Professor Ian Brighthope that inspired us to trial natural farming methods on our dairy. This involved us extending what we were doing in our home with our own health more broadly to the farm and the dairy cows.”

After undertaking research, Ian and Wendy agreed to perform a trial for two years. They decided that if they did not see any benefit, or saw decline, in a number of indicators then they would return to previous management practices. Indicators selected included whether the costs of milk production became higher, or the health of pastures or cows declined.

image of paddock numbers
Around 300 cows produce milk on the Pine Lodge organic dairy

The Kleins elected to go “cold-turkey”, changing to organic practices across the farming enterprise in 1996. “We do not use synthetic fertilisers, synthetic sprays for weeds and pests nor antibiotics to prevent the animals from getting sick”, Wendy states.

Productivity increases were observed within 12 months and have been consistently improved, though subject to some seasonal variations.

The Kleins continued to inform themselves throughout the change process, and tried various techniques and options until they found what worked for them. This included investment of some capital into new equipment. Ian and Wendy believe that their dairy enterprise is only as good as their understanding of the ecological and biological processes that underpin it.

On becoming organic, Ian remarks, “Where you, the producer, have observed seemingly intractable problems with animal health, soil and vegetation condition, water quality and waste effluent, be open to ideas about investigating and using biological and ecological solutions.” “Often this involves joining an association or group of like-minded individuals, reading books and searching the Internet to find suggestions for fixing problems.”

As advice for others, the Kleins note, “It’s far easier than you think and there are now more opportunities to learn how to farm organically”. “We suggest that you give such solutions ‘a go’ on small areas at first before applying to larger areas. Be prepared to wait for results, remembering that problems were often slow to manifest themselves, so ‘fixes’ may also take some time.”

Ian and Wendy’s business plan was to implement a number of strategies to make the farm more viable, as well as environmentally friendly. This focussed on converting the entire farming enterprise to organic production and recycling as much as possible.

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DAIRY OPERATIONS

image of dairy cows in shed
The Klein dairy has increased from a six to a 60 bail shed, producing significant amounts of effluent.

“We started small; the dairy comprised a relatively small milking operation of around 80 Friesian and Jersey cows in a six bail shed. In those days our operation was based on establishing and managing irrigated improved pastures using synthetic fertilisers, for example, superphosphate and applying chemical sprays to control weeds.”

Production was successful and Ian and Wendy considered the farm had potential to become more productive and be a much larger operation. Over the years they progressively increased the scale of the operation to what would be considered medium-sized in Australian terms. The Kleins now run approximately 300 milking cows, some dry cows, bulls and other young stock on the 261 hectare property. The daily milking of the 300 cows takes place in a 60 bail shed. The dairy represents a major piece of infrastructure on the farm.

A by-product of a large dairy is effluent. The milk shed is equipped with high pressure hoses delivering dam water for washing the floor of the shed and the holding yard. Effluent is mainly a slurry comprising wash down water, manure, urine and other waste.

image of Ian hosing down the dairy
Dam water is used to wash down the dairy.

Large amounts of slurry were accumulating on the Klein farm, collected in a pond next to the dairy. For many years the slurry was regarded as waste because of the high concentrations of ammonia, phosphorus and potassium that would ‘burn’ the pasture if it were not first allowed to air-dry over some time.

Periodically the slurry was dried in the sun before being spread over the pastures. However, more product was being generated than the Kleins could effectively use.

Ian notes, “Because of our increasing herd size and intensification of production we needed to find improvements in managing and disposing of livestock effluent so that it prevented pollution of surface and ground water. As a result our effluent pond was an increasing concern to us. It was characterised by anaerobic bacteria and the sludge was high in ammonia. While we knew the sludge contained potentially beneficial nutrients, but these were unavailable for immediate use on the pastures”.

FROM EFFLUENT TO FERTILISER

image of effluent pond
Milking shed effluent is contained in a large holding pond.

Wendy remarks, “In the first 24 years we did not regard the dairy shed slurry as an asset. It was a smelly mess. We reluctantly managed it and because our knowledge of ecological and biological systems was rudimentary we could not see the opportunity before our eyes”.

“Our experience and advice meant we just did what everyone else was doing.”

With their new approach to natural methods on the dairy, Ian and Wendy aimed to modify the slurry in the pond to achieve higher levels of oxygen by introducing aerobic bacteria. By adding beneficial bacteria to convert the ammonia into amino acid, this made the sludge an economically valuable fertiliser, which could be used as required.

image of effluent tanker
The effluent tanker is used to spray treated effluent onto pastures – with visible results.

Ian notes, “As a result we no longer had an excess of organic matter and toxic nutrient levels, it also ameliorated the pH to an acceptable level, reduced the offensive odours and removed suspended solids and salts in the slurry”.

The once problematic effluent is now contained and managed in a large holding pond and after being treated is used as fertiliser for the pastures. The results are noticeable.

“When we spread the modified slurry onto the pastures we began to observe almost immediate benefits. Where a strip of pasture is missed during spraying, you clearly see that the grass is less vigorous and not as bright green in colour.”

The effluent-based fertiliser is complemented by the other natural biological and ecological activities being performed at Pine Lodge in support of recycling nutrients.

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RECYCLING THROUGH COMPOST

Composting has become a key part of the on-farm recycling program, with all plain cardboard boxes, calf shed bedding, untreated sawdust, domestic wastes and even dead stock composted for farm fertiliser. The Kleins view these activities as reducing the farm’s environmental impact, as well as supplying free fertiliser and helping to build humus in the soil. They also see that it gives the opportunity to learn more about composting and the benefits to be gained from it.

Others in the community who want to be a part of what the Kleins are doing are now saving cardboard and other materials to add to the compost heap. By performing their own recycling program through composting, materials destined for land fill are much reduced.

In Wendy’s words, “As nothing, other than produce, leaves the farm, the nutrients contained in the soil stay where they are needed – in the soil – hence no nutrients (or chemicals) find their way into waterways to contribute to blue-green algae problems of some of our water storages”.

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IRRIGATED PASTURES

We laser level the bays …to give us much higher water use efficiency.

The Pine Lodge property is within the Goulburn Valley irrigation region of north-central Victoria. The main water storage for this region is Lake Eildon, which is on the Goulburn River about 100km south-east. Water stored in Lake Eildon is released into the Goulburn River when needed for irrigation. Water for the Shepparton Irrigation Region is diverted from the river at Goulburn Weir, about 50km south of Shepparton.

Pine Lodge is situated in a temperate climate. The long term average rainfall is approximately 500mm, compared with average yearly evaporation of around 1500mm. With hot and dry summers accounting for this rainfall deficit, irrigation is required year-round to maintain plant growth.

Most of the farm’s land cover is irrigated dairy pasture. Most paddocks are around three to four hectares with several larger paddocks around 20 hectares. The small paddocks have been laser levelled to provide a gentle slope to enable small bays to be flood irrigated. Farm water for the stock and irrigating the pastures is supplied from a large farm dam and from irrigation water purchased from the regional water authority.

Ian notes, “We have developed a complex system of small and larger paddocks that are irrigated using flood irrigation. Almost all the 261 hectares are irrigated at varying stages in the course of a year. The system of channels is linked to a major storage and reticulation dam on the farm”.

