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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
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UNIT 6

Do the $$$’s stack up?

 

6.1  Production benefits from saltland pastures

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Direct value of additional feed

Establishing saltland pastures on saltland increases the area of grazing land available on a property and the total farm feed supply. Averaged across 21 of the SGSL grower network farms in Western Australia, an extra 810 sheep grazing days per hectare per year (ranging from 400 to 2400) were available across a variety of saltland pasture types.

These findings are backed up by the experiences of other farmers. For example, Tony and Simon York at Tammin in WA have about 2000 ha of saline land that they began ‘revegetating’ with bluebush and saltbush back in the 1980s. This has allowed them to run an extra 1000 ewes, while at the same time cropping an extra 1100 ha.

In the south east of South Australia, James Darling’s cattle enterprise utilises more than 500 ha of pure puccinellia and over 1000 ha of puccinellia mixed pasture that can include tall wheatgrass, strawberry and sub-clovers, phalaris and perennial rye. He finds that puccinellia is reliable, it lengthens the growing season, it is resilient, and it provides predictable, good quality cattle feed especially during the most demanding time of the year - autumn.

In some cases, where waterlogging is more of a problem than salinity itself, careful selection and management of plants can provide higher levels of feed production than on adjacent non-saline sites. Andrew Southwell (NSW) started revegetating his saline land in the early 1990s and says “Over the 1990s we progressively subdivided paddocks and improved the pastures on our good land. We also fenced off and sowed our saltland with a ‘shotgun’ mix of tall wheatgrass, puccinellia, fescue, phalaris, ryegrass, cocksfoot, strawberry clover and white clover. We now have about 120 ha across both properties under our saltland system. We have recorded what all our paddocks carry over a 12-month period, and surprisingly the saltland carries 11 DSE/ha/year on average, while the improved pastures on non-saline land carry only 8 DSE/ha/year!” 

Michael Lloyd from Lake Grace in WA has established extensive areas of saltbush pastures, consisting of wide spaced rows of saltbush with a sown legume understorey. These pastures are capable of supporting 7 growing animals per ha for 9 months of the year on land with low/moderate salinity in the low rainfall wheat belt of Western Australia (330 mm annual rainfall). This stocking rate is higher than district average stocking rates for pastures that are not salt-affected.

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Out-of-season feed

On most farms, the value of any additional feed changes considerably during the year, being lowest in spring when pasture is usually plentiful, and is often highest in late summer and autumn when pasture is scarce and/or of low quality. One of the valuable elements of saltland is that salty sites often stay wet for longer periods, so they can provide green feed at times when it is not readily available from non-saline paddocks.

Research in Western Australia has shown that the ability of saltland pastures to fill seasonal feed gaps can be the difference between highly profitable and not profitable. One study showed that on a 2000 ha farm with 200 ha of saline land, most of the profit came from the first 50 ha of saltland pasture, profit was maximised when 115 ha of saltland pasture was established and further saltland pastures were uneconomic. 115 ha of saltland pasture filled the autumn feed gap on that farm, and any further saltland pasture establishment was not profitable. 

Michael Blake (Hamilton, Victoria) has about 200 ha of salt affected land under tall wheatgrass/balansa/strawberry clover pasture which he grazes rotationally. He has increased the carrying capacity of this land from 2.5 DSE to 26 DSE, but believes that the added value is that he has green feed through summer and autumn. Economic modeling showed that the gains in carrying capacity resulted in annual increases in gross margin per hectare of up to $162 by year 3 and that the payback time on the investment was only 5 years.

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Optimising use of resources

The uniqueness of saltland pastures can add flexibility to many farm operations, provided they are seen not as stand-alone features of the farm, but as an integral part of the farm system. While increased carrying capacity and out-of-season feed are clear advantages, the opportunity to change from low-profit high-risk cropping on land prone to waterlogging and salinity to profitable grazing is hard to resist. 

Ted Beare and Martin Wilkinson (Snowtown, SA) find that their 200 ha of saltbush provides an opportunity to spell newly seeded ley paddocks in their mixed cropping and grazing enterprises.

The Stopp brothers (Brian, Gordon and Neville) at Keith, also in SA, graze their 400 ha of puccinellia-based saltland in a manner that complements their other farm enterprises – cropping and lucerne seed production.

“Puccinellia has proved to be an excellent pasture for our sheep. It provides a nutritious seed-free environment for weaners before shearing in November and quality dry feed in autumn to extend the paddock rotation when the lucerne is becoming less active. The saltland was relatively cheap land, but managed carefully, it is very good sheep breeding country. With its combination of flats and hills, abundant shelter and perennial pastures we achieve 120 per cent lambing with cross-breds and 100 pc with merinos. Cross-bred weaners can be brought back to the more productive home property and finished on grain and lucerne stubbles. In this way it nicely complements our cropping and seed production enterprises.”

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More efficient wool production

Recent research has shown an interesting side benefit from elevated salt concentrations in forage is that feed is converted more efficiently into wool. Saltbush can have up to 30% salt in its leaves. Figure 6.1 shows that the amount of wool grown per kilogram of feed intake can increase by up to 25%, across a range of diet types, when sodium chloride is included in the laboratory diet at up to 20%. Similar improvements in efficiency have been observed in sheep consuming saltbush. This improvement is probably related to changes in protein digestion in the stomach.

Figure 6.1 – Relative efficiency of wool production (with zero salt = 1.0) vs % salt in the diet

Figure 6.1

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Other benefits

There are a range of other benefits that have been reported from saltland pastures, some of which are well proven, others are more anecdotal:

  • Animal health benefits. Saltland pastures contain compounds that influence animal production and health - for example, it has recently been shown that saltbush is a good source of vitamin E over summer when sheep are often deficient because of a diet of dry feed. In WA, it has been estimated that over 1 million sheep each year are given vitamin E supplements to overcome this deficiency. Vitamin E deficiency is a particular problem in growing weaners experiencing their first summer. In addition, farmers report that grazing saltbush reduces worm burdens and drenching requirements. While it is not clear whether this is a direct effect of saltbush in the diet or the different grazing habit required to browse shrubs, the outcome is a benefit to the sheep.
     
  • Improved meat production. Moderate amounts of salt in the diet leads to a reduction in fat and an increase in protein in the carcass, a very desirable outcome for prime lambs. Vitamin E (e.g. from saltbush over summer) has been clearly shown to improve the shelf-life and colour of meat. There is anecdotal evidence that sheep grazing saline pastures has improved eating quality – ‘saltbush lamb’ has been marketed as a niche product for many years. However, this improvement in eating quality has not been confirmed in scientific studies.
     
  • A seed-free environment for lambs. In areas where grass seeds create significant problems for lambs, some saltland pastures can provide a relatively seed-free pasture. This is seen as a particular advantage for puccinellia pastures in the extensive saline areas of the upper south east of SA.
     
  • Risk Management. The feed value from saltland pastures offers some buffering against poor seasons. In particular, saltbush and perennial grasses on saltland can often be quite productive during dry times because of the extra groundwater they can access. These saltland pastures are also capable of responding well to any summer rain that does occur.
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