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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
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Solution 7: Vegetative grasses
Solution 8: Temperate perennials
Solution 9: Sub-tropicals
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Solution 11: Revegetation
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SOLUTION 2

Fence and volunteer pasture

 

2.3  What are the benefits?

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Production

There are few records showing the actual production levels from volunteer pasture on saline land.  Figure 2.1 shows that for a saline site in western Victoria, the volunteer pasture that contained a significant proportion of saltwater couch grass produced about half the dry matter achieved by the improved pastures. In the absence of other data, this is probably at the upper level of what might be expected from volunteer pasture.

In another of the SGSL research projects productivity of volunteer pasture was assessed at two sites (Tammin and Yealering) in the wheatbelt of WA.

The productivity of the volunteer pasture was similar across the two sites, providing an average of 914kg of dry matter per ha (available in autumn) or an average of 255 grazing days per ha (for mature wethers). Merino sheep grazing unimproved saltland grew an average of 2.6kg of clean wool/ha each year. The potential of the volunteer pasture is significantly underestimated in this study because it was not grazed until autumn, as a comparison to saltbush based pastures, when its quality had declined significantly.

At Tammin, WA, the more saline site, the differences in biomass production between volunteer pasture and mature saltbush stands with volunteer under-storey were significant, but relatively small. The saltbush with volunteer under-storey provided 30% more grazing days in 2 of the 3 autumn grazing periods – sowing improved under-storey species gave no additional gain.

At Yealering, WA, a less saline site, there were large differences between a saltbush-based pasture (saltbush and sown under-storey) and volunteer pasture. In autumn, the saltbush and sown under-storey area provided 2-4 times more grazing days per ha compared to volunteer pasture.

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Water use

There are no research results available but it would be expected that volunteer pastures would typically use less water than sown saltland pastures.

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Amenity and environmental

As with the other potential benefits that may be associated with fencing and volunteer pastures on saline land, there is little or no scientific information available so we have to draw likely inferences from other saltland pasture species and situations.

One exception is the SGSL site in NSW, where the improvement in a control site (ie volunteer pasture) over time was recorded. Between Spring 2003 and Winter 2006, the amount of bare ground in the volunteer pasture declined from 31% to 11%. This improved groundcover was the same as that achieved by the sown saltland pasture. 

Farmer case studies have consistently shown that while profitability is the major consideration in the way successful farmers run their businesses, it has a much lower impact on decisions associated with managing saline land. This is partly because most farms have salinity on only relatively small areas (the national average is about 20ha but in the eastern states it is more likely to be 10ha), and partly because saltland is a highly visible blight on the farm landscape.

The key to most of the amenity and environmental benefits from revegetating saltland is groundcover. For the environment this involves reducing surface soil evaporation and salt build-up, protecting the soil from erosion, all as the basis for re-establishing some floral and faunal biodiversity. For amenity this involves establishing green and growing plants on previously bare saline scalds. This improved visual amenity is a strong motivator for many farmers revegetating saline land, so if the primary goal of revegetation is not economic, then fencing and promoting revegetation is an attractive option.

It is also worth noting that research in the United States has shown that landscape amenity is the best predictor of rural area population change. That is, those areas with the good landscape amenity either increase in population, or do not decline as dramatically as areas with poor visual amenity. The trend is likely to be similar in Australia, and bare saline land, often with associated dead trees, is not visually uplifting.

As reported in Section 2.3, an economic analysis across two farms in NSW indicated environmental gains from a fence and volunteer pasture strategy. The report stated: Farm B landholder considers significant environmental benefit (without loss of productivity) can be gained at low cost by simply changing grazing management on saline areas. Results from this grazing management approach show, in paddocks previously with significant areas of scalding, bare ground has been revegetated and species diversity has improved to a level equal to elsewhere on the property. In particular, these areas now contain more species of native perennial grasses than are present on other areas of the farm.

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How do the $$$s stack up?

With the fence and volunteer pasture option the significant cost associated with pasture establishment is not incurred. While the production from a volunteer pasture is lower (a rule of thumb is that volunteer pastures will produce up to half the feed of a sown pasture), the fact that the costs are lower make the overall economics of the fence and volunteer pasture option attractive without significant productivity gains. The overall benefit needs to be assessed with the effect of how long the volunteer pasture takes to establish and when it can be profitably grazed and what the potential gains might be with pasture establishment. This can be done by seeking out local experience, but the more saline the site the more marginal are the gains from establishing a saltland pasture.

The SGSL initiative showed that across southern Australia, saltland pastures could provide a profitable investment. The final report from the SGSL Economics Theme stated “Introducing improved pasture species to salt affected land to increase the feed value for livestock is profitable across a broad range of environments, production conditions and commodity price assumptions, according to the results of this study.”

The profitability of the fence and volunteer pasture option was not specifically examined because of the way the experiments were designed. Saline sites were selected and a control established. However, this control was not left in its original state (often bare/overgrazed), but was fenced and conservatively grazed. In other words, the control plots were the fence and volunteer pasture option!

This design had two impacts:

  • The profitability of the improved saltland pasture was underestimated because the control in most experiments was not the unproductive salt land that it was prior to the experiment. The reported levels of profitability were those extra profits from pasture improvement on top of any profits associated with the fence and volunteer pasture option.
     
  • The production/profit gain from the fence and volunteer pasture (or control) sites compared to the original, unimproved site was not measured because any such sites were outside the fenced experimental area.

To try and overcome this unintended bias, a re-examination of the SGSL results was commissioned. The report concludes that:

  • At the assumed levels of production, fencing saltland to control grazing was profitable in all regions. In WA the benefit of fencing is low, about $15/ha, compared with $90/ha in NSW and $60/ha in SA.
     
  • In NSW and SA the increase in profit from fencing and volunteer pasture was higher than the subsequent increase in profit from pasture improvement. This is an important result as fencing provides a substantially cheaper option for management, with less risk of establishment failure, and large potential benefits.
     
  • In contrast, for a drier, more Mediterranean site in the wheatbelt of WA, the increase from fencing was much less than the subsequent increase from pasture improvement. The reason for this is that in Western Australia pasture improvement involves planting saltbush which enables the growth of considerably more forage that is available at a time when farm feed is in short supply ie autumn.

  • Total farm profit is higher from improved pasture than from the fence and volunteer pasture option but the cost and effort are also higher. The fence and volunteer pastures option resulted in a higher marginal return on the investment than that achieved for the improved pastures;
     
  • As the costs associated with the fence and volunteer pasture option are significantly lower, the farmer is exposed to less financial risk.

Though not discussed in the report, the adoption of fencing and volunteer pasture does not preclude a later decision to improve the pasture, allowing a staging of the total expense over time even if an improved saltland pasture is the ultimate aim.

A different economic analysis in NSW showed that for one farm the return to extra capital invested in sown saltland pasture was around 14%, but the net present value was lower than for volunteer pasture on the saline area. This occurred because on a whole farm basis because there is a significant cost associated with establishing the saltland pasture. On this farm, after year 1, the net cash flow for the sown pasture option was a total of $14,280 behind the net cash flow for the volunteer pasture because of the establishment costs. While the investment in the saltland pasture was profitable and was paid back by the 5th year of the sown pasture, the running cash flow balance from the investment failed to overtake the volunteer saltland pasture over the 10 years of the investment analysis.

There is the additional benefit that with fence and volunteer grazing, a farmer’s budget for saltland improvement will allow more saltland to be brought under good management than for other options that involve expenditure on pasture establishment.

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