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Jack and Annabel Hanna at Erin

Building drought and flood resilience on the semi-arid Hay Plains | Published  January 2024

‘I talk about floods now, because that’s a recent experience for us. But in the long term, we’re going to be dealing with drought a lot more than we’re going to be dealing with floods … ’ – Annabel Hanna

Jack and Annabel Hanna spent their childhoods farming in different parts of the Riverina, and the Millennium drought left a big impression on both of them growing up. Jack remembers his father driving hundreds of kilometres each day to feed livestock and how it took his dad many years to fully recover from the strain. Annabel remembers her family having to buy their water and carting it for livestock, and the 20-second showers that were a regular part of family life for many years. 

Having recently taken over Jack’s family farm Erin in 2022, the Hannas’ days are busy as they adjust to life on the property and care for two young children. They anticipate future droughts and floods in their region, and they want to prepare in as many ways as they can. They are starting by developing ways to monitor their pastures, cattle, and soils for health and profitability.

Before moving to Erin, the couple worked for three years on Annabel’s family farm, Spring Valley, in Holbrook. The experience on Spring Valley helped them to transition from their off-farm careers – Annabel is a qualified nurse and has done postgraduate studies in agricultural science and Jack is an electrician. But Erin has been a big change from the ‘high intensity’ farming they were used to at Spring Valley. According to the Hannas, Erin has had low-maintenance management for over forty years and is ‘pastoral, with very few inputs.’ 

Image 1. The Hanna family at Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.

Farm Facts

Wiradjuri, Nari Nari and Yitha Yitha Country |One Tree, Riverina, NSW

Hot dry summer, mild winter

Average Annual Rainfall
325 mm (recent, 1993-2022)

Agro-ecological Region

Property Size
8,500 ha

93 m

Social Structure
Family owned and operated

Enterprise Type
Dryland merino sheep grazing, with seasonal cattle production and agistment, typically during and after a flood from the Lachlan River.

Flat plains adjacent to the Lachlan River, characterised by numerous distributary channels, abandoned lakes and lunettes. Prone to extreme flooding and drought.

Black and grey cracking clays (Vertosols) on the flood plains; red texture-contrast soils (possibly Sodosols, Kurosols, or Chromosols) on the open plains.

*Learn more about soil classifications at

Landscape and Soils

Jack and Annabel Hanna’s property, Erin, lies approximately halfway between Booligal and Hay in the Murrumbidgee region of the Riverina. The farm is situated in the vast semi-arid to arid chenopod shrubland area of south-west NSW. The landscape is dominated by distributary channels of the Lachlan River – described as “creek country” – and the expansive Hay Plains, renowned for being the flattest place in the southern hemisphere. 

The black and grey cracking clays are typical of the creek country, having formed from the finer sediments which were deposited after the flooding of the back plains. The lighter topsoils of the open plains are likely to be more prone to degradation, including hardsetting or erosion.  

Due to the dry climate, proximity to the Lachlan River, and the lack of gradient across the Hay Plains, Erin is prone to both drought and flooding, with much of the farm still underwater months after the floods late in 2022.

The Hay Plains is considered a productive merino wool growing region, with the sheep meat and beef cattle industries growing in recent years in response to low wool prices. These industries are supported by the growing of pastures, including paspalum/white clover and rye grasses/subclover mixes. 

Image 2. Aerial image of Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.

More about the Hannas

Building the ‘toolbox’ in a new landscape

Since moving to Erin, Jack and Annabell have enrolled in several programs to upskill and learn ‘as much as possible as quickly as possible’ so that they can be ‘more proactive and efficient’ in their management. In 2023 they began a Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Profitable Grazing Systems course, which involves regular monitoring of their pastures and a benchmarking process to assist in monitoring the impact of changes they are making over time. They also engaged a consultant to help them with their financial and production goals. 

Up until now, no soil testing has been done at Erin, so Annabel and Jack don’t know a lot about whether conditions have changed over the longer term. As Annabel reflects: ‘to be honest, we have no idea about what the soils are like here at all, because no testing or anything has ever been done.’  Jack and Annabel are interested in what they can do to improve soil functionality, and so are open to learning how to monitor soil on the farm. They are hoping to, ‘get a bit of an understanding about what is actually there and how we can improve it, and what needs to happen to the soils.’ For example, the Hannas have observed that posts on their property are ‘completely rusted out’ within five years, and speculate that this may be because of acidic soils. They would like to know more about soil chemistry, and the relationship between soil functionality and plant growth. 

Image 3. Jack Hanna inspecting the soil at Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.
Image 4. Jack Hanna inspecting the soil at Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.

