Holistic dryland grazing in Gippsland

Introduction

Maffra and District Landcare Network (MDLN) is supporting dryland grazing farmers, to identify where they have control and prioritise efforts to improve their enterprise and ultimately land management.

Critical to the process is working with landholders who are seeking change, providing assistance to step back from the day to day, and look at their financial, lifestyle and land management goals.

Tough seasonal conditions through 2017/18 highlights both success and challenges of trying to achieve this goal. In late April 2018, a week of 30° topped off with a howling northerly led to topsoil blowing across much of the district. By late May the region was still dry with a rolling annual rainfall of 430mm and just 90mm for the calendar year.

Perry Bridge farmers Jen Ribolli, Ruth and David Read (Woodcote Pty. Ltd) have been on a continual learning process, trying to refine their business to deal with these conditions.

Over the last sixteen years, the family farm has pioneered innovative techniques in soil health, stock management and perennial pastures. They base their approach on the RCS grazing model but have recently added new information from Dick Richardson and Nigel Kerin to their system.

“In late April, we shifted a mob of cattle without raising any dust,” said David. “That demonstrates the benefits of managing your ground cover.”

“The perennial grasses still have active solar panels and the soil and its microbes are protected with a litter layer,” explained David. “The stock have enough to eat and keep performing and that creates turn-over for our business.”

Jen said their grazing and management system ensures when the rain comes that it will all soak in, there will be no loss of soil, no room for weeds to grow, the grass will take off and give plenty of winter feed. With deep rooted perennials that have time to recover, the plants access more nutrient cutting the fertiliser bill dramatically.

Having the feed ahead to finish the trade

Highly awarded NSW farmer Nigel Kerin visited Gippsland in 2017 with a few key messages around feed budgeting. The most important thing is having the feed ahead to finish the trade.

David Read explained how they incorporate that into their thinking.

‘Our grazing charts track the number of animals and the amount of feed we have ahead of us, we know exactly how many animals we can run per acre, based on average rainfall and we track rolling annual rainfall. Every animal that comes onto the property will have three months of feed in front of them. This means there is always time to make a decision about our stock levels.”

This approach helps the Woodcote farm purchase or take on agistment stock with plenty of feed and ground cover; in many instances, while others are selling off stock or feeding out when fodder is at inflated prices.

Planned grazing – not regimented

Another recent adaption at Woodcote, learnt from South African farmer educator Dick Richardson, involves a slight change from the consistent long rest and recovery periods that forms the basis of their system. Dick says that even the best systems go backwards if they become regimented.

Jen described their new approach as planned grazing … with some chaos. This means that sometimes they will send a mob back in to a paddock, even though it hasn’t had the “desired” rest period. If the underlying condition of the pasture is strong, they can make good use of quality grass and increase production and profit.

“We wanted to have a neat formula, it’s simpler to deal with, but you need that chaos in there,” smiled Jen. “We match stock to carrying capacity, so that gives us flexibility. The system is resilient. Even if we get it wrong, we know how to fix it and how to let the land recover.”

Perry Bridge farmers Jen Ribolli and David Read
Perry Bridge farmers Jen Ribolli and David Read
April 2018, drought conditions, the farm still has ground cover and some green pick
April 2018, drought conditions, the farm still has ground cover and some green pick
Cattle grazing in a paddock at Woodcote, taken in Autumn
Jen, Ruth and David purchased cattle in the drought with plenty of feed ahead
The Woodcote grazing chart is the essential tool for decision making
A slide from Nigel Kerins presentation
This slide indicates the upside of knowing your costs of carry and how to adjust stocking rates accordingly

Holistic management is applicable across different terrain and growing conditions

David Hall is from high rainfall, hill country in Foster. He has attended an RCS course, is implementing a grazing chart, and adapting it to his business.  “For years, I tried to run the maximum amount of cattle. I wasn’t providing enough nutrition. The quality of your soil and pasture is the major factor in achieving good results.  Now I focus on balancing the grass and the livestock,” explains David.

“I’ve taken a more biological approach to farming. My primary aim is sustainable production and to greatly reduce my reliance on fertiliser inputs.”

Foster farmer, David Hall
Foster farmer, David Hall
Bluey and the grazing charts kept by David Hall
Bluey and the grazing charts kept by David Hall

In Stratford, Simon Rothwell and Liz Carlsson have been working on the business

In 2014, they began a process with MDLN that led to implementing a new business plan and changes to management including:

  • new safer stock yards
  • a water bore to address water security
  • enterprise mix, (more trading animals)
  • grazing charts to manage stock numbers and movement
  • pasture species trials to improve summer feed gap and groundcover.

Reliant on dam water, their property, “Snake Gully” had been stretched during previous summers. Simon and Liz reduced stock in 2014 until water security was addressed.

In September 2015, a new bore (run by solar driven pump) was switched on and now can reliably produce 18,000 litres/day.

The stockyards were “an accident waiting to happen” according to Simon. Now Simon and Liz have installed new cattle yards they “can sleep well at night!”

Implementing a planned grazing system

In August 2014, Simon and Liz adopted the use of ‘grazing charts’ to record:

Simon and Liz's planned grazing system

The data captured through the grazing charts is helping Simon and Liz evaluate how careful grazing management and timely adjustment to stocking rates can influence:

  • pasture recovery
  • pasture composition
  • ground cover and soil health improvement over time
  • farm input costs
  • animal health outcomes
  • marketing options and financial returns

Simon Rothwell and Liz Carlsson with their dog on the property
Simon Rothwell and Liz Carlsson on their property
Explaining planned grazing
Greg Forster explaining the grazing charts to Darren Chester and Angus Hume.

