GILGUNNIA STATION – BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

BUILDING LANDSCAPE RESILIENCE YOU CAN BANK ON

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

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

FARM FACTS

38 km north west of Cobar, Central West NSW

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 10,00 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400 mm

ELEVATION: 260 m

PRACTICES COMMENCED: 2005

RESILIENCE BUILDING PRACTICES

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

KEY RESULTS

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

BUILDING RESILIENCE TO THE IMPACTS OF DROUGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AGRICULTURE ON THE COBAR PENEPLAIN

GILGUNNIA STATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGIONAL MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CHANGING PRACTICES

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

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

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

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

EDUCATION & TRAINING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

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

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

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

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

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INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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GILGUNNIA STOCK

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

Dorper sheep provide a greater value product than goats.

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

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

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

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

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FERAL GOAT MANAGEMENT

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

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

Feral goats in the trapyard enclosure.

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

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

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WATER MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPLEMENTING AN INTENSIVE GRAZING SYSTEM

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

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

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SUMMARY OF COSTS

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

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

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

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

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OUTCOMES

BUILDING A RESILIENT LANDSCAPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VEGETATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOIL

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

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

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

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

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BIODIVERSITY

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

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

PERSONAL & SOCIAL OUTCOMES

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

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

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

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

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

REGENERATION FOR RESILIENCE

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

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

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

In Ashley’s words:

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

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


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

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

‘GUNNINGRAH’ – SHIFTING MINDSET FROM ANIMALS TO THE LAND

Meet Charlie and Anne Maslin

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

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

FARM FACTS

20 km north-west of Bombala, NSW Southern Tablelands

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 4200 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 550 mm

ELEVATION: 800-1000 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Ecological deterioration and dependence on rainfall for profit

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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GUNNINGRAH

image of Gunningrah landscape
The Gunningrah landscape.

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

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

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

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EMBRACING CHANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BETTER USE OF THE RAIN, WHERE IT FALLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAZING ON GUNNINGRAH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graph showing DSE days per hectare per 100mm rainfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IMPROVED NATURAL RESOURCE BASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INNOVATION SUCCESSES

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

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

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

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

graph showing net farm income over time

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

graph showing reduction in labour requirements

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

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

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

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

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


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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‘INVERARAY DOWNS’ – HIGHER QUALITY FOOD THROUGH REGENERATED SOILS AND REDUCED INPUTS

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

HIGHER QUALITY FOOD THROUGH REGENERATED SOILS & REDUCED INPUTS

To overcome productivity declines in some of Australia’s best soils, Cam and Roxane McKellar have re-designed ecological cropping practices, successfully regenerating the structure and nutrient dynamics in their soils. As a result, they now produce better quality and more healthy and nutritious food more sustainably and with lower inputs.

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

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FARM FACTS

10 km south of Spring Ridge, NSW North West Slopes and Plains

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Cattle. Compost. Irrigated grain, seed and legume crops; cattle agistment; organic compost

PROPERTY SIZE: 1250 hectares, 810 hectares irrigated crop production

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 6800 mm

ELEVATION: 330 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Prohibitively high-input crop production system

INNOVATIONS

  • Changing crop rotation to better support soil biology
  • Changing from inorganic to organic fertilisers
  • Application of compost fertiliser to increase soil organic matter
  • Integrating grazing with cropping
  • Innovations commenced: 2000

KEY RESULTS

  • Regeneration of soil and nutrient dynamics
  • Improved crop quality, increased weight and more even yields across the property
  • Reduced input costs
  • Additional revenue from compost sale and cattle agistment

INTRODUCTION

On Inveraray Downs, Cam and Roxane grow grains – wheat, sorghum, various types of corn, sunflower and barley – and other crops, such as chick peas, mung beans and soy beans. Decades of standard management practices such as cultivation, inorganic fertiliser and bio-cide use had degraded the quality and productivity of some of Australia’ best soils on the Liverpool Plains. Essential biological processes and cycles for supplying nutrients to crops had been degraded, pest infestations were high and input costs were increasing.

