Gus's Musings

May 29, 2016

Western Resilient Landscapes Project At “Gurrawarra” Featuring Dick Richardson.


Dick Richardson

Dick Richardson

24th May 2016

We drove about 70km out of Bourke towards Weilmoringle and found ourselves in the woolshed at Gurrawarra, the wonderful property of Glenn and Julie Humbert.  The day began at about 10am with a short introduction from Russel Grant (LLS Western) on the background of this project and how important the LLS saw it for our area.  As part of this Russell explained that the Sydney Rotary Club had been helping landholders during droughts by funding “Hay Drives” to drought affected areas, however, via Soils For Life wanted instead, to invest in a more long term approach to helping farmers manage through drought.  This approach would be through assisting farmers teach each other about developing healthy soils, the basis for resilient and regenerative landscapes.

Martin Royds then spoke on behalf of Soils for Life as they are partners in the project, thanks to the valuable and generous support of the Sydney Rotary club.  Martin spoke about the history of Soils for Life and how that came about through the sustainable production of nutrient rich food as a way of ensuring healthy happy communities around the world that didn’t need to invade others due to hunger, so reduce war.  Martin made it very clear that healthy soils lead to healthy food, healthy people, healthy communities etc., it all starts from the soil.  Martin also made the point he has been working on identifying the difference in nutrient richness of foods grown on healthy soil and how if we valued food on its available nutrients, rather than weight that everyone was a winner – the consumer gets to choose healthy food, the community gets healthy, the government saves on its health budget, the farmer gets paid for producing a quality product and all the while building a stronger and more diverse natural environment.


In their introductions, both Russell Grant (Western Local Land Services) and Martin Royds (Soils For Life) mentioned that the pastoral industry seems, in general terms, slow to accept outsider’s advice. With new technology tools like drones etc, participants can look down on their country, not over it to appreciate landscape function. This enhances our opportunities to manage regenerative grasslands for reproductive animals in a healthy environment which breeds healthy people, food and fibre and increases nett returns to all involved.

We then heard from Glenn on their journey to the purchase of Gurrawarra in 2010 and what has happened up until now.  What I could see/hear was lots of training and experiences, followed by some infrastructure that went in obviously after much thought and planning.  Glenn and Julie though are always looking for, “what is the next step”, didn’t ever get the feel that “well we’ve arrived that is OK lets just keep doing this”.  They reckon that there positive achievements are expressed ultimately in the happiness of the people and there has been no single secret to that, they have worked on many fronts.  They wanted to stop being a miners of the land and to be a part of the movement to improve the land, regenerative. The closing comment was if they did their entire infrastructure again they would put in TGP boundary fencing first.  Native wildlife is the greatest threat to the control of TGP and continues to be the most common problem facing all rangeland communities. Numerous control plans are being considered including fencing configurations of various sizes, costs and capabilities.


After a short break Dick Richardson started his talk and with his amusing and engaging method of mixing his landscape interpretations with science, humour and many tales.


He started his talk explaining some of the management regimes that were and had been in place in his native South Africa and these “patterns” as he later called them led to scrub encroachment, more burning and generally simplified grasslands and ecosystems.  Most in the room recognised that that was the case with the “pattern” we used in Australia as well and so Dick described this by saying “Nature works in patterns and the whole is a result of the pattern”.  We all agreed that biodiversity is important, so if that is the case then we need a diversity of patterns, or even become patternless.  ∆=∆  (Change equals change).  Then Dick gave us a lesson in Thermodynamics, saying it takes a given amount of energy to create something and from that moment they start to decay, so it takes more energy just to retain that form.  Then a large amount of energy (or an event as Dick called it) comes along and the form is changed.  The creation/landscape is a result of how the energy is put together, the pattern, change the pattern and you change your landscape.  A simple system/pattern, always results in a simple ecosystem, which we all decided we don’t want.

Dick told of an example of two properties he knew in the same area  one had a set rotation with 150 paddocks and 2000 cows on one day moves good things had happened but the soil was dead and lifeless at depth. The other had a confused system with no set pattern some paddocks were missed and others grazed too long, the stock and pastures were in much better condition than on the other property.  This is difficult as most farmers want a “recipe”, then they just go down to the local farm supplier and buy the ingredients, this “recipe thinking” is a bad recipe for biodiversity.

In order to define change you need to identify the extremes and so Dick explained the extremes as he sees them:


Sabbath – In the bible it talks about complete rest for a farm every 7 years, with the increased production from surrounding years more than making up for the year out.


