Can you Droughtproof the Farm?

A non brittle environment with a healthy functioning ecosystem. Green growing grass, 100% of ground covered by lush biodiversity

What Happens when it Stops Raining?

December 2019 after 3 years of drought. The perennial creek was bone dry. Grasses were really short. But ground cover persisted. There is also a tinge of green.

In Holistic Management terms, Dunblane falls into what is known as a " non brittle environment" "Brittleness" is an unusual HM term used to differentiate between those areas that receive seasonal rainfall followed by prolonged periods of dry and those regions  (like Dunblane) that have rainfall all year round. Brittleness specifically refers, not to rainfall, but to the daily moisture at the soil surface.

If you want to heal a paddock that is overgrazed, conventional wisdom says to destock it. Interestingly this only seems to work in non brittle environments. If grass in brittle environments is left resting (denied access to grazing animals) for prolonged periods, degradation takes place. Bare ground appears. Interestingly, the opposite occurs in non brittle environments.  This was a real puzzle to the early adopters of soil regeneration until the role of living organisms in the soil was better understood. You may recall in an earlier journal entry, when discussing the greening of the Loess Plateau,  I made the point that improving one of the 4 ecosystem elements (water cycle, mineral cycle, solar energy flow and biological succession) improves all. Degrading one of the four ecosystem elements also degrades all. In the Loess Plateau project they focussed very heavily on correction of the water cycle. The others responded accordingly.

It turns out that during pronged dry periods the soil microbes become dormant.

Efficient microbes significantly contribute to the breakdown and absorption of dead and dying plants. Known as "rapid decay". Oxidation  is nature's chemical process of slow decay. It occurs when microbes stop working. 
One of the great insights of Alan Savory was the realisation that in the absence of soil microbes, microbes in the rumen of animals are a pretty good substitute. Ruminant animals eat the dry grasses, digest them with the aid of gut microbes. The faeces is then able to easily be absorbed back into the soil. With it, minerals and organic matter.

In times of drought, even in non brittle environments, conditions become brittle . The soil microbes are way less efficient.  Rainfall is also depleted. Grass is short and dry, so photosynthesis( solar energy flow) is limited. These landscapes denied access to the microbes of ruminant  animals will degrade to the point of bare ground.  In Holistic Management thinking, "bare ground is enemy number one" 

Why then, at Dunblane, despite 3 years of drought severe enough to render our perennial creek bone dry, did ground cover persist?

Grasslands that have been  managed holistically will over time increase  the organic matter, in so doing alter the soil structure, known as soil aggregates. These soil aggregates have an improved water holding capacity. That means the soil has increased capacity to hold onto water for months after the rains. Grass will continue to grow, albeit much less vigorously. The animal impact and its microbial contribution facilitates a more rapid decay and absorption of the dry surface biomass. All through the 2017 - 2020 dry times a carpet of ground cover persisted.(see photo above. Picture taken Nov/Dec 2019) 

 Towards the end of 2019 we were forced to feed hay to the cattle.  Because of the slow pasture growth, I moved the stock very slowly from paddock to paddock, giving their gut microbes as much opportunity as I could to perform their magic.  

Like all drought, the rains do eventually return. On 30 January the heavens opened producing abundant soft soaking rain Lasting a few days. 300mm in total. Amazingly, as soon as the rain returned, grass literally jumped out of the ground. Lush and green(see picture below).

The sheep in the picture below(taken February 2020) are some of Dunblane's breeding ewes. These animals in 2019 had 120% fertility. Without any feed other than what they could forage they raised their lambs despite the drought. Today (April 30) I sold the lambs for an average of $196 which was top dollar. The cost of production of each  lamb  included a few drenches for worms(60c a pop) an identification ear tag, the agent's commission and the transport costs to market. My guess is a total production cost of around $15. That makes the  cost of production less than 10%. 
Lambs need to be “finished” before they are sent to the market. The market pays on body mass as well as what is known as “fat score” To get the fat score up (“finish”) the lambs for market, farmers, after they wean the lambs from their mother,  add a form of concentrate to their daily rations or they plant a "finishing" paddock of a high quality feed. Both strategies are very expensive but necessary. In years past I relied on a commercially available pellet made by Manildra.

The final test of the nutrient quality of a pasture rests, not in a laboritory test, but in the condition of the animals at the point of sale.  In my case, these lambs were born, raised by their forage only mothers all through the drought and then put on Dunblane’s biodiverse and obviously nutrient dense pastures. No added fertiliser. They were sent to the sale in a condition that paid top dollar. Their cost of production was minimal. Their day to day management was simple. Apart from the few worm drenchings, their management involved opening a gate from time to time,  thus  allowing  them into fresh pasture. These moves were in accordance with the bigger Dunblane Holistic Management grazing plan. It doesn’t get easier, or better than that.

Farming is a lifestyle. That lifestyle must be enjoyable. Farming is also a business. Unless farming is profitable, it's hard to imagine how it can be enjoyable. In the end if the farming practices are not sustainable, there wont be any  lifestyle or profit to enjoy. The key is understanding how nature works and planning a strategy to harness nature's free gifts of sunlight, water , minerals and microbial life. 

Learning to regenerate the landscape is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Surviving the drought and  observing the resilience in a healthy functioning ecosystem is very humbling. 

When I first met Dr Christine Jones, I was attracted by her thinking. Ten years on I truly appreciate what she meant when she said my daily activities would involve "regenerative land management practices that simultaneously improve soil function, agricultural production, biodiversity, food quality and carbon sequestration outcomes."

To have experienced this is quite emotional. 

February 2020. Three weeks after soaking rains.
Feb 2020. These breeding ewes have negotiated the drought without any supplementary feeding.
2020 Dunblane lambs the day before they were sent to market
Dunblane’s 2020 “fat lambs” 100% grass fed.

Latest comments

28.04 | 17:47

Wow, I lived on the Haye's farmstead for a couple of years, crazy to hear of this fire coming through. Hope I can visit again one day.

15.08 | 01:17

This is all brilliantly documented Paddy - am so totally inspired by how you have transformed Dunblane.

31.07 | 06:36

Hi Peter, exciting indeed. Suggest you contact a Rory O'Leary at BVSC. He is the economic development officer. Big focus on Eden Another

31.07 | 02:48

Sounds exciting! I'd like to discuss how this might fit in with some other opportunities for the Port of Eden.