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Unit 1 - What's in it for me?
Unit 2 - Saltland Basics
Unit 3 - Can I trust the technology?
Unit 4 - Plant and animal performance
Unit 5 - Sheep, cattle and conservation
Unit 6 - Do the $$$'s stack up?
Unit 7 - The saltland toolbox
Site Assessment
Solution 1: Exclude grazing
Solution 2: Volunteer pasture
Solution 3: Saltbush
Solution 4: Saltbush & Understorey
Solution 5: Tall Wheatgrass
Solution 6: Puccinellia
Solution 7: Vegetative grasses
Solution 8: Temperate perennials
Solution 9: Sub-tropicals
Solution 10: Legumes
Solution 11: Revegetation
Solution 12: Messina
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UNIT 3

Can I trust the technology?

 

3.1  Backed by R&D?

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Options for the management and productive use of saltland in southern Australia are well supported through extensive research, development and implementation of results

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Early research

The acknowledged ‘father’ of saltland agronomy in Australia, the late Clive Malcolm, spent more than 50 years working on solutions for saline land. To commemorate his 50 years of effort in 2004, the Department of Agriculture WA published a small booklet Golden Pastures – 50 years of saltland agronomy in Western Australia

Golden Pastures records that in 1950 widespread concern about rising levels of salinity in the wheatbelt prompted a report on salinity by CSIRO. As a result, the (WA) Agriculture Department established the Soil Research and Survey Section, which Clive Malcolm joined as a new recruit. As Clive told it, “We were pioneers in the area of saltland agronomy and had to start all phases of the research from scratch.”

The early focus was on establishment, with initial trials using old man saltbush, creeping saltbush and bluebush. From this work, three principles became evident and they still apply today – fence the site; cultivate to create a niche for the seeds and to increase infiltration; and sow appropriate species of plants.

More than a thousand lines of salt-tolerant forage were collected internationally and from the pastoral regions of WA, to be tested in the nursery and subsequently throughout the wheatbelt. The best introductions were wavy leaf saltbush from Argentina and quailbrush from California, but even these were no substitute for river saltbush (from the pastoral zone) which scored highly when it came to growth rates, plant habit and recovery from grazing.

In the 1960s, CSIRO released puccinellia (from Turkey), while tall wheatgrass was held back because of its potential to act as a host for wheat rust.

In 1994, Agriculture WA researchers showed that most of the apparent weight gain associated with sheep fed saltbush was in fact simply extra water intake to compensate for the salt-rich diet. At a time when wool prices were at historic lows, this had the immediate effect of diverting interest away from saltbush pastures and withdrawal of support for further research.

These research results seemed inconsistent with the experience of farmers who had grazed sheep on saltbush, prompting further investigations which showed that real weight gains were possible in paddock situations where saltbush was not the sole fodder component. This encouraged farmers and some researchers continued to pursue options for productive use of saline land.

In 2003, Clive Malcolm re-visited 270 saltland pasture sites across the WA wheatbelt, some dating back to the 1950s to assess the sustainability of saltland pastures in a project sponsored by the CRC Salinity. About 75% of these sites were still providing good grazing, particularly where they had relief from the grazing pressure of set stocking.

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PUR$L

Until the late 1990s saltland was the ‘unfashionable’ area of salinity research, with the majority of funding and effort going into R&D that focussed on reducing recharge so as to ‘prevent’ salinity.

Much of the research on plants and systems for saline discharge areas was driven by a national network of enthusiasts – researchers, farmers and extension agents – under the banner of Productive Use and Rehabilitation of Saline Lands (PUR$L). The PUR$L group articulated a vision for saltland as a potentially useful resource for profitable industries in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, aquaculture, minerals and energy, all guided by research conducted in a collaborative environment.

Recognising the value in sharing expertise and experience in salinity management, the PUR$L group coordinated 10 national conferences and workshops from 1990 to 2005. Tatura VIC 1990, Adelaide SA 1992, Echuca VIC 1994, Albany WA 1996, Tamworth NSW 1999, Naracoorte SA 1999, Launceston TAS 2001, Fremantle WA 2002, Yepoon QLD 2003 and Cowra NSW in 2005. Each workshop attempted to meet needs of the state organisation and local community which hosted it.

