Holistic Management & the Regeneration of Northern Australia
This is a copy of the interview performed by Soils for Life and Future Directions International (FDI) as originally published on the FDI website.
This interview is in response to the concept paper: Regenerate Australia: Our Greatest Challenge and Opportunity. It seeks to ascertain from a current NT grazier whether the long-term Regenerate Australia plan is viable and what steps need to be taken first in order to see it realised.
Moira Lanzarin is a 4th generation farmer with tertiary studies in Business Law and a diploma of Company Director. She manages the family company’s stud and beef operations in the Northern Territory and a 500 square kilometre rangeland property. She has been instrumental in introducing Holistic Management to the NT and is extensively involved with Indigenous cattle management. She has extensive board experience at a local, Territory and national level within industry and government and is a Soils for Life Board member.
- If a well-paced approach is taken, we test our decisions as we proceed, and we tailor the strategy to the northern context, the Regenerate Australia concept is definitely achievable for Northern Australia.
- Implementation of the concept should be taken in a staged process that focuses on perfecting methods on a small-scale prior to expanding them, to prevent exacerbating degradation.
- Holistic management and planned grazing can allow more cattle to be run more intensively while creating positive ecosystem benefits.
- Implementing the Regenerate Australia concept will require a supportive policy environment as well as demonstration of the practical success of planned grazing.
- Improving infrastructure and market access is critical to supporting the development of northern Australia and the implementation of holistic management techniques.
SFL/FDI: The concept paper discusses a long-term plan to access and distribute existing water sources to treble the cattle industry in the Top End, complemented by periodic grain production, resulting in a massive increase in food production as well as landscape and ecosystem regeneration and carbon foot print reduction.
As a current NT grazier, do you believe that this is a viable concept that could be realised over the coming decades?
ML: In some respects I find it quite exciting, in others I see massive red flags .There is huge potential to get northern Australian ecosystems functioning properly again and to build more effective water and mineral cycling processes. This can be done through biology; utilising the grass and cattle in a win-win scenario to improve the quality of the country and its water security. This could also reduce fire emissions and produce more food. There is amazing, exciting potential there for Northern Australia.
Where the flags come up is that the success of the concept is completely dependent on people, the decisions we make and how we manage scenarios. I think that we are often too quick to apply technical solutions – the distribution of water through big pipelines and dams for instance. Depending on the motivations that can either be good or bad. Just adding more water and opening up more land to stock is thinking that has been around since the first farmers stepped onto the land. In some cases that approach has led to a massive deterioration of the country if stock is not managed well. We can do this better in a managed situation, but a paradigm shift in the way people think about pastoralism has to happen first.
The approach I would prefer to see is a staged process that starts by focusing on what we’ve got and perfecting it on a small scale. Training is required to get people thinking and working differently on a small-scale with reduced risk. Then in the future we can scale operations up as the skills base improves. We should start with more effective management of what we’ve got before trying to leap ahead with regenerating the whole area and getting the water out further.
From that perspective then, and with your experience, do you believe that if all these things were to come together, and we were to manage decision making correctly, that this kind of plan could be achievable for the Top End? If we do it right, is it viable?
Definitely. If we’re taking a well-paced approach, testing our decisions as we’re going and tailoring our strategy to a Northern context, this is definitely achievable for the Top End.
SFL/FDI: The paper focuses on the many benefits that could be achieved should this concept come into fruition, but only lightly touches on one of the key factors – the planned grazing techniques required to achieve it.
What can you tell us about your experiences with planned grazing and the outcomes you achieved on your farm?
ML: Basically, we try to use our animals to do the work of improving our country. They can improve the land’s carrying capacity and make things easier for us as well. It’s a total win-win scenario.
We do that by getting all the cattle together into a single mob. Cattle are herd animals and want to stay together and work as a herd. It is the basic psychology of a grazing animal to want to move on to fresh feed, to not stay in an area where they have defecated. We use this to move them through country on a regular basis. This way, the cattle get a feed and the country gets a feed at the same time. The country is fertilised by the cattle’s manure which they trample in, kick-starting the soil microbiology and cycling carbon back into the soil.
As the cattle move through as a group, their hooves till the soil and knock down the mulch. They’re pruning as they go and are stimulating fresh growth of plants. Land managers can then determine which mix of vegetation they need to sustain their country into the future. For a grazing operation that might be diverse perennial grassland ecosystems. Cattle should only be returned to an area when the most desirable grasses have fully recovered. This creates all sorts of benefits and stops the weeds from being a problem because you’re concentrating on what you want and managing it accordingly. The presence of weeds tells you that something is out of place in an ecosystem; cattle have grazed too long in a particular area so the desired plants haven’t had a chance to grow. By changing your activities on the land, the desired plants have the chance to grow and re-establish.
