Farmers make regenerative changes thanks to mentors
Making the shift from conventional to regenerative agriculture is a big decision – there’s a lot to learn and understand.
But thanks to an innovative mentoring program run by the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, Farming Together and Southern Cross University, a number of farmers have started to implement meaningful changes on their properties.
A mid-session review of the Regenerative Agriculture Mentoring Program (RAMP) found more than 80 per cent of participants are taking at least one step towards regenerative agriculture. Fifty-five per cent of participants recorded at least three changes.
The program found farmers have committed to a number of practice changes, including:
- Biodiversity surveys
- Monitoring soil health, including soil testing
- Data recording
- Planting paddock trees
- Cover crops
- Cattle rotation
- Writing vision statements.
RAMP manager, Simone Blom, said it was exciting to see participants learning and growing.
“We are so pleased to see our mentees implementing new skills they have discovered through sessions with their expert mentors,” she said.
Mentors inspire and motivate
The mentees said they enjoyed many aspects of RAMP, such as the opportunity to network with likeminded farmers, collaborating with their mentors and other participants, and accessing professional and relevant information,
They also welcomed guest lectures, on-farm visits and field days.
“I’ve enjoyed the way being a part of RAMP has encouraged and motivated and stimulated me and the others here to systematically look at and focus on different areas of farming, such as, how we can improve our resilience and decision making,” one participant said.
“It’s a good motivator to keep moving forward.”
Another mentee said RAMP was a “valuable program for anyone who is farming and looking at regeneration or even just wondering how to do better”.
Advice for farmers
The program is designed for farmers starting out on their regenerative agriculture journey, no matter how long they have been working on the land.
As one farmer explained: “I have farmed for 30 years … this course is building on the knowledge I have, which is great. Wish I had done this 15 years ago!”
And they have some advice to others thinking about registering for future RAMP opportunities.
“Just do it! It’s inspiring, it’s motivating, it’s a safe supportive space to ask questions.”
“Make time in your busy life to make the most of this opportunity to improve your farm, your health and way of life as well as benefitting the community and planet.”
The Regenerative Agriculture Mentoring Program receives support from the NSW Government through its Environmental Trust, and funding from the Australian Government’s Agricultural Innovation Hubs Program. The SQNNSW Innovation Hub receives funding from the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund.
To register your interest in RAMP, either as a mentor or mentee, email email@example.com
Does regenerative pasture management stack up financially?
Two paddocks at a property in central Victoria are being managed in two very different ways, with a third left untouched as a control, as part of a research project to assess the financial outcomes of regenerative and conventional methods.
The Beckworth RegenAg Project involves Southern Cross University, the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, Nutrisoil, AGF Seeds, and Central Victorian Regenerative Farmers (CVRF) at Paraway Pastoral Co’s Beckworth Court property.
It is one of eight projects funded by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s $2.5 million Soil Extension Program.
By comparing the financial outcomes of the regenerative paddock and the conventional paddock, the project aims to inform farmers of potential benefits and provide practical advice.
CVRF project officer, Ross Davey, said the financial outcomes will be assessed by quantifying input costs versus monetised production results, in the form of net feed utilised by stock converted to a theoretical stock weight gain. Natural capital improvement will also be part of the financial outcome assessment.
Two paddocks, two approaches
The regenerative methods adopted include:
• Multi-season use of annual multi-species cover cropping
• Minimal use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers
• Application of biological amendments
• Establishment of multiple species perennial pasture
• Adaptive multi-paddock grazing.
Conventional methods include:
• Minimal species ‘clean-up’ cereal and clover crops
• Strategic use of chemical fertilisers
• Establishment of simple two mix perennial pasture
• Set stocking.
Implemented on a 40-hectare block of a large corporate farm, the practices were designed to be practical and simple to fit labour resources and farm routines.
Assessing the outcomes
To quantify production outcomes, Feed On Offer (FOO) assessments were used instead of actual stock weights. This was due to the difficulties of weighing stock and maintaining consistent stock attributes for comparison.
Dry matter tests at strategic times produces net feed utilised by stock, which is converted to a standard theoretical stock weight gain and thus financial return. Input costs are available from farm operation records.
