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SOLUTION 3

Dense saltbush plantings

 

3.1  Dense saltbush plantings in a nutshell

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A quick summary

This option refers to the growth of saltbush in dense (>1,000 stems/ha) plantations. These dense plantings are mainly old man and river saltbush (Australian natives), and sometimes include wavy leaf saltbush (introduced from Argentina), but all are Atriplex species established as either seedlings (lower risk but higher cost) or by direct seeding (higher risk but lower cost). These dense plantings all have some volunteer annual under-storey but the density of the planting severely limits the opportunity for under-storey species.

Profitability is typically quite low (~$5-6/ha), but the system has low maintenance costs after establishment and can persist indefinitely. Saltbush can be heavily crash-grazed as long as there is sufficient recovery time. Many systems are grazed back to the sticks every autumn as saltbush stands are a great place to supplementary feed sheep in autumn without risking soil erosion. Research has shown that saltbush should be grazed in autumn rather than left to drop leaves. For more information, see Saltbush Biomass in a Saline Grazing System.

Dense saltbush plantings are suited to land of moderate-high salinity and little waterlogging. It is no longer widely recommended where Saltland Solution 4 – Saltbush and under-storey - is possible. This is because Saltland Solution 4 has lower establishment costs, is more productive and profitable, and generally provides for easier management of sheep.

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History

Historically, ‘saltbush country’ has been held in high esteem by pastoralists across southern Australia – especially for sheep grazing. Most of the native saltbush country was not saline, but ‘saltbush’ does accumulate salt in its leaves, and can be highly tolerant of salinity. In NSW, saltbush is viewed as a pasture option for both saline and non-saline land. For more information, see Getting the best from old man saltbush

The pioneer saltbush researcher for saltland rehabilitation was Clive Malcolm,WA, while Alan Wilson did complementary studies on rangelands in NSW. Some accounts of early farmer experiences of saltbush grazing are given in the “Golden Pastures” booklet.

Research published in 1994 was very negative with respect to the nutritive value of saltbush pastures. A paper by Warren and Casson was presented to the PUR$L conference in 1994 titled “Sheep and saltbush – are they compatible?”

This research was based on feeding trials with saltbush where the sheep had little or no access to under-storey, and it dramatically dampened interest in saltbush and saltland pastures for several years. Poor wool prices and the move towards continuous cropping further impacted on interest in saltland pastures during the mid 1990s.

By the late 1990s wool and lamb prices were improving, and farmer experience with saltbush and other saltland pastures were proving much more positive than indicated by the researchers. The Saltland Pastures Association (SPA) was formed in 1997, and it chair, Michael Lloyd, became a leading farmer advocate for saltbush in particular and saltland pastures in general. His paper to the 1998 PUR$L conference (titled ‘Saltland pastures – saltland profit’) helped kick-start a resurgence in interest in saltbush.

By the late 1990s, researchers were beginning to argue that the main benefit of saltbush might be in lowering watertables sufficiently to enable the establishment and growth of under-storey species that were relatively productive and nutritious but not so salt tolerant. In a paper to the 1998 PUR$L conference, Barrett-Lennard and Ewing said “In our vision of the new model of saltland pasture, the components of the system would have different roles. The perennial species would be mainly responsible for the transpiration of groundwater, the lowering of water tables and the reduction of surface soil salinity. They would also decrease wind and water erosion. This would enable better growth of annuals. The annual species would be mainly responsible for production of fodder and the generation of farm income.”

This insight led to the development of saltbush alley farming systems with annual pasture under-storey – which is Saltland Solution 4, now the most widely recommended saltland pasture system for the lower rainfall areas.

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Identifying saltbush

Saltbush are woody shrubs with leaves that accumulate significant amounts of salt that is noticeable when the leaves are tasted. Figures 3.1 to 3.4 below show the SALTdeck cards for the 4 main saltbush species. SALTdeck has been produced to assist with the identification of the 50 most common saltland species. These can be viewed on this website or they ordered from the Land Water and Wool website. The main saltbush species are:

  1. Old man saltbush (figure 3.1). A native of central and southern Australia, old man saltbush is an erect perennial shrub to 2m tall and 1.5m wide. Male and female flowers in terminal clusters, mostly on separate plants. Leaves are irregularly shaped and up to 4cm across. Fruits are fan-shaped to roughly round and up to 6mm wide. Its key features are the tall upright habit and leaf surfaces that are uniformly grey-green.
     
  2. River saltbush (figure 3.2). A native of Gascoyne and Murchison area, WA, river saltbush is a perennial shrub to 2m tall and 4m wide (although generally smaller) that can be prostrate or erect. Stems touching the ground may strike roots and form new plants. Leaves are 1cm-3cm long. Generally, the male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Fruits are woody or papery 2–6mm wide. Flowering is variable depending on seasonal conditions. Its key features are the variable shape of the leaves but they are often characteristically spear-shaped.
     
  3. Wavy-leaf saltbush (figure 3.3). A native of central Argentina, wavy-leaf saltbush is a short-lived perennial shrub to 1m high and up to 1.5m wide. Stems are both erect and low spreading. Low stems trailing on the ground may form roots and new plants. Leaves are 0.5–2cm long, occasionally to about 5cm. Generally male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Fruits are round and soft containing one seed that matures in autumn. Its key features are the wavy (undulate) leaves and stems that are both erect and spreading.
     
  4. Creeping saltbush (figure 3.4). A native to Australia and widespread in all mainland State, the creeping saltbush are short-lived perennials. It is a prostrate perennial sub-shrub to 40cm high. Male and female flowers occur in small clusters in the leaf axils. Plants grow as scattered individuals or in clumps and flower over summer. Its key features are the leaves which are green to grey-green above and whitish below, and the diamond shaped fruit 4–6mm long which are sometimes red and succulent when fresh.

Figure 3.1 – SALTdeck identification card for Old Man saltbush 

Figure 3.2 – SALTdeck identification card for River saltbush 

Figure 3.3 – SALTdeck identification card for Wavy leaf saltbush 

Figure 3.4 – SALTdeck identification card for Creeping saltbush

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