‘TALLAWANG’ – GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

Craig Carter and his partner Nicky Chirlian aspire to a balance of low farming inputs, comfortable returns and a healthy diverse landscape. Implementing a combination of water management and grazing practices has restored their landscape hydrology, delivering the productive, greener pastures to support their goal.

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

FARM FACTS

Willow Tree, 60km south-west of Quirindi, NSW North West Slopes and Plains

ENTERPRISE: Cattle, sheep. Beef cattle and sheep trading

PROPERTY SIZE: 445 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 800 mm

ELEVATION: 400-500m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Disenchantment with ‘traditional’ grazing methods in producing a healthy landscape and adequate returns

INNOVATIONS

  • Construction of leaky weirs and swales to slow water flow
  • Rotational grazing in wagon-wheel design
  • Stock trading
  • Innovations commenced: 2002

KEY RESULTS

  • 250% increase in carrying capacity
  • 15-23% profit margin on cattle production
  • Constant river outflow regardless of inflow
  • Improved landscape hydrology
  • Increased native biodiversity

INTRODUCTION

Craig and Nicky both returned to their farming backgrounds after pursuing other careers for a period of time – for Craig, running a financial planning business in Sydney, while Nicky worked in disability services in Armidale. Nicky now runs a private speech pathology practice in Quirindi and surrounding districts.

On arrival at Tallawang in 2001, Craig was concerned about the poor condition of the land – erosion, soil compaction and impoverished pastures – and the severely eroded creek and gullies. He had become disenchanted with his family history of “traditional” land use and set stock grazing on other properties. It was apparent that traditional grazing methods had not produced a healthy landscape nor provided adequate returns. To achieve these outcomes, Craig combined the principles of two newer methods he had encountered, rotational grazing techniques learned through the Grazing for Profit course and water management based on Peter Andrews’ Natural Sequence Farming methods.

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BLENDING PRINCIPLES TO ATTAIN EFFECTIVE HYDROLOGY

When he purchased Tallawang in 2001, Craig’s objective was to establish a low cost, regenerative grazing operation. In terms of obstacles in moving from the traditional farming methods he had grown up with, Craig says, “the main impediment to change is between the ears”.

Drawing from the more contemporary farm management practices he had encountered over the years, Craig and Nicky now apply a blend of the principles of Grazing for Profit and Natural Sequence Farming. These combined techniques have been used to implement a philosophy of low input cost for significant return, using cattle trading and breeding.

The main impediment to change is between the ears.

Craig notes, “We have used a range of management tools that are all designed to be low cost, low impact bumps on mother nature’s side to assist her to rebuild the function of a damaged environment. This is a constant learning process”.

In summary, cell grazing was introduced to Tallawang in 2002. Accessing available grant monies, Yarramanbah Creek, which runs through the property, was fenced and tree corridors were planted. In 2005 a series of leaky weirs was constructed along the length of the creek to retard water flow and enable the original chain of ponds to become re-established.

The existing contour banks in higher country were modified in 2009, by blocking them at intervals, to form swales that retain and more effectively use water in the upper parts of the landscape. This process has enabled surface water to infiltrate higher in the landscape, thus maintaining the quality and quantity of the pasture longer in the drier times, By enabling more water to be absorbed into the soil, the pastures are more lush resulting in the cattle tending to walk less to find the water trough, which is located lower down the slope.

Some slashing has been used since 2010 in combination with cell grazing on creek flats to increase soil organic matter and encourage regeneration of native grasses.

As a result, water is retained in the landscape for longer, being readily available for plants and animals. Combined with increased vegetation and soil organic matter, overall landscape hydrology has improved. Craig and Nicky are monitoring these results.

Craig notes, “As we experiment with new tools and expand our skills with old favourites, we aim to record what we have done and the observed responses. Hopefully the landscape function and productivity are improving under our watch”.

Left: Erosion along the creek had exposed the underlying base of basalt rocks.
Right: Healing erosion along banks as a result of interventions.

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CONVERTING THE WATERWAYS

Yarramanbah Creek bisects Tallawang, winding for 4.5km through the property. Average annual rainfall in the region is approximately 800mm, falling mainly from December to February and June to July.

Prior to the 1960s Tallawang was grazed with sheep and cattle. A central bore supplied two small tanks from where water was reticulated to 25 troughs. Yarramanbah Creek had also been used for stock water and was fenced into small paddocks along its length. The banks of the creek and tributaries were incised, with gullies and contour banks further draining water off the property, increasing susceptibility to drought. The creek had eroded down to a base of basalt rocks and stones for its length. Vegetation associated with the creek was characterised by remnant she-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana) and rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda) trees. Little regeneration was observed and many of the trees were over-mature and senescent.

Craig employed Peter Andrews to design creek structures, at a project cost of $17,000, establishing a series of leaky weirs in the creek. These were constructed mainly using dead trees in conjunction with later plantings of common flag reed (Phragmites australis). Potential opposition to this work from the government authorities soon dissipated when the positive environmental effect on retarding flow and creating ponds became evident.

Casurina regrowth and pioneer species covering the old creek bed.
Grassed up basalt rock creek bed forming a chain of ponds.

Six years later, the previously bare soils and gravel beds are covered with regenerating plants – including prolific pioneer plants or weeds but also dense patches of river she-oak seedlings. Considerable siltation is evident as the vegetation traps sediment carried from properties upstream.

Yarramanbah Creek is now a ‘chain of ponds’ with inflow varying according to local rainfall, but constant outflow. Craig’s paddock layout provides cattle water points high in the landscape, which discourages stock from accessing the creek for water and causing any damage to banks.

In 2009 Craig modified the existing contour banks in the higher country by blocking them at intervals to form swales. He also constructed additional swales to further intercept runoff and increase rainfall infiltration in the upper slopes.

Phragmites australis regenerating along the creek bed.

Craig states, “Through our work in converting the contour banks constructed in the 1960s into water holding swales, we are restoring the watershed. This process is beginning to restore the hydrological function of the landscape”.

Improved hydrological function ensures maximum infiltration, extending the growing season of the grasses and providing greener pastures. As a result, Tallawang has become significantly wetter along the upper and mid slopes with increased palatable vegetation later in the drier seasons. Wells that were empty on Craig’s arrival to the property are now full. Previously dry soils along the creek flats are now swampy meadows and wetland plants that did not exist on the property prior to the commencement of the work are in abundance. Rainfall is now available to be used effectively where it falls, rather than being whisked away quickly by poor ground cover with eroded creek lines acting as drains.

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FROM BREEDING TO TRADING

The first cattle to graze in the Cattle Creek locality were brought there in 1826 from the Hunter Valley by Benjamin Singleton (after whom the Hunter Valley town is named) and his son-in-law Otto Baldwin. The locality was included in the Warrah Estate, a property of some 100,000 hectares granted to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1833. The land occupied by Tallawang formed one of the paddocks of the Warrah Estate.

When introducing cell grazing in 2002, Craig elected to use a ‘wagon wheel’ fencing design, where paddocks are arranged radiating from a water point at the centre, and single-wire electric fencing for cost-effective grazing management.

To the casual visitor, one of the most obvious differences at Tallawang compared to other cattle properties is the style of fencing used to manage the herd. Gone are the gates – one simply lifts and drives under, or drives over the fences. The internal permanent fences that were present in 2001, that is, closely spaced fence posts and considerable amounts of wire, have been removed.

Stock have access to a central waterpoint from multiple paddocks using the wagon wheel design.

There are now around 100 small triangular shaped paddocks arranged in six cells. At first glance the fences are rather skimpy, comprising sparsely spaced steel posts and a single strand of high-tensile electric wire, running 3000-4000 volts. The simple construction allows fencing layouts to be easily moved or modified to suit landscape needs. Fences are only turned on around individual paddocks being grazed, and the cattle know when the fences are turned on; otherwise they just walk right over the wire. As a general rule each paddock is grazed for no more than three days out of every 90 days.

Craig manages his property to meet production and landscape outcomes, “Across Tallawang we have gradually increased the stocking rate, based on availability of regenerating native grasses. Cattle are not hand fed [when pastures become depleted] – numbers are managed according to available biomass and rainfall”. To facilitate this, Craig has changed the business from a breeding focus to a trading focus, which entails greater flexibility with stocking rates. Trading cattle enables stocking to be varied as needed to suit seasonal conditions.

“This initiative comes from my experience as a share trader at the Sydney Stock Exchange. At the start of winter, I look to the New England tablelands almost 200km away, where the winters are much harder on pastures than they are on the Liverpool Ranges. At that time cattle producers on the New England are looking to sell their stock to protect their pastures over the harsh cold winter; at the same time I can be looking to buy in cattle to help manage excess grass cover. It is a sound business model for us”, Craig explains.

Illustration of a cell of paddocks in a wagon wheel design. This depicts Paddock 3 being grazed, with access to the waterpoint and electric fence turned on.

The stock carrying capacity has increased dramatically with the introduction of time-controlled cell grazing and the restoration of native pastures. In 2002, Tallawang was carrying 218 dairy heifers with an average weight of 300kg. In early 2012, the stock comprises 300 breeding cows plus progeny, as well as 360 ewes with lambs and a further 150 ewes due to lamb in the following month.

“The main tool we have used over the last decade is grazing management. By varying the numbers of stock and using a short graze and long rest period and the paddock size, we are able to encourage the more palatable grasses while the less desirable ones get trampled and can’t compete. The key variable is the timing, frequency and amount of rain”, Craig points out. Craig maintains rolling monthly rainfall data to inform his grazing management, with records for comparison back to 1883.

“Livestock are integral to this process. Like all tools they can be used badly or effectively. Overgrazing has been a cause of a significant amount of degradation in the landscape, merely amending that has had some dramatic positive impacts.”

Increased silt deposits have allowed reed beds and swampy meadows to form along the creek.

RE-HYDRATING THE SOIL

In the lower slopes and narrow riparian plains where Tallawang is located, soils are deep, heavy clay soils (vertisols) derived on weathered basalt. The vertisols, which are widespread in the Liverpool plains region, have high natural fertility. However, when Craig purchased the property in late 2001, Tallawang was typical of most heavy basalt soils, with deficiencies in nitrogen, sulphur and selenium.

Reviewing past practices shows how Craig’s approach has improved the hydrology of soil. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cropping was introduced in the 1960s and it is understood that introduction of cropping coincided with extensive earth works. Earth banks were constructed at a slight decline towards the gullies to remove excess soil water and enable cropping. The increased runoff to the drainage lines may have exacerbated the already severe gully and streambed erosion. By 2000, water retention along the upper and mid slopes was poor, increasing the property’s susceptibility to drought.

The effects of the cropping practices prior to 2001 can be seen by a recent comparison of a native pasture site on the property with a cropped site, as shown in the following table. Both sites had the same general history of grazing from the 1820s until the 1960s. The cropped site was cropped from the 1960s to 2000, and even with over ten years of improved management practices, still shows poorer results in terms of ground cover, carbon and nitrogen stores.

