Year-round-green perennial grasses and herbs making an impact during lower rainfall springs
By Patrick Francis
Our “comfortable farming” program is based on a range of management strategies ensuring more than 1200kg green dry matter per hectare and 100% ground cover year round in all pasture paddocks. Add to that 23% of the farm area is covered in trees and shrubs in conservation corridors and agroforests and we have the ingredients for high levels of livestock productivity and welfare, and community acceptable ecosystem services such as being a carbon positive farm, increasing biodiversity, and improving landscape amenity.
The ingredient we are seeing making a major difference to livestock productivity and paddock climate resilience is pasture species choice. Since 2016 we started our second wave of pasture improvement after the first phase which started in 1992 and ended in 2000. Compared with the first phase the perennial grasses, legumes and herbs available now are far more numerous, exciting and rewarding to plant and to watch the finishing animals grow on.
For example, the last of our 2018 drop lambs were sold to Meatsmith in early September 2019 and grew at a staggering average 380grams per head per day for their last 20 days while on a chicory, plantain and clovers pasture sown in October 2018. Interestingly these lambs were either the genetically slower growers or environmentally slower growers as most were twins. In the end pasture nutrition trumped both genetics and twining set back as they all grew exceptionally well given the feed to do so.
Not only did they grow well, but such a growth rate has significant greenhouse gas emissions lowering potential. As Professor Richard Eckard’s pointed out in his Carbon Farming webinar, October 2019, ruminant animals are the source of around 72% of Australian agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. The best currently available way to reduce ruminant methane emission is by speeding the passage of feed through the rumen and this is achieved with by grazing ruminants on high quality, high digestibility pastures which ensure high growth rates. Chicory, plantain and legumes fulfil this role exceptionally well.
Figure 1: Ewes and lambs grazing high quality pastures like this chicory, plantain and clovers will optimise milk production and growth rate while minimising greenhouse gas emissions (methane) as the digestibility of the feed is so high. Photo: Patrick Francis October 2019. Note: the ewe is shedding her wool which is normal for Wiltipoll sheep in spring.
The higher growth rate achieved on chicory/plantain/legumes pastures also improves meat eating quality because it ensures higher meat glycogen content. When the high glycogen level is protected with low stress livestock handling as practiced on Moffitts Farm consumers are provided with optimum meat eating quality associated with superior tenderness and taste.
For us, the mix of chicory, plantain and perennial and annual legumes is the feed of choice. We are now maintaining some paddocks just with this mix. There have been some unexpected bonus with this mix. In autumn 2019 when we experienced the driest first four months on record (28mm versus the four month average of 189mm) the chicory maintained its green leaf probably because it is a tap root plant. We were able to finish some lambs on the chicory in March despite the dry conditions. The stay green feature of chicory means we can use these paddocks as a livestock fire refuge in case of an emergency.
But we are discovering chicory and plantain do have challenges. One of these with chicory has been persistence. So far that has been disappointing – just two years and not four. The Stephens Pasture Seeds agronomist suggested that our strategy to allow chicory to flower (done to encourage self-seeding) might cause it to die prematurely as when the dry stems break off they expose the plant’s tap root to rainfall and this may cause it to rot. The self-seeding did not happen.
This spring for the first time we grazed the chicory/plantain with ewes and lambs in November at around 120 dry sheep equivalents per hectare (DSE/ha), FIGURE 1 for two days. The chicory was just starting to bolt (send up flower heads) and the high density stocking ensured the heads were eaten off but not all the leaves. With rest from grazing the plants should quickly re-grow. With average spring rainfall this grazing strategy would not have much risk. But spring rain this year is once again way below average and the outlook for rain in December is gloomy.
Since the big rainfall years in 2010 and 2011 we have only achieved average spring rainfall twice in eight years in 2013 and 2016. Our phase two pasture renovation program currently in place is producing pastures which are providing us significantly improved pasture quantity and quality year round under these lower spring rainfall conditions. The oldest of the new multi-species perennial grass pastures has lifted the paddock annual carrying capacity from 8 DSE/ha to 14 DSE/ha with lamb growth rates when green averaging 200 – 280g/day.
These pastures have been sown with minimum greenhouse gas emissions using direct drilling and subsequently very little soil organic carbon loss associated with ploughing paddocks.
Overall carrying capacity reduced
As well as the renovation program which provides additional pasture quantity and quality we have accepted the lower spring rainfall as the new norm rather than the exception and have lowered property carrying capacity by approximately 10% by reducing ewe numbers. In a self-replacing flock ewes and ewe replacements are a constant throughout the year. Their lamb progeny on the other hand are gradually consigned to the processor from approximately five months of age.
The quicker this can be done to remove all sale lambs the better as it leaves more feed available during the lowest pasture supply time of the year – May to August. And mid August is when we start lambing so ewes need to be on a rising plane of nutrition during the last month of pregnancy ie from mid July. We lock up lambing paddocks in late May to ensure high quantity (minimum 2500kg green dry matter per hectare) and quality pasture is available for ewes from late July onwards.
