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SOLUTION 2

Fence and volunteer pasture

 

2.1  Fence & volunteer pasture in a nutshell

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A quick summary

When the late Clive Malcolm began saltland pasture research in the 1950s, 3 principles quickly became apparent:

  1. Fence the site.
  2. Cultivate to create a niche for the seed.
  3. Sow appropriate species of plants.

These principles highlight the understandable desire of researchers to bring ‘pasture improvement’ to saline land, and the consequent focus of saltland research from the 1950s to the present.

  The Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) initiative established 120 farm sites (as well as 5 core research sites) on saltland across WA, SA, Vic, Tas and NSW.  On many of the farm sites the particular ‘treatment’ the farmer group wished to test was established, and compared to a ‘control’. Similarly, the research sites had control areas. These control areas were fenced off and grazed conservatively. In a significant number of cases, ‘pasture production’ from the control plots was surprising – simply fencing-off the saline sites from the rest of the paddock, and grazing them conservatively, resulted in significant improvements in groundcover and productivity.  The costs associated with the control plots were minimised (fencing only) and the risk of failure was reduced. However for highly saline/waterlogged sites, this approach will often only result in the establishment of samphire, which has no commercial value as outlined in Saltland Solution 1 – Fence and exclude from grazing.

 Data from the research sites from the SGSL program was examined to provide more information on the value of the fence and volunteer option. The analysis concluded that total farm profits are higher after establishing an improved pasture than from the fence and volunteer pasture option, but where there were favourable seed sources available to regenerate the area the fence and volunteer pastures resulted in a higher marginal return on investment.

As the costs associated with the fence and volunteer pasture option are significantly lower, the farmer is exposed to less financial risk. The only significant risk is that the pasture that ‘establishes’ once the fence goes up, may not be up to expectations or the type of pasture the farmer wantsand the time taken for the site to regenerate is prolonged. This risk is mitigated by the fact that fencing and volunteer pasture does not preclude a later decision to sow improved saltland species.

As outlined in this Saltland Strategy, the role of fencing and volunteer pasture offers an option  because of its low cost, high marginal return, low risk and ease of implementation.

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History

One of the great problems with patches of saltland within a larger paddock is overgrazing. Sheep in particular are highly attracted to saltland partly because it tends to be cool (ie damp) to lie on, and also because they are attracted to the salt itself and the salty plants growing there. Many saline areas are completely bare, not because they are so saline as to prevent plants establishing, but simply because the livestock have eaten any plants down to the ground. Thus ‘fencing’ has been a key management criterion since the early days of saltland research.

Looking back on the early saltland pasture work, there were hints of how a fence and volunteer pasture strategy might work. The late Clive Malcolm outlined a “low cost revegetation strategy” based on the ability of bluebush and samphire to colonise salt land easily - “Several bushes of each, with correct management, will produce a dense stand in a few years”. Clive took this approach even further, suggesting that if saltland ‘revegetation’ (cultivation of the bare crusted areas) was undertaken during the time a paddock was in crop, then even fencing could be eliminated so long as heavy grazing of the stubbles was not planned.

photo history of a bare saline scald gradually transformed into a productive saltland pasture over a 5 year period was presented in the first edition of Saltland Pastures in Australia. This book is now out of print but the photos are attached. 

Early farmer anecdotes also hinted at the value of fencing and grazing management. A case study from the early 1990s about Des Pauley, who farmed at Dudinin in the WA wheatbelt, was mainly about success with the establishment and management of saltland pastures. Des commented “Controlled grazing has allowed samphire and some saltbushes to colonise previously bare areas and the ‘bulk’ provided in the perennial grazing systems is a useful summer resource.”

The Fence and volunteer pasture option has not been the subject of dedicated research as many of the other saltland solutions have been, but through these early stories and the SGSL initiative, it has gained  credence and has emerged as a legitimate option if the seed stock is present of palatable species of salt tolerant plants.

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