Site (2011)Native pastureCropped
Ground cover95%73%
Total carbon4.9%2.4%
Total nitrogen   0.3%0.2%

Increased soil carbon, ground cover, and slowing the flow of water through the leaky weirs has all contributed to improved soil hydrology. Craig notes, “The property has become significantly wetter in higher country with increased vegetation following implementation of swales, and swampy meadows establishing on creek flats”.

Paralleling improvements in the hydrological function has been a steady increase in organic matter in soil. Much of the increased soil carbon has been due to cell grazing over ten years with inputs from cattle manure and humus associated with short term high rotation of cattle. Soil tests from one paddock of native pasture show continuing improvement over time, as presented in the table below.

Year2008 
2011
Total carbon2.86%      4.90%      
Total nitrogen0.27%0.30%
pH (1:5 water)   7.186.6

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PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES

The main tool we have used over the last decade is grazing management.

The original native vegetation of the area surrounding Tallawang was grassy box woodland with sparse eucalypts.

At the time of purchase, Tallawang appeared run down and overgrazed. The property comprised 20% lucerne (for grazing and hay), 5% grazing oats and 75% native and naturalised pasture. Previous management had relied excessively on lucerne for grazing and supplementary feeding of all stock had been required each winter.

By changing the grazing management, Craig has transformed the landscape. There is extensive regeneration of kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), tall oat grass (Themeda avenacea), lobed blue grass (Bothriochloa biloba) and silky brown top (Eulalia aurea). A gradual decrease in lucerne has been observed through use of cell grazing and some slashing of plains grass, combined with broadcast legumes in 2009. Native trees and shrubs are naturally regenerating.

Pastures with visible exposed bare ground in 2002 (left) now have 95% groundcover and
a significantly increased carrying capacity (right).

By creating the environment to re-establish the chain of ponds along the Yarramanbah Creek there has been observed significant recruitment of varieties of sedges and rushes, notably cigar rush (Lepironia articulata), club rush (Schoenoplectus spp.) and marsh club rush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis), as well as considerable recruitment of river she-oak, rough-barked apple and native olive (Notelaea microcarpa).

BIODIVERSITY ON TALLAWANG

Plant life observed on the property includes:

Perennial Grasses

  • silky brown top (Eulalia aurea)
  • kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra)
  • tall oat grass (Themeda avenacea)
  • blue grass (Dichanthium sericeum subsp. sericeum)
  • wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia bipartita)
  • Warrego summer grass (Paspalidium jubiflorum)
  • water couch (Paspalum distichum)
  • wild sorghum (Sorghum leiocladum)
  • plains grass (Austrostipa aristiglumis)
  • cotton panic (Digitaria brownie)
  • hairy panic (Panicum effusum)
  • slender bamboo grass (Austrostipa verticillata)
  • tall Chloris (Chloris ventricosa)
  • lobed blue grass (Bothriochloa biloba)
  • red grass (Bothriochloa macra)

Wetland Plants

  • spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)
  • spike sedge (Bolboscheonus spp.)
  • common flag reed (Phragmites australis)
  • cigar rush (Lepironia articulata )
  • club rush (Schoenoplectus spp.)
  • marsh club rush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis)

Trees

  • white box (Eucalyptus albens)
  • river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
  • Blakely’s red gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi)
  • rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda)
  • kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)
  • river she-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana)
  • hickory wattle (Acacia implexa)
  • Cooba (Acacia salicina)
  • native olive (Notelaea microcarpa)

Weeds on Tallawang are not seen as an area of concern for Craig and no chemicals are used for weed management. His experience has shown that weeds follow a natural sequence, with reductions in weeds, such as Bathurst burr (Xanthium spinosum) and stickybeak (Bidens pilosa), occurring as native pastures increase. Across the property, prickly pear (Opuntia stricta) and sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa) are the more persistent perennial weeds and these are removed manually. Nearby roadside verges do have some infestation of African love grass (Eragrostis curvula), Coolatai grass (Hyparrhenia hirta), Noogoora burr (Xanthium spp.) and a small amount of St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum),but these are not problematic on Tallawang.

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ATTAINING BALANCE

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

Craig’s management practices have transformed the two main soil-landscape types on Tallawang; riparian systems and gently sloping grassy box gum woodlands. Compared to 2001, Tallawang now has more ecological function, restoring what is naturally inherent in grassy woodlands landscapes.

The innovations have resulted in a rehydrated landscape, and the restored ecological function is evidenced by increased ground cover, biomass and soil carbon. The property is becoming increasingly “drought proofed”. There is a broadened diversity of native grasses as they re-emerge from the seed, stabilised creek banks, regenerating riparian vegetation and increased biodiversity.

Numbers and species of small birds and parrots, spiders, frogs and echidnas have increased across the property as a result of the management changes and increase of vegetation cover, particularly native vegetation. Reptiles – geckos, lizards and lace monitors – are seen more frequently. Firetail gudgeons, a small native fish, have been observed in the creek. There are more wetland plants including spiny-headed mat-rush, other rushes, common flag reed and significant regeneration of river she-oak, rough-barked apple and native olive.

In 2012 Tallawang now aims for a 15 to 23% profit on cattle production through breeding and trading programs. Organic matter is increasing and cattle numbers can be managed with very little input costs. Craig has presented on Natural Sequence Farming at various venues and has become a member of the Sydney University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources ‘CANEn’ project – Connecting Agriculture, Nutrition and Environment.

Craig and Nicky have established a personal philosophy for health and life balances. Together they have learned to read their country and landscape and to work with this to enable them to tread lightly on the environment. To ensure the ongoing health of their landscape and their lives they aim, “to be continuously open to new ideas and have the courage to implement them as avenues to meet ongoing goals”.


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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‘THREE RIVERS STATION’ – RESTORING THE GASCOYNE RANGELAND WITH COMMITMENT, COOPERATION AND HARD WORK

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

RESTORING THE GASCOYNE RANGELAND – COMMITMENT, COOPERATION & HARD WORK

Graham Forsyth and his son Ben have an absolute commitment to the work they are performing on Three Rivers Station to slow the flow of water, restore soil health and regenerate their part of the degraded West Australian rangelands in the Gascoyne River catchment.

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

FARM FACTS

230 km north of Meekatharra, 1000 km north east of Perth, WA Mid West

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Bos Taurus beef production

PROPERTY SIZE: 480,000 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 225 mm

ELEVATION: 550-600m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Degraded landscape unable to support stock

INNOVATIONS

  • De-stocking of property to allow for regeneration
  • Construction of strategic earthworks to slow surface water flow, restore water flow to wetlands and floodplains, reduce erosion, build soil and promote perennial pasture regeneration
  • Innovations commenced: 2004

KEY RESULTS

  • Gradual regeneration of perennial pastures
  • Erosion stabilisation and reduction
  • Water ponding and reduced evaporation

INTRODUCTION

From their initial purchase of the pastoral lease in 1984, the Forsyth family built Three Rivers Station into a highly successful and extensive beef enterprise. During this time, the family came to realise that traditional management of the rangelands had caused them to decline to a critically fragile level. In response to this knowledge they began to implement different management practices to regenerate rangeland function.

image of sun shining through trees and grassland
Three Rivers scenery

Since 1992, increasing mining operations and exploration on the station has interrupted pastoral operations and made large demands on water supplies in the aquifers. However, it was observing cattle of below expected condition at the 2003 muster that led the Forsyths to make the difficult decision to de-stock their property. This has culminated in the effective suspension of pastoral operations while mine exploration and development is taking place, but has enabled conditions to help restore the landscape.

The Forsyths have turned what could have been a family catastrophe into an opportunity, working with the mining companies to halt the decline and accelerate the regeneration of the rangelands. After building their knowledge on local landscape and function, they have been experimenting with earthworking techniques such as rakes and bunds to stabilise erosion areas and nurturing perennial grass seed banks. This work has seen active gullies stabilised, surface water flow slowed and spread across the landscape and a dramatic increase in the abundance, diversity and vigour of perennial grasses.

Together, Graham and Ben Forsyth are investing in the future to re-establish grazing operations. They are restoring the degraded landscape in their part of the West Australian rangelands.

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THREE RIVERS STATION

Three Rivers Station is located at the headwaters of the Gascoyne River in the rangelands in the mid-north of Western Australia, intersected by the Great Northern Highway. It has been used for extensive pastoral operations since 1898. The long term average rainfall is about 225mm with very large variability and a trend towards summer dominant rainfall or significant storm events evident in the last decades.

“We are responsible to produce food that makes people healthy and that gives a fair share to everyone in the supply chain so they can look after their people and the land.”

The Forsyth family purchased the Three Rivers pastoral lease in 1984. In 1992 they sold the lease to Plutonic Gold Mine, which is currently owned by Barrick Resources Pty Ltd of Canada. The Forsyths subsequently sub-leased back the grazing rights to the property.

The Forsyths built up a high quality breeding herd based on Bos Taurus genetics. From 1995 to 2004 the progeny from Three Rivers was used to produce the Forsyth family’s own Three Rivers Beef, which was marketed across Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. The Three Rivers brand was notable not only for the quality of the product, but also for the values the brand embodied: integrity of relationship with the pastoral ecology and ensuring that everyone in the supply chain got a fair share of the profits. As Graham says, “We are responsible to produce food that makes people healthy and that gives a fair share to everyone in the supply chain so they can look after their people and the land”.

The Forsyth family were conservative in their stocking levels and traditionally managed to a carrying capacity of 2,857 large stock units (unit of measure based on the feed requirements for a 450kg steer). Availability of stock water is important when managing grazing in the vast rangelands where the size of the area makes fencing cost-prohibitive. Watering points are used to encourage cattle to move to areas ready to be grazed and to leave areas needing rest. Provision of water for cattle on Three Rivers Station is from permanent natural water as well as localised watering points. Watering points are supplied from local bores using a combination of windmill, tank and trough as well as solar and diesel pumps.

Initially, processing of ore at Plutonic Mine placed a large demand on water supply. In response, watering points had to be deepened by over a metre to reach the water table. Plutonic have since implemented recycling, water use efficiency programs and tapped into a second water table, somewhat easing the pressure on station water.

THE FRAGILE RANGELANDS

“Generally, soil health in Western Australia’s arid rangelands is historically unknown, or not considered, by land managers.”

Western Australia’s rangelands are vast areas of lands from the headwaters and catchments of major rivers including the Gascoyne and the Murchison. The original sandy loam topsoils have traditionally been a rich resource for extensive grazing operations and have been the base of major industries producing beef, sheep and wool. The rangelands are a fragile and sparsely populated landscape on ancient geology in a harsh and unforgiving climate.

The rangelands are also a mineral resource asset. Since starting slowly in the 1960s, mining interest in the area has accelerated. There are currently 40 mining and exploration leases and two active mines on Three Rivers Station. The main mineral interests are copper, gold and iron ore. Mining exploration and operations can be highly disruptive to pastoral enterprises and the landscape as they set up rigs, mines and roads and compete for water from the local aquifers.

image of an erosion gutter forming
An example of road construction re-directing the flow of water, potentially causing an erosion threat to the floodplain.

