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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PUTTING LIFE BACK INTO THE SOIL – HUMUS COMPOST

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

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

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FARM FACTS

20km east of Young, NSW South West Slopes

ENTERPRISE: Crops. Sheep. Compost.

PROPERTY SIZE: 1182 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 600 mm

ELEVATION: 386 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Health concerns and disillusion with ‘chemical’ farming

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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ABOUT MILGADARA

image of Milgadara landscape
Milgadara

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

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

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

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

PREVIOUS PRODUCTION PRACTICES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MAKING THE CHANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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RESTORING THE SOILS

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

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

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

SOIL NUTRIENT BALANCE 2001

Low                       High                       
CalciumPotassium
MagnesiumIron
PhosphorusAluminium
ZincHydrogen
Copper 
Boron 
Sulfur 

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

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

This set the new direction in overall farm management.

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

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

SOIL NATURAL BALANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PINE HILL TRIALS

graph showing improved cation balance
graph showing organic matter increase


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


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

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SOIL OUTCOMES

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

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

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

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

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

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PRODUCTION OUTCOMES

image of diverse pasture
Pasture diversity in the sown pastures.

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

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

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

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

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

The Dalys cite some of their other production highlights as:

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

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THE VALUE OF HUMUS

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

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

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

image of compost pile and turner
The commercial compost operation.

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

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

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

image of humus compost
Humus Compost – the finished product.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of humus compost

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

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

EMPOWERING FARMERS TO MEET THE SOIL CARBON CHALLENGE

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

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

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FARM FACTS

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

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

CMA RESPONSIBILITIES:

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

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

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

image of NE CMA region
The North East CMA region

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BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PROJECT OBJECTIVES & ACTIVITIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOIL CARBON PROGRAMME TARGETS

2800 land managers would improve their natural resource management knowledge.

1500 landholders would begin using improved soil management practices.

1300 land managers would attend soil management forums.

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

PLANNING PROCESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OBTAINING FUNDING

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

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

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

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RISKS & CHALLENGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MANAGING THE PROJECT

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

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

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

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

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

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CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

FIELD DAY FEEDBACK

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

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

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

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

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

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LESSONS LEARNED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other key lessons from the project include the importance of:

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

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

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SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES TO DATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHARING THE SUCCESS

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

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

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

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


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

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‘NRM SOUTH’ – WORKING WITH THE WILLING

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE EXTENSION  CASE STUDY

WORKING WITH THE WILLING

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

GO TO:

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

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FARM FACTS

Southern Tasmania

ENTERPRISE: Grazing, cropping, perennial horticulture and other sectors

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 400-2400 mm

ELEVATION: Sea level to 1450 m

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

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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ABOUT NRM SOUTH

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

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

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

map of NRM South Region
The NRM South region

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

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

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TAILORING SUPPORT

Group processes are powerful learning experiences.

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

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

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

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

LIVING SOILS

Field Day image
Landholder visits provide the opportunity to share experiences

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

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

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

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

LIVING SOILS CONTRIBUTES TO
SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Trials are a low-risk approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUILDING EVIDENCE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
OBJECTIVES & MEASURES

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

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THE PARTICIPANTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE TRIALS

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

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

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

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

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

SETTING UP A PLANNED GRAZING TRIAL 

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

 
 

image of Guide to Planned Grazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NRM SOUTH TRIAL – FULHAM

image of Sandy Gray
Sandy Gray on Fulham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MEASUREMENT & MONITORING

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

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

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

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

graphs of changes in soil organic carbon and soil water content

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EARLY INDICATORS – TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE OUTCOMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHARING THE SUCCESS

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

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

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


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

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‘PINE LODGE’ – THE INFLUENCE OF EFFLUENT

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

THE INFLUENCE OF EFFLUENT – THE POWER TO DO GOOD

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

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

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FARM FACTS

Shepparton, VIC Central North

ENTERPRISE: Organic irrigated dairy

PROPERTY SIZE: 261 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 500 mm

ELEVATION: 110 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Health concerns and the desire to try natural farming methods

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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BECOMING ORGANIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DAIRY OPERATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FROM EFFLUENT TO FERTILISER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RECYCLING THROUGH COMPOST

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

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

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

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IRRIGATED PASTURES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HEALTHY SOILS, HEALTHY PASTURES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of stock brand
Pine Lodge farm plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PRODUCTION & PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of dairy cows

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

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

AGAINST ALL ODDS: TURNING SAND INTO PROFIT

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

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

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FARM FACTS

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

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 8000 hectares

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

ELEVATION: 320 m (home farm)

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Reducing rainfall and rising input costs

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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SETTLING IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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CROPPING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRAZING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WHOLE

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

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

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

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

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WITH WHAT WATER?

