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Beyond the Bale : Dec 06 - Jan 07
By Gio Braidotti Grazing-based agriculture on the Northern Tablelands of NSW has been subjected to a remarkable five-year research initiative, which saw producers and researchers establish a unique way to measure the impact of different land management systems on whole- farm profitability and sustainability. Using AWI funds, the Cicerone Project was convened by producers, led by Hugh Sutherland. In 1998, a survey of more than 350 producers assessing their research needs found that intensive rotational grazing and the impact of different levels of pasture inputs were key R&D issues, along with: ú management of the feed supply; ú how to maintain ewes in three-score condition; and ú management of internal parasites. Overseeing the project is a board chaired by local grazier Terry Coventry and comprising five other graziers -- Richard Croft, Phillip Dutton, Brian Gream, Kent Reynolds and Mark Waters. The non-woolgrowers on the board are Professor Jim Scott from the University of New England (UNE), David Paull from CSIRO Livestock Industries, Pauline Smith from TAFE Rural Skills, Betty Hall, a private consultant on animal health, Clare Edwards, a district agronomist, and Michael Lollback, sheep and wool officer from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI). Integral to the Cicerone Project was the establishment of three equivalent 54-hectare 'farmlets' on 200ha of land managed by Justin Hoad. Each was operated according to different farm management systems, with Farmlet A testing the impact of high pasture inputs, Farmlet B representing the district norm and Farmlet C examining impacts of intensive rotational grazing. "In the past, some researchers and extension officers have been frustrated with farmers not taking up their recommended practices," Mr Hoad says. "But researchers are not always fully aware of the impact of their recommendations on the whole farm. "That's the gap Cicerone tried to fill. It addresses whole systems, involving graziers with a multidisciplinary approach, in contrast to 'white peg' or 'pen' trials on small replicated plots that are done in isolation from all other farm variables. This kind of farmer collaboration with researchers, consultants and extension specialists has led to increased adoption on graziers' properties." Professor Scott is enthusiastic about the value of the Cicerone model. As chair of mixed farming systems at UNE, he has encouraged substantial in-kind contributions to the project, along with support from UNE, the Australian Sheep Industry Cooperative Research Centre (Sheep CRC) and the NSW DPI. "Farmers deal with complex and dynamic systems that include climate and market variables among a long list of interacting factors," says Professor Scott, who would like to see measurement-intensive 'fact farms' like Cicerone set up across the country in every agro-ecological region. Project members agree that while farmers find the study credible, they are taking ideas from each farmlet rather than adopting one system outright. "There is an immense need to tackle issues of pasture sustainability, so when growers put Cicerone findings into practice it shows that what we are doing is quite useful," says chairman Terry Coventry. He believes that with ongoing studies, the project can help maximise pasture production and better understand how stocking rates need to change seasonally. To date, of the three separate grazing regimes tested, Mr Hoad says that Farmlet A proved expensive and involved higher risks with its increased stocking rates needed to pay for the high pasture input. "The advantage is that in a good season this system can sustain greater pasture growth, which raises the output, potentially producing higher returns. "Farmlet B represents district practice and this system proved easier to manage with lower inputs and risks. The disadvantage was a decrease in productive pasture species, which implies a mining of pasture resources." Of considerable interest to growers has been Farmlet C and its intensive rotational grazing system. Mr Hoad says that it proved the hardest to manage, as it relied on achieving the right mix between high stock density, short grazing periods, long paddock rests and animal productivity. "Poor decision-making can translate into a decrease in animal performance, such as wool production and live weight," Mr Hoad says. "However, if you manage the movement of stock carefully then we did see an improvement in livestock growth rates, pasture species and a substantial improvement in worm control." Additional research findings relate to the development of a DNA test that can distinguish between benign and virulent footrot, which has the potential of sparing growers from being unnecessarily quarantined. "The value of this model is that research into the impact of different management systems is done at a credible Farming for facts on 50 hectares The producer-led Cicerone Project has created a credible system to test the impact of different farming systems on whole-farm profitability 19 Return on assets Farmlet scale (54ha) gross margin and commercial scale (920ha) whole-farm returns between July 2000 and June 2005 were estimated by Ms Fiona Scott, economist at NSW DPI's northern farming systems unit. Median or below-median conditions for plant available water for the whole period (2000--05) constrained the growth potential of the pastures on all three farmlets but especially Farmlet A, which has higher potential productivity. Farmlet A has high inputs of sown pastures and fertilisers and uses flexible rotational grazing in an eight- paddock system. Farmlet B is the 'control' treatment representing average district practice, and has moderate fertiliser inputs with a similar number of paddocks and grazing pattern to Farmlet A. Farmlet C has also received moderate fertiliser inputs and was managed as an intensive rotational grazing system covering 33 paddocks. Farmlet A had the highest gross margin returns (due to both higher wool and cattle trading gross margins), followed by Farmlet B and then Farmlet C. However, when results were scaled up to a commercial scale, Farmlet A would have had the lowest whole-farm returns due to high capital costs of pasture improvement. However, the equity level for Farmlet A did not reach insolvency level, so a commercial-scale enterprise could have kept trading in spite of a large peak overdraft.The commercial-scale Farmlet C had lower business return and cashflow position at the end of June 2005 than Farmlet B, due to lower wool production, higher costs for labour and capital cost of fencing for paddock subdivision. Estimate of commercial-scale return on assets YEAR FARMLET A % FARMLET B % FARMLET C % 2000-01 --5.0 4.6 --4.7 2001-02 --10.2 0.5 --1.2 2002-03 5.8 3.9 4.3 2003-04 9.4 6.9 3.9 2004-05 3.9 5.9 5.4 Figure 1. Desirable pasture species as a proportion of the total botanical composition Justin Hoad showing some Chinese wool processors the Cicerone sheep. 0 10 20 30 40 50 80 60 70 2001 2000 2002 2003 2004 2005 Farmlet A Farmlet B Farmlet C BOTANICAL COMPOSITION (%) scale involving farmers, so that it produces trustworthy information in a timely fashion that can help growers make better strategic decisions," Professor Scott says. The current harvest phase of the Cicerone Project concludes at the end of 2006. The focus for the past 12 months has been the extension of overall project findings to woolgrowers. ú More information: Justin Hoad, 02 6778 3871, www.cicerone.org.au
Feb 07 - Mar 07