Cam and Roxane started investigating alternatives to the high-input crop production system, investing time and money to eventually determine that the solution was to work with the soil’s biological activity rather than against it. To achieve this, Cam re-designed ecological cropping systems and successions to restore the soil’s natural high carbon levels, healthy structures, nutrient availabilities and hydrological resilience. Organic matter and nutrients from clean agricultural wastes are also being recycled back into the soils via the on-farm production and use of high quality composts.

Combined with their organic composts and crop rotation the McKellars have also introduced cattle into their systems to break down crop stubble, recycle green manure crops and add fertiliser. As a result Inveraray Downs’ production costs have decreased, crop yields and qualities have improved and the structure, fertility and resilience of soils are being restored.

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THE OLD WAY: FROM STOCK TO CROPS

Inveraray Downs is a small part of the Warrah Estate, a land holding of some 100,000 hectares that was granted to the Australian Agricultural Company in 1833. The McKellar family bought Inveraray Downs in 1962 and Cam McKellar is the second generation of the family to manage the property.

The deep, heavy clay soils (vertisols) which are widespread in the Liverpool Plains region, have high natural fertility. Derived on basalt plains, the vertisols had long been treeless. Denser forests of cypress pine (Callitris endlicheri) with scattered eucalypts typically occur on the sandier soils on the ridges and slopes rising from the plains.

The plains native vegetation is ideal for sheep grazing, which was the main farm business up to the 1960s. Severe drought followed by a period of anecdotally cooler weather in the mid 1960s caused massive loss of sheep. This, together with the declining returns from grazing, forced a re-thinking of the farm business. A bore found readily accessible water for crop irrigation. Additionally, by this time, tractors capable of cultivating the heavy clay soils were readily available. Grazing was phased out and re-development of the property for irrigated crop production proceeded through the late 1960s.

Flood irrigation was introduced in 1970. Whilst the total property area is 1250 hectares, about 810 hectares can be irrigated for crop production. Water, from either or both a bore and the intermittently flowing Yarraman Creek that runs though the property, when flow is sufficient, is pumped into a large ‘turkey nest’ earth tank. From here it can flow by gravity to the crops via earth channels. The average slope across the property is about 1:600. Water from the channels is diverted into the crops down furrows, ploughed at two metre spacing, down the length of each crop field. The furrows are sufficiently close together that sideways infiltration wets the plant root zone.

Cam says, “No fertiliser was used until the early 70s as it was naturally very fertile”. However, in line with common cropping techniques, chemical fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide use eventually became common practice.

The farming practices typical of the period from the 1970s can be illustrated using a three-year cropping calendar. The main features of this former calendar include in years one and three growing corn over summer and autumn, burning the stubble in autumn and growing a legume during winter and spring. In the second year a legume is grown in summer and autumn followed by a fallow in winter.

3yr cropping calendar showing corn, chick peas & soy bean crops & stubble burning


Summer and winter cropping continued for the following decades, using the “best management practices” of the day. However, years of cultivation, inorganic fertiliser and bio-cide use resulted in productivity declines in what were some of Australia’s best soils. Essential biological processes and cycles for supplying nutrients to their crops had degraded. By 1985, Cam suspects that the soil organic matter level had declined from an original level of perhaps 5% to 0.5%. It took Cam a further ten or so years to realise that “… it was stuffed! The worms had gone. Pests were rife. We were on a high input treadmill and couldn’t get off”.

At the same time, the costs of inputs – fertilisers, fuel, pesticides and herbicides – were becoming prohibitive. Cam recalls, “We were going broke. Everyone but me was making money out of the farm!”

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SWAPPING CHEMICAL FOR ORGANIC FERTILISER

image of covered compost heaps
Compost heaps under Gore-Tex sheets.

The McKellars started investigating alternatives to the high-input crop production system. Cam invested thousands of dollars in education, in Australia and overseas. This included a Holistic Management Course and an Arden Anderson Soil Course, various composting courses and seminars. Cam received a Nuffield Scholarship in 1991 and this enabled him further opportunity to study and develop ideas for innovative cultivation and cropping practices.

Cam identified that, “Fundamentally we need to work with nature, not against her. The soil health holds the key, and that is enhanced by the biological activity occurring in the soil and its interaction with the plants/crops”.

