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Managing the grass in grassy box woodlands - or a blinding flash of the obvious

Geoff Tonkin

“Murrabar Merino Stud” Cumnock NSW 2867
Rural Liaison Officer Grassy White Box Woodlands NSW Project

Abstract

This is a story about change - the change in thinking of one man who after nearly thirty years of farming finally got the message that nature had been trying to teach him all those years.

It is not a new story; there is nothing to tell you that you have not heard before. Rather it is a story about how I came to see what was really a “Blinding Flash of the Obvious”. In relating these events to you, I hope that I may give some encouragement to anyone who finds themselves in similar circumstances and wondering where to begin.

The biggest obstacle to change is more often than not in the mind and has nothing to do with time and monetary constraints. This story is about how I dealt with those obstacles.

Introduction

For 30 years I have been involved in the running and management of two properties in the Central West of NSW - “Brooklyn” the property where I grew up near Molong and 25km away “Murrabar” my own place near Cumnock. For most of this time these properties carried a combined total of around 4500 sheep and up to 200 head of cattle on a total area of 759 hectares. Prior to European settlement both properties would have been typical examples of southeastern Australian grassy box woodlands.

In all those 30 years there seemed to be a never-ending struggle to “improve” the pastures by sowing the latest exotics only to watch them slowly die out. Inevitably, annual weeds overtook these new pasture and so the story was forever repeating itself. In hindsight I can see now that this was probably mostly due to grazing management and to a lesser extent the selection of unsuitable species. It took 30 years before any alarm bells started to go off in my head and I began to question some of my past management practices.

What Changed

During the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s, three people were involved in this family operation - my father, one full time employee and myself. By the time we got to the 90’s my circumstances had changed dramatically. Wool prices had fallen from a high of around $10 per kilo greasy to below $4/kg and surplus sheep became worthless.

Our station hand saw the writing on the wall and moved on and my father fell victim to his illness and passed away. As if that wasn’t enough there were a series of very dry seasons and my wife also decided this would be a good time to move on. This left me with twice the debt I had when I came into farming but with no more land to service that debt, twice the workload and I was twice as old. Routine maintenance along with any job satisfaction went out the window as I scrambled from property to property trying to stay afloat. Clearly something had to give before I did.

A decision was made to lease “Brooklyn” (where my Mother still wanted to live) to some neighbours to reduce my workload and try to survive with “Murrabar” and what other work I could pick up. This came up almost immediately when my partner at the time and I were successful in sharing a part time job with Community Solutions as their Central West Liaison Officers for the Grassy White Box Woodlands Taking Action Now! Project.

“Murrabar” White Box Woodlands

In 1994, I had already fenced off an 8 hectare white box site on “Murrabar” and taken a keen interest in it as we watched the return of many plant species. The site had a low infestation of exotic plant species so I decided not to graze it but just monitor the changes. In 7 years this list has grown to 81 native species (see Appendix 1).

But what of the more weed-infested sites where grazing is almost mandatory to control some of the growth if there was to be any hope of retrieving any perennial native species that are so important in our landscape?

Saffron Thistles

It happened quite by accident really. I subdivided a 32 hectare paddock, had a dam and banks put in and had to wait for run-off to get water in the dam for livestock. One month spell turned into four, from May to September, and a paddock where I normally go in and spray tracks to kill saffron thistle for easier livestock movement didn’t have a saffron to be seen.

Instead, masses of wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia spp.), common wheat grass (Elymus scaber) and sub clover. I believe these out competed the saffron by cutting off the light to the thistle in its rosette stage. In the paddock next door, which was more traditionally grazed there were masses of them.

It brought home to me the realization of what a powerful tool we have at our disposal for altering the species composition of our pastures. I immediately enrolled in a Holistic Resource Management course and proceeded to soak up everything I could learn about the subject. I repeated the saffron story the following spring and in other weed-infested areas, I used large mobs of sheep and portable electric fencing to decimate weed infested hill tops and stock camps.

A fencing program is in full swing and my original 19 paddocks on 354 ha have already grown to 27 with more planned as time and funds permit.

Email Newsletter

As part of my grassy box woodlands job, I started an email support group for the managers of these woodlands. The aim of this group was to offer good practical support to these managers with information solicited from other mangers and as many scientist/academics and agency people that were happy to be on the list.

In response to a question from a landholder I made up a recipe that was really just meant to stimulate some discussion on the subject of how best to restore a grassy box woodland. With input from quite a few people it may now act as a useful guide to take someone through the steps and pitfalls that may be part of the process of ** restoring ** a grassy box woodlands for both conservation and production.

