Day 48 – Biodynamic cherries

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.42.39People often wonder why bother with Nuffield, you could just do it yourself. True, in the main part; but there are benefits. Like when you call up a stranger at lunch time on a Saturday and they agree to give you four hours of their time at zero notice.

Kym Green asked if my project was going into left-field, and warned that he may be what I referred to as “Wacky”. Well, I can confirm now that he probably does fit into that category…

Kym is a cherry and apple grower, and I fluked an excellent time to visit. The cherry season started just yesterday, which meant there were tonnes (literally) of perfectly ripe fruit just waiting to be eaten by me – yum.

It isn’t just birds (see caption below) that are dangerous to the ripe fruit, too much rain at the wrong time can cause them to split, and become ruined right at the very last second. Some varieties will apparently burst, leaving just the stone hanging by the stem.

When the cherries are almost ripe they are netted to stop bird attacks

When the cherries are almost ripe they are netted to stop bird attacks

Kym does not fit neatly into any sort of production pigeon hole. For the most part he tries to farm with Biodynamics, but he is not [too] averse to using conventional pesticides if they are needed. For example, there are certain fungal diseases which can only be treated chemically, and he also uses Roundup to terminate the cover under his trees. Insecticide use has gone from 8 applications a year to 1.

As good as they look

As good as they look

You may have heard of Biodynamics, but probably don’t know what it involves. Well one thing is for sure – it won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you visit the Biodynamic Agriculture Australia website one of the first things you will see is information on what stage the moon is currently at, which gives a little flavour of the gist. It stems from the work of Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925, who developed a system of holistic fertility management that draws pretty deeply from the more spiritualistic side of the coin.

Kym uses conventional soil tests to measure the level of nutrients in the soil, and then applies the Biodynamic principles to the results. In this system, there is a precedence of which substances are most important. The order is

  1. Sulphur
  2. Boron
  3. Silica
  4. Calcium
  5. Carbon
  6. Nitrogen
  7. Magnesium
  8. Potassium
  9. Phosphorus

The idea is that it is most important to fix the sulphur levels first, then the boron, etc etc. There are a whole range of treatments [sorry, but some of these are a little silly, “Yarrow flowers placed in the stags bladder, hung in the sun during the summer and buried in rich soil during the next winter”] that can be used to get the soils balanced, but Kym will also use more conventional fertilisers like ammonium sulphate if necessary. He has found though that he can use much smaller quantities of manure, compost tea, and other, errrmm, potions, to get the same or better fertility than applying hundreds of kilos of urea. He’s not the first person to claim increased nutrient efficiency from biologically active systems, and I think there is definitely something in it.

This is composted cow manure. But not just any composted cow manure, it has been aged in a cow's horn, and is known in Biodynamic circles as "Preparation 500"

This is composted cow manure. But not just any composted cow manure, it has been aged in a cow’s horn, and is known in Biodynamic circles as Preparation 500

Another tool he uses (and Cam McKellar too) is the Field Broadcaster. I’ve got to say, I’m pretty skeptical about this one. It’s basically a pipe into which you place soil from your farm, and various homeopathic preparations, and it then broadcasts out an energy which can either help your crops, or get pests to go and bother your neighbour instead. It is important to also include a map of your farm in the broadcaster, so it knows where to aim. Plenty of people report that these things work, but personally I believe it’s time for my favourite Wikipedia page, Confirmation Bias. However, it’s not hurting anyone, so if you like it, then go for it.

Time for a new word, to me at least. Radionics. If you Google it, the second result is the “Skeptics Dictionary”, and the Wikipedia page tells us that it is “commonly considered a pseudoscience”, which it also says of Biodynamics, incidentally. Kym uses his manually operated, and powered, Radionics machine to get information about the general condition of his soil, and what he can do to improve it. It can also be used to decide on pest control strategies.

The Radionics machine, and all the related paraphernalia

The Radionics machine, and all the related paraphernalia

It is a little box that looks a bit like an old fashioned radio, with knobs and dials. It has receptacles into which you can put whatever you want to measure, such as a bag of soil from a particular field. Certain parameters are then entered on the dials, and questions can literally be asked to the machine, like “would urea improve this soil” or “what rate of seaweed extract do I need here”. Tactile feedback gives the answer. It’s not very easy to explain!

I don’t believe it works. At least not as it is supposed to; I think it is a thinking man’s Ouija board. Now this could have been due to him just demonstrating it quickly, but the impression I got was that Kym knew the answers he wanted from it already. I don’t consider this a bad thing, it’s a tool for making decisions, and a confidence booster. That is not a bad thing in my eyes.

