For two years Matt Cherry & Shelley Piper of Trio Angus have had to deal with challenges of biblical proportion. In February 2017 the Sir Ivan Bush Fire roared through and burned all 1,700 acres. Then they continued to have drought conditions for the next two years. Luckily at that time they had just begun to learn about Holistic Management from HMI Certified Educator Dick Richardson. The result? In 2019, despite, still being in drought, they had 25% more forage production on their land than they did before the fire.
Switching to Planned Grazing
Matt and Shelley purchased the farm and stock for Trio Angus from Shelley’s parents in 2012 near Cassilis in New South Wales, Australia. Their main business is raising and selling seed stock cattle. Shelley grew up on the family property and Matt had grown up nearby. They both went off to university and further studies. Shelley went on to be a Project Manager for a feed yard and worked for the Angus Association. Matt also worked in a feed yard and was a livestock marketing agent. “But, it was always our dream to come back to the family farm and run our own business,” says Matt. “We had to wait for the right opportunity.” It was a two-year transition when they decided to buy the farm. First, they leased and then they set up the paperwork as they paid for the farm and the purchased the seed stock over five years.
Then in 2016 they met Dick Richardson who was involved in a field day near them. “It was really interesting,” says Matt. “We had been running a set stocking operation, and doing a rough rotational grazing program, nothing structured. Dick’s way of talking and thinking about all aspects of the environment really made us think about what we could be doing. So we got involved with a bit of a working group with eight other farmers from the area. We’ve been meeting quarterly and we generally meet together on one property with Dick. We do a rotation with picking a different property each time. We learn from Dick and the group and what practices people are trying on the other farms. It’s really helped us.
“What got us interested the most was what Dick said about how we could get more performance out of our native grass. We always had lot of rank, mature grass that we couldn’t get the cattle to eat. As we worked on that, we also learned about soil health and biodiversity. We hadn’t been educated in these aspects of grazing, so we began to look into more of these aspects of the land and how it was influencing the forage. But Dick really helped us understand the importance of having different patterns of use for each paddock. We had patterns of using the same paddocks in the same way, and he made us think about changing it up for the health of the land and the animals.
“The difference was amazing. We’ve had a rough run with the bush fire and bad drought. But even through that period, we’ve been able to lift production and have our cattle in good health. We’re really excited at the gains we’ve been able to make. Previously we were on the track of replacing our native grasses with Lucerne (alfalfa) and introduced temperate and subtropical grasses, which would have been very costly. Instead we’ve been focused on having bigger mobs and smaller pastures to get more out of our native species, which has cost us very little in the way of wire and some water.” That 25% increase in production has come despite currently being at 70% of annual rainfall for over two years.
“The neighbors have been interested in what we are doing,” says Matt. “When our grazing group has toured our property, they can’t believe the change we are getting. We are just implementing the grazing strategy that Dick has suggested. We lease 600 acres across the road from us. Originally it was five paddocks, and we’ve got it so we have 12 paddocks now, about 8-30 ha (25 acres) each, where we can now run a single mob of dry cattle all year because we have two different calving seasons. We have four to five mobs in total now, which is half the number we used to have. We can see the benefit of smaller paddocks and moving the animals more frequently, but we don’t want to move every day. So that means they spend three to seven days in a paddock. We have 80-100 cows in a mob or 50-60 bulls, weaners, heifers, etc.
“We’ve been following Dick’s “Grazing Naturally” pattern of use as part of a grazing plan he’s helped us set up. He told us to pick one paddock as a priority paddock in the rotation. We number that number 1 and then number the other paddocks from there. In the growing season, when that number one paddock, reaches 1,000-1,200 kg/ha (900-1,000 pounds/acre), then we go in and graze it again. We then go on to graze the other paddocks in the same sequence until the number 1 paddock is ready again. We might graze that first paddock eight times, other paddocks will be grazed less times and we might not graze some at all and leave them for a stockpile.”
In this way, Trio Angus’ recovery period varies depending on the rain and the desired influence on a given paddock. During the growing season, the recovery period averages around three weeks. “We talk about having a landscaping event on a paddock, where we may graze it hard to stimulate root growth, but we work to still maintain ground cover,” says Matt. “So we may pick Paddock #1 because it needs improving because it is the least productive. All the other paddocks revolve around Paddock #1. Dick’s benchmark is to allow a paddock like that to get to the height of a cricket ball (approximately three inches) then to graze to the height of a golf ball (one inch). This grazing works well for us in our 25-inch rainfall. Groundcover is not the issue for us. We have more issues of utilization of grasses. The other paddocks might get four weeks for recovery or even five weeks. For example, we only got to Paddock # 3 but then we headed back to Paddock #1 because it was time to be grazed. During the dry season we went through all of the paddocks only once and with this system we’ve been able to grow a lot of bulk for the winter. We want to really mix it up for each paddock, so we can get the plants to experience different pressures.”