The original question was from a landholder who said that he had a fenced patch of woodland ** that received only an occasional graze, and ** was wondering why he had no seedlings coming up. He was keen to promote younger trees and to encourage the woodland area to spread into previously cleared native pasture. How could he achieve this? To answer this question I composed a recipe.

A Recipe for Restoring Grassy Box Woodlands for Conservation and Production

Step one

Select an area of grassy woodland and fence to manage separately using funding incentives available e.g. from Community Solution Grassy Box or Greening Australia. In selecting your area keep in mind the following:

  • A larger area will probably mean more diversity of species but could be harder to manage.
  • The extent of exotic weeds
  • The significance of any native species that may need special attention.

Step Two

Select any of the following three ingredients and mix them in varying amounts for as long as you like:

Rest. Probably only suitable for areas with low exotic weed infestation and/or significantly endangered flora or fauna species, e.g. cemeteries, roadside reserves, etc.

Burning. A late autumn or winter cool patchy burn probably best option. Advantages: may prompt germination of new species. Disadvantages: may leave bare ground for weeds and erosion and may burn everything including the neighbours

Grazing. An extremely versatile tool available to most farmers. To achieve the best effect keep in mind these points:

  • Never set stock or graze for long periods, e.g. over a week depending on the size of the area and the mob**.
  • Make the mobs as big as you can.
  • Still leave 100% ground cover. Ideally you need to have one third eaten, one third broken off and one third still on the plants.
  • Leave all fallen limbs dead trees etc. on the site. These make ideal habitat and seed germination sites.
  • The best time to graze varies but avoid mid spring to late summer as this is the time when most native species set seed.
  • Hit exotic annuals hard in late winter early spring to suppress seed set.
  • Remember: all native grasses are perennial plants and will increase in number under this type of management.
  • Bare ground encourages annual weeds.
  • Keep a record of say 6 native plants and ** 6 of the worst exotics weeds and see if there is any change in abundance.
  • Set up a photo point.
  • Discuss your results/problems with like minded people on this newsletter forum or over the boundary fence.
  • Perennial native grasses have extensive root systems often as big as the plant itself.
  • These roots keep the soil in good condition and they will use up water that has passed below the roots of any annual plants.
  • There are native legumes, e.g. glycine and desmodium. Watch in amazement as they come up everywhere.
  • Keep an eye out for the return of significant species, e.g. kangaroo grass and yam daisies.
  • Order the “Grassland Flora” field guide from Environment ACT, PO Box 144, LYNEHAM, ACT, 2602 for $16.50 plus $2.50 postage and handling (telephone inquiries: 02 6207 2126).
  • Invite your local "expert" out to help with ID of flora and fauna.

I am sure many of you could add a few more to this list so please go ahead. Remember that "walking the road makes the road", so let’s encourage as many as we can to go down this road and make it a bloody great highway!

Step Three

Now for the final instructions: when all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, put on the back burner for 200 years and await results!

Responses to the On-Going Recipe

From Bill Semple, Department of Land and Water Conservation, Orange:

“Your recipe for regeneration of all native species looked pretty good. However, there is a fair bit of evidence for successful eucalyptus regeneration being a late spring to early summer event in this part of the world (I suspect that many native species, particularly the warm season grasses, are much the same). Eucalypts can (and do) germinate at any time of the year but autumn germinations are usually swamped by annual weeds that appear at the same time. Most seedfall occurs in the warmer months (due to drying out of the capsules). A good burn will dry out capsules too. Before planning your natural regeneration, be sure that there's plenty of seed available in the canopy (Seed doesn't last very long on the ground; the ants see to that!). Try to prepare the ground - burnt, heavily grazed or herbicided - before you expect a large fall of seed. Some bare ground will probably be necessary so that the seed contacts the soil. You may have to sacrifice a seeding of native herbs in the year you want to try this.”

From a landholder:

“Love the recipe.

Why put the recipe to practice on only a selected part of the farm? Why not the entire farm?”

From Millie Nicholls, a landholder from South Australia:

“I share your idea of a changed landscape over the whole landscape, not just the fenced off areas. I don't think most people realise yet the power of the grazing animal, and how it can be used to create (or recreate) a more diverse and healthier system.

A lot of the people working in conservation tend to focus on the "postage stamp collection" of cemeteries and reserves, not realising the potential to change all the clapped out stuff in between! I am quietly confident that our grazing trials will be a first step in creating a landscape scale change, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that lies ahead of us!”