Obviously the answers you get out are only going to reflect how good a farmer you are, and anecdotally Kym seems to be on the ball, I’ve only got his word for it though! If you scrape away the hocus-pocus, the underlying system he’s using is not really that different to what I have already been looking at – improving soils biologically and chemically to maximise their efficiency. Kym talks the talk, and claims some pretty impressive results in a range of areas. If he’s correct, does it matter how he got there?

Salt Pans

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I’m not counting this as a Nuffield day, although it was interesting. It included a brief look around a salt…farm? factory? I’m not sure what it’s called. But they make salt, from seawater. 220,000 tonnes a year, which sounds like a lot.


Sea water contains three main cations, calcium, sodium and magnesium. As the water evaporates off, the first one to drop out of suspension is the calcium. It forms crystals of Gypsum (which is calcium sulphate I think, so there must also be sulphate ions present). This picture is one of those crystals, which are just left in the evaporations pans. Perhaps one day they will need cleaning out, but not for a long time.


At this point the water goes into a crystallisation pan, and it’s here that the sodium ions combine with chlorine to form salt, which settles on the bottom of the pond. The water, by now very concentrated with magnesium ions, turns this disconcerting shade of red. There is actually a use for this brew; it is packed into cardboard IBCs and shipped off to Japan to help make tofu.


When all of the sodium has precipitated, the water is drained off. A special machine then comes in and strips the layer of salt off the floor, and it ends up in these heaps. At this point it can either be used as is for certain industrial purposes, or it is washed, graded, and shipped out as food grade salt. So when you buy sea salt, it probably once sat in a pile like this, somewhere in the world.

Day 47 – Oyster Bay

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With less than 24 hours notice, Ewan McAsh was kind enough to spare me a couple of hours this morning. He’s a newbie oyster farmer – about 5 years ago he and his father bought an oyster farming business in Batemans Bay, on the Clyde river.


I just like photos of sheds

They’ve had a tough time getting going, but after a lot of investment, the business is starting to work. Currently they are producing about 60,000 dozen oysters a year, and have capacity to more than double this number. Traditionally these have all been Sydney Rock oysters, but now they are also farming Pacifics and Angasis. As with most farming, monocultures are dangerous, and there is a risk that disease can kill an entire batch of oysters, which in the case of the native Sydney Rocks, take around 3 years to grow. This can be a business killer, so they welcome the extra diversity.


This is a new innovation for the Clyde river. Traditionally the oysters grow on heavy trays that need a crane to lift them out of the water. These smaller containers only weigh a few kilos and are much easier to handle

It’s refreshing, and unusual, to find someone working in agriculture who thinks their sector is inefficient and undersupplied, as well as having low barriers to entry. This is Ewan’s view of oysters in Australia, and so he has some big plans for the future. There has already been a restaurant in nearby Ulladulla (currently in the process of being sold, so he can have his weekends back), and he spends a lot of time working with restaurants to promote his brand. I’m not sure if he wants to be a farmer or a marketer. Perhaps both?

And do they taste good? Yes! Can’t get any fresher than this:


Angasi oysters on the left, Pacifics on the right

Day 46 – Grazing wheat & OSR

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In March we came to Canberra for a few days with all the 2014 scholars from around the world for a conference, and today was a bit of a flashback. Not only did I accidentally stay in the same hotel, but I also visited a sheep farmer call John Hyles, just as we had back then. John farms 5000ha at Booroomba, just south of Canberra, and has a small flock of Merino sheep (currently 18,000), and also 1,000 Angus cattle. Because this must not keep him busy enough, he also runs a quarry business selling sand, gravel, river pebbles, top soil and land fill. He’s also interested in property development, and arable farming. Many pies to be fingered. At the moment they are shearing, at a rate of about 1,700 animals per day. It’s an impressive setup. I’ll use a few photos to decorate this post, which is really about who I saw before I drove out to John’s.

CSIRO is Australia’s national research organisation, and it does a lot of work with agriculture. Hugh Dove is a scientist who has spent 15 years looking in to the grazing of wheat and OSR (Oilseed Rape, or Canola as they call it here). This is of particular interest to me, as we have a wheat grazing trial at home this year. Grazing OSR is something I have thought about a little bit, especially as I reckon it may be a tool to use in our fight against the flea beetle. Having spoken with Hugh for a couple of hours, the principals are largely similar between the two crops.

