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Beyond the Bale : June 2019
32 ON FARM Tim and Suzanne Wright own ‘Lana’, 22 km west of Uralla on the NSW Northern Tablelands. On their 3,350-hectare property, which comprises moderately treed granite slopes and open riparian zones adjoining two major creeks, they run Merino sheep and breeding cows. Their superfine wool is sold to Loro Piana. Tim took over the property from his father, Peter, in 1980, who had farmed it since 1952. Various strategies of pasture improvement had been used on the property in the past, including top-dressing the property with superphosphate and seeding from the air. Oat fodder crops were under-sown with various pasture species, and this pasture improvement enabled stock numbers to be more than doubled between 1981 and 1992. However, with the expensive inputs, the property barely broke even over a five-year cycle. In the 1981 and 1992 droughts, production records revealed that the improved paddocks had lower yields than the unimproved paddocks. The land was too susceptible to drought and profit margins were falling. Tim says it made sense to seek a change. “When we went into the early 1980s drought, I thought we’d manage OK because we had full haysheds and silos,” he said. “But by the time the season broke, they were empty, our By introducing time-controlled rotational grazing of his livestock, Tim Wright from the NSW Northern Tablelands has regenerated his landscape and business – increasing productivity while reducing inputs costs, despite the increasingly frequent and intense drought periods. INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY AND RESILIENCE TO DROUGHT finances were under severe pressure and the land took five years to recover. It’s droughts that really knock woolgrowers over, not depressions in wool prices. “We knew there would be droughts in the future and so we made the effort to learn a different way of farming. We were motivated by two key considerations: firstly, the excessively high cost of production, especially labour but other inputs as well, had to come down; and secondly, our grazing management needed to better utilise our livestock.” Tim decided to use a holistic management approach that involved establishing smaller paddocks and introducing time-controlled rotational grazing at higher density, using stock for nutrient movement, enhancing soil fertility, maintaining ground cover and regenerating native grassland species. ROTATIONAL GRAZING AND SMALLER PADDOCKS In 1980, Lana was originally subdivided into 30 paddocks of generally 100-120 hectares, with varying grazing areas. Since 1990 these have increased to 350 paddocks, averaging 10-15 hectares. Pastures are heavily grazed for short periods, but for most of the time are in recovery phase. Each paddock gets an average of eight to ten days grazing per year, or two to three days grazing in each season. (During lambing, three paddocks are opened up at a time to reduce mis-mothering.) “The short duration of grazing, combined with a higher stock density, results in a more even grazing over each paddock and a lengthy recovery period,” Tim said. “It’s important to match stocking rate to the carrying capacity of the land. Pasture availability now drives stocking levels and rate of rotation.” Cattle and sheep on Lana are grazed separately in a ‘leader-follower’ system. Cattle are generally grazed first for two days, opening up the pasture for the sheep and reducing the worm burden. Sheep then follow for two days. Intestinal parasite cycles have been broken by this rotational grazing. The livestock’s grazing practices have driven the land’s fertility, which has increased pasture availability and quality, improving production – even with reduced rainfall and during times of drought. On average, carrying capacity has increased from around 8000 DSE to 20,000 DSE. No hay or grain has been fed to the livestock since 1990. The only supplements that have been used are bypass protein supplement during drought and Himalayan salt for its minerals. The grazing system has proved resilient in the face of the current drought which is the worst the property has ever experienced. Last year it received just 350mm rainfall, well below the average annual rainfall of 769mm. “There is still plenty of grass in the paddock for my sheep and it will respond well when we do receive some rain,” Tim emphasised. Tim has destocked most of his cattle, but has kept his sheep. “Merinos are designed to suit dry conditions – the breed comes from Spain. They drink far less water than cattle.” INFRASTRUCTURE WORKS WITH THE LAND Tim says their network of paddocks is designed to suit the property’s topography and land. “We fenced on contours to prevent sheep camps from developing on high ground and to spread nutrients laterally and more evenly. Soil organic matter content and fertility have been improved by this grazing action and the interaction of livestock nutrient deposits with soil biology.” Each subdivision required about three quarters of a kilometre of fencing, costing about $1,500 per kilometre at current prices. Heavily eroded watercourses were fenced off to heal, and weirs were constructed to stop head-wall erosion and divert water from watercourses onto the flood plains. However, the rotational grazing operations have also had a positive impact on watercourses, riparian zones, dams and wetlands. There is now no erosion of stream banks. Regeneration of vegetation in riparian zones is increasing from natural seeding. A water trough system was constructed to supply clean water to the new paddocks for the Wrights’ stock. This required installation of 3.5 km of 50mm poly pipe from one end of the property to the other, which mainly uses gravity feed from dams built high in the catchment and, in some cases, uses solar-powered units to pump from creeks to header tanks on high ground. “We don’t need troughs in wet seasons, but they are a good drought standby. A mix of dams and troughs gives us the best of both worlds,” Tim said. Tim Wright with his superfine clip at ‘Lana’.