Rick and Jenny Robertson’s 1,000-hectare property at Bengworden, near Bairnsdale in Victoria, has been in the family for 70 years. Rick’s father bought the property in 1950 to breed Merinos for fine wool, and Rick continues that tradition.
“Merino breeding is the only thing I have wanted to do since leaving school,” Rick said.
“We join 3,000 and have no wethers over one year of age. Our Merino breeding operation also includes a stud, and crossbred lambs are produced from second grade ewes.”
Rick and Jenny were finalists in the most recent Weekly Times Coles farmer of the year competition.
The catalyst for change During the 1980s and 1990s, the Robertsons ran a high input system with their sheep set stocked, grazing across large landscapes on their property. A run of droughts and poor seasons resulted in poor ground cover, reduced stock numbers and regularly having to buy feed for summer feeding out. The collapse of the wool reserve price scheme in the 1990s and poor commodity prices compounded financial difficulties for the Robertsons’ business.
It was not until the end of 2008 that things changed for the better, after the Robertsons watched an inspiring episode of ABC Landline about NSW Farmer of the Year Nigel Kerin’s success with time controlled rotational grazing.
“It was during another dry run of years, and our three daughters were all at home watching Landline with us. The NSW Farmer of the Year was on the program showing how he farms successfully irrespective of whether the seasons are good or bad. At the end of the program, the girls encouraged me to give it a go. I had already done the training without implementing it, so we just decided there and then to change the way we farm,” Rick explained.
“Climate change with the too frequent dry years was a major catalyst for change. Rainfall has been below average for a third of the past 40 years and the average has fallen 15%. In the high stocking rate system, there was a constant roller coaster of excessive fodder bills, erratic lambing percentages, and poor stock performance. The risk and stress were too high.”
Since then, the Roberstons’ business philosophy has been to adopt a lower risk, more sustainable system of managing livestock and the land. Although the change has been challenging, it has provided new opportunities whilst at the same time making the Roberstons feel more in control of their business. Rick says that by changing the way they farm, they have created a more resilient farming system in a low-rainfall environment.
“We operate a system of ‘modern climate management’ where we work with the rainfall we receive and adjust our sheep numbers down when the rains fail. Having three months standing feed at all times and a mob identified as ‘ready to sell’ takes out the roller coaster ride of profit and loss, weaning percentages and fodder bills.”
Rotational grazing improves pasture resilience
The Robertsons introduced rotational grazing by dividing up their paddocks into smaller sizes. Sheep are run in larger mobs, at a higher density for short periods of time, and then rotated around the different paddocks. (At lambing, they greatly reduce the mob size and allow the sheep to graze for longer periods.)
With paddocks rested for two to three months between grazing, the grass has plenty of time to recover and grow strongly before the next grazing. Animals graze more evenly and knock down dry grasses, creating a mulch layer from which organic matter is added to the soil. This improves the soil’s water-holding capacity rather than rain flowing straight off the property into the Gippsland Lakes.
“The benefits include better ground cover, deeper roots accessing moisture and nutrients, and greater persistence of the important perennials.
“We now have 75 paddocks, up from about 30 previously, each now sized about 15 hectares. We rotationally graze each paddock for four to five days with fewer but larger mobs, except when lambing. Each three month rest allows the grass to grow larger solar panels (leaves) which increases the dry matter production compared to set stocking,”
“Grazing of longer leaves results in sloughing off of the roots which increases organic matter and leads to higher carbon levels. A one percent increase in carbon levels increases the water holding capacity by 160,000 litres per hectare. And with 10% of the property under trees, 90% of our enteric emissions are offset.”
The new system has meant that ground cover has improved substantially to 100% ground cover throughout the year. Whereas previously it took longer for the pasture to recover after a dry period, better ground cover means a much quicker bounce back after rain because the pasture is making the best use of whatever rain it receives.
Additional hand feeding is only ever used to optimise weaner growth rates under the Grow program (a service now offered by Elanco Animal Health), which has substantially reduced their business’s costs. This is an example of keeping the risk out of their farming system and developing better resilience in the whole system for tough times.
Improved pastures and landscape
The Robertsons have seen a noticeable improvement in their pastures. Their goal has been to get perennial grasses back into the system because they have a deeper root system that can access water at a lower level and respond well to rainfall. Rick believes that set stocking can be tough on perennials whereas rotational grazing increases their number and diversity.
“We have expanded our areas of perennial grass. Exotic perennials are the focus when sowing new pasture because they suit our continental environment,” he said.
“Multi species cover crops are also used to fill feed gaps with highly digestible, high energy and protein fodder at half the cost of bought grain to grow young sheep. Up to 10 species are sown together – we find this gives better rumen/gut health and growth rates compared to mono crops.”
The Robertsons manage their stocking rates according to how much rainfall
“We run at district average stocking rate or slightly lower,” Rick said
Profit not production
“There is a push by some farmers, consultants and resellers to run excessive stocking rates and quote high numbers, but we find our business risk is lower and profit levels more consistent. We can’t control the weather or prices, but we can control the costs. We are not trying to outproduce our environment,” Rick said.
The Robertsons have also been passionate advocates for Landcare and, even prior to changing their farming system, had established kilometres of shelterbelts and tree planting across the property. Salt affected land adjacent to the foreshore of the Gippsland Lakes had also been reclaimed with a 10-hectare plot of saltbush
This article first appeared in Beyond the Bale Australian Wool Innovation’s quarterly magazine.