Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shaun, Jamie and Shane through careful management and the invention of the “SoilKee Renovator” have developed a property in Hallora, West Gippsland which produces healthy pasture year round. In 2019 the family were recognised for their exploits in sequestering soil carbon by being the first farm in Australia to be awarded carbon credits for doing so.
The Olsen family is focused on improving the health of their land to its maximum capacity, they are willing to share this journey with many land holders visiting their property each year to gain insight into how the Olsen’s have achieved spectacular soil and pasture improvements.
Olsen Family Farm, Hallora VIC
ENTERPRISE: Angus cross cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 124 ha
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 1000 mm
ELEVATION: 135 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
The over application of superphosphate fertilisers over the course of two years and the subsequent damage caused to their soil was the catalyst for Niels and Marja Olsen to reassess their farming strategy. Realising that healthy soil produces healthy food was a major factor in influencing their journey in becoming regenerate land managers.
Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:
Increase paddock numbers to facilitate rotational grazing
Multi species pasture cropping
Carbon and nitrogen soil sequestration
Pasture growth improved to negate biannual “feed gaps”
Utilisation of the “SoilKee Renovator Machine”
Significant improvements in soil health measures such as moisture content, biological activity and soil carbon levels. Pasture growth has increased significantly with up to 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare grown each year. Observations of biodiversity have increased on the farm with the number of birds, frogs and other reptiles seen greatly increasing. Landslips and washouts have stopped occurring.
The Hallora Story
Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shane, Jamie and Shaun have been managing and operating the family farm in Hallora, Gippsland, Victoria since 1985. Previously, the property was used for dairy cattle with Niels making the switch to a herd of breeder cattle in 2008. Over the years Niels has worked a number of off-farm jobs, supplementing farm income. In 2012 Niels with the help of his family designed and patented a machine to improve soil health on his farm, the machine was named the SoilKee Renovator.
Niels grew up on a farm not far from his current property;
for many years he lived the life of a typical dairy farmer, milking twice daily
365 days a year. Niels farmed the way he had learnt in his youth, the traditional
West Gippsland way: growing pastures in the good seasons of the year to harvest
and store later to be fed out during the other seasons. This method of farming
was labour and time intensive.
In the 1990’s Niels started and managed an earth
moving business whilst keeping the farm running. The earth moving business
proved to be quite successful and Niels made the decision to invest some of the
profits back into the farm in the form of superphosphate fertiliser. In 1999
upon consultation from a local agronomist Niels purchased and applied a large
quantity of super on his farm. The results were fantastic; pastures looked
green and grew significantly more than they had the previous year. Niels
decided to increase the dosage of super the following year expecting to achieve
better pasture growth results. However, the complete opposite occurred; after
applying the super the Olsen’s paddocks turned brown and stopped growing whilst
his neighbour’s paddocks were green with fresh pasture growth.
This was the catalyst for the Olsen’s to recognise these
practices were harming the landscape and seemed unsustainable in the long term.
Marja and Niels were horrified at the damage they had inflicted upon their soil.
Their response was to seek out guidance and training, they started attending
workshops and field days focused on improving soil health. Armed with the
knowledge they had gained from the numerous workshops and field days they set
about regenerating soil health on their farm.
The property is comprised of 124 hectares split
into 28 paddocks, the water supply consisting of dams and an ephemeral creek
running through the property. The property sits at an elevation of 135m above
sea level with an average annual rainfall of 1000 mm. Prior to land clearing in
the late 19th century for agricultural purposes the landscape would
have consisted of what is now classified as a damp/ wet sclerophyll forest.
Numerous species of eucalyptus and acacia trees would have been present in the
landscape, only Messmate (Eucalyptus
obliqua) is present today.
The property consists of low slopes and rolling
hills with an acidic red ferrosol soil. The pasture species at the time of
purchase were mostly rye grasses and clovers with no native grass species
present. Signs of ecological health in the soil such as worms were rarely
observed prior to 2002. The pH of the soil ranged from 3.7-4.5 across the farm.
Prior to the use of the “SoilKee Renovator” landslips and washouts regularly
occurred across the property. Since the implementation of the “SoilKee
Renovator”, no landslips or washouts have occurred on the property. The soil
structure on the farm was improved by sowing deep rooted pasture species such
as legumes, improving the structure of the soil which greatly reduced the risk
of landslips and washouts.
Indicators of ecological health such as reptiles
and frogs were not regularly observed on the farm prior to adoption of some regenerative
management techniques, especially soil health, high soil carbon content, cover
and hydration. In recent years frog numbers have increased significantly and
they are now observed regularly. The dominant snake species on the property
used to be the Eastern Brown (Pseudonaja
textilis), since the increase in frog numbers Eastern Brown snakes are
rarely sighted on the property instead Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) have become common. Frogs are the preferred
food of Tiger snakes. The increase in frog numbers on the property directly coincided
with the ceasing of chemical inputs.