I then put a question to the native grass experts out there.

"Would the same grazing regime be appropriate to encourage both cool season grasses (C3 e.g. danthonia, microlaena and wheat grass) and warm season grasses (C4 e.g. kangaroo, red and warrego grasses). Or should we target one specifically, then the other?" "Will we end up with a very predominate grass pasture with little or no legumes?"

From Darryl Cluff, Native Pastures Management Officer for Stipa, the Native Grasses Association:

“Before getting into the issue of grazing management strategies for C3 and C4 plants, some background information could be handy. What are the differences between C3 and C4 plants?

C3 and C4 refers to the two different photosynthetic processes that plants use to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, using sunlight as an energy source. All plants (with a few exceptions) use either one system or the other.

With the C3 photosynthetic process, growth will begin at 0C, the plants are most active at around 25C, and can continue growing up to about 35C. The plants require a good supply of water and nutrients.

With the C4 photosynthetic process, growth will not start until temperature reaches 15C, and will continue up to about 45C with the most efficient production at around 35C.

On the production side, C4 plants produce more bulk but generally have a lower nutritive value than the C3 plants.

After taking the photosynthetic process into consideration, there is little difference between native and non-native plants in nutritional value. This includes the legumes!

How do C3 and C4 plants fit together in a pasture mix?

Perfectly! There is little competition between them for resources. C3 plants are more active in autumn/winter/spring and C4 plants are most active in spring/summer/autumn. (For more info. see the Stipa newsletters Nos. 9 and 11).”

Now, here comes the management bit!

Soils that are nutritionally depleted or cannot hold water, such as soils with low organic matter will favour the growth of C4 plants. Keep soil nutrition levels high to maintain a balance between C3's and C4's.

Bare ground favours the germination and growth of annual plants; this includes most of our weeds and annual grasses. They have a very limited period of time when stock will eat them. Watch the groundcover, move livestock before bare soil is showing.

Leaf litter, organic matter and plenty of perennial plants favour the germination and growth of more perennial plants.

Keeping the soil temperature lower by having 100% ground cover all the time favours C3 grasses in plant community and allows them to grow longer into the summer.

All plants in the same group (C3 or C4) do not respond to the same rainfall and temperature conditions. Having 20 or 30 species in the plant community is important to take advantage of all rainfall events and to have some plants actively growing all the time. There is most likely a native plant that will fill any gap. All the native species evolved together, therefore are compatible within their region. Encourage plant diversity.

Overgrazing of the existing pastures occurs while stock are being hand-fed. Severe pressure is placed on pastures at feeding points and bare ground is created by stock trampling. Regular seasonal hand feeding of stock means that heavy pressure is being placed on the C3 plants where there is a winter feed shortage and the C4 plants where there is a summer feed shortage.

If regular hand feeding is unavoidable, then stock should be excluded from some areas every season to allow pasture regeneration.

From David Eddy, Monaro Remnant Native Grasslands Project

On the issue of when to burn David said:

“My preference (in our tableland climate) is for late winter to early spring burns. This allows retention of high ground cover during autumn and winter when virtually all the exotic annual and biennial weeds are germinating. However if these species are not present (??) or are manageable some other way, then an autumn burn is likely to create openings for useful recruitment of natives (many of which [C3s] germinate then).”

And on the issues of grazing his observations included.

“Although it is widely felt that short-term-high-intensity grazing regimes are likely to be better than continuous grazing (and I agree), they involve higher risk and require more knowledge and management intensity on the part of the manager.

There is a significant problem for this sort of grazing management. The sorts of stocking rates that might be useful for very short terms are often impossible to organize on areas of significant size.

For instance, the removal of a meaningful amount of herbage, say 1000-2000 kg/ha, requires roughly 1000 to 2000 dse days of grazing per ha.

This is roughly 500 dse/ha for 2 to 4 days or at least 100 dse/ha for 10 to 20 days.

Many people think these numbers sound dramatic, but that's what's required for this type of grazing. I have played with rates of 200, 500 and 1000 dse/ha in grazing experiments with NSW Agriculture on native pasture ... it is manageable but requires good control.

The real problem comes when you try to apply even 200 dse/ha to say 20 ha, you need 4000 dse to do the job! To apply 500 dse/ha to 100 ha you would need 50,000 dse! You can see how it becomes difficult to apply in practice.”

