When the Bruderhof community arrived in the Inverell district in 1999, they sought to rediscover their agronomic roots and in the years that followed increased their beef production as a direct result of the growth in soil carbon.
A Christian community originally founded in Germany in 1920, Bruderhof was ousted by the Nazis and fled to the Cotswolds, England, where they transformed a shoddy local farmhouse into high quality in just four years. When World War II was looming, they crossed the Atlantic and crossed the equator to set up camp in the jungles of Paraguay.
“My father was a Gaucho,” explains Johannes Meier, director of the community farm. “They carved out a life in the remote jungle and savannah and they were on horseback from sunrise to sunset raising tick-resistant zebus.”
German farmers perfected sustainable agriculture over the millennia before their scientists discovered a way to make nitrogen fertilizer from the air, but those old-fashioned methods have been carried on by the Bruderhof community – formed three years before the invention of the Haber-Bosch process.
After 20 years in Paraguay, the community expanded to the United States and moved away from farming into manufacturing. Decades later, they moved Downunder.
“We were inspired to start in a new place and get back into farming…go back to our roots and grow our own food in a great place,” Meier said.
Danthonia, an aggregation of three properties comprising 2350ha, has access to good rainfall, being higher and further east than Inverell and on the foothills of the western slopes, and has self-mulching black basalt soils which respond very well to increases in plant diversity, biology and carbon.
“We learned how to farm here in Australia from our neighbors and a local agronomist,” Meier said. “Our approach was conventional, but we found we couldn’t pay the bills.”
When Mr. Meier arrived at the farm in 2004, it was in the midst of a thousand-year-old drought and the surrounding landscape looked degraded. There were no cover crops to be seen.
A year later Danthonia adopted Allan Savory’s holistic pasture management methods and the following season introduced ways to slow the flow of water into the landscape and use plants to revitalize the soil like taught him Peter Andrews.
In 2007, government infrastructure grants enabled Danthonia to erect fences – enough to create 30 ha enclosures which were again separated with electric wire into eight and 10 ha plots.
“We have gone from 45 to 250 paddocks on 2300ha, which allows us to apply pasture management much more effectively” says Mr. Meier
Water reticulation points were added and the community planted 30,000 trees, native and exotic, and converted 400 ha of cropland to permanent pasture. But it wasn’t enough.
“We were doing the best we could with the tools we had and we were on the same page. Holistic pasture management and natural sequential farming were very beneficial, but something was still holding the country back. failed to restore living soil yet,” says Meier. “The pens that had a long history of cultivation with the application of chemicals struggled to produce much.”
In fact, the teachings of Dr. Christine Jones advocating pasture diversity and soil biology adopted at Danthonia in 2018 have taken production to the next level. Advice from regenerative grazing consultant Geoff Bassett has proven invaluable.
“We find that in addition to good management of pasture and water retention in the landscape, soil biology and plant diversity are the main tools that create fertility in nature. Tillage, no chemical tillage, monocultures and overgrazing that allows erosion are obstacles to the natural functions that create fertility.We had to find a way to reverse the years of degradation of our soils.We must work with nature says Mr. Meier, advocating empathy for the land.
“Biology and diversity builds more biology, diversity and biomass. It’s a strongly positive feedback loop, but it’s taken us on a long journey of learning and talking with a lot of people to find the tools that allow the land to become productive – still We’re not fixated on the natives,” says Meier, noting that a Danthonia’s pasture has been planted with Rhodes grass, fescues, paspalum, canarygrass and cocksfoot to increase perennial diversity and along the way, Queensland’s native bluegrass and Wallaby grass are back. Plantings of cereals, legumes and herbs add even more diversity.
“You can buy it as a commercial seed mix,” he says, “and with it we’re seeing really exciting results. We’re building soil and carbon much faster and the efficiency of using the precipitation has doubled in the past 10 years.
By growing a biodiverse forage crop, applying bio-amendments and applying micronutrients like boron and zinc, molybdenum and cadmium, paddock production began to improve rapidly. Pasture forage production has doubled in the past two years as a result of this change in management.
“You can’t choose just one tool to cross the line. You have to look at all the pieces of the puzzle. If there’s anything I would recommend, it’s keep looking and never be satisfied.”
Danthonia farms have emphasized good record keeping. In the beginning, there were maps on a corkboard and darts to follow the rotation of the paddocks. Adoption of the Maia Grazing pasture planning program followed, with Danthonia one of their first clients.
“The software has made a huge difference in planning and measuring results,” Meier said. “But it requires careful and accurate data entry. Our farm management is based on solid planning and implementation; testing tools, evaluating results, being very observant, and then applying the tools that work.”
The majority of Danthonia cattle are there on contract, but the community runs a separate Angus breeding herd with Pharo genetic breeding bulls for Pharo Cattle Australia at Furracabad Station Genn Innes. Moderately framed cows are handled with low stress cattle handling techniques and as a result are extremely quiet.
A new line of Mashona crossbred calves is now in the field, artificially inseminated into Angus cows of Pharo blood to produce a heat-tolerant line.
“These medium-sized Pharo cattle are more efficient at producing kilograms of beef per hectare,” he says.
“Their fertility and their ability to fatten on grass are excellent. And they are tough. This type of fattening animal fits well into our environment and our management strategy.
At Danthonia, a 500 kg cow produces a weaning of 250 kg for a weaning percentage of 50 pc.
“With average sized cows, it takes less grass to produce the same salable item, or less grass to produce one kilogram of beef.”
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