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The Nicholls at Tumulla

Protecting pasture and preparing for dry times in the Upper Slopes region | Published  January 2024

‘Managing our steep country, which is really susceptible to being washed [is a priority]. We’ve really got to maintain our ground cover. Ground cover is key. You can see with the recovery, how much quicker it comes back by maintaining that.’ – Anthony Nicholls

Anthony and Bec Nicholls have four blocks close to Gundagai in the Upper Slopes region of the Riverina where they run 1000 crossbred ewes and around 180 angus cattle. The Nicholls took over three different sites from Anthony’s parents in 2013, and went on to purchase another block in 2018. Growing up on the farm, Anthony remembers living through dry times. He also recalls life as a jackaroo, with memories of having to ‘lock up stock in big mobs and feeding sheep through hotwires.’ 

Before taking over the farm, Anthony worked in stockyard design, and managed a large cattle herd near Holbrook, helping to implement an artificial breeding program. Bec owns a homewares store in Gundagai and lends a hand on the farm during the busy periods, but most of her time is tied up running her business and raising their three young children. Since taking over management, Anthony and Bec have been on a ‘steep learning curve,’ particularly after the very dry years of 2018 and 2019, when they made certain decisions they later came to regret. This experience became a source of motivation. Anthony and Bec realised they needed to make some big changes in order to prepare for the future and to ensure they have as many options available to them when the next drought comes. 

Over the last few years, they have gained new knowledge and participated in farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities. They have also tried several new practices, including supporting the re-introduction of native plants and pastures, promoting permanent ground cover, putting lime on paddocks to address soil acidity, and enhancing their dams. Their land has been ‘rejuvenating’ with more water in the landscape over the past three years, and it has responded to the many changes that the Nicholls are making to their management. 

Image 1. Anthony Nicholls on the family property. Source: Grow Love Project.

Farm Facts

Wiradjuri Country |Coolac, Riverina, NSW

Warm summer, cold winter

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

Agro-ecological Region
Temperate cool-season wet

Property Size
830 ha

308 m

Social Structure
Family owned and operated

Enterprise Type
Crossbred/composite ewes and commercial angus beef production.

Hills and crests of volcanic origin (native hill country), mid to lower colluvial slopes (arable land) and alluvial plains and terraces (creek flats). Much of the native vegetation has been extensively cleared leaving an understorey of tussock grasses and forbs.

Well-drained, structured red soils (Dermosols or Ferrosols) of varying depth on the mid and upper slopes; moderately well-drained, texture-contrast non-sodic soils (Chromosols) on the lower slopes; deep, well-drained alluvial soils (Rudosols) associated with Muttama Creek; sodic (Sodosols) soils in the poorly drained areas of the landscape.

*Learn more about soil classifications at

Landscape and Soils

Tumulla is located in the Upper Slopes region of the Riverina, in south-west NSW. The property extends from the alluvial plains and terraces of Muttama Creek to the steeper (up to 20% gradient) slopes of the more elevated volcanic country to the west. 

The deep, well-drained alluvial soils associated with the creek plains and terraces reflect periods of deposition and minimal soil development. These soils are fertile, however the well-drained, structured red soils of the mid and upper slopes are also considered productive. Lower in the landscape, the texture-contrast soils feature, with minor occurrences of the sodic version of these soils where drainage is poor.

Most of the native vegetation has been extensively cleared for agriculture, with remnant pockets of red gum and yellow box occurring on the lower slopes, and white box and the occasional white cypress pine found on the steeper slopes higher in the landscape. The understorey consists of tussock grasses and forbs, including common wheatgrass, soft brome, wallaby grass, and red grass.

Land use in the local region is mostly sheep and cattle grazing on improved pastures, fodder production, or winter cropping of cereals and oilseeds on the more productive soils. Major limitations to production include soil erosion on the steeper country and minor rill and sheet erosion on the lower country, particularly on the cultivated areas, and soil salinity. Very high salinity levels have been recorded in associated tributaries of Muttama Creek.

Image 2. A view of the Upper Slopes region of the Riverina, including parts of Tumulla. Source: Grow Love Project.

More about the Nicholls

Learning from recent drought

During the 2018-2019 drought the Nicholls significantly de-stocked, which took some pressure off the land.

‘We halved our cow numbers. We managed to maintain our sheep numbers pretty well. Getting out of all the lambs pretty early. Just sort of managing our numbers, managing our breeders more than anything’ – Anthony Nicholls

However, there were certain things they tried that ‘didn’t work very well’ over this period. For example, their attempts with drought-lotting were ‘not very well set up,’ and though they tried to maintain ground cover, minimise soil and nutrient loss, and maintain essential feed, there were many problems and lessons learnt. Their ‘native hill country’ was badly impacted. Looking ahead, the Nicholls want to be better prepared.

Anthony is wanting to change aspects of his grazing management, however certain challenges are still proving difficult. The Nicholls have four blocks that are spread out, which makes managing their farming system quite complicated. They are in the process of figuring out what they need in order to implement rotational grazing, noting multiple challenges given the terrain and access to water points for livestock in the landscape. One of the challenges that Anthony has identified is the topography including ‘serious hills’ and that they have to move between a number of blocks. Rotational grazing requires a careful approach to managing their ewes, particularly twinners. They are running composites and have ‘pretty high lambing rates,’ and the Nicholls need to be ‘very careful about not disturbing them too much during lambing.’ With all this in mind, Anthony’s plans include subdividing more areas of the farm with either permanent or electric fencing, expanding on existing water systems and putting in more dams, where underground water isn’t available. He is also ‘looking to run our cattle in bigger mobs, and our ewes and lambs after lamb marking and weaning.’

