Two paddocks at a property in central Victoria are being managed in two very different ways, with a third left untouched as a control, as part of a research project to assess the financial outcomes of regenerative and conventional pasture management.
The Beckworth RegenAg Project involves Southern Cross University, the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, Nutrisoil, AGF Seeds,and Central Victorian Regenerative Farmers (CVRF) at Paraway Pastoral Co’s Beckworth Court property.
It is one of eight projects funded by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s $2.5 million Soil Extension Program.
By comparing the financial outcomes of the regenerative paddock and the conventional paddock, the project aims to inform farmers of potential benefits and provide practical advice.
CVRF project officer, Ross Davey, said the financial outcomes will be assessed by quantifying input costs versus monetised production results, in the form of net feed utilised by stock converted to a theoretical stock weight gain. Natural capital improvement will also be part of the financial outcome assessment.
Two paddocks, two approaches
The regenerative methods adopted include:
- Multi-season use of annual multi-species cover cropping
- Minimal use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers
- Application of biological amendments
- Establishment of multiple species perennial pasture
- Adaptive multi-paddock grazing.
Conventional methods include:
- Minimal species ‘clean-up’ cereal and clover crops
- Strategic use of chemical fertilisers
- Establishment of simple two mix perennial pasture
- Set stocking.
Implemented on a 40-hectare block of a large corporate farm, the practices were designed to be practical and simple to fit labour resources and farm routines.
Assessing the outcomes
To quantify production outcomes, Feed On Offer (FOO) assessments were used instead of actual stock weights. This was due to the difficulties of weighing stock and maintaining consistent stock attributes for comparison.
Dry matter tests at strategic times produces net feed utilised by stock, which is converted to a standard theoretical stock weight gain and thus financial return. Input costs are available from farm operation records.
After a number of seasons of sowing simple annual ‘clean-up’ pasture mixes the conventional paddock was sown mid-May with phalaris, clover and oats. The regenerative paddock was sown in early June with chicory, plantain, sub-clover, strawberry clover, rape, radish, linseed and phalaris after a number of seasons of multi species cover crop sown as annuals. The aim was to establish perennials on both sides.
Mr Davey said cold weather impacted the growth of perennials, and this was expected to shorten the period of grazing of any resulting perennial pasture. A lack of rain after sowing also had an impact.
The extreme rain period from early November to the end of December 2022 meant that growth of pasture on both sides was severely retarded for three months. Entry to both paddocks was totally curtailed due to the wet; no stock could be put onto the paddocks and no application of biologicals was possible.
Measurement of Feed on Offer was finally possible in mid-January 2023, but by that stage many of the pasture species had matured past being quality feed.
Project agronomist Jade Killoran observed that the chicory on the regenerative side was prolific and had started to seed, the phalaris had seeded and the clover was growing well – all good foundations for a stronger establishment of perennial pasture for future seasons.
Evidence to date
Averaged over all seasons, the financial returns on implementing regenerative practices to improve pasture and soil is a ‘no regrets’ strategy compared with conventional methods.
“There is no financial disadvantage; you certainly wont lose money” Mr Davey said.
“On top of that we can already see substantial anecdotal evidence of superior soil health improvement in the paddock using regenerative practices. If natural capital improvement is accounted for, it is anticipated that improved financial outcomes will result.”
As a result of this project, a template could be developed for a soil and pasture improvement program using multi species cover-cropping, perennial pasture establishment, and biological amendments (minimising high cost chemical fertiliser inputs).
Mr Davey said farmers needed further assurance that moving from conventional pasture management to a regenerative approach could be a financial “no regrets” strategy.
“We could have evidence that in a three-year period it is possible to have identifiable improvements in soil natural capital and pasture resilience showing a trend that should continue over a longer time,” he said.
Advice for farmers
Mr Davey said farmers still needed to make informed decisions.
“Selecting a trial area that is a significant, but small, part of one’s operation in order to assess optimal regenerative approaches and test best practices for your area is a wise move,” he said.
“There are many variables in inputs, timing, species selection, stock management etc that is best trialled first to ensure your investment is optimal.
“Always conduct trials first with comparative areas and controls, but avoid the temptation of overcomplicating the variables.
“Stick to the plan but be reactive and adaptive and document the plan, variations, decisions and outcomes.”