Flood irrigation using a border check system is used. The irrigation bays range from 200 to 400 metres long. The Kleins also established a water reticulation system for capturing and reusing irrigation and rain-fed surface flows. Any water runoff goes to the lowest point on the farm, which has a large recycle system – to be used again for irrigation.

Rain water, held in a 255,000 litre tank, is reserved for washing milking equipment and cleaning the milk storage vat. Dam water is used to wash down the dairy

Increased pasture and milk production meant more profit that enabled the Kleins to improve the standard of water reticulation and flood irrigation. “We laser level the bays that are growing pastures with a light re-grade as required to give us much higher water use efficiency. We have also installed a water reticulation system that captures runoff from irrigation and overland flows from high rainfall events. The benefits of this large water holding capacity are: no water leaves our farm except in major flood events; we recycle the water more effectively and we only purchase additional water when needed.”

Pastures used to be irrigated every six days during the summer months. Thanks to the better soil structure and increased water-holding capacity now achieved, irrigation is only required each 9 or 10 days.

image of irrigation channels
Left: Irrigation supply channel. Centre & right: Pine Lodge irrigation bays

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HEALTHY SOILS, HEALTHY PASTURES

Our farming enterprise is like our family’s health. We use natural inputs and products to maintain good health and well-being.

The soils of the property are classified as loams and clay loams developed from alluvium deposited over many years by the Goulburn River and previous streams. Soil mineral balance has been of greater concern than organic carbon levels.

Ian comments, “In 1996 we ceased using synthetic weed and pest control and applying synthetic fertilisers. Instead we applied numerous conditioners to the soil including gypsum, lime and dolomite as well as molasses and guano. By making this move to more biologically-based approach to farming, we began to observe a number of changes in our farm”.

As a result of the application of the soil bio-fertilisers, the Kleins have observed improvements in the health of their soil. More worms are visible, and the soil has better structure and nutrient balance. The Kleins regularly have soils tests done on each paddock to determine which nutrients are limiting production. Based on the test results, the soil conditions are addressed to achieve the highest levels of productivity. Wendy happily reports, “Finally, the calcium level in our soil is close to where it should be!”

Wendy also notes, “I have farm (independent) soil tests for the past 14 years and it is very rewarding to see the benefits of our farming practices in increased organic matter in the soils. This helps conserve nutrients and water in the soil – much needed for the climate we now farm in”.

The change in management to biologically-based practices also saw the Kleins be more careful in stimulating ecological processes. When combined with integrated pasture and pest management systems, this has seen pastures become more productive, growing for longer periods through the year, and significantly fewer interventions required to prevent health problems in the cows.

The enterprise involves intensive management of perennial and annual pastures. A rotational system of summer (perennial) and winter (annual) pastures is followed.

Each three to four hectare paddock is sown to perennial or permanent pasture comprising white clover and rye grass. This is irrigated regularly to maintain high levels of production. These paddocks are grazed every 28 days. Every year each paddock is treated with an effluent/bacteria mix after summer grazing and then irrigated again.

In winter the cows graze on the 20 hectare paddocks, which are annual pastures on subterranean clover. In February-March these pastures are watered to provide growth for the winter months.

The system of smaller and larger paddocks and the use of electric fencing has gained efficient pasture utilisation throughout the growing season.

A foliar spray comprising lime, molasses and borax in a rain water base is also applied to each paddock each year.

image of stock brand
Pine Lodge farm plan.

The farm has few weeds and pests due to the intensive management of the pastures. Keeping internal irrigation channels clear for irrigation purposes is sometimes a problem, as herbicides cannot be sprayed to suppress vegetation growth. Though not as successful as spraying, the Kleins are using other methods and looking at the vegetation in a new light.

image of stock brand
Remnant grey box woodland forms part of the dedicated biodiversity patch on the property.

“We manage excessive biomass in the channels by using two people with whipper-snippers. Excess vegetation growing in the irrigation channels has benefits in that it cleans the water”, Ian notes. Any other weeds are managed by slashing or mulching, ultimately returning nutrients back into the soil.

A small section of the farm has a reasonable cover of remnant grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) trees which are encouraged to regenerate. As a certified organic farm, 5% of the property must be maintained for biodiversity. Wendy notes, “Grey box were the predominant large trees in this area, and we have tried to plant other species indigenous to this area… with enormous effort we managed to get a large percentage of the trees through the drought, only to see many get swamped in the last two years and die of wet feet”. Regenerating trees are protected using tree-guards to prevent the cattle from damaging the young trees.

Wendy observes that there are now more birds, frogs, worms, dung beetles, spiders, bats and beneficial wasps. The dam is near a large remnant vegetation area and is also a haven for bird life. No chemicals have been used for 16 years, and pests are not seen as a problem at all.

On being organic, Ian notes, “An added benefit has seen us lower our costs for weed control and pest management”.

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PRODUCTION & PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS

By improving the health of our soils, water and pastures and cows we have peace of mind that our environment is healthier than when we first began.

Wendy states, “When evaluating the farm’s environmental performance, I would look at where the farm was 15 years ago and where it is now – and the improvement and benefits – both environmentally and financially – are obvious”.

Ian points out, “The enterprise is profitable – but as for most agricultural businesses, the drought made life very difficult for a long time”. Even with the challenges of drought, both animal and soil health are greatly improved and financial inputs reduced as a result of the changes the Kleins introduced. They aim to achieve a balance between inputs and outputs regarding pasture productivity and milk yield. Wendy adds, “The farm is viable, partly due to the free fertiliser the farm now generates from the continuous recycling of waste products produced on the farm, no chemicals are purchased and all water is recycled”.

“We made a few mistakes and lost a few good cows along the way – but we composted the dead animals and made fertiliser out of them.”

On average the Kleins are obtaining greater than a 10% price premium compared to other producers. They are achieving this because of the natural product and through systems of management that can produce regular and reliable milk yield from season to season.

“Even if we were not getting a price premium, we would still farm the way we are because of the benefits to us personally and to the wider society”, Wendy says.

By changing from conventional farming practices to working with more natural inputs and processes the Kleins:

  • have much richer looking and biologically active soils and more earthworms
  • have improved soil friability making it much easier to work, therefore using much less fuel
  • have dramatically reduced veterinarian costs

“Our farming enterprise is like our family’s health. We use natural inputs and products to maintain good health and well-being. The same is true for our farm. We aim to have active, ecologically healthy, functioning soils that produce high quality pastures; that feed healthy cows producing safe and wholesome milk.”

Ian and Wendy have confidence that their management systems are having a minimal impacts off-farm. Their approach is to, where possible, grow all animal feed requirements on farm so that they are satisfied with the quality and health of the products they are producing. This approach offers considerable benefits both private and public.

Wendy comments, “We are not using anything detrimental to us, our animals or our environment – so we all benefit from that, even people who don’t know us or how we farm”.

“We aim to live with and work close to nature, understanding the seasons and cycles of life. Our systems of management are built on understanding ecological and biological processes. By improving the health of our soils, water and pastures and cows we have peace of mind that our environment is healthier than when we first began. We can also assure those who use our farm produce that it is of a high standard for human health and wellbeing.”
 

image of dairy cows

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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‘SHANNON VALE STATION’ – WEED CONTROL WITHOUT HERBICIDE IS NOT A LOAD OF BULL

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

WEED CONTROL WITHOUT HERBICIDE IS NOT A LOAD OF BULL

Greg and Sally Chappell have shown that pasture improvement using organic-based fertilisation together with carefully planned stock management can overcome significant weed problems and vastly improve productivity.

