|  Our Valuable Native Grasslands, Better Pastures Naturally
Proceedings of the Second National Conference of the Native Grasses Association
Farmer, Clare District S.A.
The casual visitor, passing through the Mid-North of South Australia, could be forgiven for thinking that the landscape they see is the result of massive overclearing. After all, for those of us brought up with trees around us, it is hard to believe that the open plains and rolling bare hills of the Mid-North are the natural condition of the area.
Explorer Edward John Eyre wrote glowing reports of the area in 1840, describing it as "a fine and valuable grazing district, with grass of an excellent description, and of great luxuriance" (Eyre, 1845) but not all were so impressed. An early traveller through the area, who wrote in 1851 under the pseudonym of "the old Colonist", described the road from Burra to Clare as "a succession of monotonous and dreary wastes for many miles open, but to a great extent devoid of vegetation" (Yelland, 1970) The same traveller, describing the view across the land near present day Riverton, wrote "Between this horizon and the brow we stood on not a trace of cultivation, scarcely of vegetation, was discoverable ....The scene we fancied to be something like the graphic representation of parts of Palestine, and the neighbourhood of Jerusalem. It is... "the steppes" of this part of the colony" (Yelland, 1970)
Of course, there were a variety of small trees and shrubs in those grasslands, but eucalypts were restricted to the higher rainfall areas, and the general impression, then as now, is of a treeless landscape.
We recognize now, of course, that this open landscape, barren to the eyes of many Englishmen, was anything but wasteland - it was productive and very diverse grassland, and, as the early settlers soon discovered, the soils were very suitable for cropping. By the 1860's South Australia was producing half the total wheat grown in Australia, most of it in the grasslands of the Mid-North (Meinig, 1988) Today, anything that can be ploughed has been ploughed, and the grasslands are restricted to the non-arable areas - areas that are too steep or too rocky to be cultivated.
It is estimated that today there are probably only about half a million hectares of remnant grasslands left in whole area, and most of that is very badly degraded. However, the basic structure is still there, and it gives us something to work with.
As a farmer, and a manager of a reasonably large area of grassy woodland, I began looking for information about native grasses about 15 years ago, as it seemed to me that the potential for improving the production on our property lay with these grasses. We are perhaps fortunate in the Mid-North that introduced perennial pastures have not generally been very successful.
There are some areas where sown species have persisted, but the vast majority of pastures, both sown and unsown, that I have seen are dominated by wild oats, barley and silver grasses, Salvation Jane and erodium. And while some farmers still think that wild oats are good sheep feed, I think we can do a whole lot better than settling for a twelve-week period of productive pastures, and nine months of bare ground!
My quest for information about native grasses was initially fruitless. I could find out plenty of information about native trees, a little less about native shrubs, and nothing about grasses. Our Department of Primary Industries was definitely not interested, and to this day they show very little interest in grasses of any sort - their focus is on introduced legumes. Very few farmers knew anything at all about grasses, and while this is slowly changing, thanks mainly to The World Wide Fund for Nature Native Temperate Grassland project, (for which I work) farmers generally still have the perception that native grasses have no grazing value. The Department of Environment and Heritage, on the other hand, thanks to some of their excellent botanists, were interested in the conservation of high quality grassland remnants, and they have also been very supportive in extending that interest to lower quality grazed grasslands on private land.
Through DEH, the Mid-North Grasslands Working Group, a group of farmers, was established last year to promote the sustainable management of native grasslands - a great advance for grasslands in S.A. I am a member of this group, which administers a large Natural Heritage Trust grant, and while part of this grant is for the conservation of high quality remnant grasslands, we also focus on the production aspect of native grasslands. Our aim for this part of the project is to improve both the production and biodiversity of native grasslands throughout the Mid-North.
Over the last five years, as I looked at native grasslands in the Mid-North, and learnt about the biology and botany of the grasslands, it became very clear that the degradation of our native grasslands had been caused by poor grazing management. Set stocking has been practiced for many years throughout the Mid-North, but due to the low wool prices for the strong wools traditionally grown in this area, farmers have tended to focus more and more on cropping, and have become less interested in both their sheep and their pastures.
At the autumn break, the sheep have been pushed into the hills to survive as best they can during the winter, and then moved back onto crop stubbles for the summer. Usually the hill paddocks are big paddocks - 80 hectares or more, and the sheep stay in the same paddock for the whole 8 months, often at far higher stocking rates than have been traditionally used, as farmers try to squeeze more profit out of their flocks.
