‘The Collingwood Story’
A REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE CASE STUDY
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.
Collingwood Farm, 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 priority.
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 superphosphate.
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 through competition.
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 food supplements.
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.
Cattle Production: 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 Production: There 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 roun
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”