I have just completed a cracking four-day tour of Tasmania – a taster of farming Down Under before attending the 22nd International Grassland Congress in Sydney, a four yearly gathering of 800 or so of the great and good in global grassland research, science and practice.
The island state of Tassie is blessed with stunning coastal scenery, large tracts of wilderness, mountains, and areas of very productive farmland. Arable crops include poppies, peas and potatoes – beef cattle are reared and finished at grass, merino sheep flocks produce highest quality wool, and dairy farming has increased due to the use of centre pivot irrigation – allowing all-year-round grass growth even in dry summers.
Here is a snapshot of what our group of 33 – which included researchers and farmers from Uruguay, Germany, Argentina, USA, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, saw.
Ashgrove Cheese Farm
Here is a farming family taking control of its destiny by operating at all parts of the food supply chain. They produce and sell dairy products from their own factory and visitor centre in the north, and through the main supermarkets.
Director and practical hands-on manager Paul Bennett said the aim is to grow as much grass as possible across the 14,000ha, and then to harvest it efficiently with the 2,100 dairy cows. Initially spring calving, the three herds are now switching to autumn, which will match grass growth better. Hay is the conserved forage of choice rather than silage, as it is cheaper to make and feeds well with irrigated grazed grass.
Twenty years ago the returns from milk production were poor. Paul’s father saw farmhouse cheese production in Europe and decided to add value to his own milk. Initial estimates indicated a domestic market of 6 tonnes/year. Today they make 300 tonnes of English cheddar, and are also supplying 16% of the State’s bottled milk supply.
Tasmanian Dairy Research Facility
We visited this applied research farm to see the work being done to support Tasmanian dairy farmers. This kind of independent facility is something we have sadly lost in the UK – a place where new ways of doing things can be trialled scientifically, yet in a practical way, and new commercial products can be tested and assessed.
The farm runs to 220ha – some of it with fairly challenging topography, and carries 335 cows plus youngstock.
We saw research evaluating the potential of a Smart-N Fertiliser Application System. this bit of kit switches off the supply of liquid urea when it senses high levels of N in urine patches in the grass – which can cover 25% of a paddock. Results so far show this to be a great way to reduce fertiliser use, without compromising pasture productivity.
We also inspected grazing plots investigating the potential use of alternative perennial forbes and legumes, to increase the continuity of supply of highly digestible, low fibrous forage throughout the year. White clover, plantain and perennial rye grasses are being trialled on their own and in combination with each other.
Plant breeders Bob Reid and Eric Hall have travelled the world searching for wild grasses and legumes, that have adapted to weather and environments similar to those found on Tassie. Their key breeding objectives have been to develop varieties that cope with local conditions better.
‘Climate change is happening,’ said Mr Reid ‘Farmers need varieties that can survive tough and varying conditions and last for many years.’
He runs breeding trials at Brumby Creek (incidentally one of the top rivers in the world for trout fishing!) The most promising varieties are compared to current cultivars in sheep grazing trials nearby, and in the more climatically challenging Midlands. Here we saw varieties with superior levels of tolerance to drought, acid soils, cold winters, hot summers, wind, pasture grubs and extensive grazing.
For example – Talish is a completely new white clover which has a Lucerne type tap root. The energy stored in the root allows the clover to survive and recover, even after three to four months without water.
Exceltas is a coloured brome – a high yielding long-lived perennial grass which remains palatable even when seeding, and continues to grow in hot weather. It will tolerate close grazing by sheep, but is best suited to high input rotational grazing.
And Rubitas – a stoloniferous persistent red clover with a strong, deep, extensively branched tap root. It is winter hardy and produces a large bulk (3.5t DM) of high protein, high energy forage – CP 22.1, ME 12 MJ /kg DM. Mr Reid claimed this clover could still be growing 20 or even 30 years after sowing.
It takes a long time to reach the homestead at Kingston once you leave the main road, but the reward is great – the sight of a complete valley floor with intact native grasslands, stretching into the distance was breath-taking.
The 3,100ha property currently supports 8% of all the kangaroo grass and 1% of all the tussock grass in Tasmania. There is a remarkable array of biodiversity – with several nationally threatened species thriving here.
The native grasslands are managed sustainable to support 5,500 New Age Traditional Merino sheep to produce superfine wool, used by top-end Italian fashion houses to make into men’s suits. Productive capacity of the native grassland is low, but the wool from the sheep that graze them is the best in the world.
Fourth generation farmer/owner Simon Cameron is firmly committed to improving the natural values of Kingston. He says they try and achieve a fine balance between production and maintaining/ developing the native ecosystems.
“The sheep are an important conservation tool, but we are careful not to over or under graze . If we graze too much or let it become too rank we would lose important species.’
With thanks to the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists and British Seed Houses for funding my tour to Tasmania, as part of a new Travel Bursary Award.
Also many thanks to the tour organisers, bus driver Bruce, and all those who welcomed us onto their farms.