Sustaining Great Perennials

Our Growing Great Ground project ends this June after four years of on-ground work and providing educational events and communications to landholders in the Northern Agriculture Region (NAR).

The Growing Great Ground project aims to provide knowledge to managers of Agricultural Land in the NAR to address wind erosion and improve on-farm biodiversity through the establishment of ground cover and native vegetation.

The Growing Great Ground (GGG) project has delivered 2100 ha of on-ground change through incentives for establishing perennial pastures to increase ground cover on erosion-prone soils. This change has been in partnership with 28 landholders. The GGG project has also provided further education on reducing soil nutrient loss and erosion, increasing agricultural land biodiversity and better sustainable long-term management of perennial pastures. The team has run events and communications throughout the project on promoting ground cover and the benefits of perennial pastures. And as the project is coming to a close, the Sus-Ag team wanted to focus more on maintaining the established ground cover through sustainable pasture management.

NACC NRM partnered with local perennials contractor Grant Bain and grower groups Mingenew-Irwin Group (MIG) and West Midlands Group (WMG) to provide two perennial pasture management events in the Northern Agriculture Region to finalise our GGG project.

The events kicked off with the Perennial Pasture Paddock Discussion with MIG on the 28th of March. This event showcased different types of perennial pasture paddocks and how they fit into different production systems.

In the morning, Craig and Donelle Forsyth kindly welcomed a group of 30 eager farmers and industry persons onto their beef-producing Irwin property, Avoca. The Forsyth’s gave the group a tour of their farm. They discussed the benefits of native shrubs such as saltbush, rhagodia and tagasate planted in rows between perennial grass pastures, including Gatton Panic and Rhodes grass. The shrubs provide excellent shade and shelter, while the perennials work to increase ground cover and protect the vulnerable sandy soils from erosion. Setting up the paddocks like this increases the cattle’s nutritional variety while also increasing the soil microbe diversity, leading to healthier cows and soils! Craig explained that the tagasaste and perennials paddock produced around 200 kg of live weight gain per hectare when it was grazed last year.

Most of the paddocks at Avoca are set up in a ‘Wagon-wheel’ formation, with paddocks surrounded by a central water hub for easy rotational grazing. Another paddock we visited was deep-ripped and contained last year’s sown perennials and serradella. The serradella was planted five years before the perennials, aiming to build a solid seed bank and fix nitrogen into the soil. Craig hadn’t done much deep ripping in the past before sowing these perennials, so he is keeping a watchful eye on it and is very interested to see how it will affect this paddock’s production.

Both Grant and Craig emphasised the importance of adding Selenium when cattle are grazing a dominant perennial pasture diet. Selenium is vital for growth and fertility.

You can find out more about Craig and Donelle’s production and drought resilience journey here.

After lunch, the group headed ‘next door’ to check out Sally O’Brien and her family’s property, Mondarra. Mondarra is a mixed-operations farm with cropping, sheep and cattle. Sally described her perennials management as ‘untraditional’ and has experimented with her perennial paddocks. One experiment that has greatly paid off is the re-establishment of a very low groundcover, poor-quality perennial paddock. When they bought this block, Sally described this particular 40 ha paddock as looking as ‘barren as the moon’, with only a few Panic plants sparsely dotted around and no other ground cover. To increase ground cover, oats and lupins were sown. After grazing it with lambs and giving it a rest period, Sally noticed many baby perennial grasses popping up! The perennial grasses set seed and re-established without needing to be re-sown, and the ground cover in this paddock is now better than ever.

Sally also had to rejuvenate another paddock with the opposite problem this time; it had too much ground cover! This paddock was thick with overgrown ‘rank’ Panic grass and love grass. This seemed like the perfect shelter for lambing until it was so sheltered that she couldn’t find them! The perennials weren’t palatable in this condition either, so the paddock was mulched and sprayed with round-up to tame the love grass while the perennials were dormant.

Another untraditional paddock type Sally showed the group was a cropping paddock with a ‘gutless’ sandy centre. After a few years of leaving the centre out of the cropping program and continually spraying the annual weeds building up without competition, Sally sowed perennial grasses in this area. The grasses not only helped minimize this weed burden by outcompeting the weeds, they are also utilised for feed outside of the cropping season. Meaning it’s a win-win situation. The sheep now have their choice of stubble and perennials for feed, and the pasture is given a long rest period over winter and spring while the surrounding crop is growing.

The second perennial pasture event, Beyond Bare Soil Workshop, was done in collaboration with the West Midlands Group on the 4th of April. The West Midlands Group have done many pasture walks and ‘drive-through’ events showcasing different pasture paddocks and management styles in the last few years, so they were keen to approach this event a bit differently. They did so by inviting local growers with many years and different forms of perennial pasture understanding to come together and workshop their ideas, experiences and knowledge. This workshop was planned with the aim of getting all their perennial pasture management knowledge on paper to document and share with a broader audience, especially those who might not have been able to make it to previous events.

The day started with a site visit to Dandaragan farm Strathmore to visit a Growing Great Ground funded 2022 sown perennial pasture paddock. Unfortunately, the paddock had patchy germination due to the dry summer, but this gave the group an opportunity to workshop ideas on the next steps for this paddock.

Back at Dandaragan CRC, Grant Bain shared shocking videos of the 2020 dust storm, highlighting the importance and necessity of having perennial ground cover on vulnerable soil types. He went into detail about the successes and failures he and his father had experienced with perennial pastures over the years.

In recent years, Grant has been trialling sowing rye corn as a companion plant to increase ground cover and protect emerging perennial grasses and vulnerable soil. The ratio of rye corn is still a trial and error, as on some properties, the rye corn has caused too much competition with the perennials, but on other paddocks, it is the only thing keeping the topsoil from blowing away.

Grant also talked about the possible benefits of including Buffel grass in perennial grass mixes, as it doesn’t dry out as quickly as Panic and Rhodes, and cattle from Northern stations may already be familiar with it. Grant emphasised that the most important method when initially grazing perennials is to ensure they pass the ‘Tug Test.’ Grab the leaves and pull to ensure the roots are grounded in the soil. If the plant comes loose from the soil, it is not ready to be grazed.

The group brainstormed important methods and ideas for ‘Preparing the Ground’, ‘Choosing the Mix’, ‘Seeding’, ‘Early Grazing’, and ‘Long Term Management.’ One of the most essential practices the whole group agreed on was that the initial grazing of perennials should be a high stock density in a short period, allowing only 50% of the plant matter to be grazed. More learnings and ‘tips and tricks’ from the Beyond Bare Soil Workshop can be found here on this available to download/print PDF.

NACC NRM’s Sustainable Agriculture Project Officer, Anna Cornell, also sat down with West Midlands Group Beed Industry Officer, Erin, to discuss the Growing Great Ground project and these events. WMG Paddock Chat can be found here.

Growing Great Ground is funded by the Australian Government’s Regional Landcare Partnerships initiative of the National Landcare Program.

Anna Cornell – Sustainable Agriculture Project Officer

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