I stayed with Cam for a few days, and on Sunday visited a couple of his neighbours (in Australian terms).
Craig Carter started off life as a farmer, worked in Sydney for a long time, but then came back to his roots in 2001. The farm he bought had been used for both arable and livestock production. Both of these enterprises had used the traditional methods, and as a result the land had degenerated and lost a lot of productivity.
What did he do? Easy to guess – he binned the arable side and went to time-controlled/mob/whatever you want to call it grazing. I won’t go into it again, but the results have been impressive. The stocking density he can achieve has increased by 250% compared to how it was before, and he now does not need to supplement feed in the winter either, which is a massive cost saving. SOM levels have doubled between 2008 and 2011, up to about 9%. Perhaps more interestingly, there is still a large difference between the land which prior to this had been arable, and that which was always pasture. Even after 13 years, although the old cropped land has also improved, it still only has half the carbon of the long term pasture. I guess that goes to show what sort of damage the conventional cropping systems had been wreaking.
Another interesting technique that Craig had started was to plant warm season annuals into his cool season pasture. This year he has tried sorghum, Sudan grass, peas (not sure of the type) and beans (I assume soya). The idea is to give extra grazing capacity, and also to try and improve soil life and nutrient cycles by increasing plant diversity.
The second visit was to a fellow scholar called John Traill. He is another guy using cell grazing, but this time with sheep instead of cattle. He’s actually the first person I’ve met using these types of techniques who has something negative to say about them. His complaint is that the system of intensive grazing with long rest periods is excellent for controlling annual weeds, as it promotes perennial plants to grow, but for that very reason it also can allow perennial weeds to get out of control as well. It’s a logical point, and one I had not considered before. John generally grazes a paddock for around 3 days, I wonder if tighter grazing, with more impact (i.e. cattle) may mitigate this problem? I don’t know the answer, I wonder if other people are finding this to be a problem as well.
Obviously though he likes the system overall as he has been doing it for years. One of the benefits is a much lower worm population (that’s sheep worms, not earthworms), to the extent that they only drench sheep every year or two, compared to 6-8 times a year in a conventional system. He also has an arable operation growing wheat and oats, both of which are dual purpose, so can be grazed in the spring before being harvested in the summer. The cereals are direct drilled into old pasture land, which usually has enough fertility in it from the grazing cycle that it requires no inputs at all to get a standard grain yield.
Some of the fields have permanent subdivisions in them which are laid out at widths that match up with the farm’s machinery. So if the drill is 12m wide, and the sprayer 36m, the subdividing fences could be 108m apart. This allows and arable crop to be grown and farmed conveniently without having to take down the fences each time.
John’s certainly got lots going on, and plenty of ideas. One of them is a farming skills school, where people (backpackers mainly) come and do a 4 week course, at the end of which, assuming they haven’t been expelled, they get a qualification and a guaranteed job on a farm somewhere in Australia. Sounds like fun, but I think I would kill myself on the motorbikes if I did it.