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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

12km east of Glen Innes, NSW Northern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Angus bull breeding from high performance seed stock

PROPERTY SIZE: 1450 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 750-850 mm

ELEVATION: 1000-1090 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Drought, economic viability and gaining a deeper understanding of biological cycles

INNOVATIONS

  • Organic fertilisation tailored to soil and plant nutrient requirements
  • No cultivation or herbicides
  • Managed grazing pressure
  • Innovations commenced: 2005

KEY RESULTS

  • 30-35% reduction in production costs
  • 10% increase in production
  • 20% increase in bull and heifer weight gain
  • Rejuvenated pastures and weed control

INTRODUCTION

Greg Chappell taught agricultural science at the Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School (FMAHS) for 13 years before taking up farming full-time. He and Sally then developed an Angus bull breeding business, initially at Willow Tree. When the business out-grew the farm they moved to a property at Moree and then, in 2001, to Shannon Vale Station. Although he had taught conventional agriculture at FMAHS, Greg’s experience on his original farm at Willow Tree made him realise that conventional methods weren’t sustainable, so he was already beginning to explore other methods of land management when faced with the weed challenge that emerged at Shannon Vale.

Weeds including African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula), blackberry (Rubus fruticosus), nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana), carpet grass (Axonopus spp.), rat’s tail fescue (Vulpia myuros), sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and St Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum) were proliferating under the previous management system at Shannon Vale, badly damaging productivity and profits. Using organic-based fertilisation targeted specifically to address soil nutritional deficiencies, Greg and Sally worked to create an environment that allowed pasture species to re-establish from dormant seed. The Chappells experienced productivity increases after only two years. Pastures now out-compete the weed species and are capable of sustaining growth rates in the bulls of around one kilogram a day all year round.

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SHANNON VALE STATION

image of Shannon Vale Station
Shannon Vale Station

Shannon Vale Station is a gently undulating property with five kilometres of frontage to the Mann River. It is a remnant of a 250,000 hectare estate allocated in the 1820s to an officer of the New South Wales Corps, after whom the river was named. Following fragmentation and many changes of ownership and use, Greg and Sally Chappell acquired the property in 2001.

Due to the high elevation of around 1000 metres, summers at Shannon Vale are mild and winters cold; temperatures can drop down to minus 17 degrees Celsius and snow is common. Soils are transitional and weathered granite sand to sandy loams; these are poorly structured, highly erodible and have a high rate of leaching so that nutrients can be lost quickly.

Today, Shannon Vale Station comprises a total of 1450 hectares and is managed solely to breed Angus bulls. Bull breeding presents unique requirements for farm management. A high rate of weight gain must be maintained at all times so that bulls reach market weight within 24 months, while stocking rates must allow for the paddock space required to minimise interaction between the bulls.

However it was other challenges that the Chappells were initially up against upon taking ownership of Shannon Vale.

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THE WEEDS TELL A STORY

By the time the Greg and Sally bought the property it had been subject to many years of a conventional annual superphosphate and nitrogenous fertiliser program and regular pasture improvement. Pasture improvement consisted of using herbicide to eliminate all species already present, complete cultivation, addition of superphosphate and nitrogenous fertilisers and then sowing with preferred pasture species, which were mainly annuals. Set stocked grazing management was used. Some areas had been used to grow corn, potatoes and other crops, however the light granite soils of the property were not really suited to sustaining such high nutrient-requiring crops.

The initial efforts of Greg and Sally were focused, within the day-to-day management of the property, on improving measured carcase trait performance of their product lines, the Dulverton Angus and the Currawee crossbreds. The attempts to provide all-year-round nutrition to this seed stock enterprise were based on the standard agronomic approach to farming in that region: weed knock down chemicals, cultivation to prepare seed beds, application of nitrogenous and phosphatic fertilisers and use of annuals such as Italian rye, oats and soy beans in rotation.

The use of the standard agronomic approach and a decade of drought resulted in the seed stock not realising their full genetic potential in regard to growth to sale weight over time to maturity and the expected 90% weaning rate of the cows. It became apparent to Greg and Sally that their pastures were not delivering adequate protein and energy and that digestibility was poor.

Besides the production issues, the combined effect of pasture management, cropping practices and climate led to large tracts of the property becoming completely dominated by weeds. As Greg and Sally say, “The weeds won”.

…we were in a cycle of dependence on inputs to sustain and prop up the production that was not economically viable.

The most problematic of the weeds was African lovegrass, which has negligible nutritional value and which effectively shuts down production of palatable pasture species by blocking sunlight and access to nutrients and moisture. This grass was so pervasive that 80-100% of each paddock would return to African lovegrass after pasture sowing. The pastures were lasting two to two and a half years after each conventional pasture renovation cycle but it was taking three to three and a half years to recoup the cost of renovation. The Chappells explain, “It became necessary to spray out [with herbicide] and start again before the economics made it pay. Hence we were in a cycle of dependence on inputs to sustain and prop up the production that was not economically viable”.

Topsoil was being lost to sheet erosion caused by rainfall on bare soils across the property, and river banks were eroding due to cattle traffic. Organic carbon levels were falling, which reduced water-holding capacity and increased sensitivity to drought. The property had become dependent on high cost inputs of fertilisers and other chemicals, and in addition, grain that cost $500 a tonne was needed to sustain weight gain on the bulls.

Despite all the costly inputs, the weeds were taking over, productivity was declining and the business was going under. Greg recalls, “The majority of gross margin achieved in the sale of production was consumed in the maintenance of pasture production”.

At this point, Greg and Sally came to the realisation that weeds flourish in poor soils and that the structure, chemistry and biology of the soil, and soil health in general, needed attention.

Greg recalls, “The decade of drought made it increasingly obvious that the production system overlaying our landscape was brittle. It was not sustainable beyond short term props from seed, chemical, drench, fertiliser, drugs! In 13 years as an Ag Teacher and 20 years as a grazier we came to acknowledge the importance of the biological and physical components of the system in addition to the chemistry”.

In terms of the decision to change, Greg notes, “[It was] drought and economic viability primarily, with deeper understanding of biological cycles, role of floral succession, potential for beneficial grazing impact on landscape. Reappraisal of practices and enterprise viability led to a decision to act”.

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SOIL AS THE WEED SOLUTION

From 2005, the traditional pasture renovation program based on synthetic fertilisers, herbicide and cultivation was totally abandoned and replaced with one based on planned grazing, use of organic fertilisers and no soil disturbance. Greg and Sally sought advice from local consultants on pasture management and nutrition and compost production.

Greg describes, “We have, since 2006, embraced the biological approach. We are rebuilding soil structure by increasing the organic and carbon content of the soil. Our research has indicated that for each additional 1% of carbon stored in the soil, we are able to improve the water holding capacity by 144,000 litres per hectare on an annual basis. To date we have increased our soil organic carbon content across our 11 monitored sites. This increase equates to an additional water holding capacity of 120,000 to 150,000 litres per hectare, on an annual basis.”