Birds such as Ibis’s were commonly observed in the
paddocks eating slugs and cockchafers, since adopting regenerative management
techniques Ibis’s are rarely if ever seen on the farm. During a short walk on
the property in November 2019 a Soils For Life ecologist observed 22 different
species of birds. These species included birds from most of the trophic levels including
raptors suggesting that the health of the landscape is in excellent condition.
From 1985 till 2008 Niels operated the property as
a dairy farm with a herd size of around 150, in 2008 Olsens stopped dairying
and started a breeder operation and selling steers for slaughter. Initially they
kept the same herd of dairy cattle and used them as a breeder herd due to the
cost of replacing their herd entirely. In 2018 they replaced the herd of dairy
cattle with a herd of angus crosses. Niels and Marja have utilised rotational
grazing on the property from 2003 onwards, prior to 2015 the total yearly
grazing time per paddock was eight weeks. This has increased the grazing time
since 2015 to 12 weeks of the year due to increases in pasture production
gained from sowing multi-species utilising the SoilKee Renovator. Niels has
altered his production system from an animal-first perspective to soil first. Olsen’s
focus is on improving the health of their soil through methods such as multi
species cropping to encourage root growth and nitrogen and carbon intake from
the air. Olsens consider fungal activity to be vitally important in improving
soil health. They ensure that the soil is never deep ripped which can damage
and stop fungal activity from occurring.
Prior to 2012 Niels had a concept in his mind which
he thought could be the ideal method of farming for his property. However, he
did not have the tools to trial the concept. His idea was that by utilising a
machine which lightly disturbed the soil and planted crops concurrently, and
twice a year, he could grow enough pasture biomass to feed his cattle year-round
without having to cut and store fodder to be fed in the feed gaps of each
season. In 2012 this idea came to fruition, Niels had built and designed a
machine which he named the “SoilKee Renovator”. The machine consisted of
angular blades which “broke” the earth rather than “cutting” it at minimal
depth. The machine is utilised after grazing with 15-20% of biomass left from
the grazing mulched straight into the soil speeding up the process. Essentially
Niels had designed a machine which converted his pasture biomass directly into
mulch after grazing. This completely reduced the need for any fertiliser
application on the property.
Since 2012 Niels has not had to supplementary feed his livestock. The method of multi species pasture and cropping combined with the accelerated mulching enabled by the SoilKee Renovator, has significantly improved the health of the soil and the amount of pasture biomass produced each year. Niels has been able to grow 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare per year on some of his best paddocks, the less fertile areas of the property achieve 15 tonnes per hectare per year. The pasture growing season is now 9 months of the year. Undesirable pasture species such as kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) which used to be present across the property has been out-competed by desirable species planted sowed with the SoilKee machine.
The Olsen Farm is an unusual farm in the sense that
all three of Niels and Marja’s adult sons still work on the farm and in the
family business. A lot of the production of the SoilKee machine is done on farm
by the eldest son Shane, who is interested in manufacturing and design
improvement. The middle son Jamie manages the farm with his father Niels and
does contracting work driving the SoilKee Renovator on other properties. The
youngest son Shaun helps in all aspects of the farm and family business. Marja
manages the administration side of the farm and the business whilst Niels
oversees operations. The sons are happy that they get to keep working on the
family farm, Niels and Marja are pleased that their sons continue to play an
active role in their lives.
Soil Health and Soil Carbon
Commencing in 2016 detailed soil tests were undertaken on Hallora to meet the reporting requirements of the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund carbon abatement reporting requirements. Results for the 2017 reporting period showed Hallora measured 12.2 t/CO2e/ha and in 2018 this had increased to 13.7 tCO2e/ha.In early 2019 the Soilkee Farm became the first farm in the world (as far as we can ascertain) to be awarded carbon credits for sequestering carbon with their soil.
Increased carbon in the soil has correlated with
increases in organic matter, water infiltration and holding capacity. Moisture
and organic material were previously measured to reach a depth of 50cm in the
soil, currently on some parts of the farm that depth has increased to 650cm.
The pH of the soil has also improved from 3.7-4.5 prior to 2003 to currently
measure at 5.5-7.9.
Nitrogen nodules on the roots of peas planted in the pasture are numerous and large in size and commonly observed. Worm castings are evident across the property and the soil structure has altered to feel spongey under foot. During autumn the fruit of fungi in the form of mushrooms and toadstools are visible across the paddocks indicating a healthy fungal biota existing beneath the soil.
Over 34 years of management the Olsens have
continued learning about their landscape and the importance of the soil
underneath it. Niels and family have altered their management practices to
focus on building soil health and resilience across the farm to ensure long
term viability. The most significant innovation that Niels has implemented on
the farm is the use of the SoilKee Renovator, which has improved the health of their
soil in conjunction with growing significantly more pasture biomass across the
property. Other innovations include monitoring soil, introducing multi-species
pasture and switching from dairy to beef.
