26-Feb-2014

WHEN IS A DRY DAM A GOOD DAM?
WHEN ALL THE MOISTURE IS IN YOUR SOIL!

image from Gunningrah Field Day

Soils for Life Field Day participants overlook a regenerating floodplain on Gunningrah, near Bombala NSW, 20 February 2014.

An almost overwhelming one hundred people attended the Soils for Life Demonstration and Field Day on Charlie and Anne Maslin’s Bombala property Gunningrah on Thursday 20 February.

The Field Day focused on grazing management, soil hydrology and stream management, sharing how farmers can maximise use of rainfall. Presenters provided farm management and monitoring techniques as well as meaningful insights on the importance of adopting regenerative landscape management for long-term resilience and sustainability in the face of a changing climate.

Click the links or read on below for details from each of the presenters:
Major General Michael Jeffery - Soils for Life Chairman and National Advocate for Soil Health
Charlie Maslin - the Gunningrah story
Charlie Massy - Regenerative Agriculture
Stuart Burge - Monitoring and Managing Soil Health
Cam Wilson - Water Course Management

image from the field day

The afternoon field tour of Gunningrah provided for further demonstration and discussion of what had been presented in the morning sessions. A long convoy of vehicles visited a number of sites, where pastures with great ground cover of nutritional feed, gently flowing streams, healing erosion gullies and restored floodplains were clearly evident.

Our thanks to everyone who participated in the day, St Joseph’s Primary School for catering for such a large event, Snowy River Interstate Landcare for their funding support, our presenters, and most of all Charlie and Anne Maslin, our gracious and inspirational hosts.

View images from the day in our Photo Gallery.


SOILS FOR LIFE - Major General Michael Jeffery

Soils for Life Chairman and National Advocate for Soil Health, The Honourable Major General Michael Jeffery (Retired), commenced the day recounting his rural upbringing before becoming a soldier. He shared that the national landscape degradation problem he encountered during his term as Governor-General had inspired him to establish Soils for Life and support the work of innovative farmers whose regenerative landscape management techniques were reversing degradation and enabling sustainable, healthy food and fibre production. General Jeffery then outlined the global issues being faced related to food production and available water resources in the face of a changing climate. [Read more here...]

image from the field day

General Jeffery described the 100 Drops Model which illustrates how approximately 50% of rain that currently falls onto the Australian continent is lost to evaporation. He presented that Australian farmers have the ability to use regenerative farming practices which will improve soil health and enable them to capture more of this moisture and hence sustain vegetative growth for longer periods. These practices and the principles that support them are outlined in the Soils for Life case studies, which he hopes Soils for Life can add to over the coming year, to further demonstrate the range of regenerative practices that can be applied.

General Jeffery provided an example of the Beetaloo case study – a one million hectare property in the Northern Territory that is investing in water and fencing infrastructure to regenerate vast landscapes and produce sustainable pasture-fed beef. The techniques being applied are also enabling tens of thousands of cattle to be mustered at a whistle.

In conclusion, General Jeffery emphasised the importance of wide scale adoption of regenerative practices to “fix the paddock” in concert with other work by Soils for Life to:

  • promote the integrated management of soil, water and a biodiversity of vegetation and seek their recognition as strategic national assets;
  • influence the political spectrum to recognise farmers for their role in land stewardship;
  • encourage more effective information gathering and sharing of research between scientific organisations and land managers;
  • reconnect urban and rural communities; and
  • urge all stakeholders, for example, agriculture, National Parks, mining, Indigenous, State and Federal governments, to work together to ensure that the landscape is managed sustainably to be fit for purpose.

THE GUNNINGRAH STORY - Charlie Maslin

Charlie Maslin shared his story with the visitors, describing how 17 years ago he changed farming practices on Gunningrah. Motivated by witnessing ecological damage in his landscape and the variable cost of production dependent on the amount of rain that fell, Charlie decided to start actively managing to maximise the use of his rainfall. With 160 years of local rainfall data, Charlie noted “All these climatologists can see a pattern in rainfall, but buggered if I can”. The only trend Charlie could see was that there were a lot more dry years than wet, with twice as many years below average than above.

image from the field day

Learning from other farmers and by attending courses, Charlie implemented rotational planned grazing: mobbing his stock, adjusting stock numbers to feed availability and ensuring paddocks were sufficiently rested between grazing. Charlie made no infrastructure changes when he commenced using these practices, starting with existing paddocks, “So there was no downside in giving it a try – we could always revert back to how we’d been doing it”.