Firstly, it is important to get the plant sown as soon as possible. They have actually done trials (and some farmers use the technique for real) where OSR is planted so early, and then grazed multiple times, that by harvest is has been in the ground for 15 months. That’s pretty extreme, and apparently it can allow root diseases to become problematic. There are other potential problems with very early drilling, such as aphids that cause BYDV (Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus), and fungal diseases. But if these can be avoided, earlier drilling means more biomass to be grazed. It should also mean better root growth, which could potentially be useful later in the season.


The second rule is that it is not so important when the grazing starts, but timing when to remove the animals is critical. At the very latest they must be gone by the time stem extension starts, which in the UK on wheat is probably the end of March. However, the more time the plant is given to recover the more chance it has of not losing any yield potential. Amazingly, it is possible to graze almost all of the leaf area off and still not affect yield; they have measured increased photosynthetic activity to compensate for this loss of leaf area.

One of the big benefits of this system is in weed control. Particularly when grass weeds like ryegrass are a problem, they are finding that the sheep will eat it all up, and the grazed areas are cleaner than the un-grazed. The ultimate selective herbicide! Apparently the effect is so pronounced that for some farmers it is the main reason they are grazing the crops.

The next point needs a little bit of a science lesson, which I will try not to get wrong. Back in the day, when wheat was first being bred into what we use today, the strain that became bread-making wheat (as opposed to noodle-making, or Durum) picked up a gene called Kna1. Without going in to details (because I don’t know them and the internet here is too slow to look it up), this gene means that the plant uses potassium (K) instead of sodium (Na). This is a useful adaptation to have, because it gives a greater ability to grow in saline soils; however it also means that there is almost no sodium at all in the leaves. This only becomes a problem when wheat is fed to ruminants, because they require a certain level of sodium to allow the uptake of magnesium. So, if they don’t get enough sodium, they will develop hypomagnesemia, or grass staggers as we call it. The solution is to supplement the animals with a mix of salt and magnesium oxide. This will increase growth rates by around 40%, for very little cost. No brainer.

Interestingly, when grazing oats, which do not have the Kna1 gene, there is no response to supplementing, and when grazing OSR, it is actually detrimental – for as yet unknown reasons.IMG_4008

And what about yield? CSIRO work has show all possibilities, from increases to decreases. Overall their results have shown a negative impact, of -8%, but with a very large standard deviation (25%). So basically they are not quite sure. The whole idea will live or die on this point, it will not be economical with any significant reduction.

I think it’s a really exciting prospect, which could potentially open up a new system of farming. Integrating cover crops, OSR and wheat grazing effectively could provide effectively free forage for 4-6 months of the year. [That’s free to us, not to the grazier, in case our sheep man is reading this] Tie in companion cropping, and the selective four-legged herbicide, and it looks even better.

One last thing: I finally found a good place to use the slo mo video that my phone does. I think this is quite fun.

Day 45 – More Pasture Cropping

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Reality check.

Angus Maurice is a friend of Colin Seis, and spent over 5 years training people how to implement Pasture Grazing on their own farms. He also taught “No Kill” farming, which is similar to Pasture Cropping, but more extreme. It uses no chemicals at all, and also stipulates the cash crop must be drilled with a disc opener machine, so that there is minimum disturbance.IMG_3991The problem is, he now doesn’t really believe that it works. You can’t say he hasn’t tried, after 7 years of continuous Pasture Cropping and a field that he has left in the system now to see what happens in the even longer term. What Angus finds is that crop yields are just too badly effected – he reckons on average they will produce only 50% of a conventional system. This is obviously a huge drop, and the slight increase in grazing income, plus the reduction is crop growing costs, does not get anywhere near to making up the difference.

As I mentioned, there is one field that has been left in Pasture Cropping, and this year it is growing spelt. It had been attacked by insects earlier in the season and had some pretty big bare patches; however Angus did not believe that was due to the cropping system. But there was no denying that this field looked significantly worse than his conventionally cropped land. It was uneven, and looked at least 3 weeks behind. he is anticipating it will yield half as much as the other fields. It must be said that one difference here is that the fields were drilled with a cash crop every year, rather than once every 4-7 years as at Colin’s farm. Angus says he has tried all different techniques – high inputs, low inputs, but nothing makes it work. He puts this down to competition from the “dormant” grasses for moisture and nutrients.

Angus no longer works as a Pasture Cropping educator.

