One of the most challenging elements of farming – even on a small hobby farm like ours – is decision making. Decisions range in complexity and scope, the outcomes are not always known, and mistakes are a given. The self-help section of any bookstore is full of books that purport to make you a better manager / leader / thinker… but ultimately many are simply helping you become a better decision maker.
Allan Savory developed holistic grazing management. My basic understanding of holistic management is that it is about making decisions. Broadly you need to properly identify the problem. Start taking action towards addressing your intended outcome and then monitor your feedback loops closely to ensure you’re on track. Savory’s holistic principles can be applied to all kinds of decisions. The principles holistic management help guide our decisions on the Rock Farm.
As custodians of the Rock Farm, our aim is to leave the soil of our property in better health than when we arrived. One of the tools we use to do this is our cattle. Our cattle are used to help control our weeds and undesirable grasses, process grass and turn it into fertiliser to feed the microbes in the soil. The past three years of wet years have given us plenty of flexibility, and have been very forgiving if we have made a mistake – especially with our stocking rate. When it is dry – it is critical that we keep making decisions for the health of our soil – and by default our cattle.
So when the long range forecast is for a dry autumn, I knew it was time to have a good look at the tools available to helps us plan our decisions for winter.
One of the tools I find really useful is Farming Forecaster (https://farmingforecaster.com.au/). It collates 30 years of past soil moisture and helps predict the pasture growth over the next three months. It is really useful for someone like me who doesn’t have a lifetime of accumulated knowledge on seasonal variation on our farm. Below are some screenshots of a nearby soil mositure probe. In reality there are about three probes in our region I look at to help me make a decision on how much pasture I will expect to grow in the next three months.
From the graphs and the long range forecast, we decided we will reduce our stocking pressure this winter. We will make our final decision on numbers based on the pasture growth we will see by 1st of April. This is the logical step of course. The decision process becomes really hard when it comes to deciding which cattle we will sell, especially knowing that we lose all control of their destiny once they are on the truck to the sale yards.
In order to set the calves up for weaning, and to allow other paddocks a longer time to rest before we rotate through the paddocks again, we decided to put some hay out for the cattle. I now know this as a form of bale grazing. Bale grazing is a method of feeding, where hay is fed to stock on the paddock it was cut rather than in a feedlot, thereby keeping nutrients in the system.
We don’t cut hay – and I have long felt that I would rather import fodder (and its nutrient) instead of fertiliser. The cattle and their rumen are the ideal first stage processers to turn fodder into fertiliser for our soil.
We put the bale feeder near the top of a hill, on a patch of wiregrass. Wiregrass is a native grass of little nutritional value – however it is particularly nasty to sheep with seed heads working through the wool and into the skin of the animals. Wiregrass doesn’t like fertile soil, so I hope to improve the soil here and allow other grasses such as microlaena (another native grass) a better chance to grow.
By putting the bale feeder high in the farm, any nutrient that does wash down the hill, remains on the farm and will help feed the soil in the lower slopes.
The other advantage in putting out a couple of bales of hay prior to weaning is that it also will make it less stressful for the calves as they will be comfortable eating hay, and familiar with the feeder. Weaning is always a hard time on the Rock Farm – but it is important. It allows the cows an opportunity to put on some weight before winter. It also familiarises the calves with being handled in yards, being fed and moved around. We will sell our steers and some of our heifers, and this training will help make our cattle quiet and safe for their future owners.
It is always hard selling our cattle, but it is one of the many decisions we have to make in the interests of our soil and farm enterprise. It is part of the responsibility of owning livestock and is inseparable from owning the farm, I generally love it, but it can at times feel overwhelming. As one of the LLS Directors reminded me a few years ago during the height of the last drought. We were talking about some high profile animal welfare cases (with starving stock) in the district. He said it was a mental health issue that led to an animal welfare issue. His words stuck with me, and reminded me how important it is to look after ourselves first, so we are fit and able to make decisions in the best interests of our stock.
If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed and isn’t making decisions, there are many support options available. The National Centre for Farmer Health is a great place to start: https://farmerhealth.org.au/support