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

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

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

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

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ON WHAT SOIL?

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

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

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

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

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VEGETATION MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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THE TEAM WORKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of hay bales

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

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

WEED CONTROL WITHOUT HERBICIDE IS NOT A LOAD OF BULL

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

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

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FARM FACTS

12km east of Glen Innes, NSW Northern Tablelands

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 1450 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 750-850 mm

ELEVATION: 1000-1090 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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SHANNON VALE STATION

image of Shannon Vale Station
Shannon Vale Station

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

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

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

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

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THE WEEDS TELL A STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOIL AS THE WEED SOLUTION

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

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

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

IMPROVEMENTS TO SOIL FERTILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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FERTILISER APPLICATION & VEGETATION

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

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

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

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

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

PLANT TISSUE ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAZING MANAGEMENT

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

image of Angus bulls
Angus bulls on Shannon Vale.

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

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

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

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

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

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STOCK WATER

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

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

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

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

FINANCING INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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ROBUST RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULL GROWTH

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

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

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

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MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES & LESSONS

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

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

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

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

Management Guidelines

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

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

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


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

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

REDUCING DRYLAND SALINITY & ACHIEVING RESILIENCE BY DESIGN

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

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

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FARM FACTS

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

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 250 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 625 mm

ELEVATION: 600 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

image of Talaheni
The current Talaheni landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY OF TALAHENI

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

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

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

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

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STRATEGIC PADDOCK DESIGN & MANAGEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REDUCING SALINITY THROUGH REVEGETATING THE RIDGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TALAHENI SOIL

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

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

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

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TALAHENI WATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SUCCESS AT HOME & ABROAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORDS OF ADVICE

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

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

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

image of trees on ridgeline

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

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‘TALLAWANG’ – GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES THROUGH RESTORING LANDSCAPE HYDROLOGY

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

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

FARM FACTS

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

ENTERPRISE: Cattle, sheep. Beef cattle and sheep trading

PROPERTY SIZE: 445 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 800 mm

ELEVATION: 400-500m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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BLENDING PRINCIPLES TO ATTAIN EFFECTIVE HYDROLOGY

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

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

The main impediment to change is between the ears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CONVERTING THE WATERWAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phragmites australis regenerating along the creek bed.

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

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

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FROM BREEDING TO TRADING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RE-HYDRATING THE SOIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PRODUCTIVE GREENER PASTURES

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIODIVERSITY ON TALLAWANG

Plant life observed on the property includes:

Perennial Grasses

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

Wetland Plants

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

Trees

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

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

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ATTAINING BALANCE

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

Native grasses have been extensively regenerated through
  grazing management practices.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

RESTORING THE GASCOYNE RANGELAND – COMMITMENT, COOPERATION & HARD WORK

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

GO TO:

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

FARM FACTS

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

ENTERPRISE: Cattle. Bos Taurus beef production

PROPERTY SIZE: 480,000 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 225 mm

ELEVATION: 550-600m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • Degraded landscape unable to support stock

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

image of sun shining through trees and grassland
Three Rivers scenery

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

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

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

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THREE RIVERS STATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FRAGILE RANGELANDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A CHANGE IN TRADITION

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

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

Hard subsoils exposed after loss of topsoil along the river.

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

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

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

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

LEARNING IN ORDER TO HEAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of healthy pastures
Thriving perennial pastures.

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


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INVESTING IN THE SOIL & CALMING THE WATERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of interventions on Three Rivers Station

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MOSAICS OF HEALING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ON THE WAY TO RESTORATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

image of grass species

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

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

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

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

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


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

‘WINONA’ – PASTURE CROPPING THE WAY TO HEALTH

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY

PASTURE CROPPING THE WAY TO HEALTH

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

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

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FARM FACTS

20km north of Gulgong, NSW Central Highlands

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

PROPERTY SIZE: 840 hectares

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 650 mm

ELEVATION: 460-580 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

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

INNOVATIONS

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

KEY RESULTS

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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PASTURE CROPPING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOW IT ALL BEGAN

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

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

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

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

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

DECLINING HEALTH

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

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

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

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NO CHOICE

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

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

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

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

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

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PASTURE CROPPING ON WINONA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERTICAL STACKING OF ENTERPRISES

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

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

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HEALTH RESTORED, BENEFITS ACCRUED

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

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

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

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

SOIL CARBON LEVELS ON WINONA

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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