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Soil Health

A healthy soil has effective nutrient cycling, good water infiltration and storage, and provides food and shelter for soil organisms. Soil health is affected by and contributes to land condition; that is, the capacity of a landscape to respond to rain and grow pasture. Best management practices for soils are those that manage pastures for sustainable long-term forage production.

The productive capacity and resilience of soils are determined by their inherent physical, chemical and biological characteristics and by how these characteristics are managed. Understanding the strengths and vulnerabilities of particular soil/land types, allows for better management decisions regarding grazing and infrastructure development to be made. 

Landholders generally recognise differences in soil properties and behaviour across their property. The most critical aspect of understanding soils is recognizing and identifying soil properties beneath the surface and knowing the consequences if the surface soil is disturbed.

Land resource mapping and information (land types, soil types, and regional ecosystems) provides information on soil properties and in most extensive grazing situations this information is all that is required for planning grazing management and property development. Where sown pastures are being developed, soil testing should be undertaken to assess if the soil is suitable for the proposed pasture species and the fertility is adequate. In forage cropping and intensive pasture systems, soil tests are commonly used to assess the availability of soil nutrients and plan fertiliser application. When undertaking soil tests, it is important to used accredited laboratories and follow the collection instructions to ensure representative samples are obtained.

This module has five key areas to address soil characteristics and their implications for grazing management.

Key area 1 – Soil types

Extensive mapping of land systems and soil types across Australia has been undertaken. The scale of this mapping is variable, and so the ability to obtain specific information on soil types within individual properties is variable.

Land type mapping is a good starting point for identifying the soil types on a property. ‘Land types’ are areas of grazing land characterised by consistent patterns of soilvegetation and topography. They are typically identified by their native vegetation, for example: poplar box flats, spotted gum ridges, or mountain coolibah open woodland; however their productivity is underpinned by their underlying soil.

Land type descriptions include an overview of the principal soil type and references to where more detailed soil information and mapping can be found. NRM groups and state agencies can provide land and soil type mapping and supporting information.

There are many soil classification systems that can be used to determine different soil types. Soils may be broadly grouped into three categories:

Uniform soils – behave in a similar manner from the surface through to the bottom of the soil profile. They may be uniform sands, uniform loams or uniform clays.

Gradational soils – generally have a lighter surface and gradually increase in clay content throughout the profile. The distinction between soil layers is difficult to see on visual inspection.

Texture contrast soils – display an abrupt change between the surface soil and the subsoil characteristics e.g. sandy topsoil and clay subsoil.

Key area 2 – Soil physical properties

The physical properties of a soil largely determine the ability of the soil to capture rainfall, store water and supply it to the pasture or forage. Soil physical properties therefore influence how effectively pastures can grow and the resilience of the landscape. Understanding the strengths and vulnerabilities of particular soil/land types, allows for better management decisions regarding grazing and infrastructure development to be made.

Key area 3 – Soil chemical properties
Key area 4 – Soil biology

The living and dead biological components of the soil drive many of the processes that keep soils productive and resilient. About 85% of the biological component is made up of decomposing organic matter (plant and animal), 10% is live plant roots, and around 5% is in the form of living micro- and macro-organisms (soil biota). The microbiota includes bacteria, fungi, green and blue-green algae, protozoa and nematodes. The macrobiota includes earthworms, termites, dung beetles and other insects. In fertile soils, the biomass of micro-organisms alone can exceed 20 t/ha.

Soil organisms help maintain soil fertility and health by regulating nutrient cycling, maintaining soil structure and interacting with plants in the ecosystem. Healthy populations of soil organisms require adequate supplies of plant organic matter, which is their main source of food. 

Soil organic carbon levels are determined by the balance between the amount of plant material grown and returned to the soil and the rate at which the soil organic matter is broken down by microbes. Soil organic carbon tests can provide a guide to the soil’s organic matter status.

High ground cover and soil organic matter levels have many benefits including: increased rainfall infiltration; reduced runoff; greater soil water holding capacity; protection from excessive soil temperatures and reduced evaporation. These significantly increase rainfall use efficiency to grow plants and increase soil organic carbon levels.

Soil organic carbon and the population of soil organisms are maximised by growing productive pastures, avoiding overgrazing and maintaining high levels of ground cover. Much of the extra organic material will break down to benefit soils (support soil microbes, supply nutrients, maintain structure) but the remainder can improve soil carbon levels. However, soil type and climatic conditions determine how much carbon can be stored. In lighter soils, carbon is more easily broken down and the process is more rapid where there is more rainfall and heat. 