There is ample evidence that unfortunately, until recently, some members of the rangeland community have not understood the brittle nature of the land, its vulnerability to the placement and construction of roads, the importance of perennial grasses to the landscape function and the vulnerability of the grasses to over-grazing.

Ben points out, “Generally, soil health in Western Australia’s arid rangelands is historically unknown, or not considered, by land managers. The most limiting soil factor is water and the main symptom of soil ill health is landscape desiccation as a result of loss of perennial ground cover species and nicks in the landscape resulting in an accelerating incising of the drainage lines”.

image of a salt-encrusted creek-bed
Evident salinity in a streambed.

The land is so brittle that areas of wagon tracks of the old settlers, or accidental ‘nicks’ in the landscape caused by new roads in contemporary times can have a major effect if they result in concentration of water into a channel on bare ground. The landscape is so flat, that an incision measuring only centimetres can change the water course. In large rain events, small incisions can result in rapid gully formation and change the drainages so significantly that the course of the river can be altered, leaving important wetlands and floodplains perched above even the most significant floods. Such a minor incision in this flat landscape can concentrate large amounts of water that should spread gently over the plains without damaging them, into destructive torrents that can wash metres of soil (and salt) downstream. This in turn threatens the productivity of lower areas in the catchment.

As a result of decades of poor grazing practice, the rangeland perennial grasses have steadily declined. This, plus erosion-causing surface damage, has left the fragile topsoil exposed and vulnerable to the variable climate and occasional, but quite extreme rain events. By the latter part of last century, much of the topsoil in the rangelands had eroded, leaving the hard, water-shedding subsoil that can only support sparse annual grasses and shrubs that are tough enough to establish roots.

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A CHANGE IN TRADITION

The Forsyth family was endeavouring to stop erosion and to restore the landscape function whilst running a fully operational pastoral business, however incremental change was not sufficient. Ben points out, “When dramatic change is needed, more often than not dramatic action will be required to jar things out of the current paradigm”.

Dramatic action was triggered at the 2003 muster when the family observed that the cattle did not look as good as they thought they ought to, given the amount of feed that appeared to be on offer. They made the decision to remove all the mustered cattle from Three Rivers and to de-stock the property. To this day Graham Forsyth is convinced that if he had not done this, many of the cattle would have died the following summer, even if heavy weaning was carried out. This courageous act has cost the family approximately one million dollars in direct costs and lost opportunity from the pastoral lease.

Hard subsoils exposed after loss of topsoil along the river.

As a consequence, the combination of declined landscape function and the difficulties of integrating their pastoral operations with further mining exploration and expansion prevented the Forsyths from running a viable pastoral business at Three Rivers Station. In Graham’s words, “When your cash flow stops, all hell breaks loose”.

Pastoralists whose stations are already showing signs of degradation and who are also being significantly impacted by mining would be forgiven for selling their lease to the mines and leaving. Instead, the Forsyth family chose to turn what could have been a tragic end to a pastoral family tradition into an opportunity to accelerate rangeland regeneration.

Together, Graham and his son Ben, are forging a new era of pastoral cooperation with mining in the rangelands. They have formed a new business, Three Rivers Contracting, to provide services to the mining companies in support of their exploration and mining operations. This business leverages the Forsyth knowledge of the land, their skills with machinery and earthworks and their business acumen. The machinery used in support of mining is compatible with that needed on the rangeland for regeneration works. It allows them to earn an income from an alternate use of the land and the developing partnership has already enabled strategically important interventions to regenerate this valuable landscape.

Mining companies are obligated to restore the landscapes they have operated in. In the past, many mining restoration works have been focused at the closure of part of a mine, or at the end of operations, levelling hills of overburden into the excavations and restoring vegetation. Generally, the more remote the mine, the less effort devoted to rehabilitation. At Three Rivers, Graham and Ben and their partners in the mines, in particular Barrick Gold, are demonstrating that a great deal of highly effective landscape regeneration can be occurring whilst the mine is still operating. Such a progressive approach to regeneration potentially offers benefits to the mine and its personnel through local service provision to complement the mining company’s own skills, greater landscape amenity through regenerated rangelands and possibly improved security of water supply by greater recharge of the aquifers – as well as beginning the landscape repair required as part of the mine’s exit strategy.

LEARNING IN ORDER TO HEAL

They are now demonstrating that… these pastures can also build soil, guard against erosion and increase ecological complexity and function.

A combination of influences and their own observations led the Forsyth family to recognise that the ecological health of Three Rivers Station was declining and that this was partly due to their own and others’ mismanagement of aspects such as groundwater and roads which could have a negative impact the landscape.

Particularly influential were insights gained from working with respected rangeland ecologists, Dr. Ken Tinley and Dr Hugh Pringle. Together they worked on a program to facilitate ecologically sustainable rangeland management using the Ecosystem Management Understanding (EMU) approach, as delivered jointly by the West Australian Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Conservation. Building on local knowledge, the EMU approach involves reading and recognising the terrain elements in the landscape, their internal and linking functions, condition and trends. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of what the landscape can and cannot offer.

In addition to participation in these formal programs, the Forsyth family invested a great deal of personal effort in their study of the history, geography and climate of the area to better understand what was happening in the landscape. They used the diaries of the original settlers, examined the notes regarding rainfall and stocking levels from the pastoral families that had previously managed Three Rivers and searched newspaper archives.

image of grasses and scrub
Typical shrub land of sparse grasses and woody weeds.

They noticed that records from Three Rivers Station showed a repetition of cycles of drought years followed by wet years followed by dramatic reduction in stocking levels. They coupled this information with their own observations that the dominant vegetation during their tenure of the lease was shrubs with largely bare soil between them except for a short time following rain, when they observed a flush of annual grasses and forbs that quickly dried off and blew away.

As cattlemen, they also observed that the annual grasses and shrubs, although highly nutritious, could not support the same levels of animal productivity, water infiltration and soil health that perennial grasses can achieve. In transitioning from a grassland to shrub lands of woody weeds, the productivity of pastoral operations had declined.

These cycles indicated to the family the importance of managing the balance between shrubs and pastures in maintaining the ecological function of the rangelands. From their work with animal nutrition, they came to realise that balancing shrubs and pastures in the rangelands was also important to cattle health and productivity.

image of healthy pastures
Thriving perennial pastures.

Contemporary understanding of the rangeland ecology by government departments, natural resource management groups and even pastoralists such as the Forsyths has been that many of Australia’s semi-arid rangelands are shrub lands with little or no topsoil and little, if any, capacity to support perennial grasses. From their study however, the Forsyths concluded that diverse native perennial grasses had thrived in the rangelands in the past. They are now demonstrating that these grasses can thrive again, and showing that, with help, these pastures can also build soil, guard against erosion and increase ecological complexity and function.


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INVESTING IN THE SOIL & CALMING THE WATERS

In regenerating the rangelands, Ben points out, “Our focus is on looking after the soils before other aspects of management, as this is where true sustainability will be judged”.

The Forsyth priority for helping the soil recover its health is to firstly to slow down the flow of water on the landscape so that it soaks into the soil. The best tools for this job are diverse communities of vegetation – dense swards of perennial grasses, forbs, shrubs and some trees. The reduction in grazing pressure to very light grazing has already resulted in vegetation re-establishing in some of the better areas, such as where healthier, protected soils held seed banks of perennial grasses. Perennial grasses are particularly important because they are typically deep rooted and persist all year, so they hold and build soil. Because the rangelands have already lost a lot of soil and plant species over the last 100 years of pastoral management, it has become a race of regeneration against erosion.

image of Ben and Graham looking at a map
Ben and Graham use aerial photos to identify priority erosion locations for treatment.

Graham and Ben judged that mechanical intervention was needed to speed up the recovery process and took advantage of earthworking equipment available through their contracting business. In the recovery process a fine balance is required between mechanical intervention, maximising perennial grass seed build up and the managed use of cattle.

Ben notes that they have been “Property planning using the EMU methods, identifying key erosion locations and required interventions and treatments on aerial photo overlays. These interventions have been implemented at a limited scale with encouraging results for controlling the loss of water from the landscape”.

The Forsyths have trialled and developed “water calming” interventions, starting at the erosion source areas and working downstream. The techniques used at Three Rivers include interventions such as bunds (raised embankments), rakes (evenly spaced poles embedded in the ground to catch debris) and strategic banks. (See images below.) These interventions are all slightly different methods for slowing water flow during rain events and spreading the water out over a large area so it becomes de-energised and loses its erosive power. Each has slightly different characteristics of performance and cost and is matched carefully to the situation being managed. As an added bonus, the interventions also trap debris and sediment which then becomes decomposing organic matter which in turn provides a nursery for grasses and shrubs to grow in.

An innovative approach to using local materials was generated by the Forsyth family’s intimate knowledge of their land. They had noticed that a locally available rock, calcrete*, had a binding action and was having a beneficial effect on regeneration of perennial grasses. The Forsyths had noticed that where the truck that carted the calcrete had bounced on rough ground and spilled calcrete, “The effect on the palatability of that grass was unbelievable. For the width of the truck, where the spillage was, grass had been chewed down to the ground to the edge of the spill, beyond that, the dry grass was totally left alone. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, that’s for sure. I don’t think much scientific work has been done on calcrete, I think we’re the first people to try anything”.

Where this rock had been used as a road surface, more grasses were growing along the road side. Whilst no soil testing has been performed, as the rock is highly alkaline, it appears that it was helping the soil chemistry to suit the perennials grasses as well as being a strong road surface. They put this insight into action where the remnant flood plains were actively eroding, using calcrete in their regenerative earthworks.

Bunds, rakes and banks are very practical in that they can be implemented with readily available equipment and they provide a rapid response as soon as it rains. They do not prevent flood water flow, but help to capture debris and sedimentation and to build soil and vegetation.

image of a calcrete bund and kangaroo grass
Left: Calcrete bund to slow and divert the flow of water. Right: Thriving kangaroo grass alongside the bund.

The areas of concern were mainly those lower in the landscape, the river bed and floodplains. Because of the soil characteristics of the area and the lack of topsoil, the remaining soil is vulnerable to slumping when it becomes wet. The resulting ‘crab holes’ become an issue if they start to join up, creating extensive fronts of sheetwash erosion. The Forsyths have seen this result in some significant incisions in the landscape.

A technique Graham and Ben have developed to address this is simple and effective. It consists of chamfering (flattening) the erosion face to give it a gradual slope rather than a vertical face, then lining the fresh face with calcrete. They have found that this is a very low risk approach, and even if the work fails in places, the calcrete armour prevents erosion from progressing. This technique appears to have an added bonus of the calcrete lifting the soil pH and helping the perennial grasses to grow vigorously.

image of small and increasing sheet erosion
Small ‘crab holes’ of collapsed soils (left) can spread to form massive fronts of sheet erosion (right).
image grasses growing over chamfered erosion
Chamfered erosion in September 2005 (left) and stabilisation through colonisation of annual and perennial grasses after summer rain (no flood) in March 2006 (right).

image of interventions on Three Rivers Station

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MOSAICS OF HEALING

…You change your intent towards your country and it responds.

