THE FARM: ETHICS
My wool growing production system relies on three main commitments: excellence in nutrition, a conservation land ethic, and thoughtful animal welfare. These commitments are expressed through cherishing the biodiversity of the landscape, a conservative stocking rate and shepherding to link the two.
Excellence in nutrition acknowledges the fundamental need of all grazing animals to have choice in their forage (biodiversity) and knowledge about how to find and utilise those choices. Grazing animals can learn how to balance their own diets and to self-medicate through selective grazing of plants with different “secondary compounds”: tannins, alkaloids and thousands of others. This learned behaviour has come to be known as “nutritional wisdom” with the pioneering research work of Fred Provenza and colleagues.
A conservation land ethic ensures that biodiversity and production are equal partners in creating a landscape that works for all the players—wild or domestic, plant or animal. This ethic was described simply, but with great insight, by Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the US Wilderness Society:
“When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.”
“The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself.” Aldo Leopold
Thoughtful animal welfare means more than just meeting the basic needs of the animals for food, shelter and health care. It also means taking the time and care to understand and maintain the social structure of the flock. The sheep on my farm live in a single large, intergenerational flock of 500 to 1000. Their social structure is well established, and successive generations have had the benefit of being taught nutritional wisdom by their mothers.
Cherishing the biodiversity on the farm is critical for excellence in nutrition, and means rebuilding the native ecosystems of the farm as the main repository of plant diversity. This is an inclusive process, where grazing is used to enhance diversity without diminishing the overall resource. It also means planting large areas with native trees, shrubs, grasses and broadleaf plants.
Shepherding is the main grazing strategy I use to link nutritional choice for the animals with maintainence of biodiversity in the system. I rely on a conservative overall stocking rate to ensure that there is enough forage to manage through the extreme year-to-year variability of rainfall in this part of the world.
Dealing with a complex system like a farm means that there is no one right way to do things, and also that you simply cannot predict exactly how the system will respond to a given set of circumstances. I use a range of strategies to spread the risk of extended dry weather and inevitable errors in my judgment. My underlying strategy is to maintain a low level of grazing pressure, even in good seasons. Keeping the ecosystem in good working order requires diversity; diversity requires abundance (or else the livestock will eat all the diversity); abundance requires a strict, but highly variable, limit to grazing pressure.
To learn more about these ideas and their application on my farm, use the following tags that link to Yarns from the Farm and Come Shepherding journal posts. The Come Shepherding journal posts describe the day-to-day work of shepherding on the farm.
THE FARM: GEOGRAPHY
The farm comprises about 1000 acres (330 hectares), with two main soil types: sandstone and dolerite. The sandstone areas are mostly introduced pastures, as they were easy areas to plow when this area was settled. Soil in the dolerite areas is rich but shallow, and the many granitic rock formations made it difficult to plow, so the main repositories of native ecosystems on the farm are found in the slightly elevated dolerite country, including a remnant forest of white gums (eucalyptus viminalis), hence the yarn brand name.
Rocky outcrops in the dolerite country provide shelter for smaller native plants—daisies, lilies, heaths, orchids and the like. There are a number of threatened and endangered plants and animals on the property, and farm management is designed to protect and encourage them.
The climate here reflects the high latitude (43 deg S) and elevation (500 m or 1650 feet): cold with occasional snow in winter, seldom warmer than 35 C (95 F) in summer, and highly variable rainfall from year to year. The long-term average rainfall is 550 cm (22 inches). Spring tends to be a particularly stormy time, with strong, gusty winds, while autumn is generally more settled. We can have snow in December, and often have frosts in November.
In keeping with my commitment to a conservation land ethic, I don’t use synthetic chemicals on my property: no herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers. I’m not organically certified, but follow the principles of organic farming as closely as I can.
THE FARM: ANIMALS
My sheep are a big extended family, and after the roughly 300 days I’ve spent shepherding, I’m more or less an honorary sheep myself. Many of my sheep have names, starting with those I raised from lambs: Annie and Emmy, Felix, Clara, Georgie, Vicki and Elf, and extending over time to about 20 or so who, through their friendships with my pet lambs, and just getting used to me, have joined the circle, including Leo, Albert, Prince, Jeff, Horatio and others. And there are special sheep like Alice, now 13, who first brought nutritional wisdom to my attention, and her daughter Alice Jr. Without exception, these animals have strong, individual personalities. So, I’m pretty confident in asserting that ALL sheep have personalities—it’s just that we don’t get to know them all personally!
Genetics are important in raising high quality wool and healthy sheep. About 30% of an animal’s characteristics can be attributed to genetics, and about 70% to nutrition. It’s critical to get both things right, especially since environment can alter genetics (really—this is the emerging science of epigenetics), so there isn’t a clear delineation between genetics and nutrition.
White Gum Wool sheep are a strain of merinos known as Saxon Merinos, renowned for their soft, fine wool. They originated in Saxony, and were brought to Tasmania in the early 1800s by a remarkable woman named Eliza Forlonge. For more about Eliza, take a look at Liz Harfull’s book Women of the Land. My sheep are descended from Eliza’s through the Winton stud via well-known fine wool producers Allan and Carol Phillips of Glen Stuart in northern Tasmania.
