Regenerative agriculture journey at Big Springs

Katie and Brad Collins, in a paddock of 100pc ground cover and featuring mixed species - chicory, clovers, ryegarss, and wallaby grass.
Katie and Brad Collins, in a paddock of 100pc ground cover and featuring mixed species - chicory, clovers, ryegarss, and wallaby grass.

A rich and increasing diversity of plants, insects and birds has been one of the highlights for Brad and Katie Collins, as they have embraced a regenerative agricultural journey on the family farm, Ayrshire Park, Big Springs.

Add in the deeper penetration of rainfall which is retained in the soil for longer and a measurable increase in carbon can only be beneficial for the long-term future of the 506ha property which was bought by Mr Collins' parents in 1997.

Mr and Mrs Collins bought the property from his mother in 2007 and continued to manage it in the conventional manner.

"We had a self-replacing sheep flock, and growing canola and wheat in rotation but we weren't seeing the rewards for our inputs and effort," Mr Collins said.

"In fact, I think we were going backwards trying to do what our agronomist told me to do and our stock agent was advising.

"It wasn't working the way we wanted it to work."

Mr Collins said he and Katie took a step back and sat down with a rural financial counsellor who suggested they should seriously consider getting out of farming.

"He told us in no uncertain terms that if we were still going in six month's time we had rocks in our heads and that we needed to get off the farm," he recalled.

"And for me that was like a red rag at a bull and it made me dig my heels in.

"So that was the main catalyst which started us on the regenerative journey."

That was nine years ago and they were just coming out of a drought, so conditions were quite tough on Ayrshire Park.

But they had a good and long hard look at their operation and asked themselves - what can we change, what is not working and what is working.

Mr Collins had completed a RCS Farming and Grazing for Profit school in 2007 and Mrs Collins completed a similar course in 2015.

"I thought it was great but didn't really implement any of the ideas but after Katie had completed her course we discovered that if things were to work in our business, we had to be both on the same page," he said.

"If only one of us was passionate or engaged it doesn't take root.

"And once Katie had completed her course, it really solidified the direction we wanted to take."

Out of their discussions, each realised the main thing they wanted to do was grow grass.

"That vision has grown into something different and now we want to have healthy soils, healthy grass, healthy animals and healthy people," Mr Collins said.

"And at the end of the day we would like a healthy profit which is challenging at times."

To achieve those aims, Mrs Collins highlighted the crucial points behind their success.

"Over the past five years, we have done a 180 degree turn on our farming style," she said.

"We don't crop for cropping sake anymore - if we do crop it will be pasture cropping and that is mainly for feed."

Mrs Collins further noted a change in their livestock enterprise from a self-replacing Merino flock to one where they now trade lambs.

"Once we had done some education, we discovered that our secret to increasing our profit was to increase our turnover," she said.

"We also take a team approach to the management of our farm and Brad and I are both on the same page with what we do.

"Brad is very much the visionary, the big picture thinker and I'm more into details and strategy so we tend to make a reasonably good team."

Another important facet Mrs Collins drew attention to was the change in their grazing management.

"From set stocking, we now do managed grazing or it could be called 'timed rotation grazing'," she said.

"Our grazing style is basically mimicking what happens on the African savannahs where you have a large group of animals on a small area for a short period of time."

Mrs Collins explained that those stock are then moved and the mixed-species pasture is allowed to recover.

"Our goal is 150-180 days before the area is grazed again," she said.

Mr Collins pointed out that they do a feed budget at the end of each month and while the stock are grazing the allotted area, between 40pc and 50pc of the pasture is allowed for the animals and leaving between 50pc and 60pc for ground cover.

"We try to leave roughly half of what is in the paddock and keep our grasses in that phase to keep the growth happening," he said.

When asked what difference the new management regime made to Ayrshire Park, Mrs Collins noted significant improvements to the manner in which the family property now responds to seasonal variations.

"Our ground cover is pretty much 100pc all the time - we have very few bare spots now which is great," she said.

"And that has led to our water retention and water infiltration being a lot better which has led to our dams not filling quite so easily."

That rate of rainfall infiltration is monitored and Mr Collins said the soil test results have changed in respect to the soil organic matter content.

"We have been able to measure the increase in soil total carbon percentage and estimated Organic Matter content ," he said.

"Our last test showed total carbon percentage went from 1.1pc 2.1pc and organic matter went from 2pc to 3.7pc in 17 months."

Longterm, the Collins' anticipate increased value in their property due to the amount of measurable soil carbon.

"Managing soil carbon is something we are really looking at and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere," Mr Collins said.

"We see it as a brilliant way of recording how our grazing management is actually having a big silver lining because the natural flow-on is that our soil carbon is increasing."

Mr Collins thought the fact that the amount of soil carbon can be measured and it can be sold will be an enormous boost to their farm viability in the medium to long term

"We see it as a really great passive income source," he said.

"We are only now starting to understand the real implications for what we are achieving with our regenerative approach to land and stock management."

One enormous benefit to that change and the regenerative agriculture journey for Mr Collins is the comfort he now finds in managing the family property.

"I used to wake each morning trying to work out what I could control," he said

"You go out into the paddocks with that mindset - and for me and my mental health it has been a real game changer.

"I actually now wake up and think - what can I add to the diversity of the farm which is really good for the soul.

"Having that resilience in our system actually breeds resilience into yourself."

Mr Collins said he and Katie want to be the last ones into a drought and the first ones out.

Brad and Katie Collins will address the Strategies for Success 2021 workshop to be held at the Boorowa Ex-Services and Citizen's Club on 10 May.

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