But with sufficient rest, ground cover began to improve straight away, noticeably on stock camps and along waterways which had been down to 20% ground cover. In turn, this increased organic matter in the soil, feeding soil microbes and improving the soil's water-holding ability. Dams were no longer a good indicator rainfall, which instead began to be captured directly in the soil and at the plant roots, rather than running off. The one time a dry dam is a good one.

He explained the calculations he uses to guide what stock numbers he should run, by calculating how many DSE (dry sheep equivalent) per hectare per 100mm of rainfall on a rolling yearly total. (Charlie later provided a small group tuition session with those interested in using this model.) Although being a breeding enterprise makes it had to manage numbers exactly, this provides a useful tool for guiding stocking numbers.

Regular photos from across Gunningrah illustrated the improvements the change to grazing practice had delivered, and Charlie also performs infiltration and penetrometer tests (the latter via a Stanley screwdriver) to monitor the impacts on his soil.

image from the field day

Charlie also enlisted the help of Peter Andrews and installed ‘leaky weirs’ across erosion gullies and creeks to slow the flow of water during large rainfall events. He noted that it was important to manage grazing practices first to improve ground cover, increase organic matter in the soil and reduce run-off from pastures before constructing installations in creeks and gullies, to minimise the risk of them washing away.

“There is nothing to lose in giving it a go,” Charlie encouraged, and concluded by outlining the many benefits he had obtained from changing his farming practices.

Soil health improved, there were major increases in ground cover, rainfall infiltration and retention and weed reduction. Erosion gullies began to fill with silt and grass up. Stock health and fertility and management hours decreased, even with increased DSE. Profits became more stable due to increased kilograms being produced with lower production costs. Ever honest about his experiences, Charlie shared records showing the impact of not making the decision to reduce stock numbers during a long period of dry, when cartage and agistment costs ate into profits. “You need to make a decision when feed gets short – learn from my mistake”, he noted. However, the records also show that a couple of seasons later, profits are again stable, and Gunningrah is clearly a thriving farm.

DOWNLOAD Charlie's presentation
Read more in the Gunningrah Case Study


REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE - Charlie Massy

image from the field day

Monaro sheep grazier Charlie Massy (OAM), has recently completed his PhD on innovative farming and change management techniques. Charlie discussed findings from his research and how regenerative agriculture provides options for handling climate challenges delivering both profitability and resilience. His presentation was informative and filled with amusing and inspiring imagery to reinforce his points.

Charlie believes that climate change and irregularity and global population increases are the biggest crises to confront humanity. However, he also believes that solutions can come from the grassroots level – the actions of farmers and the decisions of consumers.

Charlie explained that as Anthropogenic climate change sees us moving out of the geological epoch called the Holocene, in which environmental conditions were ideal for humanity, to what is being called the Anthropocene, conditions are extending beyond natural variability and potentially outside of a safe operating space for humanity. Charlie emphasised that it is time to take a radical approach and do things differently – and that regenerative agriculture provides an exciting solution.

image from the field day

Firstly, Australians need to change from a European way of thinking about and managing our land, rainfall and water, in particular to avoid massive topsoils losses and excessive evaporation. Key to regenerative agriculture is capturing more carbon and water in the soil. This can be achieved through maintaining groundcover and incorporating deep-rooted vegetation, which also help to minimise soil temperature. Charlie articulated that we need to be aware of the small and large water cycles and ensure that we keep holding the water in the landscape. Once lost, it is very hard to restore, as Charlie’s images from Myanmar reinforced.

Charlie talked of the importance of grazing management and the excellent examples of Holistic Planned Grazing that he had studied. Such grazing practice encourages perennial ground cover, also providing the subsequent benefits of deeper root development, and increased organic matter and moisture capture.

Charlie also touched on the potential of edible shrubs in the agricultural landscape. Such plants provide a vertical grazing layer (reducing worm impact), have deeper root systems, are nutrient dense and provide numerous shade, shelter and biodiversity benefits. He referenced a number of trials taking place in the region, and showed imagery of where shrubs (such as Tagasaste) have transformed landscapes, such as in the very sandy-soiled regions of Western Australia.

Running short of time, Charlie only lightly referenced the multitude of benefits also to be harnessed from increasing tree cover as well as managing for biodiversity – all which contribute to building resilience in the landscape as well as supporting sustainable profitability.

He concluded with the question ‘what sort of world do we want to leave for posterity?’ and by stating that with regenerative agriculture farmers can be the heroes of the future – that’s how big a role they have the potential to play.