The challenge of matching stock numbers to carrying capacity

By spring 2016 grazing management and adjustments to stocking rate were showing improvements in pasture species composition.

Autumn and Spring species graphs from 2014 to 2018
Cattle grazing, showing the pasture and groundcover

By 2017, despite dry conditions, the trial species of Premier digit and
Bambatsi panic were starting to spread naturally through the paddock.
Some good December rain followed and conditions were looking ok.

But the tap turned off and by April 2018, things were looking much worse. By using information from the grazing chart, Simon and Liz, did well to maintain dead litter and minimise bare ground to 15% . They managed  rotations, matched stock to feed type and sold stock where possible. But it was still a challenge when you don’t know when it will rain.

Changing the species mix

With the recent shift in seasons and the possibility of more frequent hot dry autumns, farmers across the region are looking to more palatable summer active species. Field observations of the pastures at ‘Snake Gully’ in early 2014 highlighted an over-representation of annual plants such as crowsfoot and cape weed, suggesting an increased potential for bare ground during summer.

The presence of creeping/prostate perennial summer grasses such as couch also suggested a history of higher than desirable grazing pressure; particularly over the summer months encouraging lower palatable summer species to become dominant.

As well as the critical changes to grazing management, Simon and Liz introduced a trial plot in 2014 of:

Bambatsi Panic (Panicum colaratum)

A perennial C4 summer grass adapted to medium to heavy clay soils and annual rainfall of 600mm. A hardy plant and can tolerate drought, frost and saline soils.

Premier Digit (Digitaria eriantha)

A C4 perennial summer grass, adapted to a range of geographic areas and soil types including sandy and clay based. It requires a minimum average annual rainfall of 400mm and is a good companion plant to sub-clovers and legumes.

Pink Serradella (Ornithopus sativus)

A soft seeded annual legume, tolerant of acid soils. A deeper rooting plant to other sub-clovers. It requires a minimum average annual rainfall of 400mm, can be grazed heavily and competes well with weeds while complimenting summer-growing perennials. It contributes nitrogen to the soil, particularly when inoculated with a complementary rhizobium bacterium.

Results:

By Feb 2018 the premier digit has shown the most promise, establishing itself sporadically through the paddock and providing quality summer feed. Encouragingly it has also held on in very tough conditions.

Bambatsi plants have established and spread, but less than the digit. Plants seem less palatable and less vigorous in growth than the digit.

Seradella was sown in Spring with the summer grasses. Germination was poor and the plants that came up shrivelled and died in a very harsh long summer. An autumn sowing trial was planned but never took place.

Premier digit growing in the paddock
Premier digit growing in the paddock, February 2018
Premier digit in the paddock, April 2018
Premier digit in the paddock, April 2018
Bambatsi panic plant, February 2018
Bambatsi panic plant, February 2018

Summary

Change is not easy and it involves looking at the whole of your business enterprise and for that matter, your life, goals and what is important to you. But when the thing at stake is your underlying resource, the health of your land, your animals and yourself. What could be more important?

The Healthy Soils Sustainable Farms project is supported by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

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12 thoughts on “Holistic dryland grazing in Gippsland

  1. Thanks for the update Tony.
    Trying to find a good legume for mildly acid soils without having to lime the whole place.
    Will try giving inoculated Serradella a go and keep you posted.

  2. Good advice. How did the pink serradella perform? Curious how it would perform on clays or blue gum country near Nyora?

    1. Hi Adam, the Serradella was a failure. It was sown in Spring with the C4 grasses, there was some germination but the subsequent hot dry summer saw those few surviving plants frizzle out. They considered another try of an autumn sowing but it never happened. The premier digit has shown the most promise. If you have a go and find Serradella successful please let us know. Cheers Tony

  3. Hi Tara, Species composition seems to have improved through grazing management, but we haven’t seen major success with the premier digit or bambatsi. We are currently compiling the interim results and they should be published by the end of the year. Sorry for the delay in response, I have been away for 3 weeks.

  4. I am wondering how this trial has been going with this cool, wet winter, as I am interested in looking into a similar pasture composition.

  5. Hi Gerhard, we will look at soil tests, however the key thing here is we are looking at measuring improved groundcover, (particularly over the summer period,) increased perennials, increased dry matter yield, increased carrying capacity, all of which we know add organic matter to the system, protect bare ground, increase root depth and biological activity. They are proxy for soil health.

  6. Hi Carol, Good comment. Anecdotally it seems that the changes to grazing management are already seeing a decrease in weedy annuals and an increase in wallaby grass. This is one of the things being monitored. When we have some good data we will share it on this page.

  7. Thanks Greg …must had been a typo.

    Great to see people trying new species under commercial conditions.

    A possibility for a relatively poor germination could be that the seeds where very small a should not be planted deeper that 10mm.
    I used a triple disc seeder for direct drilling Cocksfoot & Phalaris (also small seeds) in trials and found that depth was very important. refer:Gippsland Soil Trial and Demonstration directory.(WGCMA site)
    Was the soil damp when sown? if so, you can get glazing in some soils and therefor poor seed/soil contact.
    Trials can be trying! but well worth it.

  8. Just wondering if you were going to trial Australian native perennial grasses for your pastures.
    We are seeing a huge uptake in this area as they cope with rotational cell grazing and the climate.