Tag Archives: drought

Information, Knowledge, Understanding and Culture

Daily, regenerative farmers regard their land, watching for signs that the living Earth is working her magic, hard won after 3.7 billion years of life. They have a quiet confidence that she can renew what we have undone.

Regenerative farmers have patience and respect for the processes inherent in the Earth system. They feel gratitude for the daily reminders of the abundance that the Earth can show if we let her array of life express it’s potential. I’m talking about allowing these potentials to become realities. This latent energy inherent in living communities can be fully expressed when we use our minds and actions to plan time for the natural cycles of birth, life, death and decay. They are the cycles of life, that when combined with the many species that can be supported in complex communities, reveal the extraordinary capacity living things have to keep the world in a life-friendly state.

Gratitude and acceptance of the natural tendency towards elaboration of life forms and increasing diversity seem to be prerequisites of a regenerative farming life.

In some ways the lessons to be learned from observing the wheel of life, are akin to the seeds of the biblical sowers. Daily, the information is revealed or not, depending upon our powers of observation and our willingness to learn. Many, perhaps most of these Earth lessons that are metaphorically cast among us, fall on the barren ground of the unseeing, unknowing minds of one of the last of the species to evolve – humans. However, for the persistent , passionate, lovers of life and landscapes, the information the Earth reveals can become knowledge; this has a cultural base.

Our species has been spectacular at gathering information in our quest to find what makes the world work. However the obsession with digging for information has come at the cost of knowledge and understanding. Mostly our thirst for knowledge is about how it can benefit us. Now we need to move to a more generous philosophy and do things we know to be good for the Earth. This is likely to also be beneficial for us, but not in the economic sense.

We have found that decisions made towards strengthening ecosystems, are also good for our business.

The living world gets its energy daily, from the sun. There is a huge extra capacity, in that the bulk of solar energy is reflected back into space or used to drive the weather systems that are part of the water cycle. The thin mantle of soil that harbours terrestrial life runs on just less than one percent of the daily incoming solar energy. This energy powers the process of photosynthesis, and thus, all life. The plants are the primary producers, all species that eat plants are secondary producers; Thus all life is dependent on photosynthesis.

This year like many, in Australia’s variable climate, has been a stop start affair. At the end of February it looked like we were going into a bleak Autumn. Despite a very dry January and February, with several bursts of very high temperatures, our district was lucky not to have had any devastating bushfires like areas to our north. We certainly had the potential for fire due to a record wet September/October, but were fortunate. The roll of the dice with fire is always a game of chance. If a fire had started here on the day that the massive fire at Dunedoo started, the outcome would have been similar. Many farms would have been completely burnt out with the resulting human consequences of depression, economic reversal and anxiety to see what the ensuing season would bring.

Following the big spring of 2016, one would have thought it would take the livestock of the district at least two years to graze the big biomass down. However by the end of February farmers were feeding stock, and some country was looking grazed out. Cows can handle large amounts of dry feed, but fat sheep gradually lose weight on hayed-off grass unless there is some green feed to keep their rumen ammonia at a level that supports the micro flora of the gut. When there is high gut ammonia, ruminants can do well on large volumes of dry biomass. However, when animals are run in the same paddock for long periods (months), the stock ferret out the green plants in a matter of days and are left to make what they can of the dry material. There is no lack of nutrients in the dry stubble of crops and hayed-off pasture, just the lack of favourable conditions for the gut flora needed to unlock the nutrients. Thus in the absence of any greenery, ruminants will gradually live off their body fat and begin to lose weight.

A fall of rain towards the end of March produced a lot of feed and farmers, being optimists, assumed that Winter grass was assured. April, May, June and July were dry and we had more than forty heavy frosts. Some of the frosts were so severe that the big yellow box trees were white right to the top. The effect of this cold weather was to almost halt growth, the green feed all turned yellow and the annual grasses that germinated in March turned bluish and the a reddish purple, from struggling for moisture. It was only the low temperature that allowed these plants to go on living, but in an almost suspended state between life and death.

While this two and a half month dry, frosty spell continued, we were keeping a close eye on our grazing plan and estimating how many days of grass we had in front of us. Because we had a lot of biomass that was ungrazed from Spring 2016, we were understocked and actually put on another forty pregnant cows and another hundred heifers to grow out and join. The decisions in this planning is always leading us towards a landscape that has one hundred percent ground cover. We will not compromise on that. We would rather destock than lose ground cover, it is so fundamental for our landscape goal. For a well functioning landscape or ecosystem, one hundred percent ground cover is the first prerequisite for a good water cycle. Good cover means lots of habitat for all the recyclers, the fungi and the myriad of bacteria, and other larger life forms that live in a healthy functioning soil.

Planning recovery time is fundamental for slow growing plants to be able to fully express themselves each time they are disturbed by grazing. In a dry, frosty Winter it is a slight dilemma as to whether you should keep implementing the growing season plan, or switch to a dormant season plan. In some ways it is academic, if you continue with a growing season plan, you just move the stock at the slowest rate. If you were in a dormant season plan you would be moving slowly anyway, so it is somewhat academic. The biggest difference is that in a dormant season plan, it is really designed to budget out the estimated dry feed from the end of the growing season. Whereas the growing season plan is all about planning the amount of recovery the plants need to fully recover before they are grazed again.

Drought times create tension, both in humans and the ecosystem. if the dry continues many plants may die, creating niches for other species to germinate in the spaces. This is one way that succession in the plant community can move towards greater complexity.

It is also a catalyst for human action as a result of the tension created that can open the mind to change.