Additional water holding capacity is important. Although annual rainfall averages between 750-850mm, in recent years it has ranged from 544.5mm in 2002 to 1078.5mm in 2011.

IMPROVEMENTS TO SOIL FERTILITY

Year2002-06200820112012
Soil Organic Carbon1.00%1.46%1.44%1.47%
Phosphorus [Colwell]31ppm34.5ppm32.2ppm40ppm
pH Range4.7 – 5.35.1 – 5.75.85 – 6.435.84 – 7.16
Average pH55.46.56.47

Greg and Sally point out that soil health underpins their whole operation. “We have embarked on a course of putting emphasis on soil health and, in doing so, improving our pasture productivity. However, we don’t compromise our animals. Our business success depends on those animals achieving the key performance indicators for growth to maturity.”

image of pasture
Lush pastures have returned to Shannon Vale, assisted by the improved soil health.

In the rejuvenation of their soils and pastures, the Chappells use techniques that include:

  • applying compost
  • mulching existing pasture stubble
  • rotational grazing
  • sod seed/direct drill seed
  • strategically timed foliar nutrition sprays to increase feed quality or quantity

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FERTILISER APPLICATION & VEGETATION

“Other than for spraying blackberry patches, no herbicides have been used on Shannon Vale for approximately six years. Basically, we changed from synthetic fertiliser to a manure-based compost, being differentiated from others by having additional trace elements or macro nutrients added to round it out to a complete fertiliser which best matched our specific soils. This was not possible with conventional granular fertiliser. Where needed, we add pasture seed into the compost for broadcasting in place of cultivation.”

We have managed to create the environment required for succession to allow dormant seed to re-emerge and compete with the weed species.

The organic fertiliser used on Shannon Vale is derived from composted feedlot wastes to which macro nutrients and trace elements are added. The nutrients and trace elements added are based on plant analysis. Using sap analysis as well as plant tissue analysis ensures that short term and longer term deficiencies are identified. Plant sap analyses reveal short term nutrient deficiencies, which can be redressed immediately with foliar liquid fertilisers. Plant tissue tests of pasture mineral levels and quality confirm longer term trends in nutrient flow into the plant and how that affects animal performance. The fertilisers used therefore rectify specific soil fertility deficiencies in each paddock. Both tests are important for maximising pasture growth which enables year-round weight gain on the bulls.

The organic fertiliser is spread at a rate ranging from 300 to 600 kilograms per hectare, according to need.

The foliar fertilisers used generally include the nutrients missing in the plant tests. These are, in effect, like a stock feed supplement for plants, in that they have protein, energy and minerals to generate a plant response over and above nutrient alone. These are applied with the assistance of the Chappell’s consultant and are based on the growing environment and soil and plant data (e.g. as presented in the table below). This fertiliser is applied with water to total 50 to 120 litres per hectare and triggers a response when carrying capacity or feed quality needs to be increased quickly. Greg explains, “Measurements have been taken of pasture feed quality and quantity, to identify the benefit of triggering a plant response from judicious foliar nutrient. This allows us to achieve increased daily weight gain in animal performance and hence achieve target weights sooner, which results in longer rest periods”.

PLANT TISSUE ANALYSIS

Year 20112012
Nitrogen %Average3.73.8
Range3.13 – 4.153.05 – 4.17
Phosphorous %Average0.340.36
Range0.31 – 0.370.31 – 0.43
Potassium %Average2.42.91
Range2.03 – 3.001.85 – 4.24
Sulphur %Average0.240.22
Range0.18 – 0.270.17 – 0.27
Calcium %Average0.990.85
Range0.78 – 1.380.56 – 1.02

image of pasture
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) has become ‘naturalised’ on Shannon Vale.

Most pasture rejuvenation has been achieved by providing the growing conditions required for previously sown species to become re-established. Nutrient cycling, coupled with a more thorough understanding of species succession, have contributed to a more biologically friendly outcome in healthier soils enabling a more productive all-round pasture base.

In only two years, paddocks dominated by African lovegrass have become substantially re-established with high quality pasture species that have not been sown for many years, in some cases since the 1990s.

Where they have not returned naturally, seed of preferred pasture species is added to the compost fertiliser and some paddocks have been direct drilled, without herbicide. Greg points out, “We no longer get bent out of shape by the presence of so-called ‘lower order’ weeds, such as rat’s tail, sorrel, yorkshire fog, dandelion, etc. We see these for what they are, indicators of poor soil health. We use the production from these species to help build soil organic matter and therefore soil capable of supporting the higher order, more prolific species such as prairie grass, cocksfoot, fescue and clovers. The clovers provide the nitrogen capable of sustaining higher levels of quantity and quality of prairie grass, cocksfoot and fescues”.

Trees are necessary for stock shelter in the cold climate of the northern tablelands and also play an important role on Shannon Vale. The original eucalypt tree cover had been reduced to a sparse cover, mostly on the higher slopes and ridges. Trees have since been established in blocks on high points and in shelterbelts along fences and tracks to provide shelter against cold temperatures often exacerbated by wind, frequent frosts and occasional snow falls. Establishing tree belts is also contributing to increasing biodiversity on the property.

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

Greg points out that their livestock management has been adjusted to assist in maintaining soil health. “We use liquid supplements in winter to help with digestibility of standing dry feed. These supplements ensure the cow pads are softer and so able to be buried by dung beetles. The lack of cow pads on the surface helps break the worm cycle and reduce buffalo fly habitat. This means less drenching. We only drench cows once a year and they have developed a workable tolerance to worms, but it is not so easy to combat fluke.” The Chappells rotational graze their stock. This also has the advantage of breaking the worm cycle.

image of Angus bulls
Angus bulls on Shannon Vale.

Subdivision fencing was installed across Shannon Vale to reduce paddock size to increase grazing pressure and allow longer periods of pasture rest and recovery. The productive paddock size is about 14 to 30 hectares. Greg points out, “Reducing paddock size to increase rest and recovery periods must be balanced with the need to minimise stocking rate to avoid social pressures between the bulls”.

Each mob of bulls is now rotated between two to three paddocks. The number of days per cycle is determined by seasonal pasture growth rates and ranges from 26 days in summer to 40 to 50 days in winter. Greg says, “We began, and continue to expand, a practice of rotational grazing, enabling rest and recovery of desirable species throughout the year. Bulls are run in mobs of 40 to 55, that is, one per acre. Our productive paddock size is about 16-24 hectares”.

The Shannon Vale grazing management practices open up the unproductive African lovegrass to sunlight and trigger other species for germination. Greg notes, “Perhaps one of our most notable achievements has being able to reduce the almost total domination of the species, African Lovegrass. Four years ago, we purchased a Schultz 5150 Mk2 slasher/mulcher. We mulched the heavily infested paddocks during the middle of autumn and the middle of spring. The mulching smashes up the lovegrass stubble, leaving it, not in a windrow, as with a normal slasher, but evenly dispersed over the surface of the ground. We mulch a couple of days before removing stock. The herd impact helps compost the mulch and bring it into contact with the soil. The effect is more pronounced if there is rain.”

