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John Ives

The work of John and Robyn Ives on ‘Talaheni’, showcased yesterday at the ‘Soils For Life’ field day, was a huge vote for the benefits offered by decisions based on time spent monitoring.

A self confessed eccentric with a background in ag science, John has applied his scientific methodology to getting to the bottom of some of the most pressing problems on his property.

Clever management of soil, water, plants & animals based on his findings have resulted in:

  • the virtual elimination of dryland salinity in one of the most susceptible areas in Australia
  • an increase in soil organic carbon (SOC) from below 1% to around 4% (that’s higher than some high profile regenerative farmers in far better soils)
  • some of the best wool on the planet (based on wins in international competitions).

Read more about the Ives’ efforts in:

Talaheni Case Study by Soils For Life

Salinity Management in a variable landscape, CRC on Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, Salt Magazine.

Dam Salinity: A report card on our risk and progress, John Ive, Agribusiness Chain V10, p 42

Can drought really help your revegetation effort?, John Ive, Agribusiness Chain 2007.

Talehani reveg before & after

This post is a pictorial example of how to apply P.A. Yeomans’ Keyline-patterning for deep ripping, direct drilling or tree planting. It is meant to hopefully help clarify the subject a little for those who’d like to apply keyline patterning to their landscape in some respect, as I’ve seen and heard a number of incorrect applications and explanations floating around the internet. Nice to have a few clearer digital images too.

For a rundown on other aspects of Keyline design, a good starting point is to check out Abe Collins and Darren Doherty’s article, Keyline Mark IV, or visit Ken Yeomans site, http://www.keyline.com.au, where you can purchase Yeoman’s book, ‘Water for Every Farm’.

Finding the Keypoint and Keyline

If you would like to take advantage of the water distribution benefits offered by keyline pattern cultivation, identifying the keypoint and keyline are critical.

(Click on the first image to see a larger slideshow)

Application of Keyline patterning for:

Cultivation (i.e. Deep ripping, Pasture Cropping)

If you’ve decided to rip a paddock to help ease 100 years of compaction (having properly assessed the suitability of the landscape for this practice), or you’re direct drilling for a Pasture Crop, it doesn’t take a great deal more effort to do so on a keyline pattern. Here’s how I go about it.

Tree Mounds

Utilising keyline patterning for setting out tree rows can be very advantageous for any situation where equidistant rows are favourable, particularly where machinery is utilised in management of the inter-row.  There are two well known proponents of this method: The first is Darren Doherty, (many would have seen the image iconic image taken of the Tree Crop paddock on George Howson’s agroforestry property, Dalpura Farm), Mark Sheppard is another.

Here’s an example of how to set out a 4 lane tree belt using keyline patterning.

The same sort of approach can be taken for larger plantations, but there has to end up being some stub rows, or else the runs can get ridiculously steep and be erosion hazards in their own right.

Before you do any sort of hillside cultivation or earthworks which encourage more water to soak into a hillside, make sure you check the local environmental conditions carefully, particularly the presence of dispersive or slaking soils, saline seepage or the occurrence of slips in the local region. Entire hillsides of topsoil have been lost by ripping in the wrong place.

Disclaimer: Where water flow is concerned there are substantial risks involved. While the information and images we publish are formulated in good faith, with the intention of raising awareness of landscape rehydration processes, the contents do not take into account all the social, environmental and regulatory factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice.  Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained within as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Please visit and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to hear about future posts.

Article and Images © Cam Wilson, Earth Integral, 2013

Gravity’s always doing its best to take your fertility to the bottom of the hill. The following images explore a couple of ways to reverse this ever-present process, hopefully bringing a more positive slant to the old saying, “Pushing faecal matter uphill”.

This is a floodplain at Baramul stud, hydrated by the Natural Sequence Farming work completed by Peter Andrews. The pasture in the foreground is obviously lush and will provide some very decent feed, however, the tan coloured biomass in the background is equally interesting

This photo was taken standing on the back of a ute which Peter directed straight through this stand of Phragmites. The scale shows the considerable biomass produced as a result of the landscape hydration

Peter had said to me on many occasions that reeds make the best compost. So one day I gave it a go and what do you know, it did (and I’ve made my fair share). This was mainly cumbungi, but I’ve had similar results with Phragmites too.