More than 400 papers were presented at these workshops, and this website will host the proceedings from the 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005 workshops in the near future. The proceedings of earlier workshops are being added to the site, so all papers will eventually be available.

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National Dryland Salinity Program

The National Dryland Salinity Program (NDSP) was the first national attempt to better understand the causes, impacts, costs and management options for preventing and/or overcoming dryland salinity. Phase 1 of the NDSP began in July 1993 to improve the coordination of research, development and extension into the better management of dryland salinity across rural Australia. Phase 2 began in July 1998, and built on Phase 1, by overtly recognising that dryland salinity represented an enormous challenge to a diverse range of stakeholders, including farmers and rural businesses, catchment managers and government officials associated with public infrastructure affected by or at risk from rising watertables and salinity.

Between 1993 and 2004, NDSP research and development activities focussed on reducing the salinity problem by reducing the cause – groundwater recharge. However, the NDSP made some significant contributions to saltland R&D, including:

  1. commissioning the OPUS (Opportunities for Productive Use of Salinity) project to review all the options for salinity management
     
  2. Initiating SALT Magazine – a publication that highlighted farmer success stories in dealing with saline land;
     
  3. Developing a catchment classification system that allowed catchments to be aggregated on the basis of their salinity risk status, the management options available to the catchment community and the opportunities for risk reduction;
     
  4. Providing significant sponsorship to PUR$L conferences;
     
  5. Providing significant support during the establishment of the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands initiative (SGSL).

Knowledge gained through the program was consolidated for stakeholders in “Managing Dryland Salinity in Australia”, a resource kit available from National Dryland Salinity Program (NDSP).  

In conjunction with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the NDSP helped develop a comprehensive information package about understanding and managing dryland salinity within the Murray-Darling Basin – however, the information and tools are more widely applicable.

Download the package

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CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity

The CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity (CRC Salinity) was established in 2001. The underlying goal was to solve the problem of salinity, by restoring to the land the ancient balance between rainfall and plant water-use that existed prior to the replacement of native ecosystems with agricultural crops and pastures. It was envisaged that this would require a 'revolution' in agriculture, with a change to agricultural systems across the landscape on a massive scale – primarily by replacing annual crops and pastures with perennials (crops, pastures, shrubs, trees).

The CRC Salinity was the key provider of research into plant-based management of salinity. Thirty per cent of the CRC’s research focussed specifically on saltland and 70% was directed at recharge management.

A feature of the CRC’s research was the partnership between researchers and farmers where each group learned from the other. This put the research into the real-life context of the grazing industry and farming systems.
This partnership was further developed in the SGSL program where a large network of graziers worked alongside researchers, dramatically streamlining the normal process by which research results are taken up by end users.

Many salinity publications and products about better managing recharge for the prevention of dryland salinity are available  from the Future Farm Industries CRC where CRC Salinity work is continuing.

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Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands

Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (2002-2007) was the first nationally coordinated RD&E initiative to focus on developing solutions for saltland – solutions that were practical, economically viable and ecologically sustainable. SGSL was part of the Land, Water & Wool program, a joint venture between Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) – who initiated the program and provided the funding) and Land & Water Australia (LWA). Meat & Livestock Australia and R&D providers in each of the southern states joined SGSL as partners and co-funders. The main research activities in SGSL were carried out as cooperative ventures with the CRC Salinity.

The core activities in SGSL were 5 major research sites (2 in south-west WA, and one each in SA, Victoria and NSW) and 120 grower network sites.

The WA research developed design principles for focusing saltland plantings into saltland of greatest capacity, optimising the benefits to livestock from grazing saltbush pastures, as well as providing invaluable data on water use by saltbush in a range of environments. These two projects have opened up economic opportunities for more than a million hectares of saltbush-suitable land across southern Australia.

The research in SA and Victoria developed best-bet management systems to optimise profitability and sustainability of saltland using puccinellia and tall wheatgrass based pastures. Graziers now have knowledge that will help them dramatically lift the productivity of pastures that were previously regarded as being of marginal value.

In NSW, research was initially hindered by extended drought conditions but has now determined salt and water movement from saline land under both volunteer/naturalised pasture and salt-tolerant perennial pasture.