“This mechanised smashing of unpalatable tussocks leaves residues in contact with the ground, and biological processes, to be decomposed and return minerals to future plant cycle – instead of being tied up within above ground trash indefinitely”, Greg says.

This process is used to substitute for the benefits of high density rotational grazing, which cannot be followed at Shannon Vale as, Greg explains, “Bulls need space to contend with high testosterone social pressure”. This technique also reduces competition, enabling the preferred perennial pasture species, such as fescue (Festuca arundinacea), cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata), clovers and plantain (Plantago lanceolata), to re-emerge.

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STOCK WATER

Stock water was previously provided by dams and the Mann River. Greg and Sally place a high value on the importance of the availability of fresh, clean, quality water to ensure optimum growth rates of stock, particularly of calves on cows.

The frontage to the river has now been fenced off and an off-stream watering system comprising pumps, tanks and a gravity fed reticulated supply to a trough in each paddock is continuing to be developed. At this point, all bull growing cells have reticulated water.

Greg notes, “The stock therefore have access to higher quality water and river bank erosion is reduced. Fencing off the river has reduced weeds, because weeds deposited in riparian areas by floodwater are no longer spread into the paddocks by cattle”.

“The reticulated system has had the added benefit this spring and summer of assisting in our controlling bloat by our adding bloat oil to the trough.”

FINANCING INFRASTRUCTURE

Our soil health approach saves about one third of the amount we spent on conventional pasture establishment… and our new approach provides a better all round outcome.

Installing reticulated water is expensive, but the Chappells have been fortunate to receive financial assistance in fencing off their 5.2km frontage to the Mann River. This has not only prevented stock damage to stream banks but has excluded stock from riparian zones so that these areas have more potential for regeneration. Twenty-five per cent of the $100,000 required for the fencing and water supply system was provided under a grant from the Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority, under their River Reach Program for the Mann River. This program sought to reduce bank erosion and pollution to improve riparian environments and water quality for aquatic fauna and downstream use.

The input costs for infrastructure have been offset to a considerable degree by savings gained through ceasing cultivation, the use of chemical fertiliser and other costs associated with sowing annual pastures. Whilst transfer of some input costs to subdivision fencing reduced the overall capital requirement, Greg and Sally note that, “providing reticulated waters have been a capital constraint to faster implementation”.

Overall, however, Greg says, “Our soil health approach saves about one third of the amount we spent on conventional pasture establishment… and our new approach provides a better all round outcome.”

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ROBUST RESULTS

image of Greg Chappell in paddock
Shannon Vale pasture after three days grazing

Greg’s and Sally’s approach to land management has eliminated the need to periodically renovate pastures. Complete ground cover is maintained at all times, soil condition is improving and carbon content is increasing. Costs have been reduced on Shannon Vale while production has been increased – the family business is now viable. Greg and Sally point out, “Our guiding principle has been to regenerate the landscape to its potential, whilst not compromising the high standards and output of the business, the breeding enterprise”.

The majority of the farm can now boast diversity of species within the pasture, including legumes, herbaceous species and perennial grasses, which are increasing year by year, even though they have not physically been brought onto the farm in at least six years and in many cases more than ten years.

“We have managed to create the environment required for succession to allow dormant seed to re-emerge and compete with the weed species.”

Diversity and density of pasture has increased. Where unpalatable species of lovegrass dominated, desirable perennial pasture species, such as fescue, cocksfoot, clovers and plantain are now well established. Earthworms and saprophytic fungi that help break down organic matter not previously found in the region have become common. Dung beetles are active in breaking down manure, which in turn accelerates decomposition and nutrient cycling, improves soil organic matter content and structure, helps break the parasite worm burden.

The pasture established is now capable of sustaining growth rates in the order of one kilogram a day per bull year round.

Greg tells the story, “Over five and half years we have nurtured a very tired old degraded paddock growing potatoes and corn, back to full productivity. The full succession process has occurred from sorrel, rats tail, cudweed, etcetera, to the bromes, the ryes then the clovers and then to cocksfoot and fescue that were seeded within compost four years ago. The pasture established is now capable of sustaining growth rates in the order of one kilogram a day per bull year round”.

Dependence on ration supplement to achieve sale weight for the bulls in the second winter after practices were changed decreased significantly with increased grass production and subsequent stock weight gain. Stock feed purchases had reduced to less than half by about three years into the pasture improvement program.

The Chappells are clearly proud of their results, “Cost of production has reduced by 30 to 35 per cent and overall production has increased in the order of ten per cent, excluding the most recent six months, which was an above average season. The last year is up 20 per cent on overall production for bulls and heifer weight gain on earlier averages”.

The results of the new approach taken by Greg and Sally can be seen in the bull growth figures over the past two years (see below). Given that the genetics of the Angus herd have been stable over the past two years and management of the herd has been identical over the same period, Greg and Sally attribute growth statistics to soil and pasture outcomes.

BULL GROWTH

 20112012Difference
Number of Animals6154 
Growth (Kg/day)0.961.11+0.15
Rump (P8) & Rib Fat (mm)3.4 – 2.85.9 – 4.7+2.5 – 1.9
Eye Muscle Area (EMA) cm284.398+13.7
Intra-muscular Fat (%)4.75.1+0.4
Scrotal Circumference (cm)37.840.3+2.5
image of a bull
‘Dulverton Blaster’ – a whole lot of bull.

In 2011, their top-priced bull sold for $15,500. The average price across the 67 bulls sold was $6,700.

Numerous Catchment Management Authority, industry and Landcare sponsored field days have been held on Shannon Vale to help communicate the principles and changes taking place and that are continuing. Greg and Sally regularly receive requests for visits from industry types, growers and the like and are content to share their lessons in landscape management and weed control.

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MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES & LESSONS

Correcting mineral imbalance takes time. It is not all about phosphorus and nitrogen alone, the other nutrients are also critical.

Greg and Sally have kept records at pasture monitoring sites prior to change for later quantitative comparison. They have found however, that, “Testing, measurement, recording and analysis to determine how we are going and where we will end up, is time consuming and costly”. Learning when to start and stop trials, particularly with their region’s climate also provided challenges to Greg and Sally in implementing their innovations. The lack of local research on species selection for agronomic suitability to balance nutrition was also problematic. However, trial and error, and accessing assistance outside the local mindset has helped Greg and Sally to succeed. They have learnt, “There is not a black and white recipe to the farm. Being an ecosystem it requires flexibility and constant review”. Greg and Sally are adamant that, “Progress has also come from surrounding ourselves with a committed and knowledgeable team. Their assistance, amongst others including our two immediate neighbours, continues to be integral”.

Apart from their personal management guidelines (below), the Chappells understand that flexibility is essential in achieving results, and consequently their management approach is not a static model. Ongoing learning is constant, and they continue to develop the details of their approach once they are confident that their principles are sound. Some of their key lessons include:

  • “Trust that species succession will happen if the environment is right for the species you want.”
  • “Correcting mineral imbalance takes time. It is not all about phosphorus and nitrogen alone, the other nutrients are also critical.”
  • “Grazing pressure is critical. The focus needs to be on the grazing pressure the paddock needs balanced with the animals needs, not just picking a number for want of a simple recipe.”