After a number of seasons of sowing simple annual ‘clean-up’ pasture mixes the conventional paddock was sown mid-May with phalaris, clover and oats. The regenerative paddock was sown in early June with chicory, plantain, sub-clover, strawberry clover, rape, radish, linseed and phalaris after a number of seasons of multi species cover crop sown as annuals. The aim was to establish perennials on both sides.
Mr Davey said cold weather impacted the growth of perennials, and this was expected to shorten the period of grazing of any resulting perennial pasture. A lack of rain after sowing also had an impact.
The extreme rain period from early November to the end of December 2022 meant that growth of pasture on both sides was severely retarded for three months. Entry to both paddocks was totally curtailed due to the wet; no stock could be put onto the paddocks and no application of biologicals was possible.
Measurement of Feed on Offer was finally possible in mid-January 2023, but by that stage many of the pasture species had matured past being quality feed.
Project agronomist Jade Killoran observed that the chicory on the regenerative side was prolific and had started to seed, the phalaris had seeded and the clover was growing well – all good foundations for a stronger establishment of perennial pasture for future seasons.
Evidence to date
Averaged over all seasons, the financial returns on implementing regenerative practices to improve pasture and soil is a ‘no regrets’ strategy compared with conventional methods.
“There is no financial disadvantage; you certainly wont lose money” Mr Davey said.
“On top of that we can already see substantial anecdotal evidence of superior soil health improvement in the paddock using regenerative practices. If natural capital improvement is accounted for, it is anticipated that improved financial outcomes will result.”
As a result of this project, a template could be developed for a soil and pasture improvement program using multi species cover-cropping, perennial pasture establishment, and biological amendments (minimising high cost chemical fertiliser inputs).
Mr Davey said farmers needed further assurance that moving from conventional pasture management to a regenerative approach could be a financial “no regrets” strategy.
“We could have evidence that in a three-year period it is possible to have identifiable improvements in soil natural capital and pasture resilience showing a trend that should continue over a longer time,” he said.
Advice for farmers
Mr Davey said farmers still needed to make informed decisions.
“Selecting a trial area that is a significant, but small, part of one’s operation in order to assess optimal regenerative approaches and test best practices for your area is a wise move,” he said.
“There are many variables in inputs, timing, species selection, stock management etc that is best trialled first to ensure your investment is optimal.
“Always conduct trials first with comparative areas and controls, but avoid the temptation of overcomplicating the variables.
“Stick to the plan but be reactive and adaptive and document the plan, variations, decisions and outcomes.”
'Gut feeling' drives on-farm decisions in rural NSW
New research has found many farmers in the Central West region of NSW trust their intuition, or “gut feeling”, when it comes to making important decisions on their properties.
The report, Agriculture in Central West NSW: Rural Landholder Social Benchmarking Report 2022, is part of the Soil CRC national farmer project, Surveying On-Farm Practices, led by Dr Hanabeth Luke from Southern Cross University. The survey was developed together with local groups Central West Farming Systems and Local Land Services Central West.
It provides insight into the values, beliefs, norms and practices relating to farming in the partner local areas of Bland, Blayney, Cabonne, Cowra, Forbes, Lachlan, and Parkes, gleaned from 525 questionnaire responses.
More than half are full-time farmers (55 per cent), with 19 per cent part-time farmers and 18 per cent hobby farmers. They use their land for pastures (60 per cent), sheep (59 per cent), beef (52 per cent) and cereal cropping (47 per cent).
Taking a risk (or not)
The farmers’ responses revealed they are open to new ideas about land management.
However, many said they could not afford to take risks and experiment, while 70 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t take a risk if their intuition, or “gut feeling”, said no.
“Nearly a third of landholders indicate that their farm is doing fine the way things are and see no reason to change, which correlates negatively with best practice implementation,” Dr Luke said.
“Half of the farmers were interested in learning more about regenerative farming approaches, with many highlighting the need to adapt to climate change and to take such actions as ‘drought-proofing the farm’.
Barriers, issues and future challenges
The top three current issues for farmers in the region are:
• Water holding capacity of soils
• Declining soil health and/or soil productivity
• Absence of important services and infrastructure.