A forage harvester, baling or in the gut of a cow are a few ways of moving the material up the landscape so that the compost is useful, as Peter Andrews mentions when talking about mulch farming in Back from the Brink.

Another plant that’s synonymous with water are willows, and the more fertile it is the better they grow.

Drop a willow near stock and see what happens. Sheep will strip every bit of bark off, as they have here on Peter and Kate Marshall’s property. Their sheep come to the sound of a chainsaw, as did the stock of a few people I have met, especially during the drought. That’s the time it’s valuable and research by the Kiwis has shown that with protein levels similar to lucerne, poplar and willow can maintain lambing rates during drought periods.

Because you’re close to water, the woody material which might otherwise get in the way can be used to fill in gullies and build more fascines and brush mattresses for erosion control.

With a feed value comparable to lucerne, poplars are another tree that grow on well-hydrated land, which stock will devour. The bark is especially high in trace minerals which are mined from deep down.

There are many varieties of poplars which can be used for different purposes, Populus trichocarpa being one which also provides useful timber.

Populus alba (silver poplar) is another, this stand provides good windbreak even when dormant, while the upright form minimises shading of pasture.

Pasture grows right up to the base of most poplars. The nutrients mined from deep down by the poplars are returned to the surface via leaf drop, enriching the soil beneath.

Browse blocks are utilised by the Kiwis which if grazed often enough don’t require felling with the chainsaw.

Using a number of tyres tech-screwed together, the Marshalls are able to establish poplars while the stock are still in the paddock. A large piece of cardboard eliminates grass competition during establishment. Tyres are removed when the tree is first pollarded.

Another use for a well hydrated floodplain is cricket bat willows. These ones are inoculated with white truffle, hence the oyster shells as a free, slow-release source of calcium.

Bamboo is another plant which does a fantastic job at stitching creek banks together, the foliage providing good fodder while the poles have a huge range of uses, one of which is a good cellular structure for biochar production.

And where do the stock head when they’ve got a gut full of all this? Up the hill of course, Nature’s anti-gravity nutrient transport service. Recognising this pattern, Martin Royds has realigned his fencing to facilitate this nutrient connection between watercourse (filter zone) and hilltop.

Please visit and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to hear about future posts.

Disclaimer: Where water flow is concerned there are substantial risks involved. While the information and images we publish are formulated in good faith, with the intention of raising awareness of landscape rehydration processes, the contents do not take into account all the social, environmental and regulatory factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice.  Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained within as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Article and Images © Campbell Wilson, Earth Integral, 2012

When building natural capital (including beef or wool), increased potosynthesis is the goal of any land manager. Available moisture is, of course, a key factor.

At the time Europeans settled in South-Eastern Australia, many broad upland valleys were described as chains of ponds or swampy meadows. There are a few of these well hydrated, very productive systems, effectively drought proof systems still remaining (for example the Hazell’s property), but the majority have been severely eroded and subsequently drained (click on the following for an outline of the degradation process, in diagrams or the scientific literature).

At Tarwyn Park, Peter Andrews demonstrated the potential primary production benefits from reinstating the original floodplain processes and rehydrating the surrounding landscape.

One way of doing so is by raising the alluvial water table through lateral infiltration (as described in the post Floodplain water storage). The speed this occurs depends on the soil type, but if it’s going to happen any time soon the main driving factor is a fairly constant supply of water from the catchment above.

High in the landscape, inflow from the catchment above is generally only available for a short period of time. Where this is the case, the effectiveness of relying solely on a lateral hydration approach is limited, as a severely drained landscape will take a considerable time (maybe several lifetimes) before the water table is raised high enough to enhance plant growth on the floodplain.

Where short sharp bursts of runoff are available, the fastest return can be achieved by reinstating the old flood flows. Water spreads out across the landscape once more, soaking into the floodplain for the extended use by the plants and soil life. Sediments are also deposited, the process which has made floodplains the rich production zones they are worldwide. Basically, it’s recommissioning nature’s flood fertigation system.