To give you some examples of the outcomes we’re achieving, Coodardie Station which I’m on now, is only 2000 hectares. Run conventionally, it would be set-stocked in a single paddock. It’s a dry block with no natural waters and so there would be one central watering point on it. Conventionally it would run maybe a hundred head. Using planned grazing, we’re running five hundred head and we’ve had up to eight hundred on it. The improvement in the soil, the mulch cover, and the increased biodiversity that we’re seeing in a five to seven year period is huge.
One of the first things you do is mob your cattle and utilise them as a herd animal. How do you physically manage stock movement on a large station and is it financially costly to implement?
You start with what you’ve got. Most properties have already got some system of paddocks and waterways. Therefore they don’t necessarily have to spend any money, just some time and creative thinking. If you choose to mob your cattle, you can follow a defined process, and develop a grazing plan that allows for your land to recover. As you find your economic situation allowing it, you can then structure additional paddocks and watering points as you go to maximise your yield. Our experience has demonstrated that you can create considerable management efficiencies, maximise resource use and save time through planned grazing. The increased production enabled allows the funding of extra infrastructure involved.
SFL/FDI: What are the first steps you think need to be taken to begin turning this regeneration concept into a reality? Will they have to come from policy and decision-makers or from the ground up by individual farmers and land managers like yourself?
ML: The need for a paradigm shift requires that the change be tackled from two levels simultaneously. We need to demonstrate the success of on the ground methods that are responsive to local conditions. We also need a policy environment that is supportive of those changes occurring.
Learning sites are going to be really important to assist in policy change. There is no shortage of examples showing the success of planned grazing over fifty year time periods in all parts of the world, but people need to be able to see that it is achievable in north Australia. We need safe, supported areas where people can see, feel, touch and learn. If people can attend field days, see it happening and spend time doing training that will be absolutely critical to selling the idea.
How we manage the stock is only one part of achieving these things; we also need to establish a supporting policy environment from the highest levels. Making major changes to agricultural practices is a lot easier when the policy, processes and supports are in place.
SFL/FDI: Are there any other limiting factors you could see in getting this concept realised?
ML: Market access can be a difficulty. The whole dynamics of the north are different. We don’t have regular store sales and general auctions. It’s all just a little bit more challenging. Transport costs are higher and we don’t have ready access to markets, particularly since the disruption of the live export trade.
Having a diversity of market options available is critical and is a key policy area through which development can be supported. We can look at our production chains - resource conversion, product conversion and marketing. We know that we can convert our grass into more beef and improve the country and water cycle in doing so. But we lose control when it comes to actually getting that extra produce to market. If policy decisions could give us more control over market options that would be hugely valuable.
Another of the huge impediments for the North is that in most cases farmers are trying to deal with too much land. There is too much land on most farms for us to actively manage. Much of the country is in huge corporate holdings. Using holistic management techniques, the same number of cattle could be run on smaller areas, reducing environmental degradation.
The management and key decision makers are removed from and understanding of the land though. Reducing the size of farms and actually getting more families and individuals who can manage land and who have more skin in the game would help. These people know the consequences of their decisions, as opposed to simply being managers who can move on when things get hard or who receive a pay check every month regardless of what impact their actions have on the land.
SFL/FDI: Any final comments?
ML: I believe the Regenerate Australia concept could be further developed to break out of the existing conventional thinking. We need to change the paradigm so that we are creating resilience and forgiveness into the landscape and letting biology do the work.
Planned grazing allows us to work with nature to create synergies and win-win scenarios. We manage the biology in such a way that it does the work for us to restore effective ecosystem processes. Decisions are based on a holistic perspective and we actively manage for a truly sustainable triple bottom line that will result in improved food, fire and social outcomes. We have well-supported learning sites that can share and assess ideas locally and globally. Local solutions can be developed that people can actively see, so that they can participate in an environment that is safe to learn in without jeopardising the family farm.
We have no idea what carrying capacity the north is capable of but it could well be one of constant improvement. We are dealing with very impoverished soils so remedying that is the first priority. What we do know is that on an individual farm level, we can improve the country quicker than we can produce the livestock to run on it. If we implemented these practices on every single farm, we wouldn’t have enough livestock to do the job. When you start to think on that grand scale, there is a huge space for improvement.
For more on how livestock can be used to regenerate the landscape, I strongly recommend this presentation by Allan Savory:
Watch this clip for more of Moira's story:
Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual interviewee, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.