And to my comment about thoroughly mix and put on the back burner for 200 years and await results David added:

Make sure to watch regularly, though, to prevent sticking, lumpiness and overcooking!

I then put the following observation up for discussion:

I use a portable electric fence in my bigger paddocks (up to 30 ha) to apply pressure to target areas but once this fence is more than 500 metres, it proves a bit tedious and time-consuming for one person.

I have been following up the electric fence with a permanent one once I am happy with the position. In a rough hill top of about 10 acres, 924 ewes have completely flattened/eaten and trampled cape weed, barley grass and variegated thistle up to one foot high.

Don't forget from now on is the time to start experimenting with some of these techniques as dry sheep can get enough moisture out of the feed during the winter to survive a few days without access to water.

From Mary Goodacre, Conservation Grazing Officer, Department of Land and Water Conservation, Mudgee.

Exotic Annuals. As the discussions revealed, most of our weeds are annual species. Their job in life is to grow a bit, seed a lot and avoid the hard times, ie, dry periods, by not growing then! So they will seed regardless of how we graze them, although they might set a little less seed using Geoff’s method. In my mind, the important thing with grazing management is to manage the grazing of the good species. We need to make sure they’re not overgrazed. When we target the weeds with grazing, we move stock after they have eaten the weed, by which time they have usually hammered the tastier good plants. Try targeting the weeds with competition from the good plants. To do this, we need to know what the good plants look like, how much leaf we should leave on them, and how attractive they are to the stock at the time.

The pasture will start to respond when you get these things right and you will start to feel more positive as your regular treasure hunt/walk through the paddock reveals more of the good grasses. Eventually, you might even put the “weed blinkers” on, i.e. you’ll stop worrying about the weeds (they’ll decline until you make a mistake – and you will but that’s OK as long as you learn from it) and actually notice how healthy and productive the good plants look.

So think of the annual species as some winter feed, but mostly think of them as litter/trash after they die and are trampled onto the ground by your stock. By all means graze the weedy paddocks, but don’t target the weeds with grazing.

Instead, move stock out of the paddock when they have taken a good sized bite or two out of your good plants (perennials). Ignore the weeds, unless they’re blackberries or African boxthorn or equally nasty woody or noxious weeds. Concentrate on the good plants, and when you get it right, they’ll accept your invitation into your paddock, and they usually bring their highly respected mates, i.e. other good grasses and even trees.

Short Duration or High Intensity/Density ?

I think we should focus more on the “short duration” rather than the “high intensity/density”. I agree with David that organising mob sizes to really make an impact is often impossible, given property and paddock sizes in central NSW. In my mind, it is the REST that pastures get under short duration grazing regimes that give most of our good species the chance to initially return to our paddocks, they increase and become a really productive component.

The Rest Period?

More paddocks result in longer rests from grazing, along with an increase in stock density for a short period. The paddocks will vary in size, shape, productivity, slope, aspect – the list goes on! So too should your graze periods. I think it’s a whole lot easier to focus on the rest aspect of short duration grazing than it is to worry about how to get enough livestock together to meet the high-density requirements. It also is much easier to work up to higher densities by gradually reducing the number of mobs or slowly creating more paddocks. This gives you time to work out which mobs can go together and how long they can stay together It also gives you a greater margin for error when to moving stock before you get to the stage where a day can mean the difference between evenly grazed pasture and dust/mud. The lead in phase will also help you get your fence placement right (and they don’t have to be straight lines!).

Putting It Into Practice

A particular problem for many landholders using these grazing management techniques is how to incorporate **a breeding program, especially a stud enterprise, as I do under these conditions. So far my rotation system stops for six weeks at joining and again at lambing so adequate records can be kept to evaluate sire performances. With the increasing use of (and therefore hopefully cheaper) DNA testing it could mean that this too would be a thing of the past. Apart from rams, my rotation usually involves two mobs throughout the year. One mob will be all dry sheep, i.e. ewe and wether hoggets and older wethers, and the other mob, all breeding ewes (including stud ewes). After weaning, the two mobs will be all adult sheep in one mob and all weaners in the other. All the sheep drafting does require good facilities and useful dogs.

Running sheep and cattle in one mob will further challenge your thinking but as I no longer have any cattle, I haven’t had to face this one. I have, however been to properties where landholders are doing this very successfully.

Ready to Start?

