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TAS Country : May 10th 2012
32 Tasmanian Country Friday, May 11, 2012 News Take stock of land's potential HOBBY farming Paul Healy WORK THE NUMBERS: Slope, site aspects and soil type will affect stocking rates. Expecting too much is a trap LEARNING to understand the limits of your land's potential is one of the first and most important challenges for every new hobby farmer and small- holder. Overstocking your block is a mistake that can be made so soon, too easily, by those who do not have the experi- ence to know or judge the year-long feed and space requirements for their animals. There is a three-to-one returning cost factor in the risk graph of overstocking. This graph tells us that it will cost three times more -- and take three times longer -- to repair and restore land that has been pugged, denuded and eroded by overstocking than it actually takes to do the damage or is received from the sale of stock taken off the over- burdened ground. When I bought my first block of land on the slimmer side of 21, it was overrun with 2m of weeds and grasses that seemed, to such a young bloke from the town, like an inexhaustible supply of greenery. I therefore bought six ewes with lambs at foot to get the grass down before the bushfire dangers of the drying summer and to profit from the sale of the meat. That was in September. What I did not calculate, however, was the relative hunger of my soil on a tree-covered slope, the unending, voracious appetite of lactating ewes, and the very real limits of a hectare of ground. By the end of December, in a drought season, all of the grass was gone, and for the next four months until the lambs were big enough for slaughter, I was buying in chaff and hay to keep the flock fed. By the time they were sold, each lamb had cost me in feed bills more than three times what was received for their sale. Judging the limits of a landholding is not just a question of having sufficient feed, as fodder can be bought in, easily enough, if you have the cash, and when you have just a few head in the herd or flock to supplement. The real limit on the stocking rate of your land is the longer term, sustain- able rate of occupation which may be managed, safely, to enable the rest and rotation of fresh ground put by for your stock to move on to, when the present block has been grazed for three months, and needs to be vacated, to avoid a build-up of parasites and worm ova. Many novice smallholders and hobby farmers become overreliant on the use of chemicals and anthelmetics -- to control worms and lice with their stock -- because they just have too many animals on their land, and are not able to have two-thirds of the ground resting at any one time of the year. If you get into this situation, it is mathematically certain that over time the health and productivity of your land and your stock will be ground down while the cost of chemical support escalates. If you cannot have 66 per cent of your ground remaining ungrazed at any one point in the year, you are heading for long-term trouble and you are not running a sustainable operation. I saw this fact demonstrated clearly by a couple who went the whole hog on black pigs and who, within three years of getting started, had upscaled from just two to 20 breeding sows, with all being free-ranged, on just 20ha of ground. You need at least 2ha of ground for every sow, and preferably three to have any sort of sustainable basis for a free- range pig breeding operation. Their numbers just did not stack up, and I queried the fact that they had just 20 per cent of their ground in hand, at any one time, being rested, resown and renewed for the future. The question was not liked and I left them to it. It would have come as no surprise -- to any experienced farmer observing -- that within two more years they ran into major issues with dead piglets, lost litters and ailing sows. Whether you are running poultry, pigs, waterfowl, sheep, dairy goats, beef cattle or just a house cow, you need to study the amount of land required for each beast, and you must learn that for every DBE (Dry Beast Equivalent) of the type of animal you intend to graze, you will need to at least double the amount of land required for a female suckling young or rearing a clutch. Therefore if a stock agent has told you in the past that you might graze 14 wethers on your 3ha block, that means you should only think of running no more than six to eight ewes with lambs at foot, on a year-to-year basis. A problem you may have there, however, if he was telling you the amount of sheep you would need, as a once-off heavy stocking, to get rid of an urgent long grass issue before the fire season started, is that, on a season-to- season basis, when keeping sheep on your block year round, you may be able to run only six wethers, or three ewes with lambs. Slope, site aspects and soil type will affect our stocking rates as well. Twelve hectares of ground might sound like plenty for two milking cows, but not if 95 per cent of it is flooded every winter and becomes a bog from May to December each year. In that situation, if you must have house cows, you may have to do the European thing -- cutting plenty of summer hay and keeping the cattle in a barn for six months of the year. Similarly, although your 8ha of ground might seem like sufficient for three or four free-range sows, if the greater part of your block is steeper mudstone slopes that will slip and skim away from the subsurface base as the hooves of the pigs cut across it, much of the land may be wrecked and eroded after just two or three years of the pigs ploughing and bogging their way across a couple of extra wet seasons. These are the stock-keeping traps that wait for the unwary. If you can stay patient, start small and remain understocked, rather than becoming overstretched, while observing and studying the land's limits, you have the very best chance of enjoying your lifestyle choice sustainably. Then, by following the maxim of learning from the mistakes of others rather than from your own, you'll avert the remedial cost to repair the land. Our last autumn workshop on Sustainable Smallholding will be held on May 20. For details email paul francis firstname.lastname@example.org
May 3rd 2012
May 24th 2012