Profitable and resilient farming through grassland restoration

童 彤 on Unsplash

Winona Farm, Australia Profitable and resilient farming through grassland restoration

What is pasture cropping

Pasture cropping combines livestock grazing and crop-growing. The two systems are then managed in a way that ensures they complement each other.

This large-scale example of regenerative agriculture, was developed by two farmers, Colin Seis and Darryl Cluff, on a 2000-acre farm called Winona in New South Wales, and now, over two thousand farmers have adopted pasture cropping in Australia and other parts of the world.

The pasture cropping cycle

  1. Annual winter season cereal crops are direct-drilled into perennial pasture grasses just as they are entering their natural dormancy period.
  2. The grains grow out of the inactive grass, and are either harvested or used as direct forage by livestock, in this case mainly merino sheep.
  3. During the winter, the growth cycles are reversed. The grasses flourish in the soil which has been enriched by the livestock, creating a rich pastureland.

This process sees the production of grain and fodder integrated with a holistic grazing system. Livestock are rotated regularly, allowing paddocks to rest for long periods, which avoids the impacts of overgrazing.

Restoring grassland sequesters large amounts of carbon into the soil (Angela Loria on Unsplash)
Restoring grassland sequesters large amounts of carbon into the soil (Angela Loria on Unsplash)

Why is it regenerative

Pasture cropping, like all cover cropping:

  • Ensures that fields are never bare
  • Protects soils from erosion
  • Reduces water loss
  • Provides a habitat for above ground biodiversity
  • Provides food in the form of carbon to sub-soil microbes

The use of ploughing and herbicides can also be eliminated, avoiding negative impacts to soil health and biodiversity.

This is possible because the winter-dormant perennial grasses do not compete with grain crops. Soil fertility and structure is enhanced by a combination of decomposing plant matter (mulching) as well as through the integration of livestock, who trample their dung and urine into the surface layer.

This avoids harmful break up of the soil structure, and managed grazing can also be used to control weeds. For years, Winona Farm required up to five applications of herbicide per year, which has now completely stopped since the farm adopted pasture cropping.

“As we farm closer to how nature had it originally designed, the easier the workload becomes and the more profitable it can be.”

- Colin Seis

What are the benefits

Since shifting to a pasture cropping system in 1993, the benefits for 2000-acre Winona Farm have been significant and include:

  • Increased profitability through:
    • Increased weight gain in livestock, multiple revenue streams
    • The avoidance of more than USD 90,000/year in chemical inputs
  • 200% increase in sequestered carbon equivalent to about 60t/ha
  • Improved soil - reduced acidity, 3 x more water stored, zero soil erosion
  • Restoration of biodiversity rich permanent grasslands including 200 diverse plant species and 125% increase in insect variety.
  • Improved animal health
  • Increase resilience to climate change
Biodiversity is a big beneficiary of pasture cropping (Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash)
Biodiversity is a big beneficiary of pasture cropping (Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash)

Pasture cropping may not be suitable for every region of the world, but it is another proven technique in the regenerative agriculture portfolio.

The success of Winona Farm and thousands of other farms who have adopted pasture cropping, sends a positive signal to areas of the world experiencing similar dry and arid conditions.

According to the UN, almost a quarter of the planet’s dryland is degraded and 1.5 billion people rely on this type of land for food and livelihoods. The challenges that these areas are experiencing will be compounded by the unavoidable effects of climate change in the decades to come.

Through years of hard work and experimentation, Seis and Cluff have demonstrated that it is possible to integrate grains, pasture, and livestock in the same field at large scale, in a way that is profitable and carbon sequestering. Furthermore, pasture cropping provides a powerful tool to reverse a destructive trend, by restoring degraded land to resilient and productive natural grasslands.

Further info

  • Regenerative farming knowledge library - link
  • Pasture Cropping presentation - link
  • Soils for Life in-depth case - link

Case study published Mar 2021

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