The strategies put in place by the Forsyth family are clearly being successful in helping mosaics of regenerating soil and vegetation to establish and expand. Ben notes, “Historically Three Rivers has had a comprehensive photo and species count monitoring system in place. Due to the destocked period, and resultant drop in available time and money, monitoring has not been as thorough in recent years. Anecdotally, the perennial grass content of the pasture has dramatically increased in the last five years and there has been a definite decrease in erosion at the locations that have been treated”.

image of some grasses on near-bare ground
Recolonisation of perennial grasses after de-stocking, forming a seed bank.

Ben continues, “Significant increases in the population of perennial grass species has occurred since de-stocking happened in 2003-4. It is assumed that this will lead to an increase in soil biology and sequestration of carbon”. Perennial grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) and silky brown-top (Eulalia aurea) are recolonising areas in groves that formed after the destocking. On slightly-sloping sheetwash eroded terrain, alternating strips of sandy topsoil are supporting these groves, separated by usually bare gravel bands that only support low annual wind-grasses for a short time after rain. These clumps of grass form seed banks – or “seed orchards” – which allow the grasses to build and spread.

Kangaroos have long plagued Three Rivers Station, competing in droves for the scarce grasses with livestock. Ben and Graham have noticed that kangaroos prefer short grasses and will eat them to the roots, yet ignore longer grasses. Where grasses are growing taller, kangaroos are not to be found. As the impact of regeneration spreads across the landscape, Graham and Ben are seeing fewer and fewer kangaroos. They feel there is a strong possibility that, as the grassland returns, the kangaroos will maintain balanced and healthy numbers on Three Rivers Station.

image of pond of water amongst trees
Water ponding upstream of established rakes.

Some gullies that were forming in the Middle Branch of the Gascoyne have been stabilised by the erosion-control earthworks and calcrete and this, combined with the respite from grazing from both cattle and kangaroos, has resulted in extensive perennial grass recruitment and probably increased recharge into groundwater. The river banks have more grass. Pools that used to exist upstream of the rakes have filled with sand. They still contain water, but as this is covered by 30cm or so of sand, there is no evaporation.

In one area, as is common, an accidental nick in the landscape due to road works on an old track had caused a small incision to start. This small incision had the capability of putting at risk the water course leaving some wetlands perched above the new stream level. The stream diversion banks, made of calcrete have been successful in stopping the progress of the incision and in restoring the flows of the river to this wetland.

Interestingly, a new grass has been found on Three Rivers which has not yet been identified. Graham Forsyth reports it as, “extremely vigorous, with very vigorous rhizomes and limited spread by seed. It produces a dense sward able to capture litter and sediment. It appears to be able to use soil moisture at any time and maintains green leaf well into dry periods. It is palatable to cattle and horses, both graze it only to a height of about 10cm.”

image of grass species
Left: Graham discussing the as-yet unidentified new grass on Three Rivers Station. Right: New grass shoot.

Graham says, “Nature’s wonderful and it’s just waited for the right circumstances and the manager of the land. You change your intent towards your country and it responds”.

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ON THE WAY TO RESTORATION

I believe we’re going to need every bit of productive country that earth’s got to offer over the next few years, we’ve got to nurture what we’ve got…

Graham and Ben are looking forward to being able to expand these early successes across the landscape to get the full effect of them. “From an individual and family perspective, it has been affirming to see the positive results from our dramatic and very costly action to de-stock back in 2003. This decision was made after we became aware of the accelerating soil erosion and landscape desiccation processes that were rampant. Our family has been greatly encouraged by the rapid increases in the regeneration of the perennial ground cover species and the obvious benefits of the earthworks that we have been able to construct to slow the water and spread it across flood plains.”

Once the mining activity in the area has been stabilised and the locations and requirements of the mines are known, pastoral operations will be able to be integrated back into the area. This is critical, not only the Forsyths, but to the ecological function of the area. Perennial grasses are an important component of the rangelands because of their function in protecting and building soil, storing carbon in the soil and infiltration of water into the subsoils and aquifers. Perennial grasses have evolved alongside grazing animals and the actions of grazing, trampling and recovery are vital to the renewal of the perennial plants and to the maintenance of plant diversity and abundance.

Graham and Ben have been studying leading grazing theory and practices from all over the world and integrated this knowledge with their own insights into the current and desired function of their land. Ben notes, “Destocking of the property allowed recovery while strategies were implemented”.

In April 2012, 400 cows were returned to Three Rivers Station and it is anticipated that grazing pressure will slowly be increased. Ben advises that they are, “Establishing a plan to introduce rest and rotation to the grazing strategy, rigorously maintaining total grazing pressure to remain within seasonal carrying capacity and embracing technology for water point management and livestock monitoring”.

The initial plan will see rotational grazing used across four paddocks on one floodplain area of Three Rivers Station. Once mining requirements become clearer and location of fence lines can be planned with confidence, Graham and Ben will sub-divide to smaller paddocks and a more intensive rotational grazing strategy. The strategy will be extended to other parts of the property as more grassland becomes available and resources become available to extend the watering and fencing infrastructure.

image of grass species

images of the beginning of perennial colonisation and flourishing pastures.
A range of pasture conditions evidenced on Three Rivers Station: still degraded land (top left); initial colonisers (top right); beginning of perennial colonisation (below left); flourishing pastures (below right).

The locally appropriate plan for management of grazing aims to build the ecological function and sustainability of the pastoral enterprise, improve aquifer recharge and build soil carbon stocks, protect the rivers and drainages, produce ‘clean and green’ and healthy livestock in a financially satisfactory way. The Forsyths are investigating some new processes and technologies to lower the fossil fuel footprint of their operation. This includes use of recycled materials and new technologies such as virtual fencing.

Graham and Ben Forsyth believe that Australia’s rangelands are assets of national importance and responsibility for their condition extends beyond the current lease holders to the nation as a whole. Regenerated land at the headwaters of the Gascoyne and the Murchison will assist with the delivery of clean water downstream to important catchments surrounding Carnarvon. Fully regenerated pastoral leases will be vitally important to future generations through the revitalisation of the pastoral industry to help to meet the requirements for high quality protein for a growing population.

The Forsyth commitment to the land and its people shows in the determined and innovative approach they are taking to bringing the major stakeholders together to lead the process of taking collective responsibility for the degradation and working together to effect the regeneration and restore the decades of damage to the Gascoyne rangelands. Their leadership and innovation shows that together, mining companies, governments and farmers, as stewards of the land, have an opportunity for a strategic partnership in restoring the rangelands and realising the agricultural production opportunities that a healthy landscape will present.

As Graham concludes, “I believe we’re going to need every bit of productive country that earth’s got to offer over the next few years, we’ve got to nurture what we’ve got but if it can’t be bought into production viably, then you’ve got to find other ways to still bring it back. Because if we don’t bring it back, the Gascoyne River from this divide to the sea will just be a Grand Canyon. Now, we can’t let that happen”.


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.

‘WINONA’ – PASTURE CROPPING THE WAY TO HEALTH

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PASTURE CROPPING THE WAY TO HEALTH

Colin Seis faced adversity and then struck ‘gold’ in developing a new way to look after the land and his bottom line – building tonnes of soil along the way.

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FARM FACTS | INTRODUCTION | ABOUT PASTURE CROPPING | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | VEGETATION MANAGEMENT | OUTCOMES

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FARM FACTS

20km north of Gulgong, NSW Central Highlands

ENTERPRISE: Sheep. Crops. Native Grass Seed. Kelpie Dogs.

PROPERTY SIZE: 840 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 460-580 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Loss after major bushfire necessitating establishment of a low-input agricultural system

INNOVATIONS

  • Developing and implementing ‘pasture cropping’
  • Time-controlled rotational grazing
  • ‘Vertical Stacking’ of enterprises – cropping, native grass seed, sheep wool and meat
  • Innovations commenced: Time controlled grazing 1989/Pasture cropping 1993

KEY RESULTS

  • Annual input costs reduced by over $120,000
  • Soil carbon increased by 203% in 10 years
  • Delivering three production lines from each paddock
  • Improved wool quality

INTRODUCTION

The management of Winona from 1930 to 1980 turned out to be an ecological disaster. Loss of land to salinity, declining soil quality, dead and dying trees, insect attack, fungal and animal diseases, plus the high cost of fertilisers, herbicides and other inputs showed the suffering of an unhealthy system. In 1979 a devastating bushfire left no choice but to change the way things were done.

In developing ‘Pasture Cropping’ Colin Seis found a way to work his pastures, crops and sheep together and healed his land. Now, Winona produces similar volumes of wool and grain to that achieved under previous management methods, but annual costs have decreased by over $120,000 and the condition of the land is improving, not degrading.

By applying regenerative forms of cropping and grazing, Colin has achieved a 203% increase in soil carbon in just ten years. The vast majority of the soil carbon is highly stable (non-labile), meaning it is significantly less subject to degradation, and carbon is being built and measured to a depth of 500mm.

In addition to being able to pass on a productive and sustainable farm to the next generation, Colin feels a well-deserved sense of achievement at having developed an innovative farming method that is being adopted by thousands of other farmers in similar climates and soil landscapes all over the world.

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PASTURE CROPPING

Pasture cropping is a technique developed by Colin Seis and Daryl Cluff in 1993 which involves sowing crops into living perennial pastures and growing them symbiotically. In a mixed farm enterprise it seeks to combine cropping and grazing into one land management method where each one benefits the other.

Pasture Cropping (top to bottom): emerging grain seedlings
in dormant perennial pasture; the growing crop; harvesting

In 1993, the original concept of sowing crops into a dormant stand of summer growing native grass, red grass (Bothriochloa macra), was thought of as an inexpensive way of sowing oats for stock feed. While this certainly turned out to be true, many side benefits were also identified. The grazing crops performed so well that it was obvious that good grain yields could also be achieved. The initial concept was only touching the surface of a land management technique that is proving to be revolutionary.

Conventional cropping methods require that all vegetation be killed prior to sowing and while the crop is growing. With pasture cropping, there is no need to kill competing ground cover vegetation for cultivation, and adequate productivity can still be achieved. Groundcover is maintained at all times so that erosion by wind and water is avoided, soil structure is not destroyed by cultivation and chemical input requirements are only a fraction of those used in traditional crop production methods. ‘No till’ cropping, in contrast, also minimises soil disturbance, often with direct drilling of seed, however it is not performed in combination with a perennial pasture, but more usually into the stubble of previous crops.

Sowing a crop using the pasture cropping method also stimulates perennial grass seedlings to grow in numbers and diversity. This then produces more stock feed after the crop is harvested and totally eliminates the need to re-sow pastures.