However, in the next 10 years, farmers believe climate change will be the biggest factor for them to consider, linked to issues such as seasonal variability, drought and water storage.
“Nearly two thirds of respondents agreed that human activities influence our changing climate, and that landholders in the region should do all they can to reduce carbon emissions,” Dr Luke explains.
“More than half of all respondents agree that climate change will have dire consequences if nothing is done, and that fundamental changes are required to make the region’s farming systems resilient.
Succession, including retirement and health issues, are also common concerns, along with financial challenges and debt.
What do farmers want and need?
When asked broadly about what innovations would support their farm management goals, farmers said they would like more information about regenerative farming and soil management; accurate and long-range weather forecasts, drones and data systems.
Reliable internet was listed as a significant barrier to farming operations, and farmers indicated they would support rural agricultural organisations in lobbying for improved communications.
SCU researcher and Soil CRC Project Leader, Dr Hanabeth Luke, said the responses received from farmers in the Central West region of NSW can help industry groups and governments provide more targeted support to landholders in the region.
This is one of six surveys being conducted across Australia to help give the Soil CRC and other stakeholders are comprehensive view of farmer attitudes and practices.
Agriculture in Central West NSW: Rural Landholder Social Benchmarking Report 2022 is part of the Surveying On-Farm Practices project. The project aims to provide accurate information to support improved soil and land management, and will collate a dataset of national significance. It is led by Dr Luke of Southern Cross University and funded by the funded by the Co-operative Research Centre for High Performance Soils (Soil CRC).
Avocados, macadamias, cover crops and a lot of rain
Laurel Park Avocados and Macadamias is situated on the Alstonville Plateau, halfway between Ballina and Lismore. It covers roughly 15 hectares (nearly 40 acres) of land on red Ferrosol. The farm has 2000 avocado trees, both Hass and Shephard, 500 macadamias and 140 beehives. Owner Tom Silver completed a Forestry degree at Southern Cross University before taking over the family farm in 2000.
Laurel Park became a research site for the University’s trial of ‘multispecies cover crops in subtropical horticultural plantations’ in 2021. The first cover crop was planted in the interrow in June that year. The second cover crop was planted in November 2021.
Laurel Park has both conventional orchards and high-density planting, which is being trialled alongside the cover cropping. “Where we used to have one tree, we now have three…” Tom said.
The floods which destroyed Lismore in February and again in March 2022 (over 3m of rainfall) resulted in a loss of 560 of Laurel Park’s avocado trees.
The main issue on the farm prior to this was Phytophthora. “There’s good evidence that more organic matter will fight that. So, anything that involves more organic matter is good,” Tom said.
Sourcing the seed was also tricky due to the floods. “I think all of the rural stores were just a bit messed up... I think they actually had stuff that floated away.”
Dr Karina Griffin took soil samples at the beginning, middle and end of each trial.
While it is too early to have any solid data on the effect of the multispecies cover crops, Tom has made a few observations:
- There’s a lot less soil compaction in the cover-cropped areas, which is a good thing.
- He noticed a lot of bee and assassin bug activity when the cover crops are in place (assassin bugs are beneficial insects that prey on pest insects).
- In terms of the soil sampling data, no solid conclusions can be made just yet.
“There have been some differences in the cover cropped areas versus the control, but not large differences over a significant time period, so you can’t make any management decisions based on the soil health test,” Tom said, “But you can watch it over time and see what’s happening.”
Tom has enjoyed the University’s trial process, saying it “makes a lot of sense” given the research that has been done into avocados and organic matter.
“My joke is when you think you’ve put enough organic matter on, put some more on. You just can’t have enough; you see the soil and the trees respond to it,” he said.
Read the full case study here: Case Study: Laurel Park Avocados and Macadamias.
Inspired to make a change
After completing Southern Cross University’s Certificate in Regenerative Agriculture, Josh Frappell decided to take a massive “leap of faith”.
“I started my own environmental consultancy, The Regenerative, even though I’ve never run my own business. It’s been a steep learning curve,” he said.
“My philosophy is to enable nature’s systems to re-establish and regenerate through eco-centric methodologies and regenerative practices.”