This practice has accelerated the decline the native pastures, to the point where many pastures have less than four native perennial grasses per square metre. The dominant native grasses are speargrasses (Stipa spp.) and wallaby grasses (Danthonia spp.), while the summer perennials - Queensland Blue Grass (Dichanthium sericeum) Kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), Red-leg grass (Bothriochloa macra) and panic (Homophilus proluta), have almost totally disappeared from grazed areas. Except for the hardiest and least palatable species, the herbs and forbs have also disappeared, to be replaced by erodium and Salvation Jane. No wonder the production of these pastures has fallen dramatically and farmers are beginning to complain that they cannot run as many sheep as they have in the past.
From reading about work that was being done elsewhere on grazing management, and seeing the results on some of the farms using cell-grazing techniques, I realised that changes could be made. The best and simplest change we could make to improve the grazed native grasslands was to use some form of rotational grazing, instead of the traditional set stocking. On our farm, we changed from set stocking to a simple rotational system, and with two years we saw an improvement in the number and size of the perennial species, an increase in the summer active native grasses and a decrease in the "bare ground" weeds, like saffron thistle and erodium. I was confident that we would see results on other farms too, just from making this one simple change.
So the initial focus of the Mid North Grasslands Working Group was to get farmers to see that what is essentially a simple change of management practices could result in a more diverse and productive grassland pasture. We thought that using real farms as demonstration sites would the most effective way to persuade farmers to change. The Group gave grants to interested farmers to help them divide one large paddock into several smaller paddocks, and provide watering points for these paddocks. Each farmer manages his paddocks to fit in with his overall farm management, the only requirements being that the paddocks are rotationally grazed, and that the farmer keeps good records of the amount of feed on offer and records of the time, numbers and type of stock grazing each paddock.
Replicated monitoring transects have been established at each farm so that we can record the changes in the grassland pastures over time. Dr. Judi Earl and Dr. Lewis Kahn from Agriculture Information and Monitoring Services at Armidale, NSW, have been contracted to monitor these sites, and also the Group's main site, which is on a farm near Clare. There the effects of different seasonal grazing strategies, as well as the effects of a high density, short duration grazing system are also being monitored.
While these grazing demonstrations only started eight months ago, we have been very excited by the results so far, not so much with the monitoring, which is at a very early stage, but with the interest shown by farmers. The Group recently held two Field Days, and the attendance far exceeded our expectations. We have had farmers ringing up and asking if they can join the project, because they have seen that one of the participating farmers has grass in his rotationally grazed paddocks, where they have bare ground on their set stocked ones! The Group is also providing farmers with access to management advice and to training programmes, such as Prograze and Sheep Nutrition courses, to help them increase their management skills. By the end of the project we hope that the farmers will be confident enough to make better decisions about their grazing management of their grasslands.
The Mid North Grasslands Working Group realizes that this is only a first step, and we have to build up a solid base of data about the grasslands of the Mid-North on which we can make even better management decisions. It is an exciting time to be involved with native grasslands, and I am proud to be part of a farmer group that is combining both conservation and production.
I firmly believe that our future as farmers in this country depends upon working with our natural resources. This is rather than continuing to impose our European style farming systems upon them. Furthermore, I think the direction that the NHT, or whatever follows it, should be going is towards working with farmer groups that are prepared to be innovative, and are working for a win/win outcome for both biodiversity and production.
This is just a beginning, but we have come a long way in the four years since W.W.F. first began bringing native grasslands to the publics' notice in the Mid-North, and the work of groups elsewhere, such as Stipa. This encourages me to believe that we are moving in the right direction, in spite of the continual lack of interest from the traditional farming bodies.
Talking to farmers is not enough, by setting up demonstrations of systems that work, by being generous with the information that we glean, and providing leadership and support for farmers who are willing to have a go at doing things differently, we can indeed instigate change on a landscape scale.
I believe that, by recognizing that the Mid-North of S A, really was originally an area of "grass of an excellent description, and of a great luxuriance," and is not a forest that has to be replanted with eucalypts. I believe we can work through many of our land management problems, such as dryland salinity, rising watertables, and soil structure problems, by returning to a productive grassland system.
Inevitably, with elements that are different from the original grassland, but which supports a regenerative farming system and builds the healthy and productive soils that were the basis of those original grassland systems.
- Eyre, E.J. Journal of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and overland from Adelaide to King George Sound in the Years 1840-41. Volume 1 1845
- Yelland, E.M. (Ed) " Colonists Copper and Corn in the Colony of South Australia" 1970 The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne
- Meinig, D.W. "On the Margins of the Good Earth". S.A. Government Printer, 1988