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.
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.
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!
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.