Finally, a winter for growth

We have been persevering with our pasture cropping for some years now. Knowing the theoretical returns, only ever seeing some evidence of it. Finally, here’s a winter approaching the average and we’re seeing great results.

Our farm has still many vestiges of native grasses. Broad swathes, including wallaby, kangaroo, spear and microlaena. Long-lived perennials, they are most active during the summer and into autumn, when feed is most needed. A living haystack, in the paddock. Even during the harsh times, given a sprinkle of summer rain, or a sudden thunderstorm, they’ll respond quickly. They are well adapted to the vagaries of our local climate.

But, in between times, especially in late winter and into spring, we still need ongoing feed for the dairy herd, without having to rely too heavily on the traditional haystack.

We’re now discovering a way of having both. Pasture cropping uses annual crops (eg cereals, chicory, plantain, clover, etc) and still retains – and maintains – the perennial native feed. It’s a win-win because the native grasses contain important fibres, minerals and nutrients well suited to the goat herd. And it seems the pasture cropping – mainly oats this year, tries to outcompete the capeweed which has been an issue on the farm ever since we have been here.

Is this the best of both worlds?

We have been guided by Colin Seis in our endeavours to protect, conserve and grow the native grasses, yet still operate a farming system that requires annual pastures as a crucial part of it.

As Colin says:

‘Multi-species pasture’ cropping is ‘pasture cropping’ or sowing crops into perennial pasture/grassland, but instead of one species such as oats or wheat, multi-species pasture cropping uses two and up to ten species of annual crop as a mixture that is zero tilled into established perennial pasture/grassland …. (it) uses a group of plant species that produce good quality forage, have different root systems, includes legume species, flowering plants and species that will add organic matter … and feed a diverse range of  soil micro-organisms which further enhances soil health.”

It’s about cultivating a many-culture, not a mono-culture; plants with differing root profiles and growth characteristics and nutrient needs will be far more beneficial than a single crop, for reasons that include pest and disease tolerance, nutrient use and physical growth characteristics. All the while not outcompeting the native species that exist.

We are trying to create an ecosystem in the paddock that can be resilient in the face of weather, climate, biology and management interventions. (Just as we are trying to create a resilient ecosystem in our ruminants; see our last post!)

Each plant brings it’s own qualities; some bring nutrients, others are allopathic (they suppress the growth of other plants through root exudates), or simply outcompete less desired plants (the capeweed is a case in point). We can also try to manage carbon and nitrogen ratios and therefore enhance soil microbial activity with the plants we employ.

Our pasture crop sown April 2016: 1 tonne Saia oats, 25kg chickory. Sown with an air seeder with 1.2 tonne guano. All this done over 42 hectares (104 acres) and dry sown. But then it rained!

Coming to the farm day on August 19th? It’s booked out, but if you are attending, you’ll have a chance to see our pasture cropping in practice.