The Illawong story
TURNING "DISASTER" INTO DELIGHT AT ILLAWONG
Bryan Ward’s property, Illawong, comprises 160 hectares and carries up to 140 beef cattle at any one time. While this is a relatively small property, it is perhaps typical of thousands of farms producing beef in Australia. There’s a trend to smaller holdings, many operated by people with little farming background.
But Bryan’s achievements over 24 years of managing Illawong provide valuable lessons for producers seeking to maintain production while also regenerating and improving the condition of the land.
Bryan found two paddocks of neglected hill country, a small part of a large sheep grazing property called Table Top Station located at Bowna, about 10 km north of Lake Hume and 20 km north-east of Albury. In late 1994, these run-down paddocks, comprising undulating slopes with clay loam soils rising to rocky granitic soils on steep slopes, became Illawong.
After decades of set stocking on annual pastures, Patterson’s curse, rabbits and gully erosion were prevalent on Illawong and the remaining woody vegetation comprised remnant red box, yellow box, red stringybark, Blakely’s red gum and long-leaf box trees. Average annual rainfall in the area is a respectable 650 mm, but that is little use if it falls on bare impenetrable soil and most of it rushes down the gullies, taking topsoil with it.
Carrying capacity was a low 1.5 DSE. This was the condition of the property when Bryan acquired it. 1996 was around the beginning of the ‘millennium drought’, which saw 10 years of severely below average rainfall across southern Australia.
When the drought set in, Bryan feared that massive soil erosion would ensue when the rain returned. He was keen to contour-rip so that when rain eventually came it would penetrate, rather than run off, be wasted and exacerbate the gully erosion. That work was assisted by a drought relief program subsidy available at the time from the Commonwealth Government through the Natural Heritage Trust. Today the contour ripping is indistinguishable, but the dams constantly have water because the rain that falls infiltrates and seeps in to the dams from the water table.
Over a ten-year period, the fencing was re-designed using electric fences so that rotational grazing could be introduced, rotating the stock around seven paddocks, leaving the pasture height at least 100 mm (1500 kg dry matter per hectare). Cattle spend 5 to 7 days in each paddock at a time, fewer in the unimproved pasture paddocks, at a stocking rate of 36 DSE/ha. This ensures that the cattle receive sufficient nutrition and provides time for pastures to recover.
Bryan buys Angus trade steers, selecting from producers whose stock he has found suitable for finishing on pasture. Three different genetic lines typically make up the annual herd. These arrive in spring at an average live weight of around 370 to 400 kg and leave by the following winter at around 630 kg live weight. The number of steers bought each year depends on seasonal conditions, ensuring that the pasture available at the time can sustain the grazing pressure.
Over 24 years of changing from sheep to cattle, introducing rotational grazing, establishing perennial pastures and improving stock shelter, productivity has increased from 1.5 DSE to 12–14 DSE. Cattle growth rates of over 2 kg live weight per day have been recorded in winter. Most importantly, the business can adjust to seasonal conditions so that pastures do not suffer from over-grazing in dry periods and there is no loss of soil capital.
The Illawong Story
The practices adopted by Bryan at Illawong are not ground breaking or revolutionary. It is simply common sense land management based on self-evident principles.
In 1995, Bryan developed a farm plan for Illawong by matching the establishment and development of pasture types to land capability classes.
Bryan has achieved the same level of productivity and efficiency on Illawong as other farming enterprises, with significantly larger footprints.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Bryan has transformed Illawong with great satisfaction and, the result he says is, "the pinnacle of total improvement of landscape, and restoration to its original state”.