On the animal welfare front, I don’t dock tails or mules, so my flock seen from the back is a lovely collection of swaying tails—all quite individually shaped! Getting the nutrition right means my sheep are remarkably healthy by conventional farming standards: I have not needed to treat for intestinal worms since I established the intergenerational flock and reduced the stocking rate from 2+ sheep to the acre to less than 1.5. Very few animals die of health-related problems. In fact, very few sheep die at all, other than lambs lost at birth.
I treat the flock several times each summer to prevent flystrike, using an organically certified compound called Extinosad. Good nutrition and no worm means the sheep don’t scour, so that is not a fly attractant. And they use their tails to swish flies, just as horses and cattle do.
Because this is purely a grazing enterprise, I don’t do any cropping, nor do I cut and store hay. The principles of nutritional wisdom (and my experience for the last 8 years in implementing it) argue against any supplementary feeding or indeed against supplements of any kind. If the animals have enough choice, and if their forage is at least in part from deep-rooted perennials, they find the nutrients, including trace elements, they need.
Sheep longevity: I’m attempting to get the stocking rate right for keeping all of my sheep for their natural lifetimes, on the assumption that their wool will continue to be good enough quality for making yarn, even as they reach advanced age (12 or more). My business profit now comes overwhelmingly from wool, not surplus sheep. Furthermore, since grown sheep grow far more wool than hoggets (1-year-olds), I’m much better off keeping my older sheep as "dry" sheep (not lambing past the age of 5, but continuing to grow wool), and only producing enough lambs to replace sheep that die. There is a lovely side benefit to working toward this goal--as my flock ages, their wisdom level will grow.
There are 7 working dogs on the farm, all border colllies, and principally from US/UK lines. They are bred to do long, wide gathers, collecting up sheep spread across a mountainside and as far as a kilometre away. The dogs are: Janie and Chance at 13 years, Janie’s 5-year-old children Pearl, Joker, Blaze and Flynn, and Pearl’s accidental baby Jax, now 3. Janie and Chance are my main shepherding dogs, and I’ve been dilatory in training up the youngsters, in part because the switch into shepherding means an entirely different style of work, and hence training, from the conventional. I honestly don’t know how best to go forward with training the youngsters to have the patience and self-discipline to hold their positions for long periods of time, and not put undue pressure on the sheep unless it’s really needed! So expect a few Come Shepherding episodes about my trials and errors this year.
In 2012, I began feeding my dogs homemade dog food—following on my success with sheep nutrition. Dog nutrition is a real challenge, since there is not a lot of readily available, comprehensible information out there. I finally found a great brochure put out by the National Research Council of the Canadian National Academies and adapted it for my kennel. I use 2 large slow cookers to make a meaty porridge with mince, brown rice, pearl barley, vegetables, apples and—of course!—herbs and spices. I serve that over rolled oats. Recipe here: Nan’s Slow Cooker Dog Food.
The other thing I’ve started is regular Bowen therapy treatments for the dogs. This is an alternative therapy developed for humans that is also very effective for dogs and horses. It was particularly good for my old dog Bear (Janie’s father) during his last couple of years, getting him off anti-inflammatories, and also for one of the youngsters, Joker, who had difficulties cantering as a pup. Janie and Chance get one-a-month tune-ups to keep them fit and well for shepherding. Ingrid Layton of Equibody does the therapy.
The farm abounds with native wildlife—birds, bees, snakes, spiders, frogs, possums, wallabies, bandicoots—because the ecosystem is healthy. Watching a clutch of black swans raised on my wetlands, and seeing them finally take flight, lifts my heart at the same time it makes me cry to see them go. Wedge-tailed eagles, in families of as many as five, follow me around the property, playing high in the thermals, then coming low enough to touch their wingtips to the treetops. Shepherding takes me out into the landscape 3 or 4 days a week, and as I work on foot, there is ample opportunity to observe and photograph the wildlife of the farm.
Native birds include: wedge-tailed eagles, forest ravens, flame robins, blue fairy wrens, mountain ducks, black swans, chats, silvereyes, butcher birds, magpies and kookaburras. Native marsupials include wombats, wallabies, possums, quolls and echidnas. Several species of snakes and frogs, lizards and butterflies are also to be found.
Aside from being useful indicators of the biodiversity status of the farm, the wild animals make my job of shepherding a joyful one.
THE FARM: PEOPLE
Any farm relies on the support of professionals in the community as well as the employees. On farm, I’m pretty much it, with occasional help from friend and accomplished stockwoman (and champion rodeo rider) Karen Fish. I employ fencers, shearers and general help from the local area, and am also lucky to have a wonderful small motor mechanic in Karen’s brother Andrew, who runs the local service station and can fix anything. Our local vet, Margaret Thompson, grew up on a sheep property and has a wonderfully pragmatic, caring, and professional approach to veterinary care for the sheep and dogs.