With more than a decade of experience in environmental science and land management, Josh has always wanted to help achieve the best possible outcomes for Australian landscapes.
“I’d been working for resource companies and government bodies on their land rehabilitation plans and doing some work for other consultancies. I’ve always been conscious of climate change and knowing there are better strategies, and when the pandemic hit, I spent a lot of time working from home and reflecting on the things that really mattered,” he said.
“That’s when I enrolled at Southern Cross, and I absolutely loved it.
“I immersed myself in the world of regenerative agriculture, soil health, holistic thinking and climate change. The courses gave me the skills and the confidence to go out and put my knowledge into practice.”
Josh, who is based in the Mudgee region of New South Wales, said there has been a shift in the farming and consumer communities towards regenerative practices and simply wanting to know where our food is coming from and its story.
But he knows there is still a lot of work to do.
By starting The Regenerative, Josh aims to be part of the solution, providing practical advice to clients across diverse fields, including small-scale agricultural enterprises, viticulture, roads and maritime, mining, government and civil entities.
Josh encourages farmers and land managers to think about the long-term future and resilience of their properties.
“I ask them what their vision is; what do they want to leave behind for their grandchildren? I also advise clients to seek out information from their Local Land Services branch, Landcare, and organisations like The Regenerative Agriculture Alliance,” he said.
Some of the services Josh offers include regenerative agriculture consultations, planning and implementation, project management, landscape and soil regeneration, site assessments, soil testing, tailored amelioration, natural sequence farming, erosion mitigation, risk assessments and GIS mapping.
Coffee and macadamia field day
Southern Cross University researchers presented data from their ongoing trials at a field day on Tuesday, September 13. The trials involve assessing the impact of multispecies cover crops in subtropical horticultural plantations.
Held at Zentveld’s coffee farm and roastery in Newrybar and David Grellman’s macadamia orchard in Dalwood, the event was part of a program of Regenerative Agriculture Alliance (RAA) projects funded by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF); aimed at quantifying the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices in restoring degraded soils.
Presented by Professor Terry Rose, Dr Karina Griffin and entomologist Dr Christopher Carr, the team discussed soil health and the cover crop trails they have been undertaking in the inter-rows of Northern Rivers coffee, macadamia and avocado plantations. They also detailed Dr Carr’s current findings as to the effect of cover cropping on beneficial insect populations.
While it is too early to come to any firm conclusions as to the efficacy of various cover cropping techniques, the use of lablab in coffee plantations was ruled out. By June 2022 at Zentveld’s, lablab was highly dominant and had shaded out all other ground cover, it also caused significant issues in the plantation as it climbed all over the coffee plants.
Another preliminary conclusion is that little positive impact on soils can currently be attributed to the summer cover crops sown, as the endemic perennial, summer-growing ground covers in the control plots produced an equal amount of biomass to the sown cover crops. Smothering from summer cover crops has the potential to weaken the existing summer-growing perennial groundcovers, which is not desirable.
Winter cover crops, however, appear to have made a noticeable difference in labile carbon in the winter-spring period. Presumably this is because more biomass was produced where winter cover crops were over-sown, compared to the control plots, where existing groundcovers were relatively dormant. Control areas were not mown for the duration of the cover crop cycle.
“Short story is, these winter cover crops do seem to be improving our soil health by producing additional biomass over the winter period. Further, these cover crops can be direct drilled into existing perennial groundcovers in autumn, so groundcover is maintained. Bare soil at any time of the year is undesirable in the northern rivers, where intense rainfall events can occur at any time of year and cause erosion on sloping lands. It appears that we can establish winter cover crops in coffee plantations without ruining our perennial base, so these winter cover crops look like they’re a bit of a winner in terms of soil health,” said Professor Rose. Winter cover crops are more challenging in many macadamia plantations, where nuts need to be harvested off the ground over the winter period.
This message was repeated throughout the day, the key takeaway being that regardless of what is growing in the inter-rows, whether it be weeds, native grasses or cover crops; they all have a beneficial effect, increasing biological diversity, biomass and holding the soil together in heavy rainfall. In summary, growing anything on the ground between your trees is preferable to bare dirt.