Angus grows spelt, which yields around 40% less than wheat, but sells for twice the price. It also gives good grazing for his sheep in the winter

Spelt yields around 40% less than wheat, but sells for twice the price. It also gives good grazing for sheep in the winter

My second visit of the day was to the NSW Department of Primary Industries to meet one of their soil scientists, Warwick Badgery (great name!). He too is not a great believer in Pasture Cropping, and has done quite a lot of research into it. I should also mention that both Warwick and Angus do not know of anyone else who has managed to make Pasture Cropping work as well as it does with Colin Seis. Warwick puts this down to the unusual soil Colin has, which is very drought prone, and also very low in nutrients.

[It was plain to see when I visited Colin that the ground was made up almost entirely of granite, not dissimilar to some wine growing regions I have seen. The results of his soil tests did also show very low levels of total P, of around 850kg/ha.]

Warwick does not rubbish the idea of Pasture Cropping completely, he thinks it is a good technique to be able to use opportunistically when conditions are favourable and a cash crop looks like it may be profitable. This whole situation really shows up the fine line between the “it won’t work on my farm” conservative mentality, and the reality that conditions are different on each piece of land. It’s a tricky one.

Warwick has done a lot of work into farmland carbon sequestration rates, and how to maximise them. Apparently in Australia 70% of the nitrogen used by cash crops comes from SOM (Soil Organic Matter) mineralisation. This means that the organic matter is effectively burnt; the carbon leaves as CO2, and the nitrogen (and other nutrients) are left behind to be used by the crop. Obviously this is not sustainable in the long term unless there are recovery periods being used – which is where mixed farming comes in to play. A lot of farms over here incorporate grazing pastures into their cropping land, and this is how they can get away with it.

In Australian conditions, the absolute maximum amount of carbon that can be sequestered is 1t/ha/yr, which works out as roughly 0.3% of SOM. To get this figure a field must be a perennial pasture, and it must have high levels of inputs (nitrogen and phosphorus particularly). Interestingly, he claims that although it is possible to capture carbon without the inputs, it will remain in an unstable form that is easily lost again. On a similar note, I’m told that there are indeed bacteria that will fix phosphorus from the soil, but they only work when the levels are so low already that it would not be possible to grow a profitable crop.

Grazing system trials in Orange NSW

Grazing system trials in Orange NSW

One of the trials that is just finishing now is comparing different grazing methods, and different stocking densities. There are treatments ranging from low intensity set stocking, through to high intensity, long rest systems. The longest rests are around 120 days, which Warwick used to check the claims that this would allow better nutrients cycling and availability. He thinks they are wrong; 120 days appears to be too long for this climate, which is much more temperate than that at any of the other farms I have been to in the last few days.

One of the trials had severe over grazing last year, it was set stocked at a high animal density. The big surprise is that for some reason this year it has come back with incredible productivity, much higher than most of the other treatments. It looks as if either better nutrient cycling (through the sheep numbers), or a plant response to being grazed so heavily, has kicked them into overdrive. Not so surprisingly, the results are showing that with longer rests and higher stocking rates, feed quality and animal performance goes down. This is mitigated though by more efficient plant growth, so more animals can be farmed on a given area. Swings and roundabouts? But more animals and more plant matter must also mean more carbon going into the soil?

There’s no point living in an echo chamber and only speaking to people who agree with everything you already think. I think today was an good one, and although I didn’t hear what I “wanted” to, it has to be better to get the full picture. Even if it does make things more complicated. Excellent.

Day 44

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 11.20.40When I was in Canberra for the Nuffield CSC in March, there was a drinks reception where I met someone who was the head of agriculture, or something similar, at one of the big universities. I asked him what he thought of Pasture Cropping and the answer was “it’s rubbish, it doesn’t work”. This was a signal to me that there was probably something interesting going on, and I resolved to find out some more about it.

Colin Seis is a 4th generation farmer who produces Merino wool, and also a bit of grain. Like a lot of other farmers that have come up with very novel ideas, it all started with some extreme hardship. In the ’70s the farm had been going well, but in 1979 there was a severe bush fire which burnt all the pasture, all the crops, all the buildings, and killed 3000 sheep. With almost everything lost, it was time for desperate measures as there was not enough money to just continue on with the high input system that had been standard up until then.

A field of oats ready to harvest

A field of oats ready to harvest

What came out of it eventually evolved into Pasture Cropping. In the traditional system, pastures were established, grazed for 3 years, then ploughed up and drilled with a cereal. The problem is fairly obvious – getting a pasture going is expensive and quite time consuming, so it seems a waste to kill it off after such a short period of time. The answer is to not kill it off at all, but to drill straight in, and then let it regrow after the cereal is harvested.