Key area 5 – Fertiliser use

In higher rainfall intensive pasture systems and where forage cropping is undertaken, fertiliser application is often a critical part of management. Soil testing provides the information needed for deciding whether fertiliser is needed, which fertilisers to use and application rates. Test strips can be used to assess the response of pastures and forage crops to fertiliser application.

Application method, timing of application and proximity to waterways and wetlands need to be carefully considered to minimise the risk of fertiliser loss and the movement of nutrients off-site. Fertiliser application is regulated in certain catchments such as those flowing into the Great Barrier Reef. Up-to-date records need to be kept of the fertilisers stored on a property and of fertiliser use – where, when and how much.

Fertilisers should be stored so they are kept dry and free from contamination and cannot leach into waterways.

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People and Business

Improving the performance of a grazing business requires careful consideration of a wide range of areas such as animal production, grazing management and human resources. While many producers prefer to concentrate on livestock and production issues, focusing on the business and the people is just as critical. Developing the skills of everyone who works in the business is critical. It is people who make the plans and implement the strategies that will determine the success of the business.

Key area 1 – Business planning

Successful businesses are built on good planning, effective implementation of sound strategies and the ability to prepare for the future, whilst being flexible enough to deal with change. Management has become increasingly difficult as a result of rapidly changing production, economic, environmental and social conditions. Successful businesses will be those that can evolve to better deal with constant change.

The purpose of planning is identifying where the business is currently positioned in terms of production and financial performance, what it wants to achieve and what needs to be done to achieve its objectives and goals. 

Having all key family members involved in the business working together towards the business goals is critical. Family businesses undergoing a formal planning process for the first time often engage an outside expert, consultant or advisor with experience in this area to guide the family to a productive outcome. 

Documented plans are critical for ongoing review of business direction, assessing performance and planning the future direction of the business. Formalising what everyone wants in the business plan is a powerful process and a key characteristic of successful businesses. 

As many farm businesses are family based, documented plans are critical for managing the succession process or changes in roles for key management personnel.

Key area 2 – Business knowledge and skills

Organised, timely, accurate records allow for production and financial performance to be analysed and provide a solid basis for planning, budgeting and management.

Key area 3 – Human resources

Like all businesses, rural businesses rely on harmonious working environments where everyone involved in the business feels that they are able to contribute to the success of the business and are rewarded for their efforts. 

Regardless of the size of the business, human resource areas that need to be addressed include personal goals, health and wellbeing, communication, roles and responsibilities, working conditions, training and skills development.

Key area 4 – Workplace health and safety (WHS)

Safe workplaces feature awareness and communication and are places where both workers and employers share responsibility for safety. 

Key area 5 – Chemical use and records

Chemicals used in grazing enterprises must be stored and used in a manner; that is safe for staff, stock and the environment, and complies with relevant legislation and regulations. Chemicals include pesticides, herbicides and animal health/veterinary products.

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Grazing Land Management

Grazing land management is about managing the number, type and location of grazing animals on the property so that land condition is maintained at a consistently high level. This provides the best opportunity to maximise pasture production and diet quality and consequently animal productivity. It considers the property as a whole and seeks to reduce the threats posed by land degradation, weeds and pest animals, as well as safeguarding and enhancing biodiversity across the property.

Grazing management starts with an understanding of the land’s capabilities and its current condition. With this information, decisions can be made about how to manage the various land types and improve land condition in vulnerable areas. Monitoring land condition over time will reveal how the management strategies are contributing to the land’s improvement or degradation.

The five key areas of this module cover the principles and practices of grazing management that are critical for the productivity and sustainability of the grazing enterprise.

Key Area 1 – Maps and property information

Maps and associated property information are essential for a grazing business, whether for calculating carrying capacities, planning infrastructure, vegetation management or managing weeds.

Maps should identify:

  • Paddock boundaries and paddock areas
  • Land types
  • Water courses and wetlands
  • Water infrastructure – bores, dams, pipelines
  • Infrastructure – roads, yards and buildings
  • Monitoring sites.

Other management information that can be mapped includes: soil types, topography and land use (e.g. cropping, forestry). 

Land type mapping is used to measure the areas of different land types within paddocks. This is critical for calculating long term carrying capacities and managing stocking rates. Another key use for maps is measuring grazing radiuses to identify if significant areas of paddocks are underutilised by stock because of distance from water. This information is critical for planning infrastructure and property development. 

Mapping can play an important role in developing management strategies for land in poor condition, erosion, salinity, weed infestations and biodiversity. Regular updating of maps ensures their ongoing usefulness for property management.

State agriculture and natural resource management departments, natural resource management groups and producer organisations can provide assistance with mapping. Regularly updating maps ensures their ongoing usefulness for management and planning.