Economically, this technique provides good potential for profit as input costs are a fraction of conventional cropping methods. The added benefit in a mixed farm situation is that up to six months extra grazing is achieved with pasture cropping as no grazing time is lost due to traditional ground preparation and weed control requirements.

There is growing evidence, scientific and anecdotal, to support pasture cropping’s contribution to improvements in soil health, improved water use efficiency and general improvement in ecosystem function. By retaining perennial native grass in grazing and cropping systems and having full ground cover all of the time, large increase in plant biomass can be achieved when compared to conventional methods. When combined with plant root functions, this biomass can dramatically increase soil carbon levels and improve nutrient cycling within the soil.

This technique has been trialled, practiced or adopted across Australia and in other countries where regions share similar climate and soil landscapes. Colin reports, “There are now over 2000 farmers “pasture cropping” cereal crops into summer (C4) and winter (C3) perennial native grass in NSW, South Australia, Victoria Queensland, West Australia and Tasmania as well as other areas around the world”.

Pasture cropping is also being used to restore native grasslands in many areas of Australia.

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HOW IT ALL BEGAN

The Seis family has farmed at Winona since the 1860s. Colin’s great grandfather initially selected a small allotment to which other allotments were added over the years to eventually form the current 840 hectares. Colin took over management of the Winona from his father in the 1970s, and now, Colin’s son Nick performs much of the day-to-day management.

Ranging from valley floors and gentle slopes rising to granite outcrops on hilltops and ridges, the predominant soils on Winona are well-drained coarse and fine sands derived from granite. There are yellow sodic (high sodium) soils along drainage lines and euchrozems (deep red clay loams) that developed on an area of basalt at the southern end of the property.

When the Seis family selected the first allotment in 1860, survey reports described the area as woodland, suggesting that the land cover was grassland with scattered trees. It is likely that there were over 100 native grass, forb and herb species, with the grassland dominated by kangaroo grass (Themeda australis). While little tree clearing was probably required to develop the land for farming, the change in management soon led to widespread tree regeneration. Title deeds dated 1906 record the presence of stringybark saplings. Colin’s father recalled considerable ring-barking occurring when he was a boy in the 1920s, indeed, one paddock is still referred to today by the name of the man employed at the time to ring-bark trees. Colin’s father also recalled that there were sparsely scattered large trees within the saplings. The large trees were retained and some remain today.

From the 1930s to 1980, the farm was used for wheat, oats, wool and sheep production. Pastures of introduced grasses, mostly annual species (sub clover, rye grass, small areas of lucerne), were established. Set or continuous stock grazing practices were used. Crops were sown every three to five years, depending on soil moisture, by ploughing and working the soil up to five times. Crop yields during this period were good, with yields of over three tonnes a hectare being achieved.

Left: Grazing on Winona in 1938. Right: Grazing on Winona in 2009.

DECLINING HEALTH

Associated with these management practices the soils were showing excesses of aluminium, iron and sodium. Soil carbon levels were around 1% in the 0-10cm range with observed inefficient nutrient cycling. To sustain agricultural productivity it was necessary to apply high rates fertiliser to correct phosphorus, molybdenum and calcium deficiencies.

Colin recalls, “While superphosphate was cheap and subsidised by government during the 1950s and 1960s this high input method was very productive, but at great ecological cost such as declining soil health, soil carbon loss, soil structure decline, saline areas and dysfunctional landscape”.

He notes, “As superphosphate became more expensive and the government subsidy removed this high input system could no longer be afforded. The high cost of fertilising pasture and farm inputs was around $121,000 annually – in 2011 dollars, including wages”.

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NO CHOICE

In 1979 a major bushfire resulted in the loss of over 3000 sheep and most of the farm infrastructure – house, sheds and fencing. The lack of income prevented re-establishing the previous high input cost cropping method. So, after the fire, Colin started looking for a low input agricultural system. He set about understanding the ecological function of the landscape he had inherited and had managed using practices learned from his father. Faced with the challenge of matching inputs to outputs, Colin began exploring alternatives to the traditional farming system and the likely impacts on his farm’s economics.

Inappropriate grazing techniques have done major damage to Australia’s grasslands and rangelands over the last 200 years. Animals can be beneficial, if they are grazed well.

He realised that native grassland did not require high levels of phosphorus and started to develop methods that would stimulate seedling recruitment of native grass species. He sought to restore Winona to native grassland that did not require inputs like superphosphate and would function in an ecologically sound manner. Colin summarises, “If you get out of the way and let nature fix it, it works better and is much easier”.

Colin notes that tradition was arguably the greatest impediment to change. In spite of requesting assistance from scientific and research organisations, they were not interested in developing a pasture cropping management system. Representatives of these organisations told Colin that it was impossible to grow crops in this manner.

Instead, over a period of 20 years Colin developed the pasture cropping technique by trial and error on Winona. He has spent much of his time perfecting this technique and can now grow many different types of winter and summer growing crops, without destroying the perennial pasture base.

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PASTURE CROPPING ON WINONA

Colin originally started time control grazing in 1989 to better manage pastures, but it was not until he and Daryl Cluff developed pasture cropping in 1993 that Colin saw dramatic improvement in the regeneration of native perennial pasture species.

Native pastures on Winona are grazed by sheep and, when dormant, direct drilled with crops.

Colin now sows commercial crops into the dominant pasture by direct drilling to minimise soil disturbance. Sheep are used to prepare paddocks to pasture crop and crops are sown, usually with no herbicide and 70% less fertiliser than conventional methods. Only relatively small amounts of liquid organic fertiliser are added at the time of sowing, using the same machine, so that tractor costs and soil compaction are minimised.

Livestock are an intrinsic part of Colin’s pasture cropping system on Winona. Before sowing, when perennial pasture species are dormant, short term time-control grazing with a large mob of sheep (100-150 a hectare) is used to graze and trample perennial pasture down to a height of around 100mm. This practice prepares the paddock for cropping by reducing the starting biomass and physically breaking down weeds, creating a litter and mulch layer and adding nutrients from manure and urine.

Sheep can lightly graze the growing grain crop after it has become established but before it begins to develop seed. Once the crop is harvested sheep are reintroduced for a short period to take advantage of the native pasture that has been re-growing while the crop was maturing. Grazing tolerant native grass species such as red grass (Bothriochloa macra) and spear grass (Austrostipa spp) are gradually being replaced by more productive species such as warrego summer-grass (Paspalidium spp) and wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp). Significant areas of winter active species such as common wheat grass (Elymus scaber) and weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides) are returning.

Pasture cropping enables integration of sheep and crop production, optimising production of both while minimising chemical inputs and machinery use and improving soil structure and fertility.

Single trees are being planted in paddocks to restore original vegetation cover.

Sheep are managed in two main mobs of 2000 head and rotated around 75 paddocks in a time-control rotational grazing technique. Introducing time-control grazing necessitated a denser pattern of fencing to increase the number of paddocks from 10 to 75. A central laneway provides an efficient way to move sheep around the property. Over 70 small dams supply stock water as there are no creeksor rivers on Winona. These dams have high water levels and are maintained mainly through lateral underground flow. The combination of the soil type and maintaining a complete groundcover ensures that all rainfall infiltrates.

Colin recognises that trees provide stock shelter and that it is essential to replace the old paddock trees that are nearing the end of their life span. He has planted over 2000 single paddock trees, aiming to restore the original 1860s cover, estimated to be about two trees a hectare. As they establish, the single trees are protected from stock with guards. In addition, around 15,000 local native trees and shrubs have been planted in belts to form wildlife corridors and to link areas of remnant native vegetation.

Colin is deservedly proud of the technique he developed, noting its strengths, “With pasture cropping it is now possible to produce an annual crop like wheat and a perennial grain crop for human consumption off the same area within a twelve month period. Added to this is the grazing value of sheep meat and wool as well as native grass seed and carbon sequestration”.

“I believe that this technique of using ‘vertical stacking’ of enterprises on the same area over the same time period has potential for addressing world food shortages into the future.”

VERTICAL STACKING OF ENTERPRISES

Vertical stacking enables three uses of the native grassland in each paddock – native seed harvesting, grain cropping (oats and wheat) and grazing sheep for wool and meat. The three land uses are rotated seasonally, annually and every 3-5 years, depending of the prevailing seasonal conditions such as soil moisture, rainfall and temperature.

Native grass seed is harvested in summer (C4 species) and autumn (C3 species). Grain crops are direct drilled into the winter dormant native pasture at the end of autumn and harvested in summer. Sheep graze each paddock once each season, approximately 3 days every 90 days, the highest frequency of the land use rotations.

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HEALTH RESTORED, BENEFITS ACCRUED

Soil from a conventionally grazed and cropped paddock (right) and from a time-controlled rotationally grazed and pasture cropped paddock (left) which contains significantly more microbial life, soil carbon and subsequently greater water holding capacity.

Extensive soil testing on Winona has shown that eliminating all cultivation other than the direct drilling for pasture cropping, together with rotational grazing, has enabled dramatic improvements in soil condition. Soil carbon has increased by 203% to 90 tonnes a hectare over a ten-year period. This equates to storage of around 170 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) a hectare.

Seventy-eight per cent of newly sequestered carbon is in the humic fraction of the soil 1Jones, C.E. (2011). Carbon that counts. New England and North West Landcare Adventure, Guyra, NSW.. This is non-labile, therefore much more stable and significantly less subject to degradation.

All soil nutrients have increased by an average of 172% in available and total amounts, except for aluminium, iron and sodium, which have decreased. Compared to regular cropping, pasture cropping soils show an increase in actinomycete (bacteria which have a role in decomposition of organic materials) and fungal abundance consistent with less disturbance and/or with greater perennial basal cover and litter cover. These impressive results have been validated through a paired site analysis by Sydney University and CSIRO/Department of Primary Industries 2Ampt, P. and Doornbos, S. (2010) Communities in Landscape Project: Benchmark Study of Innovators, Gulgong, Central West Catchment NSW,.

SOIL CARBON LEVELS ON WINONA

Increase in soil microbial numbers and species diversity has resulted in better nutrient cycling and greater potential for increasing soil carbon.

DepthSoil Carbon Level
0-10cm2.65%
10-20cm1.35%
20-30cm1.18%
30-40cm0.53%
40-50cm0.26%

Soil tests conducted in September 2010 revealed carbon levels at the various depths as shown in the table.

.

Colin notes that his landscape has developed a real resilience, with relatively stable production regardless of rainfall. “Over the last ten years, we have experienced five years of above average rainfall and five years below. A new rainfall pattern has emerged that sees 70% of our rain falling in the summer months, whereas before it was closer to 50%. In the poorer years, no ‘drought’ feeding has been required, due to the resilience in the pastures from the improving soil conditions.”

