So on Friday this week, I visited Derek and Kirrily Bloomfield who farm 5,000 acres (small by Aus standards) in the Liverpool Plains region. As well as producing grass fed beef (which is delicious) they have started direct marketing their beef and telling their story to the consumers through a website and blog The Conscious Farmer.
One of the things that I’m interested in when talking to farmers, is the whole area of the decision making process? What was it that made them change from farming more conventionally to managing their resources more efficiently? What helped them change?
Derek was farming this land and Kirrily was the farm’s agronomist. Derek explained that he was getting fairly disheartened with farming and was deciding what to do with the future. He was looking for other options and came across regenerative agriculture. He did a course (and took his father along to) and started to change the way that he was thinking about managing the land. Another personal reason for the couple was that their first son Patrick was born at 27 weeks. The couple researched premature births and decided that they wanted to change the way that they were farming.
“We were farming commodities to pay the bills, rather than growing food,” Derek explains. “It wasn’t about the environment, we were producing what we needed to feed our family.” Their management system has completely changed now. They did away with arable cropping and the whole farm is now down to grass, with native pastures replacing the previously cropped fields. “The landscape is the first priority now,” Derek continues, “and the cattle are an essential part of the conservation process and help to revitalise the landscape and provide the essential benefits that we need in terms of biodiversity, water storage, carbon storage and a resilient system.”
Water seems to be a dominant theme, when I talk to any farmer here in Australia, and Kirrily explains that regenerative agriculture helps with rehydrating the landscape. “We need to hold onto what water we have,” she explains, “when we have rain, if we have bare ground, that water runs off and takes with it soil particles. By having a continuous, living soil cover, we can catch every rain drop and allow the soil (which is biologically active) to use that water to move it horizontally through the landscape and rehydrate it.”
They took me to see a great example of this in one of their fields. The text below is from a blog that she wrote about it on her site (accessible here).
Kirrily explained, “We have a gully area on our farm which was carved through our highly dispersive black soil years ago. It happened because of a combination of land contouring that was done on neighbouring farms upstream, and a lack of perennial plants holding the soil together on our farm where we used to grow annual crops. These earthworks concentrated the water (unnaturally), which then flowed over our highly erodible black soil and created the gully. (This is not a criticism of our neighbours – they were only doing what was considered the best thing at the time and was actually compulsory for us all to take part in).”
“We decided to do something about this gully area using Holistic Management planned grazing techniques. This often involves grazing the cattle in fairly high concentration (though not always), and then moving the stock on (and importantly) not re-grazing until the grasses have recovered. The cows clamber up and down the steep sides of the gully (it’s like they’re playing) – tapering out the sides of the gully, creating hoof marks where water can pool and plants can grow which then stabilise the bank and prevent further erosion (see how the animals have disturbed the soil in the image below). We then take the cows out and allow the perennial grasses to germinate, grow and recover before re-grazing.”
“You can see the below image of what the gully used to look like in 2003. Clearly the photo below and the one at the top are in very different seasons, which exaggerates the difference, but the thing to note is the sides of the gully. Below, the gully sides have no plants growing to stabilise the soil. This photo is actually after we had started work by using animals – the sides are already somewhat tapered and there are some (although dry) perennial grasses in the base of the gully. Prior to this image, the sides used to be sheer and there were no perennial grasses growing, only annual weeds, but still a plant! Perennial plants are important as their root system is generally deeper and is there all year to glue the soil together.”
“This YouTube clip shows it a few weeks ago after rain and flooding and after 2 feet of water had passed through the gully. The sides have plants growing on them, which stabilise the soil and prevent more erosion and while you can’t see them here – there are perennial grasses that grow in summer. It is now a productive paddock for our cows that was previously an unused, costly area of land on our farm. In the clip, you can see the hoof marks in the bank as our cows were grazing briefly in here only a couple of weeks prior.”
“Whilst the gully is still a bit troublesome and eroding at the head (because we can’t control the concentration of water coming onto our farm), we are doing our best to make sure any soil eroding at the head doesn’t leave our farm. The floor of the gully further down from the head is actually being raised in height as the water is slowed and the soil is caught in the vegetation and maintained on our farm. We would like to do more here such as natural sequence farming, however this shows that with only animals and plants as our tools, we can achieve great results in land regeneration.”