Trio Angus’ stocking rate is down a little a bit as they have 160 cows currently. They run a total of 450 head all year. These numbers are working for them as even through the dry season they’ve been able to keep their ground cover. “We’ve had similar numbers from when we started despite the drought and bush fire,” says Matt. “Sure, there’s still room for improvement. Right now we are tackling the water system. We’ve been busy upgrading fencing and water by putting in underground water, poly pipe and 20 troughs. From there we’ve been able to split paddocks with one permanent electric fence wire for internal fencing and keeping the existing external fence.
“We’ve found incredible labor efficiencies with our water investments,” says Shelley. “Before we were spending so much time on maintaining our old water system. Now we’ve upgraded to solar panels and have sensors at all the bores and tanks so it saves a lot of labor with everything being automatic. We were spending half of day a week on water and now we don’t really have to do anything. Our system is set up to handle a potential capacity of 1,000 head. And the water is better quality with the troughs instead of drinking out of dirt tanks. Now we have two wells and Dick gave us advice on positioning these water points to help us make the best investment.”
“Every three months Dick checks in with us and we go over our grazing plan for property. We crunch the numbers and he checks our work and asks questions. We’ve been using the Maia Grazing software, but we’ve just got going on it. It’s a great tool! We’ve started to use it to document our grazing chart and to predict our base forage on rainfall and stocking rates. We’ve only been doing it this year. We knew the information, but we didn’t know how to use the software. We put our previous year’s data in and then we are adding as we go along. The greatest value is that Maia is a lot quicker with the math so you can get that info very quickly. Being able to project where you are headed to figure out how you will stock and destock lets you make use of opportunities. We can also share the data with Dick more easily.”
Matt and Shelley have been excited by the results they’ve been able to achieve with these new practices. “In the past, we were treating a lot of symptoms like spraying weeds or putting on fertilizer to make paddocks productive,” says Matt. “But with the planned grazing we’ve been able to reduce inputs. That has meant massive savings. We don’t use fertilizer or herbicides as much anymore as we don’t need them.” Those changed practices means an annual savings of at least $10,000-20,000 for Trio Angus.
Even Dick Richardson has been amazed at what Matt and Shelley have been able to do in such a short amount of time. “We just pick up the simple things we can do,” says Matt. “We quickly realized, the number one resource we need to focus on is our people. We felt we were limited by our education and so we focus on education and look at ideas that challenge our way of thinking. We think we can make even more changes in the future.
“We had to learn how to recover from the bush fire that hit us in 2017. Other neighboring properties have been slow to respond after that fire. They can see what we are doing and how the land is responding, but it’s so easy to keep doing what you are doing. Some of our neighbors are coming to the end of their careers so they are less interested in changing. We’ve learned we have to keep challenging our way of thinking, and ask ourselves what could be doing and why are we doing it. We’ve got on so well with Dick as he always keeps you thinking.
“We were just like everyone else. We hadn’t really been looking to change, but we got hooked. We got some information from that field day and then we made a few little changes and got some big results. Now my father is experimenting. He had a couple of paddocks and tried fencing it into some smaller paddocks and found the cattle did well and always had feed in front of them. Now he’s going to experiment with some permanent pastures.
“We are also passionate about sharing this information with other young farmers. We held a young farmers’ breakfast in the middle of the drought and had 60 people attend. Some people from our farmers’ group also came. We introduced a few conversations about how we are handling the drought and are going to have a farm tour to get more people in the district on board and help share the information.
“In a nutshell, since the fire and drought, we’ve really had to watch our grazing management. Without Dick’s involvement we wouldn’t have been able to capitalize and maintain production the way we have and his help has been really valuable. Really what he taught us to do was to match our stocking rate to our carrying capacity. If you don’t do that, the land suffers. If you do that, everything begins to work better and the land responds in the rain.
“Our vision for the farm is to work more with nature rather than against it and aim for more perennial pastures and a grazing system that supports that. We have a couple soil types—sandy and basalt. The sandy soil has consol and lovegrass. I hate that grass because it matures so quickly, but it’s been one of our best assets through the dry due to its ability to maintain cover and respond quickly to small falls of rain. It really gives a lot of production, but it has to be managed as it gets rank. That was one of the best things about the bush fire. It burnt off the rank stuff and gave us a clean state.