A Bonza Year

I first encountered the word “bonza” in Nevil Shute’s wonderful story “A Town Like Alice”.  (And no, Alice the sheep is NOT named after the town of Alice, but after Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant”—the line about “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant—excepting Alice…”).

Okay, I’m pretty sure my journo sister Suzi would immediately edit that entire paragraph.  Including the “that”, which she maintains all editors worth their salt delete on sight.  Oops, still haven’t gotten to the point…

“Bonza” is slang for wonderful, great, beautiful.  I have a suspicion it’s a bit old-fashioned, as I don’t hear it much—but it could also be a regional difference—maybe it’s still used a lot in the tropical north of Australia.  Starting in May of 2016, we’ve had a truly bonza year, and the extent of the bounty has made me rethink the way to manage a flock in this land of weather extremes.

At the gate into the Back Gully from the Grass Gully last week. In the following photos I'll show you shots from the same or nearby vantage points in past years.  Rainfall total in the previous 12 months was 636 mm / 25 in and grazing pressure was 500 sheep or 0.5 sheep to the acre.

At the gate into the Back Gully from the Grass Gully last week. In the following photos I'll show you shots from the same or nearby vantage points in past years.  Rainfall total in the previous 12 months was 636 mm / 25 in and grazing pressure was 500 sheep or 0.5 sheep to the acre.

To give you some perspective, despite a dry first 4 months of 2016, rainfall for the calendar year was 20% higher than our 100-year annual average (549 mm or 21.6 in), and 70% higher than the average over the previous 3 years.

Monthly rainfall from the farm rain gauge.  Rain in May last year was nearly twice the highest monthly rainfall recorded since 2005, the earliest reliable rainfall records I kept.

Monthly rainfall from the farm rain gauge.  Rain in May last year was nearly twice the highest monthly rainfall recorded since 2005, the earliest reliable rainfall records I kept.

In the following sequence of photos, all taken near the location of the photo above, I'll walk you through the worst and best years since 2005, with a bit of commentary about rainfall and grazing pressure for each one.  I think you'll find the contrasts startling.  I did, when I put them in sequence, even though I lived through them!

In the Back Gully a few hundred metres from the gate above, in August 2005.  Rainfall in the previous 12 months was 493 mm or 19.4 in.  Grazing pressure over that time was 1740 sheep or 2 per acre.  Lower than average rainfall and a high stocking rate set us up for the fall over the next 3 years, when rainfall averaged less than 300 mm or 11.5 in.

In the Back Gully a few hundred metres from the gate above, in August 2005.  Rainfall in the previous 12 months was 493 mm or 19.4 in.  Grazing pressure over that time was 1740 sheep or 2 per acre.  Lower than average rainfall and a high stocking rate set us up for the fall over the next 3 years, when rainfall averaged less than 300 mm or 11.5 in.

In the Grass Gully (gate to the Back Gully is on far right) in 2008.  Rainfall for the previous 12 months was 270 mm or 10.6 in.  Grazing pressure was 1700 or nearly 2 to the acre.  In response to the obvious forage challenge I sold sheep and put the remaining 800 into a "drought lot" where they were fed grain and hay as a full ration.  I had fed sheep grain in the paddock in the previous year, which kept them going, but didn't help the landscape.

In the Grass Gully (gate to the Back Gully is on far right) in 2008.  Rainfall for the previous 12 months was 270 mm or 10.6 in.  Grazing pressure was 1700 or nearly 2 to the acre.  In response to the obvious forage challenge I sold sheep and put the remaining 800 into a "drought lot" where they were fed grain and hay as a full ration.  I had fed sheep grain in the paddock in the previous year, which kept them going, but didn't help the landscape.

I operated the drought lot for 8 months, waiting for a break in the weather, and spent about $150,000 on feed.  While the sheep did not lose condition, they weren't particularly healthy, a result I attribute to lack of exercise.  The lambing following the drought lot was the worst I have had--before or since--for lambing problems.  It was this experience that convinced me I had to change the way I farm or get out of the business.

I operated the drought lot for 8 months, waiting for a break in the weather, and spent about $150,000 on feed.  While the sheep did not lose condition, they weren't particularly healthy, a result I attribute to lack of exercise.  The lambing following the drought lot was the worst I have had--before or since--for lambing problems.  It was this experience that convinced me I had to change the way I farm or get out of the business.

