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Unit 6 - Do the $$$'s stack up?
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SOLUTION 6

Puccinellia based pastures

 

6.3  What are the benefits from puccinellia based pastures?

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Production

Puccinellia can be grazed in a number of ways depending on the characteristics of the site and pasture system, seasonal conditions and other feed available on-farm. Most economic benefit is usually gained if puccinellia is used to fill the late summer-autumn feed gap reducing the reliance on expensive supplementary feeding.

While feed quality declines as the plant dries off over the summer period, it still compares favourably with other dry pasture feeds through the summer-autumn period when feed is scarce. However, some supplementation may be required (see ‘Animal nutrition issues’ below), although the puccinellia remains palatable to livestock over summer/autumn when it consists of dead standing material.

Puccinellia plants shoot vigorously following the opening rains, and the feed quality of puccinellia is highest through early winter to late spring. From work done in the Upper South East of SA, the application of Nitrogen (25 kg N/ha as urea) as soon as practicable after the seasonal break gives the best response economically for the production of early winter feed - 1200kgDM/ha compared with 800 kgDM/ha measured at 4 weeks after application.  However, utilising puccinellia based pastures during this time can be problematic given that waterlogging and inundation may be features of the site if puccinellia is a major component of the pasture. Grazing on saltland requires flexibility so that animals are not forced to graze (and therefore potentially damage) waterlogged or inundated pastures. Pugging a site by having animals walking across it is a major cause of damage to soil structure.

Where winter flooding is likely, puccinellia should be grazed sparingly early in the season, to ensure plant shoots can remain above water. During this winter period, stock are better grazed on higher ground, retaining the puccinellia pastures for summer-autumn.

Puccinellia stands commonly support 5 dse/ha. With appropriate management and fertilizer application, dry matter yields can be doubled and stocking rates of 6-8 dse/ha supported. At these stocking rates liveweight gains of over 120kg/ha and clean fleece weights of over 20kg/ha can be achieved. For more information, see Balansa Clover Improves Wool Production on Saline Pastures.

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Water use

A key reason for using perennial species on saltland is often to encourage increased water use and lower water tables in local groundwater flow catchments where the groundwater is not too saline. A major role of saltbush in saltbush and under-storey systems is to dry down the soil over summer and thereby allow the growth of a more productive and nutritious (ie less salt-tolerant) under-storey.

Puccinellia pastures use almost no water over the summer period because they senesce after flowering and seed set in spring, and do not resume growth until the autumn break. If water use is one of the objectives behind establishing a saltland pasture, then puccinellia is not a suitable option. Unlike puccinellia, tall wheatgrass will use water in summer, however for this option to work, the site needs to be somewhat less waterlogged and less saline.

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Amenity & environmental

Improvement in visual amenity is a strong driving force behind many farmers revegetating saltland. Under suitable conditions (high salinity and waterlogging), puccinellia will transform the visual affront of bare scalded areas into productive pastures with a high degree of groundcover.

As well as visual improvement, puccinellia based pastures can significantly slow the build up of salts in the surface soil. Leaving the dry puccinellia based pasture standing over summer, shades the soil and reduces evaporation from the soil surface, thereby reducing the concentration of salts at the soil surface.

In terms of biodiversity value puccinellia based pastures are intermediate between bare salt scalds and remnant native vegetation as measured by Landscape Functional Analysis, and therefore represent a ‘win:win situation’, with better production and environmental outcomes compared to untreated saline areas.

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How do the $$$s stack up?

Farmer experiences

The widespread use of puccinellia based pastures in the upper south east of SA is the strongest indication of its sustainable economic benefit. Farmers would not have established more than 200,000ha of puccinellia based pastures if the dollars did not stack up!

For landholders considering establishing puccinellia based pastures, some economic figures are shown below using farmer examples from the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Land (SGSL) program. Although all the case studies are from SA, only one is from the ‘traditional’ puccinellia area in the upper south east:

  1. Malcolm Schaefer on Kangaroo Island had some salt-affected flats that would support a stocking rate of only 1.5 dse/ha/yr. Stocking rates increased to 5-9 dse/ha/yr following saltland pasture establishment. Greater profits are possible if greater numbers of stock are grazed on the extra feed produced, rather than increasing production from existing animals. Assuming a gross margin of $25/dse and a stocking rate of 7DSE/ha, the pasture needs to last at least 4 years to start returning a profit. If the pasture lasts 15 years, the total profit, discounted to today’s dollars is worth around $350/ha.
     