Landscaping – This is where the term “Holocaust or Ballistic Management”  comes from, this is really skinning the land out, followed by long rest can result in very palatable species.  The South African example Dick gave to back this up was ‘accidentally’ grazing a paddock at high densities for twice as long as was intended ( 2 days instead of 1) leading to removal of significant biomass.  The paddock recovered and two observations were made in the following 12-24 months; 1) the grass in the ‘skinned’ paddock had a deeper green colouring compared to neighbouring paddocks, and 2) the recovered plants were more palatable ie. the stock ‘really’ did not want to leave that paddock even after having completed a scheduled graze.  A further observation some seven years later, after the property had been leased to a third party (and not using the same approach to grazing management rather a patterned grazing approach), was that the skinned paddock returned to align with other paddocks in quality and quantity of biomass.

Landscaping was normally achieved through a second grazing which was done two weeks after the first with dry or young stock and the process of doing this turned the performance of these young stock around from losing 10 kg over the winter to gaining 20 kg, even while there wasn’t much bulk left in the paddock.


Priority Grazing – This is focussing on specific paddocks and then grazing to really stimulate the land, quick rotations, high intensity, grazing keeping the grass green and growing. Priority grazing was either toe grazing  where stock returned to a paddock whenever the grass got back to toe high or Cage grazing where a 2M x 1M cage is rotated through 90 degrees after each grazing to protect 1/2 of the cage area and use the protected area as the benchmark to regraze when the recovered feed reaches the height of the protected feed.     A “Grazing cage” is used in order to measure:

  • the rate of recovery
  • Potential for regrowth

While the majority of the land is managed in the middle, between the 3 points, it is very important to understand the place of the extremes, the energy they bring and therefore the change they create.  Change has a ripple effect, like a stone thrown in the water, so while a big stone has big ripples, they don’t last any longer than a smaller stone, so you may need to follow a large change with a series of smaller ones in order to see significant on ground change.

To help us with change it is important to understand:

How plants feed and build soils

  1. Provide a liquid carbon pathway
  2. through the ethylene cycle
  3. Sloughing roots (death, shedding and peeling off of the unwanted roots)
  4. Physical root action
  5. Litter which facilitates ecological function (Litter is not the king it facilitates biological activity. A bit of bare soil is natural)
  6.  Mineral cycle – Plants eaten, turned to dung, returned to soil.
  7. Root pruning
  8.  Trapping soil and water
  9.  Hydraulic management (litter facilitates this)

Compaction from hoof action is an issue and does happen , it can be beaten by biological activity.

On one place in the southern Riverina they grazed one set of paddocks 14 times from the start of spring til Christmas as it kept raining and had a dramatic long lasting improvement in productivity

When you are grazing a green or growing grass system (Open system) you control the energy that goes into the system. On the open side of the equation when feed is growing you don’t know what quantity or quality you will end up with. Then at the end of the growing season you move into the closed season when you plan the time you have to use the feed accumulated in the open season.  when you graze mature/dry grass (closed system) you control how much energy you take out.

∆’s (Change’s) in Grazing

  1. Timing
  2. Intensity
  3. Frequency
  4. Type of Stock. (Sheep can have a higher animal impact than cattle.)
  5. State of mind of stock
  6. Intent (What you are trying to achieve with that graze?)


Following the beautiful selection of homemade soups and stews that were on offer for lunch (Thanks to Gemma and Jenny), we headed out to one of the nearby cell centres to ‘chew the fat’.  We saw some of the infrastructure that Glenn had installed including the single wire (approx 700mm above ground level) electric fence with steel posts approx 30-40m apart with 200-300mm diameter treated pine end posts (unstayed).  The paddocks were in the order of 100-250Ha and each group of 4 paddocks were watered by one central 5,000 gal cup and saucer water tank with dual float valves.  The stock water system comprised, in part, a loop system of 63mm poly pipe that connected a bore, turkeys nest and pump on the Culgoa river.  This system gave a combination of backup and flexibility.

Other points:

  • “Stock in high densities don’t graze” They have no opportunity to select what feed they require, this can result in lower productivity.
  • Don’t skimp on costs when putting in your watering system, needs to be >2ltrs/sec to the trough
  • “Stress is the result of not knowing when pressure will be released”
  • 90% of temporary fencing is not use after 10 years. 90% of people stop cell grazing after 10 years when progress halts.
  • Holistic Management / Cell grazing was invented by ecologists not farmers. If stock are doing poorly then you are not making money
  • Whatever happens in a paddock or on a patch of land is simply called an “event”, so there is no right or wrong as such, simply better or worse events.  Any impact you have with grazing can be repaired, with another event.
  • It is almost impossible, without technology (chemicals and/or diesel) to damage country.
  • Repetition of the same management regime is a recipe for moribund grasses and scrub encroachment. Variability in thinking creates sweetness in livestock, people and environment.
  • Dick spoke of listening to animals and the plants about what their needs are to perform at their best.
  • Animals select different parts of plants at different times of the day
Glenn Humbert talking about his grazing system on "Gurrawarra"

Glenn Humbert talking about his grazing system on “Gurrawarra”


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