Using multi-species pastures for production & soil health
At a glance
Zoe and Luke Crouch
Location: Landsborough West, in the Upper Wimmera on the edge of the Pyrenees ranges
Enterprise mix: Self-replacing merinos, calf-rearing and pasture raised chickens for eggs
Soil Type: Non-granitic red texture contrast soil, highly prone to erosion, particularly on the hilly and slope paddocks across the district
Rainfall: Annual average 450mm
Mixed farmers Zoe and Luke Crouch have established multi-species annual pastures to remedy a range of soil health and productivity challenges.
We faced many soil health constraints, which were impacting our productivity. Our sodic soils were low in fertility, highly erosive and compacted. This resulted in soils that crusted over and set like cement in summer, slow nutrient cycling and nutritionally poor pastures dominated by onion weed for stock.
Our aim with the multi-species was to try and open the soil up and get some air and water in there, increase biological activity, increase water infiltration and take advantage of rain. Through the multi-species were are ultimately boosting our soil health function and on-farm productivity.
We sowed multi-species pastures into three paddocks, totalling 120 hectares. All paddocks sown to multi-species had been soil tested annually for four years and had regular applications of gypsum and lime. Two paddocks had been used for oaten hay the previous season, and the remaining paddock for grazing. To increase germination, we applied a biological treatment to paddocks with a knock down, and we spread 50kg/ha of single super before sowing. We direct drilled the multi-species in late May, with the seed sown with a biological seed treatment.
We chose to purchase a pre-made winter seed mix, rather than select, source and mix our own pasture mix. It included triticale, oats, barley, vetch, peas, beans, arrowleaf and balansa clover plus tillage radish. Paddocks were too wet to access after germination to apply additional fertilisers or bio-stimulants as originally planned.
Within a fortnight, the multi-species was showing good germination rates across paddocks, and strong plant root growth. We were pretty impressed with this barley root when we dug it up, so it was worth a photo (right).
We have been impressed with the ability of multi-species pastures to address our soil health and productivity constraints. We were very much stuck in a reductive attitude and limited to what we thought was our small land area but now we feel like the sky is the limit. It’s not the size of the land that matters, it’s what you do with those hectares. Before we started we couldn’t find a worm; within less than a year we counted 15 worms and eight worm eggs in just one sod.
Feed gap grazing
The multi-species established so well, and grew so much biomass, that the livestock couldn’t keep up with the feed. We managed to have green feed nearly all summer, so the multi-species proved to be successful in reducing our feed gap. It also kept the soils covered, ticking a lot of boxes for the soil health principles we’re following.
We strip grazed the multi-species using temporary electrical fencing. We used a tyre towed behind a tractor to flatten the pasture in order for the electric fence to be erected, creating a thick layer of mulch.
Wherever we have mulch on the ground has been phenomenal. In places, the mulch is 10cm deep. This has greatly improved water infiltration. The tillage radish grew beautifully and did what we wanted it to do, which was to open the soil up and allow air and water in.
We had a pretty major rain event in January and wherever we had mulch like that, we had water infiltrating into our soil, which we haven’t ever had. Previously, we have filled dams all the time because the ground just sets like concrete. In a wet year we’d normally have a sheet of water across our uncovered paddocks but we’re now soaking up all that water. We’re utilising a lot more of what falls from the sky.
Seed set and harvesting
Due to the large biomass, and not enough stock to keep up grazing pressure, some areas of pasture were left to set seed, while other areas were harvested for seed, which will be used to sow future multi-species pastures. Because we didn’t terminate the multi-species, a second germination has provided an additional annual pasture, delivering the same benefits for another season without the cost of seed purchase.
When we’re sowing we might put down 40-50kg/ha of single super but apart from that we just use a bio-stimulant, worm juice and we add in gypsum and lime where required. On this crop we didn’t need to use any insecticide or fungicide and the fertiliser rate was very low because we couldn’t get back on to the paddocks to top dress. It turned out we didn’t need to, as the plants just flourished.
It is important to regularly test soils to see how they are responding to changes. Once you have that knowledge you can go forward in leaps and bounds.
You’ve got to know what’s happening in your soils or you’re flying blind. We will continue to use multi-species pastures to keep improving soil health and productivity. We’re amazed by what we’ve achieved and what the plants have done for us.