  • Begin slowly by boxing a couple of mobs and move them often.
  • Increase the mob size as you become more confident.
  • Attend one of the recognised training courses, e.g. Holistic Resource Management, Grazing for Profit, Prograze.
  • Observe the pasture response.
  • Seek advice, attend field days, read all you can on this and related topics.
  • Fence as funds and time permit and in the meantime, try portable electric fencing.
  • Keep your mind open to tackle challenge and change when it confronts you

Conclusion

And so the learning continues on a subject that has no end. Each on of us has to go through this process and come out the other end - hopefully a lot wiser. Let’s hope enough of us start to change our practices so that there will be a significant effect on our landscapes before it’s too late.

My only regret is I didn’t start learning this thirty years ago when I started farming.

Give it some thought, then give it a go and like me you too will find it a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious).

+ APPENDIX 1

Interim list of native vascular plants
"Murrabar", Cumnock
Eucalyptus albens paddock

Ungrazed since 1994
Approximately 8 ha.
Central Western Slopes botanic subdivision

Site 33 00’ 11”S, 148 43’ 54E

Revised: spring 2000 (82 species)

Acacia decora

western golden wattle

A. implexa

hickory wattle

A. leucoclada

northern silver wattle

Acaena ovina

sheeps burr

Aristida ramosa

purple wire grass

Asperula conferta

woodruff

Astroloma humifusum

native cranberry

Arthropodiumminus

vanilla-lily

Austrodanthonia sp

wallaby grass, white top, danthonia

Austrostipa scabra

speargrass

   

Bothriochloa macra

red grass

Brachychiton populneus

kurrajong

Bracteantha viscosa

sticky everlasting, paper daisy

Bulbine bulbosa

bulbine lilly

   

Callitris endlicheri

black cypress pine

C. glaucophylla

white cypress pine

Carex breviculmis

short-stem sedge

C.inversa

knob sedge

Casuarina cunninghamiama

river oak

Chamaesyce drummondii

caustic weed

Cheilanthes sieberi

rock fern

Cheilanthes distans

woolly cloak fern

Chloris truncata

windmill grass

Convolvulus erubescens

Australian bindweed

Crassula sieberiana

Australian stonecrop

Cryptandra amara

bitter cryptandra

Cymbopogon refractus

barbwire grass

Cymbonotus lawsonianus

bears ear

Cynodon dactylon

couch grass

   

Daucus glochidiatus

native carrot

Desmodium varians

tick trefoil

Dianella longifolia var. longifolia

smooth flax lily

Dichelachne micrantha

short haired plume grass

Dichondra repens

kidney weed

Dichondra (undescribed)

white underleaf(?)

Dichopogon fimbriatus

chocolate-lily

Digitaria brownii

cotton panic grass

Dodonaea viscosa

sticky hopbush

   

Einadia nutans

climbing saltbush

Elymus scaber

common wheat grass

Enneapogon sp

bottlewashers

Eucalyptus albens

white box

E. blakelyi

red gum

E. dealbata

tumble down gum

E. macrorhyncha

red stringybark

E. polyanthemos

red box

E. sideroxylon

red-flowering ironbark

Euphorbia australis

euphorbia

   

Geranium retrorsum (?).

common cranesbill

Geranium solanderi

native geranium

Glycine tabacina

glycine

Goodenia pinnatifida

scrambled eggs

G. hederacea

ivy goodenia

   

Hydrocotyle laxiflora

stinking pennywort

   

Indigofera adesmiifolia

 
   

Juncus bufonius

toad rush

Juncus usitatus or ariclicola (?)

pin rush

   

Lagnifers stipitata

bottle daisy

Leptorhychos squamatus ssp

scaly buttons

Lissanthe strigosa

peach heath

Lomandra filiformis

wattle mat-rush

L. multiflora

many-flowered mat rush

   

Microlaena stipoides

weeping grass, Microlaena

Microseris lanceolata

yam daisy

Microtis unifolia

common onion orchid

   

Oxalis perennans

grassland wood sorrel

   

Panicum effusum

hairy panic

Pimelea curviflora

curved rice-flower

P. glauca

shrubby rice-flower

Plantago varia

variable plantain

Poa sieberiana/labilladieri

snow grass

   

Rumex brownii

swamp dock

   

Solenogyne dominii

smooth solenogyne

S.bellioides

 
   

Templetonia stenophylla

leafy templetonia

Themeda australis

kangaroo grass

Tricoryne elatior

yellow rush lily

Triptilodiscus pygmaeus

austral sunray

   

Vittadinia muelleri

fuzzweed

   

Wahlenbergia luteola

bluebells

W.stricta

tall bluebells

Wurmbea dioica

early nancy

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