The improvements the Olsen family have made to the
property are an outstanding example of land holders implementing and practicing
innovative regenerative management techniques particularly focused on nurturing
soil health. The Olsen’s have achieved:
Soil microbiology enhancements
Soil hydration improvements
Improvements in carrying capacity of land
No low season feed inputs
Air penetration of soils
Carbon sequestration in the soils
Australian Carbon Credit Units which can be traded.
The Olsen’s started viewing and managing their property as a system and as a result the ecology of the farm has improved dramatically, so too have the social benefits as the family that works together, stays together.
The ecology of the Olsen Family Farm speaks for itself, the soil is thriving, full of worms and root systems packed with nitrogen nodules and soil carbon levels are excellent and still rising. Above the ground a diverse range of birds and frogs are now regularly seen in the grassy paddocks.
Despite the publicity about the Olsen Family Farm being the first in Australia to acquire ACCU’s under the federal governments Emissions Reduction Fund, the fact remains an integrated approach to regenerative agriculture pays off. Increasing natural capital and the resultant ecosystem service benefits provides greater productivity and landscape resilience, the ACCU’s are the cream on top!
The entire family works together on managing the property and their associated business ventures. Being able to work on the family farm into adulthood provides each of the three sons a great deal of job satisfaction. Needless to say Niels and Marja are pleased to have all three of their sons around.
Are you our next case study? If you have a story of change to tell about your regenerative landscape practices, we’d love to hear from you! Find out more here.
Taking over the family farm can be challenging in itself. Leaving a secure job in the public service, a young family and relatives watching over a farm that extends back generations, now that’s a challenge!
History of the Kane family runs deep in Coleraine, Western Victoria. Since 1878 four generations have farmed this area. John and family made a tree change in 1996 to take over the farm from his uncles and thus began a journey of transformation.
Through self education, independent thinking and the support of immediate family, John was able to turn Collingwood around to be the thriving black Angus cattle breeding property that it is today. A focus on soil through an integrated approach to managing physical, chemical and biological processes has seen Collingwood get the balance between soils, water, plants and animals just right.
CollingwoodFarm, Coleraine VIC
ENTERPRISE: Cattle breeding
PROPERTY SIZE: 242 hectares
AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 620 mm
ELEVATION: 90-100 m
MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE
Opportunity to embrace biological farming to regenerate run down enterprise with potential for improved profit and farm landscape improvement.
Fencing of stock water and improved fencing along creek line
Stock medication (supplements added to water troughs)
Stock mineral supplement powders
Effective weed management
Consistently high levels of ground cover all year round
Improved extent of tree and shrub cover along the creek
Significant reduction in input costs
High level of consistency of cattle breeding
Rotational grazing of high quality pastures
Cash flow all year round
High level of personal satisfaction in outcomes achieved
John Kane, his wife Jenny and their three children, Andrew,
Christopher and Melissa took up an offer from two elderly uncles to manage
their farming enterprise, Collingwood, near Coleraine in western Victoria in
1996. The family moved onto the property, but John also undertook work from the
local council while he found his feet in managing the farm.
The property consisted of two main blocks comprising a
complex set of titles left over from the World War 1 Soldier Settlement Scheme.
One block, Evestons, is 102Ha and the other, Collingwood, is 140 Ha. There were
thirteen paddocks that were set stocked with sheep and cattle. Some fences were
run down and dams and watering points did not match the paddock subdivisions, a
must if rotational grazing was to be introduced.
There were three paddocks totalling 36 ha under hay when
John took over the property. He increased that to four paddocks totalling 48 ha
as part of his feeding out strategy.
Kanes Creek runs through the property and poor land
management in the 1930-40s led to the formation of a 12 metre deep erosion
gully. In the 1960’s, as part of Soil Conservation Service work, the creek was
fenced-off and partially revegetated. Its intermittent flow carried water and
soil nutrients off the property to the Glenelg River and out to sea. The creek
bed was a haven for rabbits and foxes and home to a considerable number of
snakes which prey on the proliferation of frogs which share the habitat.
In 1996, the enterprise carried 12 DSE set stocked on
pastures heavily infested with Cape Weed and lesser infestations of Onion Weed,
Rush, Wild Geranium and Dandelion. About one third of the stock was sheep and
two thirds cattle. Poor quality grazing combined with poor cattle genetics and
underweight calves being dropped at inopportune times of the year.