But the key to making this possible is the climate. Australia is pretty hot, it’s been 35C today. In the winter it cools down quite a bit, and critically, the difference between summer and winter just crosses over the boundary that separates cool season and warm season plant growing conditions.

Native warm season grass seeds which Colin sells to coal mines for restoring rangeland after they have finished with it

Native warm season grass seeds which Colin sells to coal mines for restoring rangeland after they have finished with it

[Brief science lesson: warm season (C4) plants use a different chemical process for converting CO2 from the atomosphere to cool season (C3) plants. The crossover point between the two types is about 27C, and although being out of the right zone will not kill a plant, it will not be able to photosynthesise efficiently]

In this region there are 2-300 native pasture plant species, of which only 10 or so are cool season. This means that during the winter, almost all of the pastures’ productivity stops as the warm season plants become dormant. This is the perfect time to plant a cool season cereal, such as oats or wheat, as there will be no competition from the perennials that are already there.

One quarter of the farm is cropped every year, and to prepare a field to go into oats it will be grazed harder than usual, perhaps three times in the autumn (normally paddocks have 120 days rest between grazings on average). The oats can then be direct drilled in May, grazed a couple of times in the spring, and harvested in November. Yields are comparable to a conventional system, and immediately after harvest there is a fully established warm season pasture ready to go. I didn’t see it this time, as the drought it so severe, but normally at harvest the underlying grasses will already be greening up and starting to come out of hibernation. Of course, this can cause problems in a warm spring if they grow too big and interfere with combining. But that is apparently a rare occurrence.

Because it is so dry the warm season grasses are still lying dormant in the bottom of the oats. they look dead, but apparently are not...

Because it is so dry the warm season grasses are still lying dormant in the bottom of the oats. they look dead, but I’m assured they are not…

I was surprised to see that Colin uses a tine drill, I had assumed it would be impossible without a disc because of the amount of plant residue he was drilling in to. He can get away with it because the perennial plants have much better rooting than annuals and so they are much less likely to be pulled out of the ground and bung up the drill. He also mitigates the problem by using wide rows (12″) and recently cutting discs were added in front of each tine.

Does it work? Colin’s brother farms next door, and still uses the system he grew up with, so there is a great benchmark over the fence line. When two 50cm deep samples were taken from 15m apart, the difference was amazing. There is roughly double the nutrient density on Colin’s land, and double the SOM. Amazingly, over a 10 year period, the levels of plant nutrients in the soil have actually increased under pasture cropping, with almost no inputs at all. And that is not just plant available nutrients, but total nutrients. So somehow, from somewhere, phosphorus and all the other trace elements are being brought into the soil. To my mind it can only be coming up from deeper down in the soil profile, which is allowed to happen because of the deeper rooting plants which are encouraged with the cell grazing. It’s an incredible result, and unsurprisingly, a lot of scientists are skeptical about it. Nitrogen is also increasing, which is interesting because there are not very many legumes in the pastures. Colin is convinced that this is due to free living nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil, which if true, is a real incentive to maximise soil health/life/whatever you call it.

But these are just theoretical numbers, practical results are more important: Colin’s land will hold over double the stock density of his brother’s, and yield the same with grain, but with fewer inputs. Why doesn’t his brother follow suit then? “He’s my older brother, and older brothers will never listen to younger brothers”. It also brings back something Gabe Brown says, “I get visited by farmers from all over the world, but I’ve never had one of my neighbours come and see me”.

Colin's tine drill, with a few modifications

Colin’s tine drill, with a few modifications

The latest iteration of Pasture Cropping is to stop growing monoculture cash crops, and instead plant a more diverse mix earlier in the year. Oats are still the base, but legumes like peas and vetches are added, and also brassicas which provide excellent forage for the sheep. These mixes are sown in March, and are then grazed 3 times. On the last grazing, the animals are left on a bit longer, which kills off the legumes and brassicas, but leaves the oats to grow though and be harvested later. The sheep are effectively acting as a herbicide. Colin is pretty excited about this development, as it allows legumes to come into the rotation, and it also gives another boost to plant and root diversity.

There is an elephant in the room: Pasture Cropping will not work in the UK.

However, this was an excellent visit, and very inspiring. It’s a system that goes completely against convention, and steps on some toes in the process. It’s very logical (to my mind anyway) when you think about it, and it begs the question – what is our equivalent going to be at home?

Day 43

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.

