After three years of very tight seasons, you could be forgiven for taking a second, or even third glance, at the tall stands of feed at Lou and Rose Maher’s property near Perry Bridge.
“We’re just gobsmacked, the growth has been phenomenal after the last rains,” Rose said.
For an experiment Rose started in 2012, based on regenerative grazing and holistic management techniques, with sheep and five small paddocks, the grazing trial has morphed into a complete new way of farming.
“The focus is on perennial grasses,” Rose said.
What they want to see are paddocks at 100 per cent ground cover, full of blends like chicory, plantain, cocksfoot, phalaris and lucerne.
In the system, soil is wealth, grass is king, perennial grasses are gold and solar panels generate profit.
A sense of the greater good can be felt when discussing pastures and soil with the Mahers.
“Lou and I have a common goal – to leave the land better than we found it,” Rose said.
“We’re on a journey and it has been interesting to observe the increasing biodiversity and vitality of the grasses as the grazing system has evolved.”
However, not everyone was prochange at the start.
“I was highly skeptical,” Lou said.
“I was quite dubious whether it was good or bad, it took me 12 months to relax about it and four years to get comfortable.
“It’s a whole change of concept and a subtle change in mindset.
“But there are no nude moon dances and there’s no fear of chemicals.”
The grazing system is supported by a targeted soil improvement regime, with a focus on lime, chook manure, dynamic lifter and biological preparations for specific paddocks.
It took Lou those 12 months and then he started fencing the farm – into 145 paddocks no less.
“I turned around one day and Lou was dividing up the whole farm,” Rose said.
“It was a really big step for Lou.”
The Mahers consider themselves soil farmers first, then grass farmers and then cattle farmers, with biodiversity on all levels.
The cattle are grazed on a slowrotation, eating a paddock for perhaps two to three days and then the mob may not return to that paddock for 145 days, giving the pasture the chance to seed.
“A lot of our native plants are suited to long rotations – if you set stock them they won’t sustain,” Rose said.
The Mahers are witnessing 25 to 30-year-old pasture species putting their heads up.
“The timing of grazing is absolutely critical,” Rose said.
Lou said they put stock in at “three beer cans high, and they come out at one beer can high”.
Due to the system a lot of the grasses may not be eaten by the time the mob leaves the paddock.
“We’re not wasting grass, we’re turning it into compost,” Lou said.
“Dead tillers on the ground means the plant has regenerated.”
As such they have had a positive increase in soil structure and water holding capacity.
“Our cost of production is really low. We don’t drench unless we see a specific need and we test before we drench,” Rose said.
“Every year from 2012, without fail we have had heavier weights and better growth in our calves due to the resilience in the system, combined with changing herd genetics.”
Prior to 2012 they ran 90 cows and 500 firstcross sheep but built that to 220 breeders and replacement heifers, until the drought.
Now they run 130 cows, 40 of them replacements.
They now have 145, eight to 10-acre paddocks divided by electric fences with 52 water points.
The troughs are fed by a bore, drawn by a 14-foot Southern Cross windmill with a 3.5-inch windmill pump, via 10 kilometres of pipe and six 22,000-litre tanks strategically spread across the farm.
The water gravity feeds from the tanks to the troughs.
Lou describes the country as “sand dunes and old swamp” but over time they have reduced soil compaction with grazing management.
They have also used lime to ameliorate soil acidity and high magnesium levels in particular areas.
The Mahers currently have 60 acres as part of an ongoing Top Soils project and have been using cover crops with minimum fertiliser to improve soil structure and soil biology.
The aim is to have 100 per cent ground cover but they currently estimate that figure at 70 to 75 per cent coming out of the prolonged dry.
IMAGE: Lou and Rose Maher, in a paddock with cows and calves on the second day of grazing in their multi species eight-hectare