Centre for Conservation Farming, Charles Sturt University. Wagga Wagga. NSW 2678
Australian soils are amongst the oldest in the world and relatively infertile, as little tectonic activity has occurred in Australia in the past 30 million years. In the northern hemisphere this is not the case as landmasses have been renewed by these forces within the last few million years (Hamblin, 1991). The low fertility of Australian soils combined with Australia being the driest continent in the world means that the inherent productivity of much of Australia's farmland is low.
Over the preceding 200 years agriculture, mining and forestry have had a significant impact on Australia's resources:
• two-thirds of Australia's forests (40 million ha) and one-third of all scrub and woodland (63 million ha) have been cleared;
• 46 mammal species (15% of the total) have become extinct - a world record rate of extinction;
• 51% of all crop and grazing land has suffered some form of land degradation:
• 22% requires appropriate management strategies
• 29% requires capital works as well;
• many waterways and wetlands have become contaminated by soil run-off and algal blooms.
The annual cost in lost agricultural production was estimated by the CSIRO in 1991 to be more than $1 billion. The immediate cost to arrest and repair this damage is estimated to be $2.5 billion, plus an annual cost of $180 million (Campbell, 1991).
With land degradation, Australia's most serious environmental problem (Figure 1), there is an increasing awareness that for agricultural production to be sustainable in the long term there must be a shift towards a more ecologically stable farming environment.
Soil Biological Decline
Figure 1. Forms of land degradation (Williams,1991)
What is property management planning?
Property management planning or whole farm planning as it sometimes called, is a process of planning property design and management based on ecological and economic factors. The process arose from a realisation that land degradation was a sign of inappropriate farming practices. Unless land degradation processes are halted, and where possible reversed, farm production will continue to decline within an unstable farming system.
The planning process (Figure 2) requires the farmer to assess the strengths and limitations of the farm's resources as they currently stand, and to clarify his objectives regarding the future utilisation of these resources. This then forms the basis for preparing a future plan which outlines the direction in which the farmer wants to develop the farm. As this will change with time, the plan is not a fixed document but will need to change with time to meet the farmer's objectives. The plan also helps the landholder to coordinate advice from a wide range of sources such as district agronomists, soil conservationists, farm planners, and financial advisers. This advice can be effectively utilised using a whole farm perspective.
FARMER'S OBJECTIVES RESOURCE ASSESSMENT
* personal / family goals
* enterprise type * physical features
* production skills * land capability
* management skills * limitations
* productivity level * economics
* labour input
FUTURE FARM PLAN
Figure 2. A simplified view of the farm planning process
Preparing the Property Plan
The first step in the planning process is the mapping of the farm into homogenous land units (capability classes). This is done on the basis of :
(i) terrain e.g. ridge, slideslope, drainage plain
(iii) soil type (texture/structure)
(iv) timber cover
(v) limitations, e.g. waterlogging, soil acidification
(vi) erosion hazard
The process of mapping the farm to land units is to allow for the unit to be utilised to its productive potential , whilst protecting each unit according to its limitations, so that degradation does not occur (Roberts, 1992). Where problems such as dryland salinity or high surface run-off are a problem, planning will need to be formulated on a catchment/sub-catchment basis (Anon., 1992).
The mapping process is simplified by obtaining a black and white aerial photo enlargement of the farm through the Department of Conservation and Land Management. The land units can be marked out on the map using physical features such as trees and dams to help mark in the boundary locations. Other features which can be included on the base map include water courses and drainage lines, dams, existing trees, and any sensitive sites such as erodible soils, waterlogged areas or wildlife havens. "Protected" land that should not be cleared should also be marked in. This consists of land within 20 metres of a stream or drainage line, and land generally over 180 (33%) in slope.
Clear plastic overlays can be used over the aerial photo to depict other features of the farm plan. The first overlay consists of the existing layout such as fencelines and gates, water troughs, existing soil conservation works, stock yards, buildings, roads and tracks, and powerlines.
Depending on the farm and situation other overlays may include :
• soil information - soil type, pH, EC (electrical conductivity);
• paddock information - identification, current land use, productivity;
• trees - remnant vegetation, windbreaks, agroforestry, proposed areas for planting or natural regeneration;
• services - power lines, telecom cables, water lines, gas pipelines.
The final overlay(s) shows the future draft plan for the property. The owner needs to be heavily involved in the process of drawing up the future plans as much of the actual work will generally be carried out by the farmer and needs to fit in with his objectives.
Fencing the farm according to land classes enables areas to be used to their potential, without being restricted by areas of lesser capability which require different management. It is difficult to manage each land unit according to its needs and capabilities when several land types occur in the one paddock. It is important therefore to look at the existing layout in comparison to the land class units when drafting future plans. These should show a range of possible layouts with proposed stages for implementation to fit in with the constraints of the farm.
Fencing to land types often results in a greater number of smaller, odd-shaped paddocks. This may not suit all farmers, though it does provide for improvements in management and more flexibility within the farm system to lift production and avoid land degradation problems.
The inclusion of laneways in the plan allows for more efficient movement of stock and vehicles around the farm. A 20-30 metre wide laneway with windbreaks provides excellent shelter following shearing or during lambing. The laneway should be wide enough for machinery operation to maintain pasture production, and reduce the risk of erosion from stock movement. In some situations heavy grazing of the laneway may enable it to function as a firebreak over summer.
