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Working the land - or not
Working the land – or not
This piece highlights some of the issues that many farmers face in the traditional wheat sheep belt of the western and northern plains of NSW in terms of preserving the natural environment and biodiversity while at the same time maintaining economic viability. It does not address the broader issue of crop production for the intensive livestock industries, as opposed to cropping for export to the world food market. Nor does it address the touchy issue of cropping for biofuel production.
You can do two things with land in the grain belt. You can work it and try and make it work for you or, rather, your bank balance. Or you can give it a break, let the place go back to grass, put livestock on it, and forget about the bank balance. Few families have the luxury of that choice. Only off farm income from 30 years of professional life give us that luxury.
Being the owners of a couple of thousand acres, around 900 hectares, of some of the best cropping country in NSW, we have nonetheless wrestled with those two options for the past seventeen years. It is valuable land and continues to rise in value each year. But its value lies in its cropping potential, not in its capacity to carry livestock. For cropping purposes it is worth $1 500 a hectare; for livestock production, less than a third of that.
We know that land can produce good crops. Five tonnes a hectare of prime hard wheat off just 80 of the 900 hectares put a net $25 000 in the bank in 1997, and that was after the share cropper had taken his 80% cut. So the return on that small part of the property from wheat was close to $100 000. He had the expensive gear; we had the land that needed cleaning up. It was a good arrangement for both parties. The land had been cropped out by the bankrupted previous owner and was just a bed of valueless weeds so it had little grazing value. Cropping was the first option if one was to get any return off it at all.
On top of the grain return we then had the benefit of five years of good grazing on those 80 hectares, having under sown the wheat with dry land lucerne. But after about five years on the plains the lucerne dies out, the weeds take over once more, and one is back to square one.
Cropping the land locks one into more cropping. So we continued to crop for the first decade or so, but then gradually took the land out of cropping. The cost of getting out of cropping is far more expensive than getting in. So the incentive to keep cropping, even though the season may look uncertain, is strong if one wants to improve the bank balance. It promises a much higher return. But it has its downside.
Cropping depletes the soils, thus requiring larger and larger expensive fertilizer input over the longer term. For moisture conservation during the fallowing period, more and more herbicides are needed to deal with the increasing resistance of weeds to Roundup, the broad spectrum herbicide most widely used in the cropping belt. But more importantly, it destroys the natural grasses, and once destroyed they take ten years to re-establish. It also wipes out the native insects, reptiles and birdlife. Croppers don’t like trees in the way of the big machines, so where they can get away with it they push them over and burn them. They can do this even under current clearing restrictions. So a monoculture of both flora and fauna is created and we are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of hectares of it.
During the ten years of recovery the grazing capacity of the land is greatly diminished.
If one wants to quit cropping then one has to be prepared to take a substantial income cut over many years. We were told by locals that native grasses on the plains will return over a period of ten years once cropping has ceased, and we found that to be true. First a few plants, then the next year a few more will appear. Then finally a property covered in a beautiful mix of native pastures that have much more drought resistance than the introduced pastures, with the exception of the introduced digit grasses which are deep rooted perennials and extremely tough once established.
One can cultivate to sow resilient perennial native and introduced pastures, such as buffel grass, consol love grass, the panics, purple pigeon grass, Rhodes grass, and the digit grasses but to be successful most require the same preparation of the land as for grain growing, The seed is scarce and prohibitive in cost, and once sown can take up to three years to establish, during which time livestock largely have to be kept off the paddocks. If sown too deep, it will never germinate. Many sow onto the surface to reduce that risk, but ants can then harvest much of the seed before it gets to germinate. It is quite a balancing act. But few farmers can afford to wait even the three years for the sown pastures to establish, and certainly cannot afford to sit and wait ten years for native pastures to return of their own accord. And even if they do they are then faced with a return on the land of only a third of what was possible under a cropping regime.
Confronted with the two realities, most elect to lock into cropping, but with the recent long run of poor seasons and low returns many family farmers have lost heavily and have then simply sold up and left the grain belt. The ageing population and loss of the next generation to lucrative city careers has added to the incentive to sell. Even if they did have the capacity to establish pastures again and quit cropping, much greater capitalization in land assets would be required to support a family due to that lower per hectare return. Few have the resources to substantially increase farm size without substantial additional debt. So the population drift from the sheep wheat belts of NSW and
This often results in the selling of all livestock (goodbye to the traditional wheat-sheep combination), all the subdividing fences being pulled up, water points removed, the remaining trees being pushed down, and boundary to boundary cropping carried out. Even surface dams are filled in and cropped over.
And of course the little towns start to die. After seventeen years our main street is now a street of closed and deteriorating buildings with only the post office/transaction centre, two shops and a café remaining open.
So if one hangs in, is it financially worth the wait for the native grasses to return or introduced pastures to establish? The answer to that is no. The gross return on our 900 hectares through livestock is now less than $30 000 a year. Without drought it would have been around $60 000 a year. Still far short of what a family would need as well as maintain the property and pay fixed costs. An additional 1 500 hectares would be required to come even close, and then one would have to pay cropping country price for that additional land. Over capitalization with a vengeance. And the additional area would require a full time employee, something very hard to find in the bush these days.
With our 900 hectares worth around $1.4 million to a cropper, you don’t have to be an accountant to see that grazing return provides an almost nil return to capital. We elected to return the land to grazing country simply because we could afford to and to preserve diversity. But it did not make economic sense.
We planted up to 8 000 native trees and native saltbush over a ten year period in banks around the various paddocks, and the property is now covered in native and introduced pastures. Wildlife abounds in a variety of reptiles, birds, insects and amphibians and with extensive populations of echidna, emus and marsupials. Surface water storage was developed, starting from almost nil 17 years ago to 24,000 cubic metres, with articulated bore water through 25 kilometres of underground pipe and six storage tanks. Paddocks were subdivided to allow rotational grazing to conserve pastures. Regeneration of trees in open cleared paddocks was encouraged by guarding of individual young trees from stock.
But clearly the property’s value lies in its cropping potential. We know that the day we leave, the big tractors will move in and that will be that. A monoculture will be created once more, and when they leave the flora and fauna diversity will be lost, possibly forever.
So the environment out on the western plains does not stand much of a chance given the economic forces working against it. With the escalating grain prices and world food shortages, properties like ours will continue to be swallowed up by Big Agribusiness.
It may sit well with the national bank balance, but it does not sit too well with the environment, or with the soul.
The photos are taken on our spread on the plains. They show what that country can do, both in terms of crops and of livestock.