The first test drive of the Polaris Ranger, with stockman Davey at the wheel in August 2011.  This is the Grass Gully, at the same approximate location as the paddock shot in 2008.  Rainfall over the previous 12 months was a whopping 677 mm or 26.6 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1200, or 1.3 sheep to the acre.  This is not unlike the way the Grass Gully looks at the moment.

The first test drive of the Polaris Ranger, with stockman Davey at the wheel in August 2011.  This is the Grass Gully, at the same approximate location as the paddock shot in 2008.  Rainfall over the previous 12 months was a whopping 677 mm or 26.6 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1200, or 1.3 sheep to the acre.  This is not unlike the way the Grass Gully looks at the moment.

Taken in a native pasture section below the Grass Gully in April 2012, the effects of the 2011 bonza year are still evident.  Rainfall in the previous 12 months was 522 mm or 20.5 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1200 or 1.3 to the acre.

Taken in a native pasture section below the Grass Gully in April 2012, the effects of the 2011 bonza year are still evident.  Rainfall in the previous 12 months was 522 mm or 20.5 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1200 or 1.3 to the acre.

The same gate as in the top photo, from the Grass Gully into the Back Gully in January 2015.  Previous 12 months' rainfall was 356 mm or 14 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1000 or 1.1 to the acre.

The same gate as in the top photo, from the Grass Gully into the Back Gully in January 2015.  Previous 12 months' rainfall was 356 mm or 14 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1000 or 1.1 to the acre.

Approaching the same gate from the Grass Gully into the Back Gully in December 2015.  Previous 12 months' rainfall was 332 mm or 13 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1000 or 1.1 to the acre.  It was at this point I reluctantly opted to sell half the flock.

Approaching the same gate from the Grass Gully into the Back Gully in December 2015.  Previous 12 months' rainfall was 332 mm or 13 inches.  Grazing pressure was 1000 or 1.1 to the acre.  It was at this point I reluctantly opted to sell half the flock.

And just to finish the time line, here are the dogs enjoying their afternoon run in Eagle Tree paddock, just below the Back Gully, in December of 2016.  Pearl (hidden behind the grass), Joker and Jax.

And just to finish the time line, here are the dogs enjoying their afternoon run in Eagle Tree paddock, just below the Back Gully, in December of 2016.  Pearl (hidden behind the grass), Joker and Jax.

What I’ve finally realised, though it’s been staring me in the face for a decade or more, is how crucial the bonza years are in recharging the whole system:  water table, soil moisture, plant and animal diversity and plant biomass. 

For the last several years, using our new-found shepherding nous (savvy), the flock and I have managed to work our way through the dense stands of perennial grasses left over from the previous bonza year of 2011.  We’d finished the job and run out of “grass banks” about 6 months before the 2016 bonza year arrived, leading me to sell half the flock in January last year. 

Two interesting things have forced their way into my brain:  first, it was a good thing to graze down and open up those dense stands, as the regrowth has allowed a lot of broad-leaf plants to find their way to the sunshine: clover, dandelions, dock, chicory, plantain.  So grazing the grass banks with shepherding is a useful strategy. 

Second, the sheer level of biomass is much higher and covers much more of the property than it did after previous bonza years.  I attribute this expansion of bounteous growth to the overall reduced grazing pressure across the property since I reduced the flock size from 2 down to about 1 sheep to the acre.  The place was ready to bounce when the conditions were right.

What does this mean about how I will manage into the future?  I will plan to manage from one bonza year to the next—a variable time frame of 5-10 years in this crazy Australian climate, which may get even crazier as climate change really starts to bite.  Flock size will stay well below 1000 sheep, probably more like 750.  With this lambing, I’ll be at 600 or less mouths to feed, and I’ll hold there for a year or two, while we see just how much grass there really is in the bank.

The grass strategy will be to maintain a level of grazing and regeneration that keeps a long-grass cover on all of the property except those areas the sheep make their “camps” or where the soil is simply too shallow to support deep-rooted perennial grass.

While conventional grazing operations strive to match the grazing pressure to the grass available on a year-to-year or even month-to-month basis, I’ll be trying to match the grazing pressure to the grass available on a cycle of bonza years.  Of course, unlike conventional operators, I’m trying NOT to have to sell any sheep, so destocking is a last resort for me. 

I’m quietly confident that with this bonza year’s gifts, we can manage to keep our oldies in good health until they die of natural causes, without risking the health of any younger sheep.  A bit like having an affordable health care plan for the flock.