Managing Drought for Positive Outcomes for People, Businesses and Landscapes

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Seasonal changes are subtle week by week but stark when viewed six months apart. Top image mid October 2015, lower image mid April 2016

On the way to town I drive over a crest and can see the broad sweep of the shallow,  wide valley of the Boorowa river. Today that view is of a landscape sucked dry by the iron fist of drought, and the choices we have made.

Ground cover, that arbiter, or measure of our behaviour, is gradually slipping away, in some places leaving the soil exposed to the heat and wind. Dust is a subtle form of erosion and in these dry times it is visible in the early morning and the dusk when the sun shines through the suspended earth at a low angle. Mostly it is not very evident to the casual observer.

In times like this there are some startling differences in how landscapes look. Here in the south west slopes of NSW, many are hand feeding livestock on farms that are beginning to look bare.

Farmers all want to leave the farm in a better condition for their children and grandchildren, and they are sincere in their desire to do this. There is however, often a large gap between what we say we want and what plays out over time in managed landscapes.

The fence is often the division between ideals and philosophies in the minds of the farmers who manage either side of the fence.

For the past seventeen years we have striven to always maintain full ground cover of plant material, living or dead. In a variable climate this is really only possible by adjusting the number of animals to fit the available resource….grass. Before learning how to manage holistically I had no skill at working out how many days of grazing were on Alllendale at any moment. In a dry season when we were running multiple enterprises and too busy to think and reflect, we used to just end up running out of feed and then begin feeding.

There are huge costs in doing that! The obvious cost of the river of money that feeding locks you into; the human cost of watching something you love falling apart, and perhaps realising that you are somehow responsible; and the environmental cost of the loss of species, the lowering of soil organic carbon and the subtle loss of soil structure and its capacity to hold water.

We now have the skills and confidence to quickly assess how many days of grazing we have ahead of us. In the dormant season we plan for 210 days of no growth. We monitor to see if our grazing plan is delivering what we say we want for the future resource base of the land we have the privilege of stewarding.

To assess how many animal days grazing are available on a hectare of land all you need to estimate is how many square metres in this paddock will feed a sheep for a day. A dry sheep equivalent (dse), is a 45kg merino wether. A 450kg beast is equivalent to ten dse. If you estimate 5 square metres will feed a sheep for a day and leave enough for land cover and wildlife, then you divide 5 into 10,000 square metres ( 10,000 sq m per hectare). So… in this example one hectare can feed 2000 45 kg wethers for a day.

Using this method I can quite accurately estimate how many days grazing there are on our 814 ha in only about two hours. It is an invaluable tool for knowing how much grass you have ahead at any time and we do new assessments as circumstances change. The motivation for doing this is to know that we are proceeding towards, not away from our future resource base goal (see below in blue).

Future Resource Base

A diverse landscape with soils covered year round, effective water cycle with a diverse and abundant soil life efficiently cycling minerals, supported by an increasing flow of energy via sunlight harvest.

Increasing perenniality in the plant layer with complex age structure and increased species diversity.

Stable revegetated riparian areas, and diverse, well-structured tree/shrub native grass/forb areas with good connectivity as fauna habitat.

People who are known for their hard work, sense of humour, honour, integrity, kindness, proud of their methods of food and fibre production, and involved in the local community.

Importantly, if our monitoring shows our grazing plan is not delivering what we desire, we adjust our livestock numbers down to get back on track. The positive and negative of this scale requires monitoring as a grazing plan is dynamic and our plan must react to the seasonal changes.

However if the season is favourable, it is beneficial for the grassland to run more livestock. Grazing stimulates growth provided there is moisture, favourable temperature and adequate time planned for recovery of the plant community. Livestock lay vegetative matter on the soil surface protecting it and putting it in touch with the big engine of life, the soil biota. 

When we began managing holistically we found it hard to act on the decision to reduce numbers because we were so used to ‘toughing it out’. But we have learned to trust the processes of grazing planning and that has always stood by us.

The positive effects of matching the livestock numbers to each season as it unfolds are threefold. Socially. The calming effect of knowing you have made decisions that are leading towards what you desire in the future resource base, is quite profound. Financially you have positive cash flow from sales and no outgoings for feed purchases. The real cost of feeding is actually double the cost of the feed, and is met in costs of vehicles, augers, time, maintenance. Environmentally you are making ecological gains at no cost and increasing the land’s resilience as more species are represented over time; you are managing in sync with the trajectory of evolution which is always to elaborate and diversify over time.

In the last two months our cattle have been grazing paddocks that have not been grazed since December 2015, there is a lot of dry standing feed, and perennial grasses that are senescing due to lack of moisture, the native perennials are making seed, but with difficulty because of the large size of the plants. The introduced perennials have just shut down and have not made seed.

Interestingly the native perennials, once grazed have had a brief period of vegetative growth to get enough leaf out and harvest sufficient sunlight to give the plant enough energy to put out some seed heads. Having evolved in the climate where they live, in these difficult dry times they do not put out more seed heads than the plant can support, but make sure they reproduce before going dormant for the winter. Another example of the huge buffering capacity built in to natural systems. This is logic gained through the hard buffetings of deep evolutionary time and our scant knowledge of this should be regarded as an important asset.

So making decisions that allow the dynamics of species to be expressed turns out to be good for people, businesses and farm ecosystems increasing in complexity. This requires energy and it comes from the sun, a free resource. Rather than going backwards during dry times, we have found that being confident to match our carrying capacity to the available feed whilst not compromising our landscape goals, has been an exciting learning experience.