Craig uses a wagon wheel arrangement for watering his cattle. This means that the trough is in the centre, and the wheal spokes are electric fences. Each day the cattle move in to a new section

Craig uses a wagon wheel arrangement for watering his cattle. This means that the trough is in the centre, and the wheal spokes are electric fences. Each day the cattle move in to a new section

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.

John Traill's sheep paddocks - before and after grazing

John Traill’s sheep paddocks – before and after grazing. This field will be drilled with a cereal

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.

Days 41 & 42

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Google wouldn’t let me draw a line from Hong Kong to Sydney, which was sad: you will have to imagine that bit. Hong Kong airport is great because if you take the very quick train from the centre of the city to the airport, you can actually check your bags in at the station and then not have to worry about carting them on and off the train. At least it would have been good if my pea-sized brain had not forgotten after half an hour that I had done this: when the train arrived at the airport I spent 10 seconds getting panicked as I genuinely thought someone had stolen my bag.

I have known Cam McKellar since I was 9, as he spent a lot of time at my parents’ house when he was doing a Nuffield Scholarship. Until recently he was an intensive arable farmer with a few cattle, but 2 years ago he made a big switch, and became a big cattle farmer with a bit of arable.

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

Cam still has some irrigated land, which has to have the pipes moved manually twice a day. I think I would prefer a pivot

On his last farm Cam was heavily into home made compost. It was such a big operation that he actually had a full time employee just to make it. The ingredients were simple; straw, manure (cattle and chicken) and water. Within 24 hours the mixture, laid out in strips, will reach 70C. From here on the moisture and CO2 emissions were measured daily, and it was managed to certain tolerances by either adding water or turning it over. After 3 weeks a special blend of microbes is added, and then by 10-12 weeks it is done. Simple.

The finished compost

The finished compost

Although the traditional chemical analysis won’t show a lot of nutrients in here, Cam is convinced that as it is all in a plant available form, then it produces a disproportionately large effect. By spreading 4t/ha he could cut bagged nitrogen inputs by 30%, whilst maintaining or increasing yields. Of course, there is a lot more than just NPK in this sort of thing, and these micronutrients could be what is making the difference. I didn’t see any trial data, but it is still an interesting idea, especially if you have access to cheap straw and muck. After moving farms Cam has stopped producing compost, but he did bring 2,500t with him, which is going on to his new land, mixed with chicken muck, to kickstart the soil biology.

As I alluded to earlier, there has been a big change in mentality, and the core farm business. Although Cam still farms about 750ha of arable land (400 dry, 350 irrigated), the main business now revolves around cattle. There are actually two farms, separated by a 30 minute drive. Both are on what they call black ground, which is some of the best farmland in the country. It is a very heavy, 80% clay, high magnesium soil. This means that although it is very moisture retentive, the plants can have a hard time actually getting hold of the water. This was pretty clear by how brown and dry the landscape is, but then you do not have to dig deep to find moist soil. It’s a little counter intuitive.

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

These high magnesium clays set very hard when they get dry

Cam has decided that he is going to graze in small cells, with long rest periods. This may sound familiar. The big problem with this, as anyone who has considered it will say, is water infrastructure. They are working hard to put in enough extra troughs to allow cells small enough for daily moves, but it’s a multi-year project to get the entire acreage up and running like that.

Not a pedigree herd

Not a pedigree herd

This herd is not going to win any beauty prizes, and I doubt the meat that comes out of it will be too exciting either. But the system must be about as good as you can get for grazing management and soil improvement. There is no breeding herd, everything is bought from the local market, normally from an east coast farmer who has run into drought problems (“It’s always dry somewhere on the east coast”). They tend to be old cull cows, which then stay on the farm for 60-90 days to put on a bit of weight, before being shipped off to the abattoir.

This has two major advantages. Firstly, because they are there for such a short time, it is possible to say with certainty that they will not run out of food. Cam is not afraid to have an empty farm if either the market isn’t right, or the weather means he does not have forage. Secondly, it retains ultimate flexibility. Pastures can be hit hard, with high grazing intensity, when there is a lot of food, but without any risk of over grazing because de-stocking is an easy and acceptable thing to do. If you subscribe to Gabe Brown’s idea that “cows are a tool” then this must be the gold standard.

I can’t imagine many big arable farmers in the UK switching to the dark side and becoming graziers, but according to a quick-and-dirty calculation Cam did, he is better off now that he was before. That’s in cash terms too, and does not take into account how he is now regenerating rather than degrading his soil. It’s an exciting project.