As a major innovation, Cam gradually started adopting new practices, changing from costly inorganic fertilisers to organic fertilisers. He slowly reduced the reliance on traditional fertilisers and swapped them for other options, such as kelp, fish emulsions and composts. He experimented by purchasing or obtaining for the cost of transport a range of materials, such as wastes from cattle feedlots, horse stables and chicken breeders, decayed hay and whatever other organic matter was available. It took a lot of effort to learn the methods used to produce compost fertiliser from organic wastes and by-products.

Cam summarises the rationale, “Through improved structure and organic matter content, the soil holds more water, being available to plants and animals for longer”.

image of tractor spraying organic fertiliser
Distribution of organic liquid fertiliser.

Now, these organic materials are brought to the compost production facility, which comprises about four hectares of gently sloping ground, an overhead tank for water supply, a tractor to tow the compost turner to form compost heaps and a front-end loader to move the materials around.

The various raw materials are mixed in carefully managed proportions to achieve the carbon to nitrogen ratio necessary to facilitate aerobic microbiological decomposition. The mix is formed into beds about a metre high, two metres wide and one hundred metres long. These are covered with Gore-Tex sheets that enable water to evaporate while preventing rainfall from infiltrating, so that moisture content in the bed is controlled. The temperature and CO2 levels within the beds are monitored daily and the whole bed turned over and re-formed when benchmark levels are reached. The on-farm composting capability is managed by one full time employee.

The resulting compost is spread across the crop fields at a rate of 4 tonnes per hectare each year

Through this activity Cam and Roxane have also generated an additional source of income. Cam reports, “I can sell compost by the ute load or the truck load to those who are keen to try it for themselves”.

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THE NEW WAY: MIXING CROPS WITH STOCK

image of cattle grazing crop stubble
Grazing Belted Galloway cattle in front of compost heaps.

The other major innovation on Inveraray Downs was to change crop rotation practices and to opportunistically use cattle after cropping to break down stubble and to recycle green manure crops. The Belted Galloway cattle were reintroduced to the enterprise in 2000 and now provide an additional source of fertiliser and revenue.

“I am using cattle as quick stubble digesters – they are eating the sorghum and corn stubble, which keeps the soil microbes thriving while we get ready to sow the next crop.” Agisting cattle, rather than maintaining a herd on the property, allows them to be used when it suits the crop production cycle.

Cam re-designed ecological cropping systems and successions to restore the natural high soil carbon levels, soil structures, nutrient availability and the hydrological resilience of these soils. These practices include direct drilling of crops, use of green manure and the recycling of organic matter and nutrients from clean agricultural wastes back into the soils via the on farm production and use of high quality composts.

The farming practices that are now typical of the McKellar’s farming system since 2006 can be summarised using a three-year cropping calendar. The obvious difference with the earlier calendar is that stubble burning has been replaced by incorporating the stubble and compost into the soil. Green manure crops are now grown in the first and third years. Every year in spring or early summer a brief two-month fallow is provided. The fallow periods provide time for the soil microbes to decompose the green manure, and therefore for the nutrients to be released for use by the next crop.

“When you compare the two cropping calendars, before 2000 with after 2006, you see more flexibility in what we are doing now. Our farming practices are much kinder on the organisms living in the soil”, Cam explains.

3yr cropping calendar showing corn, chick pea, soy bean, & green manure crops, fallow periods & compost treatements
image of chicory root
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) tap roots penetrate deeply, drawing nutrients from lower in the soil.

Because irrigation farms don’t usually need the fencing necessary on grazing properties, Cam had to find a way to control the stock without getting in the way of cropping. Portable electric fencing was found to be the most cost-effective way. To get the maximum stubble recycling and trampling benefit from grazing, he uses a grid of electric tapes to confine the herd to one-hectare cells. The herd is moved to the next cell each day. This ensures that the cows either recycle the stubble and turn it into manure or pound it into the soil, where the soil biota such as insects, micro-fauna, worms, bacteria, fungi and other microbes can do their work of breaking down the organic matter to release the nutrients.

image of penetrometer in healthy soil
A penetrometer test shows deep, friable soil.

The same high intensity grazing approach is used to treat green manure crops. These crops are legumes grown for their nitrogen-fixing capacity, rather than as a cash crop. Before they go to seed, cattle are used to turn the foliage into manure and to break down the residues into mulch, in the same way that crop stubble is treated.