Many biodiversity improvements are apparent since the changes to management of Winona. Vegetation changes are being monitored on six 100 metre long survey lines (transects). Winona was once dominated by annual weeds and the transect counts from 1999 showed 60% weeds and 10% native perennial species in the pasture. Transects now show 80% perennial native species and 5% weeds. Winona is now a diverse, functioning native grassland with over 50 native species.

As Colin points out, this change was created, not with herbicides, but with groundcover. “Providing the conditions for perennial pasture species to thrive will steadily suppress the weeds. Using herbicides can help is some circumstances but can also kill desirable species, such as the perennial pasture species.”

Tree health has improved and the remaining naturally established trees are regenerating.

Monitored bird numbers and diversity includes around 100 species. Sparrows and starlings that were common prior to 1990s are no longer observed on Winona. Few marsupial species were observed prior to 1990s and now marsupial diversity has also increased, including grey kangaroos, swamp and red necked wallabies and wallaroos.

Healthy soils are clearly apparent under the diverse native vegetation cover on Winona.

A large increase of spiders in pastures has delivered a more stable balance to the insect populations and provided biological control of problem insects like red leg earth mite.

Whilst crop production on Winona has remained about the same, averaging two tonnes a hectare but producing up to four tonnes a hectare, the cost of growing the crops has reduced significantly; in the order of $120,000 a year.

Additionally, Winona now produces and sells about one tonne of native grass seed annually to farmers and for landscape rehabilitation. Colin is also investigating the economics of harvesting and marketing of two native grass seeds for human food consumption.

Pasture cropping enables extra grazing of up to six months on Winona’s mixed farm enterprise. No longer having to re-sow pastures saves $100 – $150 a hectare per year.

Wool and sheep production has also remained about the same, however wool tensile strength has improved by 60% and vegetable matter such as burr and seed in the wool has declined by around 70% making both the wool and sheep more valuable.

Colin says that being able to measure and monitor on his farm has been very important, “Carbon and soil nutrients, plant and ground cover transects as well as sheep and crop monitoring has been very beneficial in observing the positive change forward”.

Education is also seen essential to bringing positive change. Colin states, “We require more farmer educators. Farmers should empower themselves with knowledge.” Colin devotes a lot of his own time running courses, workshops and providing training on pasture cropping across the country, encouraging experimentation with or adoption of this innovative technique.

Overall, the development and implementation of pasture cropping has restored the landscape health on Winona. Re-establishing native grasslands through methods working with nature, ensuring ground cover at all times, rather than trying to control it through use of herbicides and fertilisers has delivered its rewards to Colin Seis.

In his words, “As we farm closer to how nature had it originally designed, the easier the workload becomes and the more profitable it can be.”

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HIS 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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WYNDHAM STATION – A MOTIVATION FOR LONG-TERM LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

A MOTIVATION FOR LONG-TERM LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE

Angus and Kelly Whyte were dissatisfied with the amount of work they were having to put into their property for little financial return just to watch the condition of the land deteriorate. By gaining a new perspective, a motivation for long-term landscape health now guides all decision making on Wyndham Station. As a result, vegetation cover, soil health and water-use efficiency have all improved, leading to increased carry capacity and productivity. The landscape is more resilient and the Whytes are well-equipped with the tools to help them manage the impacts of drought.

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FARM FACTS | CASE STUDY SUMMARY | PROPERTY BACKGROUND | CHANGING PRACTICES | GRAZING MANAGEMENT | MONITORING & MEASUREMENT | COST SUMMARY | OUTCOMES | ABOUT THIS PROJECT

FARM FACTS

85km north of Wentworth, Lower Western NSW

ENTERPRISE: Sheep and Cattle breeding and trading, opportunity cropping

PROPERTY SIZE: 12,500 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 260 mm

ELEVATION: 30 m

PRACTICES COMMENCED: 2002

RESILIENCE BUILDING PRACTICES

  • Making long-term landscape health and productivity the driving factor for farm management decisions.
  • Implementing planned (holistic) rotational grazing management, allowing sufficient time for forage rest and recovery before re-grazing.
  • Matching the stocking rate to carrying capacity by adjusting stock numbers according to monitored conditions.
  • Mobbing stock to use livestock to disturb the soil surface and create germination opportunities.

KEY RESULTS

  • Building a more resilient landscape and business by improving landscape ecological function.
  • Increasing vegetation cover and diversity, extending the growing season and production potential and protecting the soil surface.
  • Improving soil organic matter content and structure, leading to improved rainfall infiltration, retention and water-use efficiency.
  • Developing increased control over stocking and income.
  • Improving the property carrying capacity, enabling stocking rate to be almost doubled within 10 years, from 55 to 100 DSE days/ha/100mm rain.
  • Reducing on-farm labour input by 60%.
  • Increasing gross margin from $8 per hectare to $12 per hectare.
  • Building a more predictable and reliable business that has reduced personal and family stress and 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 bio-diverse ecosystem with healthy nutrient cycles of growth, breakdown and decay.

Many years of over-utilisation of natural resources in the Western Division has resulted in significant degradation of landscape condition, leading to sparse vegetation, 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 is regularly affected by multi-year droughts.

Innovative farmers in the region are illustrating that active and innovative landscape management can restore degraded landscapes by rebuilding the landscape’s regenerative capacity and at the same time delivering sustainable production; regardless of seasonal conditions. Rather than accept that these landscapes are vulnerable and fragile, innovative farmers are learning to work with these landscapes to actively restore landscape structure, composition and function.

Angus and Kelly Whyte, of Wyndham Station north of Wentworth, have, since 2002, changed the way they view the landscape and make on-farm decisions to invest in the long-term health and productivity of their 12,500 hectare property. They now run a successful sheep and cattle breeding and trading business and are confident that they have the tools and information to be able to manage Wyndham Station in periods of drought to ensure an ever-improving and more resilient landscape and enterprise.

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

  • Making the long-term health of the landscape the focus of all management decisions.
  • Managing grazing to increase and maintain groundcover, particularly palatable perennial species, which also protect the soil and increase rainfall infiltration and retention.
  • Monitoring their rainfall and forage availability in order to match the stocking rate to the carrying capacity.
  • Practising planned rotational grazing, using large mobs of stock to disturb the hard-capped soil surface and providing sufficient rest for forage to recover before re-grazing.
Wyndham Station.

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AGRICULTURE ON THE SEMI-ARID RANGELANDS

WYNDHAM STATION

Wyndham Station comprises 12,500 hectares in the far south-western corner of New South Wales, 85km north of Wentworth, which lies at the confluence of the Murray and Darling Rivers. The Great Anabranch of the Darling River forms the eastern boundary of the property, which also includes an ephemeral lake of around 1,000 hectares.

As part of Australia’s extensive semi-arid rangelands, which cover 75% of the continent, the climate of this area is characterised by hot and persistently dry weather and erratic rainfall. The Bureau of Meteorology reports a long-term average rainfall in Wentworth of 286mm, ranging from 102mm in 1982 to 705mm in 1870.

This region of the Western Division is made up of undulating red soil plains and grey floodplain clays.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the effects of total grazing pressure caused by high numbers of sheep and plague rabbits, were compounded by the effects of the multi-year Federation Drought. Over-utilisation of the understorey and ground layer vegetation across the region changed the condition of the native vegetation and the ecological function of much of the landscape.

Areas of claypan – bare exposed subsoil – are characteristic of
landscape degradation in the semi-arid rangelands.

The over-grazing resulted in topsoils being exposed to erosion by water and wind. In many areas topsoils were either washed or blown away, leaving the exposed sub-surface soil, which is higher in clay content. Over time these areas became hard-capped and bare of vegetation and are now characteristic of degradation in the region. Rainfall cannot readily penetrate these hard-capped soils, instead runoff rushes over the soil surface, leading to gully erosion in some areas. Seeds do not readily germinate in such conditions, and consequently even in better rainfall years the landscape struggles to respond with the reestablishment of perennial grass groundcover or rehabilitation of shrubs.

Much of Wyndham Station is dominated by chenopod shrublands 1Chenopods are salt tolerant xenomorphic (plant characteristics determined by ability to resist drought) shrubs, sub-shrubs or forbs, generally less than 1.5 metres tall. The leaves are frequently covered with scales or soft hairs; some are leafless with fleshy jointed stems. http://www.diamantina-tour.com.au/outback_info/land_sys/chaenopod/chenopod.html comprising saltbush (Atriplex spp.), pearl bluebush (Mairena sedifolia) and black bluebush (Mairena pyramidata) with an understorey of spear grass (Austrostipa varibilis), other mainly annual grasses, copper burr (Sclerolaena spp.), common bottle-washers (Enneapogon avenaceus) and various forbs. The property also has some woodland areas, mostly dominated by belah (Casuarina cristata) and black box (Eucalyptus largiflorens).

Angus and Kelly Whyte have been on Wyndham Station since 1998. Their original property management practices were typical of those in the region. The property was conservatively stocked with Merino sheep. Management focused on animal performance and production, with little consideration for the ongoing status of the land. Paddocks were continuously set-stocked, regardless of seasonal conditions. This ultimately led to overgrazing in times of drought.

The many farm dams provided stock water and animals were given uncontrolled access, with little thought of loss through evaporation or water quality.

At this time, the family was working six to seven days a week with little financial return.

The Whytes observed that landscape productivity and health was declining across a range of factors – grass was sparse and the livestock was suffering from a carbohydrate (fibre) drought each year. The landscape and their enterprise were becoming ever more vulnerable to impacts of short-term and multi-year droughts.

It was with this dissatisfaction with income, the condition of the land and the amount of work involved in running the farm that Gus and Kelly decided to explore alternative ways of managing their property.

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CHANGING PRACTICES

FOCUSING ON THE LAND TO BUILD RESILIENCE

To build landscape health and the ability to regenerate regardless of climatic conditions, the landscape needs to be the focus of management decisions.

With a lot of perseverance and very little money, the Whytes set about finding a way forward to address their concerns. They learned that the land used to have a much greater carrying capacity and that there was an opportunity to rehabilitate the landscape and provide them with greater resilience in the face of drought, in both landscape condition and financial stability.

Gus and Kelly realised that the landscape could repair itself if they gave it the chance. They understood that by building a more diverse ecology over time they could achieve greater resilience in their landscape and their business. Therefore, to build landscape health and the ability to regenerate regardless of climatic conditions, the landscape needed to be the focus of their management decisions, rather than the stock. Hence the Whytes developed a philosophy to work with nature and ensure that the land consistently improved while producing a quality product.

Gus feels that the reason why they manage Wyndham Station the way that they do is more important than how (that is, the techniques they use to achieve their landscape outcomes). Accordingly, this is a driving force for the success of the Whyte’s enterprise; working and making decisions in alignment with their personal values and goals for their landscape, as well as their livestock and lifestyle.

