Leading innovator in regenerative farming from a 1 million+ hectare property in the NT, John Dunnicliff, addresses participants at the Soils for Life National Forum.
Members of the public were invited to join Soils for Life and our case study farmers for Day 2 of the National Forum, 16 March 2014. Coming mostly from surrounding districts, visitors were treated to four presentations from some of our most diverse innovators in regenerative landscape management.
Shane Joyce - organic beef cattle, Southern QLD Brigalow Belt
Dianne Haggerty - cropping & sheep, WA Central Wheatbelt
Colin Seis - pasture cropping, sheep & native grass seed, NSW Central Highlands
John Dunnicliff - beef cattle, NT Barkly Tablelands
Board member Alasdair Macleod hosted the day and Chairman, Major General Michael Jeffery, welcomed attendees with an introductory presentation. His key messages highlighted:
the importance of actively managing the landscape to be fit for purpose, particularly integrating soil, water and biodiversity management – elements that need to be recognised as national strategic assets
the need for all stakeholders in land management to better communicate and work together (eg, agriculture, Indigeneous, mining, conservation…)
the need to reconnect urban and rural Australia, with simple things like kitchen gardens in schools which also look at soil health
- the need for accurate, un-biased information from soil scientists and agronomists.
General Jeffery concluded, “Civilisations have risen and fallen on agriculture, and there’s a lot to be learnt from history, because western agriculture seems to be speeding up aridification and desertification rather than slowing it down.”
“Let biology have a go – we really need to understand the biological make up of our soils.”
Throughout the presentations it was amazing to witness that although these farmers were producing in very different environments and enterprises, their underlying principles were the same:
- Build your soil health – organic matter, biology and nutrients
Maximise the use of your water with infiltration and retention
Maintain groundcover and a diversity of vegetation
Use your livestock as a farm tool
Farm as close as possible to nature’s own systems – work with nature, not against it.
That’s regenerative landscape management 101!
Read on below for details from each of the presentations. You can also read pearls of wisdom from our regenerative farmers on Day 1 of the Soils for Life National Forum and view photos from the Forum.
SHANE JOYCE - AN ANTIFRAGILE LANDSCAPE
Shane Joyce, from the Dukes Plain case study started the presentations sharing his story of landscape regeneration. Shane and his wife Shan had developed the daunting goal of being able to come out of drought or fire with land and pastures in better condition than when they went in. Over the years they learnt how to achieve this and added value to their land, whilst maintaining production.
As Shane spoke, he introduced the concept of ‘anti-fragile’ as conceived by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This concept describes gaining strength from stress, shock or disorder. In the context of the landscape, it denotes a state beyond resilience where shock (such as natural disaster) is resisted and can recover, but where it actually improves as a result of the disturbance.
Shane’s areas of focus for achieving this include:
Vegetation: Encouraging trees and vegetation on their landscape means their ground is around 5 degrees cooler than the air temperature in summer and 5 degrees warmer in winter. Vegetation also improves soils, moisture retention and facilitates effective nutrient cycling. These all benefit the soil, vegetation and stock.
Photosynthesis: Making the most of the free resource in the sun, air and water and turning it into dollars. Shane emphasises the longer we can keep our plants green, the better.
Root depth: Citing research on grasslands in Africa, Shane used a couple of props to demonstrate that unrested grass typically grows roots down to 30cm, but grass rested for 8 weeks at the beginning of the growing season will grow down to 1.2m deep. This is much better able to access soil, nutrients and moisture. This enables farming in 4 times as much soil – and soil is the support that enable farmers to turn grass into beef into dollars.
Water Infiltration: Shane reinforced and the value of good soils and ground cover making every drop of rain count, not just ‘significant’ rainfall events. With perennial ground cover, tests have shown 175mm per hour infiltration, whereas bare ground could only absorb 25mm per hour. A second application 24 hours later resulted in 300mm per hour infiltration on perennial grass and only 12mm on bare ground. To Shane, the key is water infiltration and holding in soils rich with organic matter. Through this you can lengthen the growing season and shorten the drought.
And there was much more…
Watch his presentation below and read the case study.
DIANNE HAGGERTY - 13 YEARS OF BIOLOGICAL FARMING
The outcomes being achieved on Ian and Dianne Haggerty’s properties are nothing short of outstanding. Dianne described a tough start to farming and lessons learnt in drought times, to developing a method of farming that is returning fertility to sand soils and producing profitable and nutrient-dense grains, cereals and livestock on very low rainfall.
Dianne discussed the Haggerty's conversion from conventional agriculture to harnessing nature’s fertility processes by focusing on restoring, maintaining and increasing soil biology. Through these techniques they have been able to improve soil health whilst growing monoculture crops - conventionally unachievable. Within only a year or two of commencing work on properties with low fertility sands, the Haggertys are able to produce profitable grain and cereal crops by using biological processes as key driver of production. Their livestock management complements the efforts below the surface, with a self-replacing Merino sheep flock used for above ground nutrient cycling and ‘mobile biological innoculators’. Dianne notes that they are even observing changes in DNA expression in the sheep flock due to the rich nutritional base on which they graze.
