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Beyond the Bale : Dec - Jan 08
By Jesse Blackadder When Colin Seis threw away his disc plough years ago, he had no idea that by 2007 he would be reaping the benefits of greatly improved organic carbon levels in his soil -- meaning that his farm is making a positive contribution to mitigating greenhouse emissions and that Colin may one day also benefit financially, if carbon trading begins. However, when the Seis family changed their entire farming system, back in the 1980s, it was because of stark necessity. A bushfire had destroyed most of the farm in the central-west district of NSW, including buildings, sheep, pastures and fencing. This loss forced the family to start looking seriously at lower-input methods -- simply because they could not afford high inputs. Today Colin's 'pulse grazing' and 'pasture cropping' methods have revitalised native grasslands on his 840- hectare property to the point where biodiversity has mushroomed and the entire system is now healthy and robust -- enough to see him through a difficult drought. Colin, with his sons Jason and Nick, runs the 'Winona' Merino and kelpie studs. The system change has also helped Colin reach his wool-production goals. In the past decade he has been able to decrease the micron of his 4000 Merino ewes, 700 of which are stud ewes, to 18.5 microns (from 20.5) while increasing body size and reaching an average fleece weight of six kilograms a head. Colin's aim is 100 per cent ground cover, 100 per cent of the time, including under crops. He believes this is essential for developing profitable farming systems and solving environmental problems. "Pasture cropping is the combining of cropping and grazing into one land-management system where each one 13 SUSTAINABLE FARMING BEYOND THE BALE How to take the pulse of a healthy farm A long-term increase in farm biodiversity has lifted pasture and wool production, even through the drought, for NSW mixed-farmer Colin Seis and his family benefits the other," he says. "The potential for profit and environmental health is enormous." With new interest in carbon sequestration and greenhouse emissions, Colin is now finding a new level of benefits to his production system. "These methods lead to a measurable increase in soil carbon levels, which may produce a cash value in future carbon-trading ventures, as well as reducing some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that contributes to the greenhouse effect," he says. "Organic carbon levels in the soil have doubled in the past 10 years, which is giving us a lot more water-holding capacity in our soils. We've done microbial tests that show the soil is well balanced and full of beneficial bacteria and fungi, which is associated with natural diverse grasslands." When Colin originally made the change to low-input farming, he changed his grazing method from set grazing to a time-control method he calls 'pulse grazing'. A mob of 4000 sheep is moved around the 65 paddocks (average size 13ha), spending two to four days in each paddock before moving. The paddock is rested for up to three months to allow the native grasses to recover. "The impact this has had on fleece quality is consistency in tensile strength, even in dry periods. Working with nature and not against it means there is always something for the sheep to eat." Colin, along with his neighbour Daryl Cluff, turned his attention to cropping. He believed it did not make sense to destroy a pasture by ploughing to sow a crop. They tried sowing zero-till winter cereal crops directly into summer- growing native perennial pastures that were dormant through winter. The pasture could be grazed right up to the point of sowing and stock could be put back on the pasture after harvest to graze stubble and green perennial grasses. Colin received government support for his pasture- cropping program through the Central West Catchment Management Authority perennial pastures program, funded by the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water uality, which helped him with fencing, stock water points and establishing native perennial pastures. Changes on the property were so dramatic that both the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and CSIRO followed them up. The NSW DPI carried out an economic analysis, comparing 'Winona' with an equivalent traditional farm. The analysis found the pasture-cropping method of farming could be more profitable, with the increase depending on current grazing overheads, such as pasture seed, pasture maintenance and casual labour. "The department's computer simulation found we were 25 per cent more profitable than a traditional farm because we've cut down our inputs, so there are fewer costs involved in getting the same yields," Colin says. Colin also works with the Grain & Graze program, which measured the increases in pasture and crop production as a result of the system and validated what Colin felt was happening by finding pasture growth was stimulated considerably. He is now looking at the differences between his own property and one that is farmed conventionally -- his brother's, which is nearby. "My brother's a very good operator in the traditional sense -- the main difference is that his pastures are mainly annual. In the 2002 drought it cost him $40 a head to feed his sheep and it cost us $5 a head, so that's a big difference in the cost of production. In long-term sustainability I believe there's even a bigger difference." Colin's methods have seen him giving talks and running pasture-cropping workshops around Australia. ú More information: www.winona.net.au
Oct 07 - Nov 07
Feb - Mar 08 Supplement