One of the challenges they face is having access to water, which is presently a barrier to implementing changes on the farm. Currently, the Lachlan River is their only source of water, because underground water on the farm is not suitable for stock. The Hannas are in the early stages of installing a pipeline to improve water efficiency on the farm.

Another challenge to production in the region is that the landscape is severely impacted by feral animals, particularly wild pigs and goats. Feral animals prevent the Hannas being able to rotationally graze, and so they are planning to build an exclusion fence, with watering points to address this issue.

‘At the moment we can’t even really rotationally graze, because when we bring stock off a paddock, everything from the national park moves in because they don’t have any water out there or anything. So, once we can get it fenced properly, we can change the way that we graze.’ – Annabel Hanna

Image 5. Sheep grazing at Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.

Planning for drought and flood resilience

Erin is in a fragile landscape with low rainfall and needs to be well managed to be productive. One of the ways that they are preparing for the future is through resilience planning. The Hannas are one of fifteen producers in the Riverina who are being supported to implement one of three practices (enhanced farm dams, native shelterbelts, or stock management areas) to improve landscape-level drought resilience, and to set up long-term soil health monitoring

They have decided to participate in the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project and see their involvement as part of a larger process to integrate new practices at Erin, which will include a stock management area (SMA), exclusion fences and new water infrastructure. 

The Hannas see a future benefit in having carefully selected parts of the property to build SMAs that are set up to hold, feed and water core farm-livestock during adverse weather periods, such as a recent major flooding event. In late 2022, the property flooded, and the Hannas were forced to drive their stock off-farm ‘because we didn’t have any land or options of anywhere to put them.’ During the flood there was a high point on the farm that could be accessed from the road that didn’t go under water, and presently the Hannas are building a SMA here.

As a purpose built piece of infrastructure, SMAs can make feeding, watering and monitoring stock health more efficient. Jack and Annabel see the value of building an SMA as giving ‘us an option’ in both wet and dry times to proactively manage the soil, landscape and their livestock, provide a fast way to get stock off pasture, and support the preservation and faster recovery of pastures and landscapes across the farm. Their focus has been on flooding because of recent events, however Annabel is certain that droughts will be the more persistent challenge they face:

‘I talk about floods now, because that’s a recent experience for us. But in the long term, we’re going to be dealing with drought a lot more than we’re going to be dealing with floods … One reason we’re doing stock management areas is for drought and managing the landscape because it’s very fragile soil, so that we can get stock off when we need to.’ – Annabel Hanna

As a young family, in the early stage of their farming career and still ‘building a solid financial base’ for themselves, the Hannas feel the need to ‘manage drought in a way that is efficient’ on multiple levels. They want to ensure that the ‘bounce back period for the land’ will be shorter because they believe that SMAs will provide infrastructure to help limit widespread damage of soil by livestock. Their hope is that it will also streamline the process and time involved in caring for stock during a drought or flood, and thereby enable Jack and Annabel to devote more time to generating off-farm income should they need to. 

Taking this step is quite significant at Erin, particularly in contrast to the approach by past generations of farmers in the region who fed in ‘every paddock and damaged everywhere.’ Jack and Annabel need to introduce greater numbers of livestock onto the property without degrading the country in order to remain profitable, and they feel that SMAs will assist with this. 

‘We need to run more stock as a business, to survive and we need to find ways that we can do that sustainably because vegetation on the Hay Plains, such as our saltbush, if you overgraze it, you will have to wait 50 years for it to come back. So we need a way that we can economically survive, but without damaging our country.’ – Annabel Hanna

Image 6. Farming in the Hay Plains at Erin. Source: Grow Love Project.

More to come 

The Hannas are in the early stages of building their SMA and are waiting on materials to arrive to get started. Check back in early 2024 as Annabel and Jack share with us how they implemented the practice, and their progress monitoring soils at Erin.

To read more about SMAs explore our project partner resources Riverina LLS free training and a recent publication produced by MLA.

This case study is part of the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project, which aims to support producers in adopting drought resilient practices and enhance their landscape and soil monitoring capabilities. The Riverina Project is led by Riverina Local Land Services (LLS). It is supporting 15 producers to adopt one of three well-established management practices that enhance agricultural productivity and profitability during or after droughts while safeguarding natural resources. As part of the project, Soils for Life has prepared five case studies that follow producers as they implement their chosen practice/s, and their experiences with soil lab-testing and in-field observations. The producers are guided in their practice implementation with support from Riverina LLS, and have opportunities to learn through field days and webinars provided by the project partners, and an online discussion group. This project is led by Riverina Local Land Services, in conjunction with Sustainable Farms ANU, and Soils for Life. This project has received funding from the Future Drought Fund. We acknowledge that the contents of this page do not necessarily reflect the views of these contributors.
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