In an intact landscape, there are predictable locations where floodwater is more likely to top the banks, just as there are locations where it’s likely to re-enter:

On a macro-scale, floodplain flow patterns are often closely related to the ridges intruding into the floodplain (Tane, 1999)

Where multiple ponds exist between the major landscape features, braided flood flows (red arrows) generally exit the downstream half and enter the upstream half of a pond (P Hazell, personal conversation)

When siting structures, an understanding of these processes is the key to getting the most bang for your buck. A structure in an inappropriate location may get the water up onto the floodplain, but it will soon spill back into the gully, maybe even worsening the existing erosion. In contrast, a well positioned structure results in the flow heading away from the watercourse, spreading into a more passive flow and hydrating the floodplain surface before re-entering the stream sometimes hundreds of metres downstream.

On Gunningrah, Charlie and Anne Maslin have sited their structures as well as anyone I’ve seen with this goal in mind. Having taken inspiration from Peter Andrews on ‘Australian Story’ and attending a Natural Sequence Farming field day, Charlie has since constructed around 40 leaky weirs on Gunningrah (For more information about the Maslin’s farming prowess, see their profile in the Soils for life case studies).

There are a range of positive results which the Maslins have achieved depending on the landscape position of the works, but the following couple of examples are a good demonstration of utilising the original flooding processes mentioned above.

(Note: To avoid hefty fines, it’s important to adhere to local watercourse regulations. In many places there are few restrictions on ‘dam walls’ within first and second order streams other than the harvestable rights of the property)

Poplar site

Flow had become contained within the incised channel, taking shortest path it could towards the ocean. The only moisture available to the surrounding floodplain was what fell from the sky

An earth wall structure intercepts the flow in the channel, reconnecting it with the floodplain. The flow re-enters more than 500m downstream, with the potential to irrigate about 6 ha of pasture.

The poplars indicate the path of the incised channel, the flow now spreads out across the floodplain

Looking upstream at the same structure, the flow spreads significantly across the paddock.

Debris in the middle of the paddock, around 50m from the main channel.

Hayshed site

Flow path before the works….

….. and afterwards, back to how it once was

An aerial view of the flow before the works were completed, contained within the incised channel

An earth wall intercepts the channelised flow, spilling onto the surrounding floodplain. For an idea of the extra water harvesting potential which results, 0.25 Megalitre is stored for every 25mm of water that’s accepted by the landscape per hectare. A healthy topsoil can receive far more than that.

In case you’re still wondering “How can water flow away from the main watercourse? Isn’t that always the lowest point?” It is in a young landscape, but Australia’s pretty geriatric as far as watersheds go.

In Back from the brink, Peter Andrews talks about water flowing on the high ground (of the floodplain). This phenomena was observed by plenty of early explorers and it’s also well accepted in the scientific literature. In short, when a watercourse spills its banks, the water slows down, depositing the heaviest sediment. In time, a natural levee is built as seen below.

If you’re interested in getting these processes happening once again on your land, contact us to find out about our design, consultancy and implementation services.

Please visit and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to hear about future posts.

Disclaimer: Where water flow is concerned there are substantial risks involved. While the information and images we publish are formulated in good faith, with the intention of raising awareness of landscape rehydration processes, the contents do not take into account all the social, environmental and regulatory factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice.  Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained within as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Article and Images © Cam Wilson, Earth Integral, 2012

References

Tane, H. 1999. Catchment Habitats and Landscape Ecosystems. Centre for Catchment Ecology, 1: 1-12

The difference a farm fence can make between soils…

When you are trying to decide which method of soil improvement to take, sometimes it seems like there are as many different approaches as there are bacteria in a teaspoon of healthy soil.

This isn’t necessarily a huge problem when you’re talking about a suburban backyard scale. It’s easy in that situation to: do some aerating with a broad fork; balance the Calcium:Magnesium ratio and whatever trace minerals your soil test says are missing; build and add compost and worm castings; brew up some compost tea; add some seaweed extract, a handful of basalt rock dust, a bit of Charlie carp and the humified eyeballs of some rare mountain lion to top it off.

But what about the farmer who is planting 1000 Ha of Wheat and Rye so the armchair permaculturalists of this world can munch their organic sourdough toast while checking the next important forum posting written by someone else sitting at a computer at 10.30am. That farmer would quickly go broke if they did all the things a backyard gardener can do. So how to decide?