‘Land types’ are areas of grazing land characterised by consistent patterns of soil, vegetation and topography. They are typically identified by their native vegetation, for example: poplar box flats, spotted gum ridges, or mountain coolibah open woodland; however their productivity is underpinned by their underlying soil. Land types form management units for property mapping and management planning. NRM groups and state agencies can provide land type mapping and supporting information.

Key Area 2 – Land capability and condition

Understanding the inherent capacity and limitations of country is critical to good grazing management and, ultimately, to the productivity and sustainability of the grazing business.

Key Area 3 – Managing grazing pressure

Managing grazing pressure is the most important aspect of grazing management. It directly impacts on the pasture resource, animal performance and profitability. Excessive grazing pressure reduces the vigour and density of preferred pasture plants resulting in more bare ground and less desired plants. Animal performance is affected because they have less opportunity to select the higher quality plants and parts of plants. Poorer pasture productivity results in lower reproductive performance and growth rates.

Key Area 4 – Managing the land resource

In addition to managing grazing pressure a number of land resource risks and issues have to be considered in grazing management and property development.

Key Area 5 – Weeds and pest animals

The key principles for managing weeds are:

  1. Being aware of weeds that can be/are a problem.
  2. Detecting weeds on the property.
  3. Biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of weed infestation.
  4. Identifying control strategies and implementing an integrated approach.
  5. Intervening early to control new weeds.
  6. Monitoring and following-up.

Australia’s most serious weed species have been named as Weeds of National Significance (WONS), and these include prickly acacia, parthenium, bellyache bush and lantana. The full list is provided at www.weeds.org.au/wons/.

Each state has a list of ‘declared’ weeds. State legislation specifies landholder’s obligations to manage declared weeds. See http://www.weeds.org.au/docs/weednet6.pdf for a full list.

Some weeds with no legislative requirements also cause environmental or economic losses, and it can still be in the interests of the property owner to manage them.

Regional and local NRM groups, local and state government officers and rural suppliers can provide advice on identifying and managing weeds.

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Animal Production

Good livestock management is critical for grazing enterprises, as it determines the type and number of animals produced and sold their market suitability and consequently the business income. Livestock management must be integrated with grazing management, animal health and welfare and business management.

This module covers five key areas that collectively influence livestock performance and the profitability of a beef enterprise.

Key area 1 – Markets and marketing

Determining the market/s that will give the best overall business performance requires an understanding of:

  • specifications of markets available and price reductions for non-compliance e.g. weight, fat and dentition
  • production capability of the property and ability to meet market specifications
  • selling options available
  • selling and transport costs for each market
  • variability in returns over a year and from year to year
  • sustainability of each market, such as whether it is a long-term market or short-term opportunity.
Key area 2 – Managing reproduction

Reproduction is a key driver of profitability in a livestock breeding enterprise. Key breeder management strategies are:

  • Manage cow body condition so they are in condition score 3 or better at calving (3.5 at mid-pregnancy). The most important factors in managing cow condition are stocking rates, time of weaning and appropriate supplementation.
  • Determine the best time of the year for cows to calve and manage the herd so that most calves are born during this period. This will usually be about six weeks before the expected peak rainfall period.
  • Manage heifers from weaning so that they grow well enough to conceive early at their first mating and are aligned with the joining time of the main breeder herd.
  • Select and manage sires so they are fertile and sound and will improve herd fertility i.e. have good fertility trait EBVs.
  • Know about the fertility diseases that can affect breeder performance and use appropriate management strategies.
  • Use culling strategies based on performance and age to optimise productivity, sale returns and reduce mortality rates.
Key area 3 – Weaning and weaner management

Weaning is an integral part of breeder management. Weaning should be done with the body condition of the cow in mind coupled with a plan to feed and manage the weaner. The age and weight range of calves at weaning varies according to the inherent fertility of the country and seasonal conditions. On higher fertility country calves will usually be over 200 kg and 6 to 8 months old at weaning but on poorer country calves may be regularly weaned down to 100 kg and 3 months.

In poor seasons calves can be weaned down to 60 kg liveweight. The reduction in cow nutritional requirements due to weaning reduces the need for supplementation and lowers the risk of mortalities. 

The standard of weaner management must be high particularly if weaned at an earlier age and if production targets are to be met and the welfare of the calf not compromised.

Key area 4 – Managing nutrition

Managing nutrition in a grazing system is based on knowing the nutrition available from pasture and how this will vary throughout the year, knowing the nutritional requirements of the animal classes being run and setting realistic production targets based on this knowledge. Grazing can then be managed so that animals have the best opportunity to meet these targets. Supplements can be used to fill nutritional gaps and address deficiencies but they must be used wisely to be cost effective. 

Key area 5 – Genetics