The effect after several seasons is a vastly improved soil structure, organic matter content and balance within the cation exchange capacity, and a soil that provides a better growing medium and holds more water. The evidence of soil structure improvement can be easily seen with a simple probe test.

This process has meant that, in the McKellar’s experience, insecticides and fungicides have virtually been eliminated from the cropping cycle. Cam recognises that “weeds do have a role to play as both indicators and a ‘home’ for microbiological activity. The improved resilience of the soils allows for the weeds to be left longer before being managed”.

Now, the preferred method to control pests and weeds is to use the winter-summer crop rotation and cultivation that breaks the weed regeneration cycle. It has not been practical to eliminate use of chemical herbicides completely, but the volume used has considerably reduced. Cam notes, “Weed spectrum changes with farming culture, however, summer and winter broad leaves and grasses are main challenge, especially [those that are] Glyphosate resistant”.

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INTO THE FUTURE

I should have moved to a more natural system of farming a lot earlier in my life. It is not that hard.

Cam and Roxane’s re-designed ecological cropping practices that have successfully regenerated what were some of Australia’s best soils, particularly the soil structure and nutrient dynamics in their soils. As a result, they now produce better quality and more healthy and nutritious food more sustainably and with fewer inputs.

The crop rotation system now used on Inveraray Downs is more complex than the traditional one, however, organic fertiliser made on the property has replaced chemical fertilisers and herbicide and pesticide use is much reduced. The cash inputs required have therefore decreased substantially.

Of what has been the greatest impact of these changed practices, Cam says, “Definitely building soil carbon (organic matter), enhanced microbial activity to enhance the robustness of crops and pastures and more efficient water holding capacity”.

image of stubble amongst crop
Wheat stubble from the previous grain crop is still visible among
  the ready-to-harvest mung beans.

As a result of the changes made on Inveraray Downs, grain quality has improved, the colour and ‘plumpness’ is noticeably better and bushel weight has increased. Yields are even across the property and there is less disease. As Cam says, “It’s about increasing the fertility of the soil, improving yields and producing better quality food”.

Cam and Roxane feel that overall the changes on Inveraray Downs have been very positive, but acknowledge that there is more to do. Priority activities include:

  • continue to build soil humus levels
  • re-mineralise the soil
  • improve plant and animal nutrition
  • increase livestock numbers

Looking into the future Cam notes, “My biggest risk in the enterprise remains the markets for my crops. As these fluctuate, I must seek to find efficiencies in the inputs applied. To that end, I am routinely applying biological amendments that are cheaper per hectare than conventional equivalents,”.

In recent years Cam has left a buffer strip along the creek, which is no longer cropped. “I refer to this as my biodiversity patch. Over time I have observed new and different types of plants in the strip. Every few months I turn the cattle in there for a few days just to knock down some of the weeds.”

These buffer zones around the perimeter of the farm are now managed for timber and biodiversity. Numerous signs of increased biodiversity can be observed across the property. Macro and micro soil life has returned. Insects are abundant. Kites, kestrels, hawks and eagles have returned, showing that there are ample small animals around to support them.

Soil microbial activity has been enhanced through the cycle of decomposition of organic matter that releases and makes these nutrients available. Cam notes, “I use worms as an indicator of how healthy my soils are. Worms can now be found anywhere you dig”.

Cam concludes, “I should have moved to a more natural system of farming a lot earlier in my life. It is not hard. Start small, experiment, then expand”.

image of healthy cropland soil

THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

DON’T MEASURE SUCCESS BY THE SIZE OF YOUR HERD

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

GO TO:

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

FARM FACTS

5 km south-west of Braidwood, NSW Southern Tablelands

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Cottage Industries

PROPERTY SIZE: 453 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 719 mm

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Learning about Holistic Management

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WAY IT WAS

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

image of Jillamatong
Jillamatong vista 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MAKING CHANGES

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

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

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

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

image of Jillamatong waterway
The Jillamatong floodplains have been restored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WAY IT IS NOW

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

STOCK MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WATER MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOIL MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LESSONS LEARNED

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

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

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

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NO TURNING BACK – LOOKING AT THE BOTTOM LINES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See how Jillamatong looks in 2016 in our Facebook gallery.