 

The farmer’s goal should be to turn subsoil into topsoil. That is, to be able to walk anywhere on his or her land, sink a post-hole shovel and find something resembling chocolate cake. If you’ve got chocolate cake, you’ve got good crops, whether it’s pasture, grain, fruit or veg. CSIRO scientists still say it’s impossible but I’ve seen it happen under the care of a number of our country’s best farmers (Col Seis and Ron Smith to name a couple) to know that it’s very achievable (and we’re talking years, not centuries, as you may have been led to believe).

What’s the secret? It’s plants and microbes working together. 

It seems that Nature got sick of applying bags of NPK to all the different plants on Earth and equally sick of spraying out molasses and fish hydrolysate to feed the bacteria and fungi in the soil and decided to read Mollison’s Intro to Permaculture. Principle 1: Relative Location made a bit of sense, so she conducted a Needs, Functions & Products Analysis, and in doing so recognised that plants produced more than enough sugars through photosynthesis, but needed nutrients to do so, and meanwhile bacteria and fungi were easily the most efficient critters on earth at grabbing hold of nutrient, but had a hard time finding carbs to fuel their bodies. It was a match made in heaven. The plants were put next to the microbes and have been symbiotically trading root exudates (sugars) for nutrients ever since.

What does this have to do with building soil? Those sugars passing from the plant to the soil critters are liquid carbon. Let’s take one of the exudate recipients, mycorrhyzal fungi, as an example (they attach themselves to plant roots in a symbiotic relationship). They use these sugars to produce glomalin, a protective coating for their hyphae, which is sloughed off into the soil when the hyphae dies. The glomalin is a very persistent carbon compound that ‘sticks around’ in the soil for a long time (it’s one of the main things that holds soil aggregates together).

What encourages hyphae production? You need to feed them for as much of the year as you can, and this is only possible when a plant is actively photosynthesising. That is: maximise root exudates by maximising yearly photosynthesis.

This means:

  • In pasture, an appropriate disturbance/recovery regime to maximise the growth potential of pasture plants. (See Holistic Grazing Management for further info.)
  • Different plants thrive at different times of year. A mix of C3 (cool season) and C4 (heat tolerant) plants will ensure you can take advantage of moisture and have something green and growing throughout the year (See Carbon Grazing by Allan Lauder for more info on this topic)
  • Winter cropping C3 plants (ie. wheat, oats, rye) into dormant C4 perennial pastures or summer cropping (millet, sorghum, corn) into dormant C3 pasture (search for Pasture Cropping, Col Seis)
  • A winter active groundcover under dormant fruit trees.

Using a combination of time-controlled grazing and pasture cropping, Col Seis has managed to go from the soil shown on the right of the image at top (this sample is from over the fence, 15m into his brother’s conventional agricultural paddock, who still farms the way Col used to) to the soil on the left in 15 years. (He could do it in 10 now he reckons.)

In doing so, his soil test in relation to what existed before is:

So let’s consider the management interventions related to the chemical, biological and physical aspects of Col’s soil that have lead to these results.

Chemical

The changes seen in the table above to the chemical nature of Col’s soil have been achieved without the addition of single bag of super-phosphate, nor a tonne of lime, nor any trace minerals, nor any sizable amount of compost, in 30 years. (He does continue to put out a small amount of DAP when sowing a grain crop, but has had good success with worm juice this year.) Soil nutrient amendments haven’t been the driver.

Biological

Col did put compost teas out for a little while, but then thought, “What the hell am I doing this for? Why am I adding foreign microbes from a compost pile when there is already a huge diversity suited to the conditions in the existing topsoil”. He then changed to feeding the existing microbes with molasses and fish emulsion, until he once again thought, “What the hell am I doing this for? Why am I putting food out when the plants create the best microbial food there is”. Biological stimulants haven’t been the driver.

Physical

A small aerating affect is achieved with the tines on the direct seeder that Col uses for pasture cropping, but they only impact down to about 70mm which doesn’t explain the dramatic increase in carbon down to 500mm. Soil cultivation hasn’t been the driver.