Planning and Implementing Change
Initially, John opted to improve the cattle genetics. He
soon realised that he had the wrong strategy. Even with top quality bulls, poor
pasture was leading to poor returns from cows grazing sub-standard pastures and
dropping underweight calves. Above and
beyond soil test results, poor quality pasture indicated poor nutrient density
and nutrient deficient soils. John decided to improve the soil as a first
In 2000, at some risk to the economic viability of the
enterprise, John decided to streamline his workload by selling off his sheep
and concentrating on breeding Black Angus cattle. The strategy has paid off,
but he now has two fully function shearing sheds to maintain in case of a
future decision to bring back sheep.
Today John’s annual production cycle is geared to producing
consistent numbers of high grade weaner steers (calves) that are sold locally.
John’s cattle are finished on farms in NSW and Queensland.
Soils and Soil Fertility
John first conducted his soil tests in 1996 to establish a baseline. Initial tests and associated observation and research highlighted an average pH of 4, an imbalance of the Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) ratio, soil compaction, indications of over-use of superphosphate, poor soil hydrology and considerable bare ground after broad leafed annuals died off. Since that time subsequent soil tests have been used to inform progress and to adjust management regimes to improve soil condition. John dispensed with the services of the agronomist and took over the fertiliser program himself. He opted for a program of mineral fertilisers and foliates. He introduced Bubas bison dung beetles, in addition to extant native varieties for greater aeration, water penetration and nutrient sequestration of the soils.
In the early years John used a soil aerator to break through the hard pan that had established historically through ploughing with a mouldboard plough. Soil compaction is a thing of the past.
The fertiliser program includes regular applications of lime and recent soil testing indicates an average pH of 6. Organic matter content has increased significantly. Water infiltration has increased considerably due to physical soil aeration, dung beetle activity and rotationally resting paddocks that are dominated by deep rooted perennials such as cocksfoot and phalaris. Periodically, John renovates the pasture to increase diversity of species by direct drilling of clovers and ryegrass.
Vegetation and Ground Cover
When John took over management of the farm in 1996, the
pastures were run down, they were weed infested and fertilised with
John’s new fertiliser program has dramatically changed that
situation. John describes himself as a biological farmer with a strong focus on
soil function (refer to the annual production cycle below). As a result, his
pastures have high nutrient mixed species of high density pastures with very
little weed burden.
Most paddocks comprise improved pasture including phalaris,
clover and rye. One paddock is set aside and managed as native pasture including
Kangaroo Grass, Wallaby Grass and Weeping Grass.
John’s uncles had begun a program of tree planting (Red Gum
and Blackwood) and had, with the assistance of the Soil Conservation Service,
planted some 7,000 trees. John and Jenny continued this program and planted a
further 10,000 trees and shrubs of a variety of species.
In the early years, annual weeds and seasonal bare ground
favoured outbreaks of the red legged earth mite and the Lucerne Flea. While weeds
are much less of a problem today, John addresses the annual weeds with a targeted
program of spraying with a broad leaf herbicide mixed with fulvic acid. John
advises that “It is important to spray in Autumn when plants are small – the
clover at two leaf stage – to gain maximum effect using low spraying rates”.
The hay paddocks are sprayed annually with foliar sprays,
trace elements, biologic agents and kelp. This spraying program encourages the
growth of the pasture grasses and tends to effectively control the annual weeds
When John first came to the property, the watering
infrastructure consisted only of a number of dams. Kane Creek was fenced off from grazing and was
not used as a source of reticulated water. Only half the paddocks had water and the fenced
dams did not coincide with the number of paddocks which made John’s intention
of introducing rotational grazing somewhat problematic.
John has established a system of troughs in each paddock. Potable
water is pumped from the dams by solar power to storage tanks on the high
ground, holding 80,000 litres and 120,000 litres, respectively. This allows all
troughs to be gravity fed. John achieved
this through the purchase of a “Ditch Witch” machine to trench piped water 650
mm under the ground.
John’s water infrastructure hosts his program of water
medication. Trace elements and food
supplements are fed into the drinking water by vacuum pumps that are worked by
water pressure. The pumps require a 2 metre head of water to operate and on
average they are situated some 200m below the water storage tanks. The medication is fed into the stock watering
system 3 to 4 times a year. When the water medication is operating, this
program ensures that each animal gets the required amount of trace elements and
John has a highly disciplined approach to farm management with his task organisation and time management of a very high order. This approach is essential as Collingwood is a one-person operation. An example of the Collingwood production management program is at Annex A to this report.
The days of a stocking rate of 12 DSE faded into memory. In the really good
seasons of 2000 to 2010, the stocking rate peaked at 18 DSE. John has reduced
that to a modest 15DSE as a conservative hedge in case of a down turn in stock
prices or seasonal conditions.
High Impact Hay
were three paddocks totalling 36ha under hay when John came to the property. He
has increased that by four more paddocks totalling 48ha as part of his feeding
out strategy. John pays great attention to the fertility of the soil in
the hay paddocks and to the nutrient density of the phalaris, clover and rye
that comprises the makeup of the hay cut in October each year. The resulting hay production of some 600
large round bales is fundamental to John’s animal nutrition and soil biology
strategy. All of the hay produced on the property is retained on the property
as part of this strategy.
