Farm Visit: ‘Moffitts’

Case study: Patrick and Anne Francis 

Location: Romsey, Victoria 

Property area: 50 ha 

Rainfall average: 700 mm 

Enterprise: Yearling beef production, farm forestry for sawlogs

This old settler’s block in the headwaters of the Maribyrnong River catchment was stripped of trees and converted to pasture land in the 1880s. In 1988, Patrick purchased the block from his parents, who’d farmed 220 ha since 1938 and sold it on to family members.

On purchase, there were only 4 local acacia trees (A. melanoxylon), 3 manna gums (E. viminalis) and some introduced pines (P. radiata) and hawthorn bushes abutting riparian land. About one kilometre of stream frontage dissected three of the four paddocks, and all were eroded from livestock access.

Pat explained that they started developing a whole farm plan, together with an environmental management plan, in the early 1990s, with a long-term aim is to integrate trees for salinity management, farm forestry, livestock shelter and biodiversity into the landscape.

This they have achieved with great success.

They Fenced off 20% of the farm area for revegetation, carbon sequestration, and landscape enhancement using a combination of forestry trees, habitat trees and shrubs, and native perennial grasses. Up to June 2007 this has involved planting 7 ha of tubestock timber species or 7500 trees; and 3 ha of conservation corridors and riparian area planted with habitat species tubestock (1000 trees) and 2 km direct seeding (approximately 2000 trees).

The pastures are encouraged to develop and ensure persistence of deep rooted C3 and C4 perennial grasses – both introduced and native via Phase grazing. This “7 days on and 120 days off” process of grazing management has produced 100% ground cover with live plant crowns and plant residue with a noticebly higher percentage of soil organic matter (and soil carbon) and soil microorganisms. This ensures a high percentage of rainfall is absorbed and retained in the root zone of plants, with little ‘leaking’ into the watertable. 

This methodology has also minimised the requirement for machinery and thus the soil compaction which has also played it’s part in the final quality of the paddocks we saw.

The practice has shown some interesting benefits. Along with maintaining an average “do not drop below” height of 10cms for the pastures, the continual monitoring and controlling of pest plants through manual intervention, rather than chemicals, has produced an organic practice that “feeds the full range of biodiversity on the property”. With more than enough feed, biomaterial and soil to allow mites, cockchafers and earthworms to have their fill with no ill effect at all. Even drenching has stopped due to the inability for worms to climb to the top of the pasture leaves which are being eaten by the stock. This, of course, has reduced the cost or production for beef down to as little as 90c/kg!

Outcomes of environmental and farm plan:

  • Using a carbon calculator around 216 tonnes CO2 are sequested each year, excludes carbon in soil and as it’s not a component of the calculator, includes methane from cattle.
  • Soil organic carbon 4 – 5% with soil organic matter 8 – 10% 
  • Olsen P levels range 23 – 28 ppm (total soil P ranges from 450 – 630 ppm) 
  • Carrying capacity 8 – 23 dse/ha or 2 – 3 dse/100 mm rainfall depending on paddock 
  • 100% ground cover of plant crowns or litter over 12 month period in most paddocks 
  • Biodiversity significantly improved, Above ground includes species like echidnas, skinks and lizards, frogs (in grass tussocks), kangaroos and wallabies, koalas, birds of prey nesting – hawks, kites, and owls, other birds include wrens, finches, grass parrots, wattle birds, kookaburras etc, On surface and below ground – wide range of insects, spiders, mites, beetles, worms, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In creek water, a wide range of different species including small native fish. 

Livestock and pasture implications of environmental and farm plan:

  • Shift from breeding cattle to trading cattle – no requirement to retain any livestock (no attachment to ‘unique’ genetics) on farm, animals always sold before damage to farm ecosystem occurs. Animals sold in market suitable condition, fat score 3 cows, fat score 2 – 3 yearlings (for feedlot finishing or domestic trade).
  • Pasture feed availability for 3.5 months in advance of requirement. Means no ‘pressure’ to sell livestock.
  • Whole of life yearling cattle growth rates exceed MSA grading requirements, ie >0.60 kg/day. With weaner cattle purchases producing 220 – 250 kg live weight gain per ha per year, irrespective of annual rainfall.
  • No routine fodder conservation since 2000 (some hay has been baled from the ‘lucerne’ paddock for small bales for cattle handling purposes).
  • No routine animal health treatments applied to any cattle since 2000. One veterinary visit since (for a dislocated jaw) in that time.
  • No superphosphate or urea applied to pastures since 2000; lime has been applied at 1t/ha on some paddocks and more of it, gypsum and poultry manure will be applied from time to time.
  • No perceivable variation to perennial pasture species content since 2000, except for emergence of previously unregcognised native species such as wallaby grass. Perennial plant crowns have become significantly larger. Future strategy is to add more species by direct drilling in spring, particularly summer active species like lucerne, chicory, and microlaena, and sub tropical natives like Queensland blue grass, red grass.

The local Landcare organise two to three field trips a year to their place, and it’s absolutely worth the time to head out there and explore the place to see how one can run a farm as easily and simply as they do. I haven’t even mentioned the most important thing here — they call their methodology “comfort farming” and it’s a practice justifiably called that as they only go up on weekends and manage the property as a part time business. Ain’t that a kicker!?

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