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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‘LANA’ – PARTNERING FARM ANIMALS TO REGENERATE THE LAND

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PARTNERING FARM ANIMALS TO REGENERATE THE LAND

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

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

FARM FACTS

22km west of Uralla, NSW Northern Tablelands

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

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

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 769 mm

ELEVATION: 800-1000 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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ADOPTING HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES

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

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

A 2011 Lana winter landscape

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

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

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

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

WORKING WITH NATURE


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

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

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

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

Think of livestock as tools.

Design paddocks to suit the topography and the land.

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

Supplement stock with minerals but not feed substitutes.

Test all decisions against the holistic goal.

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

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IMPLEMENTING CHANGE

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

FENCING

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

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

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

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

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

WATER

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

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

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

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

FINANCING

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

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

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

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

EDUCATION

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

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

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

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

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

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LIVESTOCK AS FARM TOOLS

image of manure in grass
Nutrient transfer on Lana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOIL & VEGETATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NOW & BEYOND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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

Meet Bill and Rhonda Daly

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

FARM FACTS

20km east of Young, NSW South West Slopes

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Compost.

PROPERTY SIZE: 1182 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 600 mm

ELEVATION: 386 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Health concerns and disillusion with ‘chemical’ farming

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

ABOUT MILGADARA

image of Milgadara landscape
Milgadara

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

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

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

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

PREVIOUS PRODUCTION PRACTICES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MAKING THE CHANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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RESTORING THE SOILS

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

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

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

SOIL NUTRIENT BALANCE 2001

Low                       High                       
CalciumPotassium
MagnesiumIron
PhosphorusAluminium
ZincHydrogen
Copper 
Boron 
Sulfur 

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

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

This set the new direction in overall farm management.

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

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

SOIL NATURAL BALANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PINE HILL TRIALS

graph showing improved cation balance
graph showing organic matter increase


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


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

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SOIL OUTCOMES

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

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

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

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

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

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PRODUCTION OUTCOMES

image of diverse pasture
Pasture diversity in the sown pastures.

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

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

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

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

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

The Dalys cite some of their other production highlights as:

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

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THE VALUE OF HUMUS

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

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

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

image of compost pile and turner
The commercial compost operation.

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

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

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

image of humus compost
Humus Compost – the finished product.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of humus compost

THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

WEED CONTROL WITHOUT HERBICIDE IS NOT A LOAD OF BULL

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

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

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FARM FACTS

12km east of Glen Innes, NSW Northern Tablelands

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 1450 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 750-850 mm

ELEVATION: 1000-1090 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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SHANNON VALE STATION

image of Shannon Vale Station
Shannon Vale Station

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

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

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

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

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THE WEEDS TELL A STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOIL AS THE WEED SOLUTION

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

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

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

IMPROVEMENTS TO SOIL FERTILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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FERTILISER APPLICATION & VEGETATION

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

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

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

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

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

PLANT TISSUE ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

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

image of Angus bulls
Angus bulls on Shannon Vale.

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

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

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

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

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

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STOCK WATER

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

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

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

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

FINANCING INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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ROBUST RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULL GROWTH

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

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

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

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MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES & LESSONS

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

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

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

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

Management Guidelines

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

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

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


THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY & ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

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

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

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FARM FACTS

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

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 250 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 625 mm

ELEVATION: 600 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

image of Talaheni
The current Talaheni landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY OF TALAHENI

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

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

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

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

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STRATEGIC PADDOCK DESIGN & MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REDUCING SALINITY THROUGH REVEGETATING THE RIDGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TALAHENI SOIL

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

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

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

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TALAHENI WATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SUCCESS AT HOME & ABROAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORDS OF ADVICE

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

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

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

image of trees on ridgeline

THIS CASE STUDY WAS PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2012 AS PART OF THE SOILS FOR LIFE INNOVATIONS FOR REGENERATIVE LANDSCAPE MANAGEMENT PROJECT.
DOWNLOAD THE FULL PROJECT REPORT OR CONTACT US TO ORDER A COPY.

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‘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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‘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.

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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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