John feeds out daily from mid-February to the end of July,
covering the crucial calving period from March to April. The dung reflects the
soil fertility of the hay paddocks and the nutrient density of the hay, and is
transferred into the grazing paddock soil by the dung beetles, notably the
imported Bubas Bison. This is a flying variety that scents andflies to new dung pats, therefore
expediting the burial of dung across the paddocks. This cycle is critical to
John’s biological farming.
Over the years, the burgeoning rabbit
problem has been tackled by local landholders using at different times, Sodium
fluoroacetate (“1080”) impregnated carrots, Myxomatosis and Calici Virus. These
operations have reduced the rabbits to negligible numbers and the foxes that
also inhabit the creek bed keep them that way. There are no other pests
affecting the management of the property.
Outcomes and End State
John Kane has worked both hard and smart for 22 years and
Jenny was part of that effort for 18 of those years. John started with little
knowledge and little standing as a farmer in the eyes, not only of his uncles,
but also many of his peers. He sought knowledge through training courses, field
days and practiced what he learned innovating on the farm.
John can now look across pastures and vegetation that
represent his goal of 100% ground cover 100% of the time. He can see healthy,
unstressed cattle in good condition grazing on pastures of high nutrient
density. This ideal situation has eventuated from his initial adoption of a
fertility-first strategy for his soils all those years ago.
Over a century of conventional farming practices had caused deep erosion gullies and a hardpan 200 mm below the soil surface. Through perseverance, education and a little ingenuity the ecological assessment for this farm leaves no doubt about the improvements and ongoing resilience of Collingwood.
Collingwood is productive and profitable, but it wasn’t always like that. Through an investment in soil health and the smart acquisition of some second hand machinery, the returns from this farm and the potential for future capital gain look promising.
Health and wellbeing
The potential of Collingwood was evident but you had to look beyond the weeds and erosion gullies. A cursory look back then would never have foreseen what is evident today. If John had his time again, what would he change? “Nothing”
“We have a genuine drive to protect and restore Australian landscapes by marrying production, ecological and social outputs.”
FFL (Future Farming Landscapes) at Winlaton is an investment model – the brainchild of Kilter Rural founders. It involved turning agriculture into a mainstream investment for institutions and professional investors. The company, Kilter Rural, is succeeding where many have failed.
Recognition of the intrinsic agricultural potential of the floodplain soils and under capitalised farms, plus valuable water entitlements
Ecological estate’ has been progressively fenced, protected and restored;
Rotational grazing on the native forage for a flock of 3,000 merino ewes;
Heavy infusion with composts and organic matter
Returns in excess of 8% on capital invested per year, through blending three income sources – agricultural produce, interacting with the water market and through available eco-market
In the early 2000s, Kilter Rural had convinced VicSuper to commit more than $200 million into a “greenfields” farm investment. From 2007 onwards it selected 35 farms and had completed the bulk of these acquisitions by 2012. The vendors were tired of decades of dwindling production, falling milk prices and the Millennium Drought.
The Kilter Rural founders were trained in natural resource management (NRM) with a passion for the environment. Lake Boga is located near five RAMSAR Wetlands – the Barmah Forest, the Kerang Wetlands, the Gunbower Forest, the Hattah-Kulkyne Lakes and, just across the border, the NSW Central Murray State Forests. In essence it is an ecological hotspot of international significance, making it ideal as a focus for environmental regeneration.
Decades of leaky flood irrigation had adversely affected the landscape’s ecological function. There was a need to make the best land productive, while, at the same time, attending to soil and biodiversity imperatives to ensure a sustained commercial enterprise.
The least promising land – with poor, long-depleted soils – was to become habitat for vulnerable wildlife with the regrowth of chenopod (saltbush and bluebush) and woodland communities.
This ‘ecological estate’ has been progressively fenced, protected and restored, and there are around 4000 hectares of native vegetation
The most arable land has been heavily infused with composts and organic matter. Sub-surface watering, centre pivots and levelled paddocks for gravity irrigation have been installed on the most productive areas – currently 3,150 hectares. Another 1,000 hectares are being readied for future irrigation.
THE FFL WINLATON STORY
“Nothing we do in that landscape, we do for free; key soil assets have to make money or contribute to creating long-term value,” CEO Cullen Gunn told the SFL team. He believes there is a great deal of irrigation land in the Murray-Darling Basin which is underutilised or undercapitalised, and could be dealt with in a much more sustainable way. “We are about delivering profit, with impact, that’s what we have been doing for 10 years”. Cullen adds “We have a genuine drive to protect and restore Australian landscapes by marrying production, ecological and social outputs.”