By rebuilding the diverse soil types across the various locations of the properties that they own and lease-hold, Ian and Dianne have:
- decreased soil compaction- enabling them to seed dry on all soil types as required
enabled development of large root systems to access moisture/nutrients, large surface area for carbon transfer into soil, increasing soil organic matter deposition and ability to build structure into soil rapidly, creating the “sponge” to absorb and retain water.
improved levels of ground cover and extended green bridge throughout year
improved balance of plant nutrition in crops grown as demonstrated by tissue tests.
decreased fuel usage through improved soil tilth.
improved grain-fill, hectolitre weight, and decreased screenings/sprouting.
been able to decrease overall fertiliser input costs over time to approximately 30-50% of conventional programs.
This couple is leading the way in how we can feed the world and rebuild our soils in a variable climate into the future.
Watch the clip on Prospect Pastoral Company below, download Dianne's presentation and read the case study
COLIN SEIS - RUNNING A FARM AS AN ECOSYSTEM
Colin’s presentation also focussed strongly on the link between soil health and food nutritional quality. He cited some eye-opening figures on mineral depletion in meat, fruit and vegetables over the past 70 years and the relationship to our agricultural practices.
Fundamentally Colin believes that agriculture, and sound ecological practices should function together. He has been able to achieved this on his own property after having to start from scratch as the result of major bushfire on his family’s property.
By focusing on restoring native perennial grasslands – pastures that do not require additional fertiliser inputs than that provided by stock – Colin observed the return of a healthy ecological system on his property, Winona.
Inspired to develop a new low-input agricultural method, Colin, and friend Daryl Cluff, came up with the concept of ‘pasture cropping’, and the environmental results he has achieved far surpassed any expectation. Soil on Winona now:
- has 204% more organic carbon.
has sequestered 46.7 t /Ha of carbon (172 ton/Ha of CO2)
holds almost 200% more water. (360,000 lt /Ha)
has had all soil nutrients, including trace elements, increase by an average of 172%
has increased pH 5.2 - 6.01.
And crop production is about the same as conventional practice. But in the meantime, Colin is also able to graze stock on the same land as well as harvest native seed for sale.
Restoring ecological systems has lead to many gains - and cost-savers - on Winona. Colin cited that he now starts each year $80,000 ahead due to no longer ploughing and sowing pastures, nor applying many chemical fertilisers or bio-cides. As an example, Colin explained how biodiversity increase has put an end to the need for insecticides or fungicides:
1. Insect attack of crops and pastures can be controlled by having more insects.
2. Insecticides are not selective, they also kill predators like spiders and wasps that will control insects naturally.
3. Insecticides will ultimately lead to more insects and more insecticides.
Colin concluded, “Agriculture can be more profitable and environmentally regenerative but agricultural practices need to function closer to how Nature had it originally designed.”
Download Colin's presentation and read the case study.
JOHN DUNNICLIFF - GRAZING AT SCALE
John Dunnicliff’s presentation overwhelmed even the most seasoned farmers in the audience with the scope and scale of what he is achieving in the heart of the Northern Territory. On over a million hectares, John has invested in fencing and water provision to enable him to rotationally graze his stock into previously ungrazed country.
John stated, “Our business is growing grass. We then convert that into a product to sell.” He pointed out that perennial grasses are the mainstay on his property as they grow the most bulk, have the deepest roots and are cheap. Tree fodder is also a critical part of the operation. He sees over-grazing and over-resting as the biggest problem for grazing production, and so he is investing to enable him to manage this.
John described the significant work involved with laying hundreds of kilometres of polypipe and erecting 135,000 litre water tanks every 4km supplying troughs in each paddocks. John’s view – and experience - is that cattle prefer not to walk more than 2km for water, and it is on that basis that he has structured the water provision on Beetaloo Station. Rotating stock through paddock is seen as critical to maintain landscape outcomes, as set stocking and increased water provision would still lead to over-grazing around water supplies. Cattle are currently run in mobs of around 5000 animal equivalents for three days grazing per paddock, and John is gradually building to a total of 100,000 stock.
He notes that his a full-time (dry season) bore-man as the most invaluable member of his team – as he is actually on the ground – due to much of the farm work being done via helicopter. John clearly understands the economics of his business, with each element, such as water provision, the cost of running the helicopter or diesel provision and maintenance being able to be expressed in dollars per head of cattle.
John is working closely with CSIRO and DPI to monitor the effects on the landscape of this method of grazing which is rarely done on such a large scale and basically unheard of in Australia’s Top End. He has converted many doubters to the benefits of this technique to open up new ways to graze and naturally fertilise and regenerate the country. The massive amounts of biomass produced after a wet season are now grazed rather than oxidising or being burnt, returning nutrients and carbon back into the soil and he has the ability to rest pastures to recover appropriately after grazing.
Even though the scale might seem intimidating to most, John comfortably states that his rotational practices are also much easier than set stocking on this sized landscape. While he is upfront in saying that he is not an expert, John is clearly happy with the outcomes he is achieving on his landscape.
He closed on a very valid point, “Owning and managing land doesn’t give us the right to destroy it.”
Download John's presentation and read the case study.
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