DOWNLOAD Charlie's presentation


MONITORING & MANAGING SOIL HEALTH - Stuart Burge

image from the field day

Southern Tablelands agronomist Stuart Burge provided a jam-packed presentation on managing soils to keep them healthy and productive. He provided a number of practical tips and tools which can be used to monitor soil health and impact of management.

Stuart commented that, in general, he has observed low interest in soil health among farmers, and that understanding of what is beneath our feet needs to improve. He emphasised the importance of considering each the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil, and discussed each of these and their functions in further detail. Nutrient levels and fertiliser application alone are insufficient measures of soil health, and it is imperative that the physical structure and microbial populations are also monitored and managed. Stuart believes in a balance between fertiliser application and all-organic methods. The most important factor is what the soil needs, taking into consideration soil testing and sensible (ie, unbiased) interpretation, pasture type, stock enterprise and economics.

Stuart summarised how plant growth is influenced by water/rainfall; light/day length; nutrients and temperature – and that farmers can make management decisions to influence each of these. His guidelines for grazing and pasture management included:

  • increase the amount and quality of organic matter available as a food source, particularly litter on the soil’s surface to feed the microbes
  • allow pastures to recover between grazing to restore plant energy reserves and encourage development of deeper roots
  • manage grazing to reduce stock camp behaviour to spread dung across the paddock to stimulate plant growth

Stuart discussed a number of very simple tests that any farmer can use to monitor their soil health, which he later demonstrated out in the paddock.

images and descriptions of soil health tests

WATER COURSE MANAGEMENT - Cam Wilson

image from the field day

Closing the morning session was water management consultant, Cam Wilson. With simple graphics and in layman’s terms, Cam explained how the landscape used to perform in terms of water courses and rainfall interaction, how it has changed and degraded, and how we can restore natural hydrological processes. Cam paid tribute to the many experts and experienced practitioners in the field that he has had the opportunity to learn from and now share their knowledge.

Australian waterways used to comprise a series of ponds filled with marshy wetland plants. These plants would slow the flow of water which, with high rainfall events used to gently flow over the banks and across the floodplain. The water table stayed high and always in reach of the roots of floodplain vegetation. However, stock impact and degradation of water courses destroyed these wetland plant communities and subsequently water flowed more quickly, exposing banks and causing erosion gullies, draining the water from the landscape. The depth of erosion gullies indicate current the level of the water table – often revealing how it is no longer available at plant roots.

image from the field day

The goal of water course management, such as Peter Andrews’ Natural Sequence Farming, is to reinstate chains of ponds and raise the water table through resulting lateral hydration. By installing various in-creek structures such as earth banks (covered with geotextile fabric and tiles of vegetation to stabilise them), strategically placed logs or other forms of weirs, these ponds can be restored. As a result, floodplains stay green long after surrounding high areas have dried off, wetlands are created, and creek outflow is sustained longer than inflow due to flood plain storage. Cam’s presentation was punctuated by inspiring photos from across the Southern Tablelands and beyond where such practices have been implemented.

Using the host property Gunningrah as an example, both during his presentation and during the field tour, Cam talked about reconnecting floodplains by understanding how the landscape used to perform and mimicking water flow. Australian streams were typically at the high point of the plain which would encourage flow away from the watercourse in flood time. Charlie Maslin had recognised this on Gunningrah and acted on the existing infrastructure in the landscape to reinstate these processes. [Read more here...]

image from the field day

Cam described how in-stream wetlands are nature’s tools for repairing gullies and by mimicking these by constructing interventions and introducing plants, the naturally slow process can be sped up. He discussed a number of intervention and reparation techniques, such as the use of poplars and other plants as living weirs - which can also be used as fodder plants as they have great nutritional value - and showed images of the results of these practices. He talked about the ideal locations for watercourse interventions - at meander crossovers, the straight areas of stream, not on the bends – and why this is important. During the field tour of Gunningrah Cam showed what happens when interventions are not placed at the ideal location and recommended remedial action to maximise restoration through natural processes.

Having to hastily wrap-up another stimulating presentation, Cam also briefly touched on the value of in-channel headcut treatments – a great place to begin work if these are moving through your landscape. Structured treatments, such as designed placement of rocks or logs, can quickly prevent ongoing degradation, maintain the soil profile and assist to keep moisture in the soil for longer.

DOWNLOAD Cam's presentation
Visit the Earth Integral website for more examples of Cam's water course management work.

Information on Natural Sequence Farming Training - modules start 17 March.



image from the field day

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