The FFL Winlaton property development model was based on renewal of an area of agricultural and social decline by investing expertise, time and capital to restore the land’s agricultural productivity, in part by activating local social capital. While agricultural productivity was a key focus, there was a realisation that this could only be sustainable if supported by improvements in the ecological health of the degraded land holdings.
ECONOMIC HEALTH & PRODUCTIVITY
Kilter Rural’s returns in excess of 8% on capital invested a year is achieved by returns generated from the blending of multiple business units – agricultural produce, irrigation water services and environmental markets (to the extent that they are available), and the operational returns generated as capital appreciation of the land.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Kilter Rural has an inclusive leadership and management style, which has led to a positive team based culture.
Increased the area available for cropping through improved drainage
Adoption of practices across a community
Improved soil health and fertility
Increased sheep weight gain
By creating raised narrow beds of soil Brian and Sandra Wilson achieved major improvements in drainage and the structure of their soil. This led to more reliable crop yields and the production of considerable amounts of stubble.
A stubble digestion program was initiated to manage cereal stubbles, using brewed cellulose-digesting bacteria and fungi combined with grazing. The wheat stubble is now incorporated into the soil and is used to renovate the beds.
A biological blend, a mixture of brewed microbes, humates,
basalt, soft rock phosphate and various trace elements, was spread to
rectify soil deficiencies.
As a result of the various techniques applied, the changes to the soil both physically and chemically are remarkable, transforming from hard setting grey clay to a red/brown non-sticky loam. The ratio of calcium to magnesium moved towards a desirable 5:1, improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.
Briandra was originally part of the ‘Gala’ estate, which was settled by a scot named John Brown, probably in the early 1840s. This estate was broken into smaller properties later in the 19th century and the government acquired part for soldier settlement blocks in 1919 1Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool.
The policy to subdivide large pastoral properties into soldier settlement blocks assumed that smaller-scale farming would be viable 2Keneley, M. (2000) Land of Hope: Soldier Settlement in the Western District of Victoria 1918-1930, School of Economics, Deakin University, Warrnambool. This was often not the case on Western Victoria’s basalt plain. Although rainfall is generally reliable, poor drainage caused by the heavy clay soil was a problem during the winter months.
The climate in the region is temperate and average yearly rainfall is around 650mm. The local topography is flat to undulating, with some deeply incised drainage lines where streams have cut through the basalt plain to underlying sedimentary strata. A watercourse, Brown’s Water Holes, runs from north to south through Briandra, continues to the town of Lismore and terminates in Lake Gnarpurt, one of the western district of Victoria’s saline lakes. Soils are typically heavy, deep hard-setting clay that has developed on basalt.
Sugar gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) shelterbelts run along several road and paddock boundaries. The shelterbelts are about 50 metres wide and occupy a total area of about 10 hectares. They were originally established in the late 19th century because there was little tree cover or timber available.
The people from whom Brian and Sandra bought the property had held it since 1912. When they were first in the area, the Brown’s Water Holes watercourse was a flood plain through the tussocks, which could be crossed by horse and cart anywhere along its length.
During the 1950s, most of the native pasture was replaced with phalaris and sub clover. The former owners felt that these grasses were becoming too invasive on the higher fertility soil, and they had ceased using any phosphorus fertilisers some fourteen years before. As a consequence, the pastures were very phalaris dominant, and together with their conservative stocking rate, were also very rank. Cropping was only performed in a limited area, mainly oats for sheep feed and wheat, and was not very successful due to high prevalence of waterlogging. The flock was mainly Corriedale, which was common in the district at the time.
The Wilson family, Brian, Sandra and four children, moved to Mingay from South Australia in 1985. The children have since left the farm and Brian and Sandra run the farm with the help of an employee, who lives on an adjoining smaller property. About 700 hectares of the property are cropped and 330 hectares is permanent pasture.
We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the market.
By the time the Wilson family moved to Briandra, the wool industry had been in decline for many years. The creek had eroded to a depth of up to three metres in places and bridges were needed to cross it.
“Pasture pugging and waterlogging gave us little confidence of achieving good outcomes in crops and pasture growth”, Brian recalls. “We had come from a merino sheep and mixed cropping operation, in 432mm rainfall and sandy soils. It was quite a learning experience to manage waterlogged soils.”
In 1987, after a few wet years, the Wilsons ceased cropping and fully dedicated themselves to wool growing. Failed crops and high wool prices made this a good decision, until the collapse of the wool reserve price scheme.
“We realised that if we were to survive we had to diversify
our production so that we would be less subjected to the vagaries of the
“We realised that we did not know how the basalt plains functioned as an ecosystem and why it was in such poor condition. We lacked detailed technical information. It was not until we went and talked to a wide range of experts that we began to understand why the soil condition and the waterlogging problems were related.”