120 ‘grower network’ sites in WA, SA, Tasmania, Victoria and NSW enabled grower groups, with technical support from state government agencies, to explore their own questions about saltland options and saltland management.

Each state produced its own unique set of resources for landholders and their advisers, based on the research undertaken at both the core and producer network level. In addition, the SGSL ‘findings’ have been aggregated into the following ‘Theme’ reports:

  1. Salt and water movement in saltland pastures 
  2. Biodiversity in saltland pastures 
  3. Pasture production from saline land 
  4. Animal production from saltland pastures 
  5. Economics of saltland pastures 

This website is the final ‘product’ from SGSL (achieved as a joint venture with the Future Farm Industries CRC) and synthesises all the current information about the management of saltland.

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Future Farm Industries CRC

The Future Farm Industries CRC is structured to reflect a change in strategic direction for salinity R&D. Its “Farming Saline Land” program focuses on salt-affected land and high value assets at immediate risk, developing both plant and engineering management options.

The CRC’s current salinity research is focused on:

  • Selecting new plant cultivars (understorey species and better saltbushes) for saltland;
  • Documenting the benefits that saltbushes can provide animals as a source of Vitamin E; 
  • Developing better site selection tools to define target planting areas;
  • Developing modelling tools to help catchment managers forecast the impact on-site and off-site of different revegetation strategies and drainage options;
  • Integrating engineering and plant options to recover from or prevent salt.

The CRC’s Salinity Knowledge Exchange (SKE) is essentially a ‘wholesaler’ of information about salinity, saltland pastures and related technologies such as engineering solutions. In the first instance it provides knowledge to ‘retailers’ (catchment management organisations, NGOs, farmer organisations, farm advisers and agronomists), but delivers directly to the ‘knowledge consumer’ (farmers) if necessary.

The SKE places particular emphasis on how different plant-based systems for saltland perform in terms of profit and sustainability, much of which has come from the completed SGSL/CRC Salinity projects.

This website has been developed as a joint venture between SGSL and the Future Farm Industries CRC.

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International links

Since Clive Malcolm began saltland pasture research in the 1950s, Australia has been a world leader in saltland pastures R&D.

The First International Salinity Forum held in California in 2006 provided an overview of international experiences with salt-tolerant pastures. Although salinity in some countries is about salts other than sodium chloride, there was a lot to suggest that Australia is at the forefront of research and practical experience with saltland agronomy.

Much of the agronomic research presented to the Forum from research groups outside Australia focused on plants suited to irrigation with recycled saline water, particularly turf grasses - specifically grasses suitable for golf courses.

The second International Salinity Forum was held in Adelaide in 2008.

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Future prospects

Most current Australian saltland R&D is being conducted by the Future Farm Industries CRC. In December 2007, the FFI CRC published Saltland Prospects – Prospects for Profit and Pride from Saltland

Saltland Prospects is a major in-depth publication designed especially for farm consultants, advisers, agronomists and farmers keen to investigate what profitable options are available for salt-affected farmland. It combines research and farmer case studies from SGSL and the CRC Salinity with existing knowledge, and provides regional analyses of the prospects for successful saltland management. Key conclusions of the publication are:

  • Improving saltland can enhance the robustness and flexibility of an enterprise, by providing additional grazing options. It increases risk management options for mixed farms by offering a greater capacity to alter the cropping/grazing mix according to market signals and climate forecasts.
     
  • A range of plants exist that can provide significant levels of biomass and support animal production on saltland. From these options, producers are realising a range of benefits. Looking into the future, the emergence of profitable salt-tolerant grains is a possibility, adding further to the resilience of production systems faced with saltland and rising watertables.
     
  • It is the combination of pasture and livestock management that is critical to profitable returns from saltland. Managing higher stocking rates, whether within rotational or set stocking systems, demands greater pasture management as well as animal management skills, but the returns can be significant.
     
  • Managing saltland improves the resilience and function of landscapes. The dynamics between soils, water, biota and nutrients can be improved by managing saltland with salt-tolerant pastures.
     
  • Social factors can also be powerful influences for change – farmers gain personal satisfaction, confidence and pride from successfully managing saltland. Social benefits often outweigh economic considerations in making decisions about saltland management.
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