Preparing for dryer times

Part of their plan in becoming better prepared for dry times is to implement a stock management area (SMA). And so, in 2023, the Nicholls got involved with the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project. The Nicholls 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. Previously, they have worked with LLS to make enhancements to a dam and they began revegetating the landscape with tree planting and shelterbelts in years prior. Their aim with the SMA is to have an additional option in drought that can help to protect their pastures and soils if needed, especially when their stocking rates can’t be reduced to match carrying capacity and when their feed production is declining. 

‘We want to be a lot better set up, in the hills particularly, which took a bit of a hammering through the drought. We’ve learned a lot of lessons since then.’ – Anthony Nicholls

The Nicholls see a future benefit in having carefully selected parts of the property that are set up to hold, feed and water core farm-livestock during adverse weather periods of drought, which they experienced in 2018-2019. As a purpose built piece of infrastructure, SMAs make feeding, watering and monitoring stock health more efficient. By providing a fast way to get stock off pasture, they can support the preservation and faster recovery of pastures and landscapes across the farm. The Nicholls want to avoid long-term damage, and the SMA will help to protect their pasture and better manage ground cover recovery. Anthony sees the value in acting early and having multiple options when going into dry periods. He intends to slowly reduce the pressure on his pastures by destocking where possible, getting wieners off early and gradually locking up stock. This will help to ensure a swift recovery after dry conditions pass. 

Supporting soil and landscape health at Tumulla

There are delicate soils across many areas of the farm. Anthony has worked with an agronomist to conduct soil tests several times, and he is learning more about how he can monitor his soils through the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project. He describes the property as having ‘varied soil types with some heavy, red country and some lighter pipeclay,’ with differences between soil types in terms of their water retention, acidity, salinity and erosion. 

As Anthony notes, the heavier red country is ‘a lot more susceptible to cracking up, especially when it’s dry … but in the wetter years, it definitely holds a lot more water, and has got a lot better retention.’ In other paddocks across Tumulla, ‘the water will just lay on that.’ During the last couple of years when there has been much more water in the landscape, Anthony has noticed how these soils ‘lose their structure pretty easily.’ One of their blocks has quite a serious erosion issue, ‘washing away easily.’ 

The Nicholls’ current goals for improving soil health include increasing their own understanding of how their ‘soils are travelling.’ They see the Riverina project as an opportunity to support them in this goal. They are also looking at how they can alter their management plan to reduce the amount of superphosphate they apply each year. With the rising cost of inputs and the potential damage they can have on soil over the long term, the Nicholls are actively looking for alternatives. 

Image 3. Anthony Nicholls monitoring his soil at Tumulla. Source: Grow Love Project.
Image 4. Anthony Nicholls monitoring his soil at Tumulla. Source: Grow Love Project.

Anthony is interested to learn what he can do to improve soil health by implementing new grazing management, growing different pastures and adjusting rest periods. In recent years, the Nicholls have been planting trees, gullies and ‘establishing pastures’ to help to hold up the soil and prevent erosion. 

‘Managing our steep country, which is really susceptible to being washed [is a priority]. We’ve really got to maintain our ground cover. Ground cover is key. You can see with the recovery, how much quicker it comes back by maintaining that.’ – Anthony Nicholls

The Nicholls have put a lot of work into their perennial pastures and want to see them managed properly through drought ‘so they come out the other end in good condition.’ Other management goals include experimenting with multispecies crops to increase diversity in the soil microbiology and encourage nutrient cycling.

In collaboration with Riverina Local Land Services (LLS), the Nicholls also implemented dam enhancements at Tumulla, completed in Winter/Spring 2021. Anthony has been enjoying observing the benefits of fencing off the dam area, as it has improved water management for livestock with better overall water quality. Additional benefits include, ‘the slowing down of water flow through the dam which is helping to regenerate the grasses in the eroded parts of the creek below the dam.’ Anthony also notes that ‘the water quality in the creek below the dam has improved, and ‘hopefully has increased the amount of biodiversity in areas where the new trees have been planted and the stock have been excluded.’ 

Image 5. An aerial view of the dam enhancement at Tumulla, installed in Winter/Spring 2021. Source: Grow Love Project.

More to come 

Anthony has just recently put in a stock management area (SMA), which he’s positioned close to a 25-year old shelterbelt on the lower slopes of a steep, rugged hill to maximise shade potential, drainage and to minimise flood risk. The SMA has five pens (35 x 65 m2), and can hold 400 ewes, providing roughly 4-5 m2 per ewe. Check back in early 2024 for more of the Nicholls’ story as they share with us how they have progressed in implementing the SMA and monitoring their soils.

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

Image 6. The stock management area (SMA) at Tumulla, installed in Spring 2023. Source: Grow Love Project.
Image 7. The stock management area (SMA) at Tumulla, installed in Spring 2023. Source: Grow Love Project.
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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