Brian and Sandra commenced their journey to improve the soil health and fertility over the long term. They sought expert advice, paid for a digital elevation model and collected soil samples and had them analysed and explained. They realised that they would have to restore soil health to address the waterlogging before they could produce productive crops. To achieve these goals Brian and Sandra decided that they would have to do things differently from their neighbours and the way the land had been managed previously.
In November 1990 Brian and Sandra installed 40 hectares of sub surface drainage in an endeavour to prevent waterlogging, and to see if they could successfully grow crops. They found that they could produce high yielding autumn/winter sown crops without the constraint of waterlogging. This doubled the potential yield of spring sown crops and was much more reliable.
Brian recalls, “The 1992 wheat crop was planted early May, some of it to the experimental red winter wheat ‘Lawson’. In a very high rainfall spring and summer, this crop survived, and though weather damaged, yielded well with the Lawson giving seven tonnes a hectare. Satisfied that with drainage crops could be grown successfully, we installed a further 40 hectares of underground drains in 1995.” However with the cost of establishing the drains over $1000 a hectare, this was prohibitive, and the Wilsons were unable to convert larger areas.
Around 1994, a small group of farmers met with the director of agriculture in Ballarat to investigate the possibility of improving crop production in the region. Brian was invited to attend, and also had joined the Geelong crop improvement group to learn from others. From this background, the Southern Farming Systems group was formed in 1995. The initial management committee leased land at Gnarwarre for experimental work to trial various methods to improve cropping outcomes in the high rainfall zone.
n 1996 the committee trialled two hectares each of sub surface, wide, and narrow raised beds. Even with an extremely wet winter, canola yields of 3.5 tonnes a hectare proved their worth. Brian points out, “The outcome from this was that yields were similar on all sites, but at $200 per hectare with narrow raised beds, the cost could be factored into the first crop’s gross margin. The crop was more even than the wide raised beds, where the fertile top soil was moved from the drain to the top of the beds”.
At $200 a hectare for narrow beds compared with over $1000 for sub-surface drains, the committee decided to concentrate on the narrow beds. It is estimated that around 500,000 hectares in south-west Victoria now use this practice.
By adopting raised narrow beds of soil on Briandra, the Wilsons achieved major improvements in drainage and the tilth (condition of tilled soil, especially in respect to suitability for sowing seeds) of the soil. They also actively avoid compacting the soil.
“Since moving to raised bed farming we no longer drive machinery or vehicles on the beds. Our own tests have shown that this compacts the soil and reduces biological activity. To overcome this problem in the long term we have moved to control track farming where the tractors and harvesters only move in the furrows. To ensure this happens, machinery is fitted with high spatial precision tracking systems.”
When the paddocks are not cropped they are established and managed as phalaris/sub clover based perennial pastures.
The results of the biological program trialled over small areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now using that system.
While the narrow raised beds were effective in managing waterlogging, with increased productivity the Wilsons found they had to deal with higher stubble loads of up to 10 tonnes a hectare. Stubble burning was a commonly accepted practice in the district, however the Wilsons felt that this was not sustainable in the long term.
Attempts to mulch the stubble and sow directly into them was defeated not by physical restraints, but by chemical limitations. Excess stubble was resulting in allelopathy – exudates from wet straw were poisoning the following crop. In 2001 Brian met Adrian Lawrie at the Wimmera field days. His small biological products company LawrieCo was promoting cellulose-digesting fungi to break down straw.
In 2002 Brian purchased enough product to treat 17 hectares. This was not overly successful, possibly due to poor brewing technique. In 2003, he installed a tank and brewing pump to properly multiply the fungi and applied it to another 17 hectare plot. This time a better result was achieved, so the Wilsons expanded the area treated. The results were successful.
“In 2005 we treated the barley stubble in Weir South on one side of the creek only. Sheep had access to both sides, but only grazed the treated side. Brian removed them in score 3 condition when it was felt that the paddock was bare enough; around 1000kg a hectare dry matter. The untreated side had only been ‘picked at’”, notes Sandra.
“The results of the biological program trialled over small
areas were so encouraging that the management of the whole farm is now
using that system.”
Brewed cellulose fungi and grazing has now become standard practice to manage cereal stubbles on Briandra.
The high biomass produced by pea and barley stubbles tends to clump together with wind, but these are now reduced by grazing. The biological stubble digestion program makes them more digestible to stock, and they become a valuable food source. As the health of the soils improved, Brian and Sandra found the need to incorporate the wheat stubble, which is not eaten as effectively as barley, into the soil to get it to breakdown quickly enough. To overcome the biomass problems the Wilsons invested in specialist machinery to incorporate the wheat stubbles at a shallow level, and then reform the beds.