EDUCATION & TRAINING

Attending the Resource Consulting Services (RCS) Grazing for Profit course in 2001 was a key investment for the Whytes in changing property management practices for a greater focus on landscape health. Grazing for Profit involves holistic integrated management training for farmers, graziers and mixed farming enterprises. It focuses on the use of natural plant, animal and water cycles as an integral part of on-farm decision making, to lead to both increased profits and increased sustainability of land resources. 2RCS Core Courses, Grazing for Profit www.rcsaustralia.com.au/products/family-business/grazing-for-profit-2/

Overgrazing is a factor of time, not of stock numbers.

Planned rotational grazing (also referred to Holistic planned grazing) is a key management practice introduced through the Grazing for Profit course. 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 amount of time and then move on, not returning until pastures have fully recovered. On farm, planned rotational grazing utilises increased paddock numbers of smaller size to control stock grazing pressure.

Planned rotational grazing (or Holistic planned grazing) is a technique for managing livestock that helps to regenerate the landscape.

Whilst overgrazing is usually associated with too many animals in a grazing area, holistic training demonstrates that time is the critical factor. It explains how overgrazing occurs when animals stay too long when growth is fast, for example, in fast growth periods, a plant bitten on day one can be bitten again on day three – this is overgrazing. Preferred pasture species which are selectively grazed are more vulnerable to being lost through this behaviour. Overgrazing can also occur when animals return too soon when growth is slow, meaning plants will not have fully recovered from the last grazing and will thus be overgrazed.

Planned rotational grazing management ensures that rainfall amounts, forage recovery time and feed quantity available are all considered to determine carrying capacity and grazing/rest duration and thus stocking rate and mob density.

Follow-up through the RCS course skill development and coaching Graduate Link and Executive Link programs from 2002 to 2005 provided essential support through basic changes and development of fencing infrastructure to implement the new grazing management program that the Whytes chose to adopt.

Gus has since received support and improved his ongoing knowledge of rotational grazing through further education and training from RCS, and from service providers Principle Focus and ProAdvice. He has found that developing new skills and acquiring tools has been necessary to manage the different farming system they have adopted. All of this, including professional advice, is seen as a worthwhile investment as mistakes can be costly.

The Whytes continually build knowledge and seek further education to enable them to meet the landscape goals for their property. As part of his overall education, Gus also attends various field days and has participated in stock nutrition courses.

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

Grazing on Wyndham Station is managed to ensure that landscape
condition always improves.

Gus’ training enabled him to better understand the impacts of animals on the landscape and how best to manage them for the most positive landscape response. Perennial plants need time to harvest sufficient energy from the sun to create their structure and store enough energy in dormant buds for next season’s growth. If they fail to get this energy through overgrazing, then they shrink in basal area and gradually drop out of the plant community, or are dominated by other species, mostly annuals.

Planned rotational grazing provides the technique for managing this, reversing degradation and improving perennial groundcover. Gus initially tried some ideas from the RCS course and commenced planned rotational grazing in late 2001. Based on his training, Gus has trialled various forms of planned rotational and cell grazing management over the years to determine what is best suited to his landscape and seasonal conditions.

He has settled on a flexible planned rotational system that allows him to vary mob size, grazing and rest period duration according to the conditions – particularly rainfall volume, feed availability and according to plant germination times to encourage plant diversity. Greater flexibility is often required in the more erratic and lower rainfall zones of the Western Division than for properties applying these techniques closer to the coast. On Wyndham Station, grazing management varies from intensive mob grazing in average and good seasons and lower intensity, slower rotation in drier seasons.

Overall, the grazing system on Wyndham Station is managed to meet the following goals:

Wyndham Station property map

Since 2001 the Whytes have improved their rotational grazing system substantially. Stocking rate, rainfall and vegetation levels (indicating carry capacity) are all monitored to ensure that goals are met. Stocking decisions are based on the goal for individual paddocks, whether it has been rested enough, the trigger points of desirable plant species, or if it requires heavier stock density at certain types of year in order to disturb the soil and provide the condition for optimum germination, establishment and growth of perennial grasses.

On Wyndham Station, paddocks are rested for between 40 and 300 days depending on vegetation recovery and growth rates. Between 60-90% of the property is being spelled at any given time.

Gus uses grazing charts to capture information on stock numbers and rainfall and to provide measurements and a guide to vegetative growth and water use efficiency over time. The stocking rate is always referred to in terms of rainfall – dry sheep equivalent (DSE) days per hectare per 100mm of rainfall (DDH/100mm) – not just DSE per hectare, as rainfall is understood as a key influencer of carrying capacity. The charts inform future stocking decisions on forage availability. The Whytes look to budget for at least 6 months of feed in front of their stock, and adjust stock rates accordingly.

The graph illustrates the water use efficiencies being gained on Wyndham Station, with landscape response to rain making sufficient forage available to maintain an increased stocking rate well after rainfall events.
Low Stress Stock Handling training develops skills to manage large
mobs of stock – and some particularly friendly individuals.

Gus currently runs just over 6000 DSE of stock in three mobs of around 2000 DSE each. This is quite a contrast to typical management in the area which usually sees around 250-300 DSE set-stocked to each water supply on a property.

Initial challenges were experienced with managing large mobs of stock upon introducing the new grazing system, due to less frequent exposure to handling by both people and livestock in the set-stocking model. Gus sought to address this, and now the whole family has attended Low Stress Stock Handling (LSS) school. LSS aims to foster low stress interaction between people and animals. This is based on understanding animal instincts and working with these instincts during animal interaction to obtain outcomes in a low-stress manner. By using the right methods, livestock will pass more calmly through most facilities and moving stock can be a low stress, painless activity for the livestock and the handlers.

Gus uses mob density to disturb the soil surface, in ways that small mammals and marsupials, now extinct in the region, would have done. The stock also provide fertiliser through their waste, as well as spread seed across the property. Plant succession, from early colonisers (often seen as weeds) which help repair the soil for the more preferred species, is then allowed to take place to lead to improved groundcover.

The more recent addition of cattle has further helped with animal impact on the landscape to help conditions improve. Their greater size causes greater surface disturbance, particularly beneficial on hard-packed claypan, to provide a more hospitable seedbed and germination opportunity for plants. Cattle also use different grazing techniques to sheep, pulling down scrub and clearing pathways through shrubs, which then gives improved access for the sheep.

Animal impact breaks up claypan surface to provide seed a
germination opportunity.

On Wyndham Station, excessive weed incursion or animal health issues are seen as indicators of management practices. To address such issues, management is altered to more effectively work towards the desired results, changing grazing duration, timing or density. This is a much preferred method for the Whytes to applying chemical interventions, which generally provide only short-term results and address the symptom, not the cause of the problem.

The Whytes use as few chemicals as possible on Wyndham Station to facilitate a balance of the natural predators and defences available to stock and plants to keep them healthy. Management practices are constantly aiming for higher levels of biodiversity and increased desirable plant species. Gus sees total landscape management as the priority.

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INFRASTRUCTURE

Since 2001, paddock numbers have been increased from 8 to 34 to facilitate the planned rotational grazing. Gus is looking to further increase paddock numbers but also to make more use of stock handling skills to influence animal grazing patterns rather than just rely on fencing.

The boundary fence along either side of the Silver City Highway is 6-strand plain wire with an electric top wire. Internal fences are generally low 3-strand electric plain wire, with some single-wired fences also used.

Left: Most of the internal fences on Wyndham Station are 3-strand plain solar electric.
Right: Highway fencing comprises 6-strands.

More robust fencing is not required as, by using LSS methods, stock are familiarised with handling and regular rotation and are trained to observe fences as boundaries. In addition, as stock are used to regular rotation to access fresh forage, a ‘barrier’ as such is thus not required to contain stock to specific areas.

Fortunately, unlike in some other parts of the Western Division where large numbers of feral goats and kangaroos add to the total grazing pressure, there has been little impact by populations of these species on Wyndham Station and the surrounding region. This also reduces the requirement for heavier fencing to protect resting pastures.

Controlled troughing maintains water quality, minimises wastage and helps reduce pests grazing on resting pastures.

Whilst early additions saw a path cleared for fencing, Gus later adapted fence construction processes to leave ground cover (except larger shrubs) and natural undulations to better maintain landscape health. Fencing costs average $1000 a kilometre.

To help fund infrastructure developments Gus obtained two funding grants of around $30,000 each from the local Catchment Management Authority (now Local Land Services Western Region) and under the Government’s West 2000 Plus program for infrastructure and rabbit control activities

A portable tank and trough system helped to design and set-up permanent infrastructure.

No longer dependent on the original farm dams, stock water is now provided via pipeline to troughs throughout the property. Water supply is via allocation from the Darling Anabranch Pipeline Scheme which began in 2006. Water from the Murray or Darling Rivers is, initially, pumped into large holding tanks prior to reticulation. Some infrastructure, tanks and troughs were provided by the Pipeline Scheme.

Troughs are generally located at the intersection of paddocks. Troughs are seen as easy to control and provide better water quality than open dam access. Water supply is only provided to paddocks in use, reducing evaporation wastage and access by any pest animals to minimise grazing of recovering pastures.

Investment in water provision is always valuable if it is well planned and allows stock to utilise the landscape.

Gus initially used a portable 3,000 gallon tank on a frame, towing it to different locations in various paddocks. This allowed a lot of thought to be put into where to position watering points, as well as providing a temporary water point over scalds to help rehabilitate such areas. While the tank is now stationary, Gus indicates that he may use a similar technique as he increases paddock numbers.

The Whytes are planning to invest in larger capacity pipes to enable them to increase mob sizes at the farthest reaches of their property. Gus aims for stock to not have to walk more than 2km to water. He believes that investment in water provision is always valuable if it is well planned and allows stock to utilise the landscape.

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WYNDHAM STOCK

Sheep are grazed in large mobs related to prevailing landscape conditions, here, around 2000DSE in August2014.

Wyndham Station currently runs a Merino flock of around 1200 head, joined to Merino Rams for wool and meat, with the older and cull ewes joined to White Suffolk rams. The nature of the stock is very important to Wyndham Station. Gus acknowledges that the sheep may not have the finest wool or highest lambing rates, but much of their value is in their temperaments and adaptation to local feed, climate and management practices.

Autumn is generally an important time of year for stocking decisions. Lambing time is managed for June when feed conditions are likely to be best. If it is dry in April, the decision is made to sell extra ewes rather than keep them until lambing time. The other key stocking decision date is November, after weaning has been completed and stocking rate decisions can be made before it gets too hot.

Improved landscape condition has enabled cattle to be
re-introduced onto the property.

With improving conditions, cattle were reintroduced onto the property in 2009 with an assortment of 130 heifers, mainly Santa-Droughtmaster crosses and 130 mixed-sex Murray Grey weaners. By 2012, through further purchases and as a result of a good season, they built their herd up to 500 breeders. This has been reduced back to 280 cows after poor rain seasons – maintaining and improving landscape condition is always the priority.

Understanding the landscape also means that the Whytes acknowledge that they are farming in low weight-gain country. This influences their management decisions and the Whytes see themselves as cattle breeding rather than finishing region, aiming to sell calves at a young age to fatteners or buy stock to either calve down or sell pregnancy tested in calf (PTIC).