  2. Farming on the saline coastal flats south of Tumby Bay (Eyre Peninsula), has provided Geoff Kroemer with plenty of motivation for tackling salinity. “When you have 250ha of salt-affected land, two thirds of which only grows samphire, you have to take it seriously,” says Geoff, who runs a mixed enterprise (cereal cropping, pigs and sheep) farm in partnership with his brother John. Of the 250ha of saline flats, previously classed as having a grazing value somewhere between ‘low productivity’ and ‘useless’, 100ha has so far been planted to puccinellia. The improvements in pasture quality equate to a jump in grazing potential from less than 1 dse/ha to 5-8 dse/ha.
     
  3. Brothers Gordon, Neville and Brian Stopp run a mixed enterprise (cropping, lucerne seed, wool and prime lamb) farm near Keith in the upper south east. In this region, sandy rises, dunes and inter-dunal flats sit on top of a highly transmissive regional-scale limestone aquifer. Over the years the brothers have been pioneers in the emerging field of saltland pastures, generating a great deal of knowledge about the value of weed control, fertiliser requirements and grazing management. Nearly all (99%) of their saltland country is now productive under puccinellia. The jump in productivity from scalded saline flats to productive puccinellia pasture following development is in the order of from 0.2-0.5 dse/ha to somewhere in the range of 5-8 dse/ha.

Research results

In the right situations, puccinellia pastures can be highly profitable. Puccinellia based pastures are the only highly profitable option for very waterlogged and saline situations.

A major research project examining the productivity and profitability of puccinellia based pastures was carried out in the upper south east of SA as part of the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Land (SGSL) program. The research project focussed on comparing unimproved saltland with puccinellia based pastures, and then on further improving puccinellia based pastures by introducing balansa clover or by applying nitrogen fertiliser. The SGSL research confirmed the suitability and productivity of puccinellia based pastures for the moderately/highly-saline, waterlogging-prone areas of the upper south east of SA. These benefits are due to a combination of the increased pasture growth and improved nutritive value relative to the previous sea barleygrass-dominant pasture base.

The research project showed that sowing puccinellia pastures increased the maintenance carrying capacity of saltland from an initial 2.4 dse/ha to 6.7 dse/ha. A multi-year gross margin model was used to determine profitability of pasture production systems operating a self-replacing wool flock. Establishment cost for puccinellia pastures was estimated at $175/ha, with the greater stocking rate resulting in an $86/ha improvement in wool enterprise gross margin per year. Thus, at the research sites, the investment in pasture improvement paid for itself within 2 years. With an expected lifespan of at least 10 years, the annual rate of return on capital invested in pasture renovation was calculated at 47% p.a.

Further economic analysis (whole farm rather than gross margin, using a farm with 2000ha of grazing land and 800ha of saltland) was undertaken to examine the benefits of additional inputs – in this case, comparing the addition of phosphorus fertiliser together with balansa clover or nitrogen fertiliser, compared to the unimproved puccinellia pasture.

The profit increase with the addition of balansa clover was substantial – an extra $51/ha of saltland. In comparison, phosphorus fertiliser alone gave a profit increase of $21/ha but phosphorus and nitrogen combined gave a profit increase of only $2/ha and therefore cannot be recommended. For more information, see Experiment 1 (SA): Grazing management strategies for puccinellia pastures to optimise productivity, persistence and sustainability.

The potential benefits from the inclusion of a legume (in this case balansa clover) into a puccinellia based pasture are further highlighted in Figure 6.8 below where profit per hectare is examined across a range of saltland areas. (The phosphorus plus nitrogen option is not included as this was insufficiently profitable. The values of $51 and $21/ha can be seen in Figure 6.8 for the 800ha scenario described above.) The interesting finding is that profit per hectare declines with each additional hectare for the phosphorus fertiliser treatment, but continues to increase with each additional hectare of puccinellia plus balansa clover. This is because the better growth and nutritive value of the mixed puccinellia/balansa clover pasture has positive impacts on the whole-year nutrition of the grazing animals. For more information, see Puccinellia and balansa clover can be profitable saltland pastures.

The great problem is that the balansa clover will not persist where the salinity levels are moderate to high, and often lasts only one year before the pasture reverts to a pure puccinellia pasture. However, the potential gains from the inclusion of a legume are so great as to justify on-going effort to develop more salt-tolerant clovers.

  
        

Figure 6.8: Increase in profit per hectare resulting from saltland pasture at different areas of saltland for the upper south east of SA. P = application of phosphorus; P&B = phosphorus application plus growth of balansa clover

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