Natives fodder for thought

Headshot of Jenne Brammer
Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

Wheatbelt farmers are enjoying success by turning degraded land into productive areas, through an innovative program run by Greening Australia.

The program, currently targeting the North Mortlock catchment, involves planting native fodder shrubs on areas deemed unsuitable for cropping, therefore boosting stock feed while helping the environment.

Greening Australia Avon development officer David Collins said the project intended not just to make the areas more environmentally sustainable, but to also have the benefit of increasing stock feed during autumn when other sources of feed are typically sparse.

"The aim is to turn unproductive land into productive land. And in a sense it's revegetation by stealth," he said.

The current funding can cover any area in the North Mortlock catchment and there are about 800ha across 30 properties, stretching from Beverley to Bonnie Rock.

Any land considered unproductive could qualify, whether saline, acidic, non-wetting, inaccessible to machinery or low lying and therefore highly susceptible to frosts.

Greening Australia estimates that of the 678,000ha included within the North Mortlock catchment as much as 10 to 15 per cent may be considered to have low productivity.

Mr Collins said that meant there was plenty of scope to expand the project further.

He said Greening Australia would work with landholders to fence off the area and plant the shrubs via a combination of direct seeding (using machinery specifically developed for native plants) and seedlings. But they expect some participation in the input costs from farmers, whether it's supplying tractors or drivers, fencing or weed and insect controls.

"In the first year we did everything, but are moving away from that now," Mr Collins said.

"Farmers have much more ownership and they are happy to invest more into the work."

More than 30 different native species are planted, the majority in the saltbush, bluebush, rhagodia or chenopodium families. Taller plants such as acacia and casuarina are also included, the intention being to provide the added benefit of shade.

The sites cannot be grazed for three to five years to enable shrubs to become established. At this point the area is handed back to the farmers and can be used for managed grazing.

"How the sites are utilised is up to the individual farmer's discretion, but most are likely to graze sheep over the autumn when other feed sources are scarce," Mr Collins said.

A further benefit of these shrubs is all plants are high in crude protein and vitamin E, which is particularly scarce during autumn.

On some sites there is further monitoring of water table levels or soil-carbon and nutrient levels. Bird Life Australia is also monitoring some areas.

Jennacubbine farmer Peter Watson had 12ha planted to the fodder shrubs four years ago. He plans to introduce up to 200 wet ewes on the area this autumn, marking his first grazing of the area since the shrubs were established.

But he is no newcomer to fodder shrubs.

Mr Watson has independently been planting saltbush on other areas of his farm for many years (a further 38ha), being one of the first farmers in WA to do so.

He expects a lower sheep feed bill this year as a result of the Greening Australia revegetation project and said the project has turned a negative drain on his property into a positive.

Likewise, Southern Brook farmer Nathan Lawrence has had 50ha revegetated and is expected to increase this by a further 30ha over the next two years.

His contribution was putting up rips and mounds and the area was already fenced several years ago.

He lightly grazed sheep for the first time last year, after establishing the area in 2012.

He said by turning this land into a productive grazing area, he was able to crop more of the property he farms with his father Allen.

"It's not just the financial benefits," Mr Lawrence said.

"The area is far more appealing.

"This used to look like a desert, now it looks like natural bush line.

"It has also reduced erosion on surrounding areas and we are starting to see some signs of wildlife returning."

Mr Collins said while the program had received an excellent response, some farmers often still found it difficult to take land out of production for up to five years.

The project, including trials and demonstrations, has been financed by more than $700,000 from the Federal Government's Caring for our Country funds, with further assistance from a small community grant through the Wheatbelt NRM Soil Conservation Incentives Program.

The project has been able to continue to 2017 through a $2.9m grant from the Federal Government's Biodiversity Fund.

Mr Collins said Greening Australia was planning to roll out similar programs around the Peel and Albany regions.

For the project in the North Mortlock catchment, Greening Australia advertises annually for expressions of interest for farmers keen to take part.

There is also a big promotion each year at the Dowerin field days, which Mr Collins said had been successful in raising awareness.

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