With fewer ewes there is more feed available throughout the rotation during the slow pasture growth May to August period. Coupled with this is the objective of selling all processor lambs as soon as possible after weaning in late November. The chicory/plantain paddocks, the brassica paddocks (first stage of pasture renovation) and the renovated multi-species perennial pastures with summer active species (referred to as year-round-green pastures) are the feed sources available to achieve this without the need for supplements.
With increased areas of chicory/plantain and year-round-green pastures this should be achievable providing there is one or two significant summer rain events (40+mm over two days). The last time this happened was summer 2017/18. In contrast summer 2018/19 was the start of the driest first four months of the year on record. So early this year it was impossible to finish lambs on dry pasture until three months after the autumn break which happened in the first week of May.
When the break came the year-round-green pastures demonstrated their incredible potential. After 15 days they had grown 1500kg green dry matter and after five weeks this had increased to 2500kg green dry matter and grazing started, FIGURE 3. Our old phase one pastures with less summer active species present due to demise with age and more unwanted perennials in them (bent grass, sweet vernal) had less than half this green dry matter content after the same five weeks rest from grazing.
Fewer ewes doesn’t mean less lambs
Our reduction in the fixed inventory of livestock (ewes) in response to climate change may not necessarily impact the number of lambs sold to Meatsmith each year. By growing more high quality pasture there is more available for ewes at the critical pre-joining and joining eight weeks from early March to mid April. With ewes on a rising plane of nutrition pre and during joining (often referred to as flushing) fertility is increased and we can expect a higher lambing percentage – we are aiming for a 10 – 15% increase above our current average of 140% lambs weaned. So while ewe numbers are less, the number of lambs born and weaned should be about the same as when we had more ewes on the farm.
Species increases never ceases to amaze but are under constant threat
I find it difficult to understand why so many ecologists quoted in the media are so negative about biodiversity and wildlife in rural areas. These people continually blame agriculture for so called declines in wildlife and seem unable to find anything positive to say despite enormous efforts being made in holistic grazing and cropping throughout the agricultural zone. It’s as if landcare farming and programs such as “Land for Wildlife” don’t exist or if they do are not achieving any gains in wildlife numbers.
From our experience on Moffitts Farm holistic farming practice has resulted in significant increases across all types of wildlife – insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The soil food web seems exceedingly active with worms, dung beetles and heaps of tiny insects and mites seen throughout the pastures but many only with a magnifying glass.
New species seen this year are the Gang Gang cockatoo, collared sparrow-hawk (nesting), quail (in the long pastures) and the Powerful Owl. The sugar gliders first seen two years ago are now in virtually all the conservation corridors and agroforrests.
Figure 3: This sawfly was a “first” for us. It has probably been in the pastures for years but this September was the first sighting. Photo: Patrick Francis.
The itinerant species continue to return – a favourite is three species of cuckoos which arrive just when the hairy caterpillars appear on the pastures in early September.
Koala, echidnas and wombats are also itinerant visitors and we worry about their safety during their travels between farms given the lack of interest by the local Macedon Ranges council to slow traffic on the minor, gravel rural roads surrounding Moffitts Farm. New housing development in nearby Romsey has seen a spike in population most of whom work in Melbourne or in surrounding larger towns. For unknown reason many of the locals and new estate residents seem to like driving at up to 100km per hour on our minor rural roads.
Figure 4: This hairy caterpillar turns up in the pastures in the first week of September, three species of cuckoos arrive soon after. Photo: Patrick Francis.
Wildlife road kills
Constant lobbying of the Council over the last two years to do something to reduce speed has produced no effective result. The one outcome, erection of Wildlife Crossing signs on our front lane has had no impact on many drivers speed. The danger to the reptiles, koalas, echidnas, wombats, kangaroos, and birds is enormous on these roads as the animals constantly travel across them to visit conservation corridors grown over the last 30 years by some local farmers and participants in the Land for Wildlife program.
Council actually makes the threat even greater by constantly re-grading the roads to ensure any potholes are removed. This encourages drivers to travel faster than the 50 – 60km per hour most locals see as safe for wildlife and other road users particularly the increased number of pedestrians and cyclists venturing out of the town to see nature.
Because these minor rural roads have 100km per hour speed limit which is the same as the main highway between Melbourne and Romsey, the only practical method of slowing drivers is to install gravel speed humps every 200 – 300m. Reducing the speed limit is a state government responsibility and is unlikely to be implemented because of the wide variation of conditions on rural roads and the inability to enforce the speed limit. Police have their time cut out enforce speed limits on busy major highways so would have no time for minor rural roads.
An unnoticed or thought about consequence of the 100km per hour speed limit on minor rural roads is that the road kills become a food source for our major wildlife killer, the fox. In Macedon Ranges Shire foxes seem to be out of control with few landholders implementing control programs and no interest from the Shire in changing the situation.
Irronicaly the shire councillors signed off on a Biodiversity Strategy to increase biodiversity in December 2018. Their so called inability to act on driver speed (management claims it is not allowed to put in speed humps on minor rural roads) confirms what we have witnessed for many years. Council prefers to deliver perceptions rather than strategies which produce positive outcomes in this case fewer wildlife road kills, less greenhouse gas emissions from road maintenance vehicles, and safer roads for locals and pedestrians.