“While we were successfully growing high yielding crops, with high inputs of fertiliser, it seemed that pathogens were an increasing problem. Lucerne flea attacking wheat crops at the 2 to 3 leaf stage became more common, and barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) also prevalent. LawrieCo suggested trying the nutri-blend product [now called ‘biologic blend’]. This dramatically changed the chemical analysis of our soils.”
Previous soil tests on Briandra had shown high levels of iron and magnesium, resulting in tie up of nutrients and poor soil structure. After adding the biologic blend, the Wilsons found that the phosphate available for plant uptake, measured through Olson P levels, had increased dramatically. “Pasture paddocks where Olson P had stabilised in the 12-15 range despite annual dressings of 20+ P increased to 19 with the addition of only 10 P in the form of soft rock phosphate, together with 5kg a hectare of boron humates”, Brian explains.
Calcium levels had also increased. This improved the calcium to magnesium ratios, moving it towards a desirable 5:1, from a previous 1.5:1, thus improving the availability of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and other nutrients. This compared to previous conventional practices of applying up to eight tonnes per hectare of lime, and correcting pH to around 6, which had not improved calcium levels.
Soil structure, already improved by minimising waterlogging, changed from light grey clay, to a reddish brown loam. It was less sticky and had increased infiltration rates.
Brian notes, “The results of the biological soil improvement program trialled over small areas initially, then across the whole farm have been very rewarding. Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic soils”.
The Wilsons are proud to note, “We have shared the lessons we have learnt at Briandra. Over many years of serving on local and regional bodies we have been able to influence the focus of several groups on soil health. In 2012 soil has been listed in the top six assets of the regional catchment strategy”.
Without the improvements we have made in improving the soil health and fertility over the long term, our soils would continue to be waterlogged, anaerobic, hard setting, sodic and acidic…
Crop rotations over four years follow the sequence of canola, barley, pulse, wheat, as shown above. The pulse is either broad beans or field peas, which provide valuable stubbles, giving high protein supplements to lambs (weaner sheep) and ewes. Brian and Sandra have found that an obvious benefit is weight gain, with lambs reaching 50kg or more live weight by joining at 19 months, with conception rates in hoggets comparable to the older ewes as well; usually 90% in one cycle.
Crop production has remained about the same level as before biological inputs were applied on Briandra. The Wilsons spend around the same amount on fertiliser inputs but are finding that the crops appear greener and more robust. Urea applications have been reduced to about 40% of what they were previously.
Brian points out that recent extreme years of 2006 and 2010, when growing season rainfall was 220mm and 714mm respectively, have made it difficult to assess how much production has been influenced by management change, and how much by weather influences. He does note however, “Suffice to say, the best performed paddocks on those extreme years, have been those where the most biology has been added”.
In 2006 barley yielded 6t/ha compared with an average 4t/ha
over the rest of farm. In 2010 the beans yielded 4t/ha without any
It would appear that the immune system of the crops and pasture plants have been enhanced as lower levels of pathogenic attack have been experienced. The need for both insecticide and fungicide use have been dramatically reduced, mostly confined to seed dressings. This has made integrated pest management strategies easier to implement, and beneficial insects are now the Wilson’s main control measure. While production assessments are ongoing, Brian and Sandra report that, generally, cash profits are about the same as they were after the drainage was installed and before the biological amendments were applied. However, they are confident that long term outcomes are better.
Most profits are reinvested in improving the farm. Brian notes, “My business model has the philosophy to use ten per cent of farm gross income in experimentation, starting over small areas, and the encouraging results are expanded, and may develop into standard practice. Any failures, and there have been many, are discarded”.
He advises, “Be prepared to try new methods on your own farm. Use on small scale first. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn from others. Join farm groups”.
The Wilsons are content with what they have achieved on their property and in their region in relation to soil health. “We have personal satisfaction that the soils on the property are much healthier now than we first arrived. We have passed the lessons we have learned on to the wider community and region through our involvement in regional NRM bodies.”
“We now observe a gradual awareness and adoption of innovative solutions for solving seemingly intractable management problems such as waterlogging and pugging on our region’s soils.”
No doubt, the establishment of Southern Farming Systems as an organisation providing farmers in high rainfall areas with ‘real world research and information’ has provided the framework for these innovations and their adoption.
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.
Environmental Water Reserve
Permits – Works on Waterways
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
In developing their grant funding proposal, the project team identified three streams that required funding for the Soil Carbon Programme:
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.
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.
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.
Soil Testing – soil testing and seminars for interpreting results.
Training and Education – agronomy sessions, field days, seminars and the eFarmer training.
Quality Management – post-activity surveys, eFarmer help desk feedback and ongoing communications including CMA Internet site updates.
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”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Health concerns and the desire to try natural farming methods
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
Irrigation requirements reduced by 30%
On-farm waste producing cost-effective fertiliser, improving soil health
10% price premium on product
Reduced veterinary costs
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.
…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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.”