Management Guidelines

Greg and Sally follow a number of guidelines to achieve the results gained on Shannon Vale. In managing their property, Greg and Sally do not allow:

  • bare ground
  • cultivation – direct drilling is used if necessary
  • grazing without a planned recovery period for pasture
  • use of chemical herbicide, except for spot spraying of blackberries
  • funding with debt, “We transfer costs from less efficient inputs or increased production”.
  • compromise on the profit drivers, that is, the livestock

Overall Greg and Sally are proud that their business has expanded in scale and structure and achieved capital improvement to the asset. But they note that the journey is not over, “We are not at Utopia; we are still learning and will continue to do so”.


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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‘TALAHENI’ – REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY AND ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY & ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

Using a deep understanding of their environment, John and Robyn Ive have used strategic paddock design and management to build resilience into their landscape, and have revegetated ridges to reduce a severe dryland salinity problem, enabling them to meet their niche production outcomes.

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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

Near Murrumbateman, 40km north of Canberra, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Sheep, cattle, native trees. Ultra-fine Sharlea wool; Angus beef cattle; farm forestry

PROPERTY SIZE: 250 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 625 mm

ELEVATION: 600 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Non-viability of previous management and identifying the opportunity to apply practical ecological science

INNOVATIONS

  • Revegetation to manage salinity
  • Strategic paddock design
  • Planned grazing strategies, particularly addressing fodder supply and drought conditions
  • Innovations commenced: 1980

KEY RESULTS

  • Increased available productive land through reduced water table levels eliminating saline seeps
  • Specialist provider of ultrafine Sharlea wethers
  • Revegetation of over 200,000 native trees

INTRODUCTION

The Ive family purchased Talaheni in 1980. At the time, the property was suffering from major dryland salinity caused by over clearing and exploitative land management practices. As a would-be ecologist, John saw the opportunity to repair the degraded landscape through revegetating the ridges and fixing the soil fertility problems that had built up over previous decades.

John and Robyn prepared a comprehensive plan to repair the land and achieve a profit from Talaheni. This addressed the fundamental need to understand the implications of variation in slope, aspect, soil depth, geology, vegetation and climate on achieving success.

Production improvements were experienced from 1983. Now, over 200,000 new trees and a niche production line later, the Ives manage the salinity as well as regular regional droughts with a healthy, resilient landscape. By taking a strategic approach and working with the land and the seasons, John and Robyn have transformed an “environmental and farming basket-case” into an enterprise that has received local, national and international recognition.

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COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

image of Talaheni
The current Talaheni landscape

In 1980 John and Robyn purchased the 250 hectare property in the Yass Valley, an area renowned for its dryland salinity problems. Their family farming background supplemented by agricultural college and tertiary qualifications in agricultural science and economics provided a sound basis for undertaking the makeover of Talaheni over the following three decades.

John and Robyn both realised at the time of purchase that previous management had been exploitive and would be non-viable into the future. However, they recognised an opportunity to apply sound practical ecological science to an unprofitable enterprise that had depleted the resource base.

To improve the landscape on Talaheni, John and Robyn drafted a plan that recognised major impediments to achieving production potential. Management practices were then identified to address key resource condition issues, such as the dryland salinity. Management of the elevated water tables was identified as a key priority in achieving this.

The plan was then progressively implemented as time and resources permitted, ensuring regular review and updating in response to progress.

A solid monitoring program was at the core of implementation to ensure that the farm plan was achieving intentions. Where possible this was introduced before changing management so that the effect of changing practice could be quantified. As John says, “If you do not measure it you cannot manage it”.

Various factors are regularly monitored, including vegetation transects, salinity levels in dams and weekly measurements of the water table. The Ives have now achieved ISO14001 accreditation for their Environmental Management System.

Combined with their farm plan addressing production limitations, John and Robyn set out to develop a production niche suited to the ecological function of the area.

The niche identified was ultra-fine wool production and the development of a sharlea wether market. Sharlea wool is produced by Saxon Merino sheep which are housed in specially constructed sheep care sheds where all aspects of proper sheep husbandry, nutrition and feeding, health, wool growth, quality and cleanliness are exercised between each shearing. The movement from a normal regional fine Merino flock to a highly respected ultra-fine flock has diminished threats to Talaheni’s viability, and, as John reports, “As a result we are now a sought after specialist provider of sharlea wethers for shedded sheep operators in southern Australia”.

John and Robyn have developed marketing strategies to ensure price returns meet their financial requirements. Angus steers are also produced for the beef cattle feedlot market.

By strategically planning production, including specifically-designed grazing and vegetation management techniques, John and Robyn have regenerated Talaheni, and built resilience into their landscape. They believe that environmental restoration is a necessary precursor to achieving production potential.

Advice has been sought from a wide range of sources throughout the regeneration process, such as from farming colleagues and agencies, but not always adopted. John and Robyn were initially told that overcoming their salinity problem by revegetating the ridges was impractical. They nevertheless went ahead with the plan, which has been demonstrated to be highly successful.

Improvements have been undertaken in a prioritised manner as funds have become available. Almost all work on Talaheni, such as fencing, pasture establishment, yard and building construction, has been undertaken by family members. Off-farm labour has only been used for shearing, fertiliser spreading and major earthworks for dams and contour banks.

John and Robyn also have an eye to considering wider issues for their farm, “In order to be better prepared for future climate change we have calculated that a two degree increase in average temperature, which might not seem much, would increase the average time above plant wilting point threshold [when they can no longer draw moisture from the soil] from 52 to 62 per cent of the time. Faced with this likelihood, we are trialling pastures that are more drought resistant”.

HISTORY OF TALAHENI

The area where Talaheni is located (Nanima), was first settled in the 1840s or 1850s. A gold mine, Xanadu, operated by Chinese people, was worked later in the 19th century. The gold was in narrow quartz veins and extraction required a steam-driven mill. Trees were felled for fuel for the boilers and an aqueduct was constructed to carry water to the site from the Yass River.

When gold mining was no longer economical, the miners turned to ring-barking and clearing the regrowth resulting from their felling.

By the turn of the century there was a dairy farm working next door to what is now Talaheni. Milk was carried by horse back to Canberra.

Since the early 1900s wool production in the area proved to be profitable, with graziers over numerous decades achieving record prices due to the excellent quality of the fine wool produced from the area.

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STRATEGIC PADDOCK DESIGN & MANAGEMENT

The Talaheni landscape is composed of highly folded and deeply dipping Ordovician metasediments with rocky hills interspaced by contrasting weathered valleys. With this landscape, John and Robyn believed that good management called for the different landscape elements, for instance hills and valleys, to be fenced separately, so that management could be correctly targeted throughout the year to maximise pasture growth and grazing opportunities. John and Robyn have subsequently more than quadrupled the number of paddocks originally at Talaheni. Each paddock was strategically planned taking into consideration variation in slope, aspect, soil depth, geology and vegetation. Now with their own water supply, each of these is carefully managed.

John describes, “At Talaheni we have gone from a chequerboard layout of nine paddocks to 38 resource-defined paddocks. Only one fence remains on its original alignment, the rest being pulled out and realigned to achieve the landscape separation we sought. A central laneway provides an efficient way to move stock around the property”.