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PRODUCTION

During drought mob size is reduced and excess stock are sold.

Improving and maintaining landscape condition to increase carrying capacity is a key driver of cash flow and long-term profit. To better understand the value of the farm’s key asset – forage – Gus undertook a KLR Livestock Marketing course and manages according to these principles. The KLR model provides tools to assist in measuring the full cost of production, incorporating all direct and indirect costs, informing decisions on what livestock to sell and buy to maximise profit, independent of market conditions. This enables the Whytes to better value their forage and help manage livestock numbers. The trading method used is a ‘sell-buy’ technique, meaning new stock is purchased from profits of previous sales, rather than ‘buy-sell’, which relies on the market conditions at sale time to determine whether a profit is made on previously bought stock.

During drought mob size is reduced and excess stock are sold. Stocking rates on Wyndham Station are determined with reference to forage budgets, grazing charts, monitoring site information, pasture inspection, rainfall and resultant pasture conditions.

The graph illustrates the Whyte’s responsiveness to match stocking numbers to seasonal conditions. By focusing on landscape condition rather than stock numbers Gus is investing in the long-term health of the landscape – and ongoing enterprise profitability.

Opportunity cropping on the 670 arable hectares of the lake bed provides and additional income stream after a good season.

Gus has consistently achieved results over his minimum target of 30% return on this investment.

Opportunity cropping on the ephemeral lake bed provides an additional income stream in good seasons.

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MONITORING & MEASUREMENT

Gus recognises the importance of regular monitoring of landscape health, though acknowledges that his personality type does not lend him to doing this religiously. He previously received assistance from the Department of Primary Industries to set up a balanced monitoring program which was followed strictly over a couple of years. Whist other commitments have impacted on routine monitoring, Gus believes the process helped him to better interpret overall landscape health during his day-to-day work on the property.

Monitoring Program Aims:

  • Increase animal production from historical numbers by increasing biomass and density of palatable perennial plants, specifically perennial grasses
  • Capture and retain scarce resources such as nutrients and moisture for a more stable and productive landscape
  • Be simple to do.

FIXED SITE PHOTO MONITORING POINTS

A permanent marker, such as a star picket, is used to indicate where the photograph should be retaken at subsequent measurement periods. This simple photographic record clearly shows the changes in groundcover on Wyndham Station, improving over time and with significantly more growth after higher rainfall in 2011-12.

TRANSECT MONITORING

Measurements are taken from a permanent 100m transect over different land types, recording percentage ground cover, plant density measurements, species composition and soil features at 10m intervals using a 50x100cm quadrant. These measurements allow objective comparisons to be made over time.

Gus shows the 50x100cm quadrant used for transect measuring.

GROUND COVER (plant & litter)

Site No.  2009     2010     2011     2012   
115%13%26%26%
218%17%26%47%
315%4%26%28%
419%5%35%25%

PADDOCK YIELD KG/HA
(amount of dry matter per hectare that stock have eaten)

Site No.  2009     2010     2011     2012   
1176250.1421.8412.5
2137.5165.4324.9484
38863.193.1242
474.8157.578.874.8

AVERAGE SPECIES COUNT

Site No.  2009     2010     2011     2012   
1710139
21411138
36696
47375

RAINFALL IN 12 MONTHS PRIOR TO MONITORING

Site No.2009201020112012
1174mm219mm753mm436mm
2174mm219mm753mm436mm
3147mm206mm630mm346mm
4147mm206mm630mm346mm

4Whyte, A. & Jessop, P., 2012 Providing a diversity of management to achieve greater plant diversity. In: Proceedings of the Australian Rangeland Society Biennial Conference (Australian Rangeland Society: Australia)

The monitoring data reinforces how variable the climate can be and the extremely variable volumes of vegetation that can be produced in this region. This further reiterates why it is so important to actively understand and manage feed available, as conditions can change so extensively. By having the tools to measure feed availability – Gus always knows what feed he has available for the coming six months – he is able to make informed decisions to manage in times of drought.

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SUMMARY OF COSTS

Investment on Wyndham Station is prioritised based on what is determined to provide the fastest return on investment balanced against the Whyte’s personal values and goals for their landscape, livestock and lifestyle. Innovations have been funded incrementally in years where surplus funds were available. Gus indicates that it has taken 10 years to fully recoup cost of his investments.

  • Capital expenditure required for fencing and water upgrades totalled about $10 a hectare ($125,000) – indicative over 12 years
  • Fencing costs run at about $1000 per km
  • Eight additional water points have been added at a cost of $28,000
  • Annual water reticulation costs $5000 in power, $1800 for water supply, minus infrastructure depreciation

OUTCOMES

BUILDING A RESILIENT LANDSCAPE

The increased carrying capacity has enabled all investment costs to be recouped, though in the more variable conditions of the Western Division, this takes longer than in heavier rainfall zones nearer the coast.

It is actively making decisions on factors within their control – stocking numbers and grazing management – with a focus on overall landscape health that has helped to build greater resilience to the impact of drought on Wyndham Station.

The Whytes noted early after changing practices that their farm was easier to run with fewer labour requirements. Small meaningful changes began to be observed in the landscape as patches of perennial grasses expanded and erosion began declining. Overall improved vegetation and soil condition was apparent within two years of starting the new grazing system.

The practices have provided a better understanding of landscape limitations through the use of such tools as grazing charts and land monitoring sites. These tools enable Gus to make good decisions so business can be resumed after drought much faster. The Whytes also have obtained increased management flexibility through providing greater opportunity to sell or buy stock. Gus’ management methods have meant that the landscape has improved following each drought, rather than degraded.

The Whytes have achieved increased landscape health through their grazing management practices. Improved vegetation cover and soil condition has improved water use efficiency, enabling carry capacity to be increased from 55 DDH/100mm to 100 DDH/100mm in 10 years. Average stocking rates in the district are 40-55 DDH/100mm.

Gus originally set a target of three times the original carrying capacity in 30 years, however, after being able to more than double the carrying capacity after 10 years (4000 DSE to 12,000 DSE), this is seen as too low a target and may need to be reassessed, to up to five or six times, depending on longer term seasonal conditions. Aware that the landscape used to be far more productive than it is currently, Gus sets a high target for landscape health and carrying capacity. However, this is a goal to influence management decisions, and it will not be considered a failure if it is not attained.

The Whytes are now averaging a current gross margin of $12 a hectare, compared to their previous margin and regional norm of around $8 a hectare.

The goals and flexibility of the grazing system used by the Whytes helps to continually achieve increased groundcover and diversity in vegetation.

The Whytes are observing improved landscape condition in terms of increase in groundcover and species diversity. There is an increase in density of palatable grasses and perennials. From just two species prior to management change, now, at least a dozen perennial grasses are commonly found on the property. These include:

Kerosene Grass (Aristida contorta) No.9 Wiregrass (Aristida jerichoensis)
Windmill Grass (Chloris truncate) Mulka (Eragrostis dielsii)
Neverfail (Eragrostis setifolia) Native Millet (Panicum decompositum)
Hairy Panic (Panicum effusum) Five-Minute Grass (Tripogon loliiformis)
Feather Top Speargrass (Austrostipa elegantissima)      Cotton Panic (Digitaria brownie)
White-Top (Danthonia caespitose) Queensland Bluegrass (Dichanthium sericeum)      
Curly Windmill Grass (Enteropogon acicularis) Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris)
Regrowth in a healing erosion gully shows the natural seed bank in the soil, ready for a germination opportunity.

An active erosion gully, receiving extra moisture and nutrient runoff from the Silver City Highway, demonstrates the regeneration potential and the natural seedbank held within the soil. Gus’ grazing management practices have improved rainfall infiltration and retention, helping to reduce runoff into this and a number of similar gullies, holding the nutrients higher in the landscape and creating the conditions for this vegetation to germinate and expand.

The gully is now at a stage where simple rehabilitation earthworks such as contour banks can be constructed to further improve landscape hydrology and reverse erosion. Without the improved rainfall infiltration such banks previously would have washed away.

The benefits to resilience of diverse vegetation and high levels of groundcover are numerous, including:

  • Ground cover protects soil from erosion by wind and water, and from incursion by undesirable plant species.
  • Vegetative cover and various root depths add soil organic matter, building soil carbon and soil water-holding ability. Consequently, rainfall better infiltrates the soil, rather than running off, as well as being retained for longer after rain, still accessible for plant growth.
  • Species diversity extends the growing season – and therefore grazing potential – as well as making pastures less vulnerable to pest attack or weather extremes.
  • Groundcover helps to moderate the temperature of the soil surface, reducing evaporation.
  • Encouraging native species and managing for regeneration requires fewer inputs in terms of soil nutrients and provides sustainable stock feed.
  • Stock are provided a balanced diet with a better range of nutrients, no longer suffering from a carbohydrate or fibre ‘drought’ each year, ultimately improving livestock health.

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PERSONAL & FAMILY IMPACT

The Whytes now find that managing Wyndham Station involves less work, but allows greater family involvement. Labour requirements have reduced by 60%, from 1 full-time labour unit to 0.4 of a labour unit, freeing up more time to spend with family and on other interests.

Gus has had to develop new skills to effectively manage the planned rotational grazing system and regular adjustment of stocking numbers to match the landscape conditions. Time spent running Wyndham Station now includes a higher ratio of time in the office than in the paddock than under the previous management model. Gus finds that he is experiencing better communication within and across the business due to the shared views, goals and active management of the enterprise.

Approaching droughts used to be faced with concern and trepidation and a fear that the enterprise would not be able to be sustained. Now, the family better understands the impacts of drought, the opportunities that exist and how to manage the land, livestock and business to ensure they can see it through.

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MANAGING FOR RESILIENCE

Angus and Kelly Whyte recognised that their decision making is what allows them to most effectively manage their land for long term resilience and profitability. Their motivation to work with nature to ensure a healthy natural resource base has led them to implement planned rotational grazing management and monitoring and adjustment of their stock numbers to match the land’s carrying capacity. As a result, the landscape is regenerating, income is more predictable and the family feels equipped to manage whatever lies ahead.

The Whytes 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 Gus’ words –

As a livestock farmer our definition of a drought is: ‘When your stocking rate exceeds your carrying capacity’. So, armed with this knowledge, the way to manage our farm is to be able to destock adequate stock when it is dry so that we don’t exceed our land’s carrying capacity. While this may sound simplistic, this is the way we choose to manage, and part of that is in our principles that everything that happens on our land we are responsible for. Without any control over the rain we can only manipulate our stock numbers.

Having a better understanding of our limitations through using tools such as grazing charts and land monitoring sites enables us to make good decisions so we can resume our business after a drought much faster and our landscape improves following each drought.

I think that drought is such a significant issue that while farmers are primarily responsible, everybody is responsible for supporting them so that good long term decisions can be made.

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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.

Additional case studies of regenerative landscape management in practice can be accessed from our Case Studies page.

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