All this has been driven by the plants within Col’s pasture and cropping system. Here’s a brief summary of what they’ve done:

Biological

  • As stated above, Col aims to maximise the photosynthesis potential on his property, and hence maximises root exudates; the fuel for the life in the soil. (Winter cereals such as oats are one of the highest producers of root exudates and really give the native pasture and soil a kick.)
  • The pulse of disturbance created by time-controlled grazing, followed by a period of rest until plants have fully recovered (that is, the perennials have replaced root energy reserves) offers plenty more food to the soil food web in the form of root exudates, decaying root systems, litter, manure and urine.

Chemical

  • Soil microbes fuelled by root exudates, in particular mycorrhyzal fungi, are able to access nutrients from the subsoil that were previously tied up in a plant unavailable form. They can then transport these nutrients through their network of hyphae.
  • The test results above, which were taken down to 500mm, show not only an increase in Col’s Available nutrients, but Total nutrients have also increased significantly, suggesting the breakdown of parent rock material by the soil life.
  • Increased carbon levels also result in a huge increase in the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil.

Physical

The growing soil carbon levels fuelled by root exudates, along with the carbon pathways created by decaying root systems, as well as the improved structure provided by bacteria glueing their butts to the particles, the fungi wrapping themselves around everyone else and the worms and other larger critters creating tunnels through the soil as they relentlessly munch-on, all help to improve the aeration, root penetration, nutrient holding capacity, nutrient availability, water infiltration and retention etc.

So does that mean that the soil improvement methods handed to us by the various soil legends that have come before (ie. P.A. Yeomans who was physical-centric, William Albrecht who was chemical-centric or Elaine Ingham who is biological-centric) are unnecessary?

Not at all.

With the right management practices, plants can do the job, but the methods that folk such as these gave to us can help to speed things along. The key thought when you are deciding which one(s) you want to spend your money on, is to keep in mind what the goal is: for plants to maximise photosynthesis and drive the system.

Therefore the practice that you choose should address the major limiting factor that restricts photosynthesis. For example:

Physical: On an area of pasture that we are developing at the moment, compaction from past practices is the major limiting factor. It’s preventing decent root penetration as well as resulting in water sheeting off. So, in conjunction with time-controlled grazing, we are implementing an initial program with a Keyline Plow using Keyline Pattern Cultivation. Good grazing and pasture cropping once every 3-4 years should maintain it from there.

Chemical: On the property of a friend of mine, he has a heavy sodic layer down about 170mm which is inhibiting root penetration. In this case, he has had an expert in the Albrecht method of soil balancing give him some advice. He has been injecting liquid calcium down to the sodic layer, which has changed the structure of the soil and resulted in root penetration a further 30-40cm in 2 years. The plants can now start to drive the system.

Biological: As far as adding biology goes, tests have recently been done by a leading University on a number of different compost teas and microbial jungle juices. Basically the results showed that if you had a bit of decent topsoil already, the compost tea made no difference. If your soil is dead, for example it might have been plowed non stop for 100 years, or perhaps there’s been excessive chemicals used on the land, then it could be worth putting some critters on as an initial inoculation.

This is just my opinion, but rather than adding foreign microbes from a bottle or even a thermophilic compost pile (which is an incredibly different environment to field conditions if you think about it), why not get hold of some soil from under a few of the best pastures in your region. Perhaps grab some from under a healthy bit of native grassland that you know of too. In my opinion they could well be better suited to your conditions.

Here’s a good story related to this topic. John Weatherstone is an inspirational farmer who has planted many thousands of trees to compliment his grazing enterprise. He had a stand of Casuarinas that were yellow and weren’t doing well. John W had a long discussion with John Field from the Australian National University about whether it could be the clay or the salt below or etc. In the end John F said, why don’t you go and grab some duff (leaf litter and topsoil) from under a healthy old stand of Casuarinas and put it around their base. John W did this to half of them and they turned green and healthy within a month. What a difference the right biology can make. (The other half began to turn green too, marching progressively away from the inoculated stand due to the root grafting that takes place, as well through the fungi which connect plant ecosystems.)

So, here’s the short version:

  1. Aim for plants to drive the soil system by maximising photosynthesis.
  2. If you’re keen to spend money to speed things up, carefully consider what the major limiting factor is, and base your interventions around this.