Each paddock is now relatively uniform in landscape and soil characteristics such as slope, aspect and soil depth. Paddocks on the lower slopes and flats with deeper soils and more favourable soil moisture conditions now support productive exotic perennial species, primarily Phalaris aquatica pasture. The mid-slopes of the property support native perennial species, particularly pastures of weeping meadow grass (Microlaena stipoides). The hilltops, which 25 years ago only held a few aging trees that had survived earlier clearing, now have native tree vegetation cover.

This strategic design makes for easier decision making when selecting the best vegetation system and management for each paddock. In one case, fencing of a prominent hill to recognise different aspects has provided around four weeks extra green fodder for stock by preventing them abandoning the northerly area at the first sign of haying-off in preference for the increasingly more attractive southerly aspect.

image of grazing sheep
Sheep grazing patterns have been exploited to help regenerate hilltops during periods of drought.

John elaborates, “We divided a large paddock surrounding a hill into several smaller fenced sectors. Strategic grazing for short periods extends the productive grazing of the pastures by several weeks. Rather than allowing the stock to selectively and repeatedly graze the greener pastures, we can keep the stock on the more exposed side of the hill early in the season and move them sector by sector towards the more protected slopes as the pasture dries off”.

Strategic grazing enables pasture productivity to be optimised to match the seasonal conditions and herd and flock husbandry needs. The Ives employ brief heavy grazing, resting at least 25% of property at any one time.

John and Robyn’s approach to managing drought is particularly interesting. They consciously determine which parts of Talaheni are least likely to degrade during these trying times.

John explains, “The silent partner [the land] suffers when the business is failing. This is particularly the case with drought. During drought periods, we move the sheep from the erosion prone areas, which are the more productive flats and mid-slopes, to hilltop paddocks that become ‘sacrificial areas’. Here the stock are concentrated and hand fed throughout the drought. During this time the stock also eat out any remaining forage on these areas”.

“The logic of our approach is that these areas are not as vulnerable to erosion because of their high-in-the-landscape position and stony nature even when almost bare, they are however the sites of high recharge potential and cannot support productive pastures. This may seem a detrimental management practice. Our decision to protect the more productive pastures on erodible soils from grazing pressure during these hard times enables them to respond quickly once the drought breaks.”

With the onset of drought-breaking rains fuelling good pasture growth on the flats and mid-slopes, the hilltops are then destocked and stock moved down to these recovering areas.

“Grazing on the hilltops removes competition from grasses and forbs, leaving the seeds produced by the few remaining hilltop trees – which appear to have an innate ability to produce lots of seed in such periods – to germinate and establish with minimal competition. Given this setting, our experience is that eucalypt germination events are ‘like the hairs on a dog’s back’.”

With stock numbers reduced due to the drought, such areas can then be spelled possibly for many months as flocks and herds rebuild away from these areas, allowing the young trees to become well established without any setback from grazing. If grazing is required from these areas then John and Robyn prefer to pulse graze with stock introduced at very high stocking rates for relatively short periods so they graze the re-establishing grasses and forbs but are removed before any permanent damage occurs to the trees.

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REDUCING SALINITY THROUGH REVEGETATING THE RIDGES

… we have ‘established’ more than 200,000 trees at very little cost on most inhospitable sites.

Talaheni comprises 250 hectares of rolling to hilly terrain. Prior to conversion to intensive grazing, the land cover was forest and grassy woodland. The main tree species were red box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), red stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha), and brittle gum (Eucalyptus mannifera). The majority of pastures are native perennial grasses.

John and Robyn believed from early on that they could reduce their salinity problems by lowering the water table through utilising more water higher on their property. Revegetating the ridges was seen as the way to reduce rainfall infiltrating to the water table. The water table would then be lowered to below the level where saline groundwater could seep to the surface on the potentially productive lower flats.

Over time, this technique has reversed the extensive dryland salinity that had appeared on the property over the previous decades. Without the surface saline seeps, the loss of vegetation cover has been repaired and sheet and gully erosion has reduced.

image of same area of Talaheni in1980 and 2012
Left: In 1982, Talaheni was bare with visible saline seeps. Right: In 2012, revegetation has reduced salinity and pastures are healthy. Initial swales are visible across the lower right of the image.

As part of their grazing strategy, the revegetation has been achieved by intensively grazing ridge areas to maximise ground disturbance and then removing the sheep for one to two years. Tree seeds can germinate readily on disturbed ground and have a chance to establish if the sheep are kept off for long enough.

Where there were insufficient remaining trees to provide seed, seedlings were planted in multiple row strips. The ground was prepared by ripping with a bulldozer to break open the rocky and compacted soils and to enable tree roots to penetrate. Species with potential for quality timber production were included in these tree belts so that, in the long-term, there would be scope for a potential additional source of revenue from timber.

image of tree revegetation
Where there were insufficient seeds for natural regeneration, tree seedlings were planted, including species for possible timber production.

Understanding the land and climate has helped John and Robyn exploit conditions, such as drought, to achieve their goals through grazing management. “While there is little one can do to influence the progress of a drought, we must remain vigilant and take full advantage of any benefits. For landholders wanting to increase tree cover on their properties, drought can get the green revegetation wheel rolling with very little effort when resources are sorely stretched. This has been our experience during the dry times over the past 25 years. We estimate that we have established more than 200,000 locally native trees by exploiting seed production through the drought, with very little effort on our part”, John says.

Any growth is also managed with strategic goals in mind. John explains, “Where we observe excessive re-establishment of tree seedlings on areas with pasture potential then these areas may be managed to remove or reduce tree cover. The approach used depends upon the size of the area and timing. Tools in the armoury include mattocking, spot spraying with herbicide, bull blading and stem injection of herbicide, either singly or in combination to spread the workload over time. Areas are assessed to identify the better soils and flagging tape used to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ areas for easier spotting when removing trees. Where more than one species has re-established, the composition of the stand can be influenced also at this stage. In our case, red box, when present, is preferred to red stringybark. Later still, selective thinning is employed to achieve a vigorous and more sustainable stand density while providing sturdy poles and timber for farm and off-farm use”.

“Using this approach we have ‘established’ more than 200,000 trees at very little cost on most inhospitable sites. This compares with about 20,000 seedlings planted by hand, representing a labour intensive and timing critical process over the same period.”

The hilltop trees now cover the areas with the highest recharge potential and as they grow they continue to “tighten the screw on the recharge tap” and reduce the incidence of dryland salinity on the lower and more productive flats enabling successful establishment of vigorous exotic perennial pastures.

It is estimated that each hectare of ridge top that was revegetated has led to a beneficial lowering of the watertable over 50 hectares of nearby adjoining flats, much of which is on neighbouring properties.

image of half treed half bare ridgeline
The Ive’s ridgeline regeneration success is apparent at their fenceline with neighbouring properties.

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TALAHENI SOIL

When John and Robyn purchased Talaheni 30 years ago the soil health was poor. Nutrient levels were low, as was pH, at around 3.6 in some areas. Soil carbon levels of below 1% meant infiltration and water holding capacity were poor. Aluminium levels were high. High groundwater levels led to saline seeps across a substantial proportion of the property and as a consequence, much of the property suffered from sheet and gully erosion.