The type of farming system in place is largely dependent upon the climate, particularly rainfall distribution and amount, and soil type. In a mixed farming system, which is generally the case in the South West Slopes, decisions on what rotations to use can be quite complex. The inclusion of rotations in the farming system has many beneficial effects which include :
• maintenance/improvement to soil structure and fertility, e.g. incorporation of good pastures in the rotation cycle;
• flexibility, e.g. to alter the crop:livestock ratio to meet market changes, or grow a different crop to suit the seasonal conditions;
• efficient use of farm resources, e.g. to spread the time and labour constraints placed on the farmer;
• integrated weed management, e.g. use of grazing management and crop rotations to control weeds;
• breaking life cycles of disease organisms, e.g. use of canola to reduce disease carry-over from the pasture phase.
Although there is flexibility to take advantage of market conditions, it is important to evaluate the rotation as a whole, rather than as individual components (Cregan, 1991). The concept of using rotations is to utilise all of the benefits listed above, not just one.
To run the farm productively, without causing degradation of the resource base, requires good planning and management skills. In order to manage rotations effectively it is becomingly increasingly important that farmers maintain good records. These records should include :
• paddock use : crop - species and variety
• pasture - composition, vigour
• productivity : yield - kg/ha/mm (used in determining nutrient removal in grain and hay)
• stocking rates
• fertiliser input : product, application rate
• herbicide use : product, application rate and effect
• soil additions : lime and/or gypsum application rate
In the preparation of the future plan, limitations to productivity such as soil pH or pasture vigour should be targeted for immediate action, along with any severe degradation problems. This will have the impact of raising productivity thereby providing an impetus and availability of funds to treat other areas in need. The implementation of the plan should take place in a number of stages to fit in with the economic and labour constraints of the farm situation.
Planning for Trees
The integration of trees on the farm should take place after the basic layout has been defined and the need for trees identified. This ensures that the trees are established in the right location and for the right reason.
Benefits of trees on farms include :
• reducing water and wind erosion, soil salinisation;
• providing protection and shelter for stock (Figure 3);
• enhancing the quality of surface and underground water supplies;
• providing diverse ecosystems to sustain wildlife, including natural pest agents;
• restoring the natural beauty of the landscape;
• providing wood and other tree products.
Figure 3. Effect of windbreaks on the microclimate (Marshall, 1967).
A minimum of 5-10% cover is a good guide for trees on farms. These can be situated on lower productivity areas such as rocky recharge zones, eroded gullies and waterlogged areas (Green, 1991).
Geographical Information Systems
In the planning process a number of overlays depicting data collected on the farm can be drawn over the base map. Much of this data can be drawn in freehand at the same scale as the black and white aerial photo enlargement. However this task can be difficult if results from surveys such as a electromagnetic (EM) survey are to be incorporated in the plan, or data from contour and/or soil maps which are likely to be at different scales.
A geographical information system (GIS) is capable of storing all this data using geographical references so that data at different scales can be utilised in the planning process. The data is digitised and stored on the computer allowing for the display of the data required, and providing for ease of alteration to existing plans. The GIS is very useful in situations requiring a catchment approach, as individual farm data can be aggregated together to display the catchment data and formulate a catchment-based plan.
One of the main criticisms of GIS is that it can take ownership away from the farmer, as very few farmers would have access to a GIS. They may also be more reluctant to draw over plans developed on a GIS compared to the black and white aerial photo. It is important that this is overcome if a GIS is used in the planning process, and the farmer retains the feeling of ownership if his farm plan is to be effective.
The basis of property management planning is to develop a future plan of operation based on the farmer's objectives and an assessment of the farm's resources. The farm plan provides for the utilisation of land units to their potential, whilst protecting them according to their limitations. With the increasing complexity of agricultural production, a property plan can be beneficial in initiating a whole farm perspective to incorporate technology advances while aiming for an ecologically stable farming system.
1. Anon. (1992). Decade of Landcare : Interim Plan for NSW. NSW Landcare Working Group, Department of Conservation and Land Management, Sydney.
2. Campbell, A. (1991). Planning for Sustainable Farming. Lothian Publishing, Melbourne.
3. Cregan, P. (1991). Sustainable Dryland Farming Systems for the South-Western Slopes of NSW. In Dryland Farming : A Systems Approach. Sydney University Press and Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
4. Green, D. (1991). What trees and shrubs to retain, regenerate and re-establish on the south-west slopes of NSW. In Trees-The Essential Farm Ingredient, Riverina Outlook Conference 1991.
5. Hamblin, A. (1991). Sustainability : Physical and Biological Considerations for Australian Environments. Bureau of Rural Resources, Canberra.
6. Marshall, J.K. (1967). The effect of shelter on the productivity of grasslands and field crops. Field Crops. Abst. 20(1), 14.
7. Roberts, B.R. (1992). Land Care Manual. NSW University Press, Sydney.
8. Williams, J. (1991). Search for sustainability : agriculture and its place in the natural ecosystem, Agricultural Science 4(2), 32-39.