An emeritus employee I’d like to acknowledge is David Carnes (Mr Dave, as I often call him), who came out of retirement to be my stockman from the time I started in 2000 until his second retirement at age 88 in 2013. I learned so much from Mr Dave, much of it leading directly into the concepts and commitments that now define the enterprise. At this writing in November 2016, Davey is still going strong.
THE FARM: SCIENCE
Nutritional Wisdom Concept
Grazing animals, and the plants they eat, have co-evolved over millenia. They’ve struck a balance, where the plant chemistry prevents the animals from eating the plants to death, while the animals have developed the ability to balance their diets and self-medicate using a wide diversity of plants. These abilities stem from a combination of autonomic responses to the food eaten, and knowledge of where to find those forages in the landscape. This combined ability has come to be called “nutritional wisdom”. The knowledge part is passed on from mothers to babies, in a process requiring 1-2 years. Keeping babies with their mothers, rather than weaning them and putting them in year-classes, is critical to maintaining the group knowledge of nutrition in the landscape.
A diverse and abundant landscape means more wild animals and birds, which in turn means greater health for the plants and the grazers (wild or domestic).
Production gains and trade-offs
My experience with creating a production landscape designed to maximise nutritional choice has resulted in a number of production benefits over the past 8 years:
• 27 % gain in wool production per sheep
• 30% fertility gain
• vastly reduced treatment for intestinal parasites
• much easier lambing
• improved general health—better immune systems?
• reduced stress and stronger social structure in the flock
Along with these production gains have come significant reductions in the cost of growing wool: labour, supplies, and particularly supplementary feed which gets very expensive in dry times.
The trade off is that to maintain a high level of diversity, a lower than standard level of grazing pressure is required—in my case, a drop of about 50% in sheep numbers from my pre-nutritional choice days. The drop in numbers has been compensated by production gains in my flock, but I find most woolgrowers reluctant to take what seems a retrograde step considering the pressure of generally low profitability in agriculture. The knee-jerk reaction is to try to find ways to carry more sheep, not less.
Technical papers about Nutritional Wisdom
I’ve written one long technical paper about my experience introducing nutritional wisdom concepts into my farm management. I should note this paper in its original 2011 version was rejected for publication by the Australian Rangeland Society. Twice. In this version, I've added the statistics for 2012 to 2106.
I’ve also given two presentations at scientific conferences.
The first was the Ecological Society of Australia (Hobart, November 2011).
The second was the Australian Rangeland Society’s biennial conference in Kununurra, September 2012.
In November 2013 Rangeland Journal in the US published an article by Fred Provenza and others (including me) entitled "Complex Creative Systems". While formally technical, it is an easy read, and gives a good overview of what the nutritional wisdom concept is all about, and how people like me are putting it into practice.
Grazing management strategies
I’ve used three main grazing management strategies over the years of trying to figure out how to be sustainable and profitable at the same time. The first was set stocking, where a year-class of sheep (i.e. all the same age, not intergenerational) are given a paddock large enough to sustain them (in theory) and that becomes their permanent home. This was Mr Dave’s preferred style, arguing the sheep needed a “home” they knew. (Recently, Davey commented that with my shepherding, the one big flock now is "home" anywhere on the property--so I've come full circle!)
The second technique is rotational or planned grazing, advocated in recent times by Alan Savory in his book Holistic Management. This technique focuses on the plants in the system, arguing they need cycles of prolonged rest between short periods of intensive grazing. While this technique does work in many contexts to improve the quantity of forage, there is no acknowledgement in holistic management of the sophisticated nutritional needs of the animals inherent in nutritional wisdom principles. It is not clear that rotational grazing on its own enhances or even meets those basic choice needs.
Third, in an attempt to make rotational grazing meet my nutritional standards, I’ve added shepherding to the list of techniques, following the concepts laid out in the book by Michel Meuret and Fred Provenza, “The Art and Science of Shepherding”. While the context is quite different from the open range shepherding of the French Alps and other areas, the concepts are entirely applicable to my enterprise. I’ve spent the last 3 years experimenting, thinking, revising, reworking and adapting my approach to shepherding to work in my system and with my labour and time constraints.
I’m currently using a mix of rotational concepts and shepherding. The farm is divided into 3 large “grazing areas” that the flock rotates through on an ad hoc basis (that is, depending on growth, hence season and rainfall), and within which I actively shepherd the flock to improve their access to diversity in or adjacent to the grazing area. I describe this system in more detail in the Come Shepherding posts.
Landscape ecology and Land ethic
The work and writing of Aldo Leopold has strongly influenced me.
Try A Sand County Almanac for a beautiful and very readable introduction to his ideas.
For the Health of the Land is a recent publication of previously unpublished essays, including
The Farmer as Conservationist.
In a similar vein, The River of the Mother of God revisits earlier, mostly unpublished Leopold articles.
“Conservation, then, is keeping the resource in working order, as well as preventing overuse. Resources may get out of order before they are exhausted, sometimes even while they are still abundant. Conservation, therefore, is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.”
Aldo Leopold, “The Farmer as Conservationist”, 1939