Some of these aspects are a natural feature of Talaheni soils, which have been derived from nutrient poor Ordovician metasediments. Landscape cross sections range from ridge top lithosols passing through gravelly shallow red podzolics, to shallow to moderately deep red podozolics to soloths and solodics on the flats.

To improve the soil health, the Ives have added sulphur-enriched reactive rock phosphate and Canberra sewage ash and lime have been used to address pH levels. Poultry manure and gypsum have been applied to assist in improving soil physical properties. Combined with the benefits of increased ground cover and vegetation, soil phosphorus and sulphur levels have increased, as have soil carbon levels. In some of the healthiest areas, soil carbon has recently been measured at 4%. John and Robyn maintain soil nutrient status records, and have over 30 years of periodic sampling data.

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TALAHENI WATER

…management of water tables has all but eliminated saline seeps.

Talaheni has no permanent or ephemeral streams so water supplies depend on a network of dams and tanks on buildings. Construction of the dams was often associated with complementary contour and graded banks. Dams were frequently installed at points where serious gullies were previously active and have been made as deep as possible with as small a surface area as possible to minimise evaporation losses. Contour and graded banks control water movement through the landscape and reduce risk of soil erosion while increasing the opportunity for retaining water on property. Where limited cultivation has been undertaken, this has been done on the contour. Areas with high runoff potential on steep slopes have been ripped at intervals to a depth of 70cm to assist rainfall infiltration and ultimately pasture growth where salinity risk was low.

The low plant-available soil moisture holding capacity, averaging around 60mm, made it a priority to retain as much moisture in the profile where it falls for use by pasture. Accordingly, continuous groundcover has been sought where possible. John notes, “A daily soil water balance ‘WATERBANK’ model has been developed to give a greater understanding of the fate of rainfall and to aid routine management and timing of operations”.

image of dams
To minimise evaporation, dams were made as deep as possible with small surface areas.

Improved soils and water monitoring helps the Ives to manage their variable annual rainfall, which, in the last ten years, has ranged from 363mm in 2006 to 967mm in 2010.

Saline seeps were previously common across Talaheni. High recharge on rocky ridge tops lead to expression of dryland salinity on potentially more productive lower flats. Consequently, water management was initially viewed as the most vital management challenge by John and Robyn. Now, their management of water tables has all but eliminated saline seeps.

The significant revegetation of Talaheni ridges has reduced rainfall deep drainage to the water table, lowering it to below the level where saline groundwater can seep to the surface. The installation of a network of piezometers (devices which measure groundwater pressure and water table height) more than 20 years ago and weekly monitoring has provided a great understanding of the response to this and other on-farm actions to reduce recharge. Documented evidence shows the significant decline in watertable levels and an equally impressive decline in salinity levels of groundwater.

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SUCCESS AT HOME & ABROAD

One needs to develop the skills to read one’s own landscape…

Production increases began to be experienced only a few years after John and Robyn commenced implementation of their plan to repair Talaheni. John summarises, “We started implementing the plan in 1980, and in terms of stock numbers there has been a steady rise since 1983 (trend line 0.15 DSE/ha per year increase). Wool production increase – taking into account wool cut and fibre diameter – has a trend line increase since 1985 at 38 units a year. Cattle weaning weight, adjusted for age, birth date, sex, age of cow trend line has increased at 1kg a year since 1985. These trends continue to the present, when seasonal impacts are removed. Visually change was apparent in 1984. With an above average season we managed to get good groundcover with gullies having been filled and contour and graded banks functioning to slow water movement through landscape”.

image of cattle
Angus beef provides a supplementary production line to ultrafine wool.

A feature of Talaheni has been the protection of remnants of dry sclerophyll woodland, native forests which typically consist of multi-aged stands of eucalypts with an understorey dominated by hard leafed shrubs, grasses, sedges or bracken fern. The health of native vegetation has improved with major recruitment of new trees as result of the Ive’s innovative management practices. Where seed trees do not exist, hand planting has been successful in establishing a corridor network of linking native vegetation.

Overall, around 20,000 native species trees have been planted over the past 30 years, plus an estimated 200,000 trees have been established naturally by the strategic grazing and rest management exploiting variable seasonal conditions. This technique has been documented and subsequently adopted by other landholders.

Measurement and monitoring are important features of the implementation of the Ive’s plan for Talaheni. Transects have been established and vegetation periodically monitored. Regular bird surveys have been undertaken resulting in a current and growing inventory of 125 species. Third-party studies of native ant populations, which are bio-indicators, reveal healthy conditions. Fencing out of remnants and exclusion of domestic grazing together with establishment of linking native vegetation corridors continues to enhance the quality of animal and plant life in the region, and previously moribund trees have recovered.

Initial large areas of serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) and black thistle (Cirsium vulgare) indicated degraded pastures. However over the years the Ive family have worked to improve the per cent of ground covered by pastures and to control major weeds using a targeted spraying program. In addition, every farm vehicle always carries a small mattock and a culture of digging out plants where ever seen during normal farm activities anytime throughout the year has been established.

Using this approach, major weeds found in the district such as serrated tussock, black thistle, fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis) and St Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum) are a relatively minor problem. John notes, “Although these weeds are not totally eradicated, due largely to wind-blown seed migrating from adjoining properties, control these days is a minor task”.

Successful land managers adapt by adopting production and land management systems appropriate to the circumstances, the markets and the environment.

The success of Talaheni has been widely recognised locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Results from a number of collaborative on-farm trials with different agencies continue to be used to promote new or amended practices throughout the region and are the focus for regular on-farm field days.

John and Robyn have experienced the steady receipt of some 27 awards for farming achievements over the past 30 years – the most recent was the National Carbon Cocky Award in September 2011. National and international press have carried stories of Talaheni – one article appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and Chinese Peoples Daily.

As a result of such achievements, John and Robyn are regularly asked to provide on and off farm presentations to groups from across south eastern Australia and overseas. They also serve on a number of industry and state committees dealing with resource issues, such as the AWI Wool Carbon Alliance.

John summarises, “The journey has been an immensely gratifying one as Talaheni has been transformed from an environmental and farming basket-case to an enterprise that attracts interest from near and far and continues to be recognised with the receipt of awards and invitations to present to farming and agency audiences across southern Australia”.

WORDS OF ADVICE

John points out the importance of embracing change in improving land management practices, “People are reluctant to consider and embrace new approaches because of ingrained attitudes. In our view, change is inevitable. Successful land managers adapt by adopting production and land management systems appropriate to the circumstances, the markets and the environment. By resisting change and sticking with the old ways the silent partner, that is, the land, suffers”.

John and Robyn believe that there is no single right way to improve land management. “Our desire is that people reading about Talaheni shouldn’t consider Talaheni as a place for rote learning, but should study the principles and apply them to their circumstances.” They recommend that, “One needs to develop the skills to read one’s own landscape and the processes involved and then seek to address the limiting and declining factors supported by a sound monitoring program. Although this may draw upon experiences and recommendations of others, the adoption of established management approaches in a rote-like manner is fraught with danger and not encouraged”.

Likewise the term ‘best practice’ is not encouraged by John and Robyn due to the finality it implies. They say, “Rather, practices should be seen more in the dynamic vane of a rainbow – although always in sight, they remain elusive but tantalisingly achievable as new and better understanding moves the destination”.

image of trees on ridgeline

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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