Farm sustainability and economic production can only be acheived and maintained if farms reflect natural ecosystems. In Australia, farm management has frequently adapted to changes in commodity prices, markets, climatic and natural resource conditions. Natural ecosystems are always extremely resilient and utilise only renewable inputs. Over thousands of years they have shown high productivity, an ability to maintain environmental quality, and adaptiveness to any natural disturbance. By weaving together the elements of microclimate, annual and perennial plants, water and soil management with human needs, environmental farming systems have been shown to be energy-efficient and high-yielding. An accepted definition of sustainable farming, is an integrated system of plant and animal production having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
- satisfy human food and fibre needs;
- enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which agricultural economies depend;
- make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
- sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
- enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
Our property is ecologically important because it is a vegetated link between the Grantville Flora & Fauna Reserve and the Bass River and forms part of the only riparian forest left on the river.
Farm activities were designed to minimise off-site and on-site impacts. All creek lines are vegetated to maintain water quality run off into the Bass. A study backed by the Federal Government's Envirofund program has found that free range farming practices are viable and have minimal impacts on the environment.
The study, carried out on five properties in the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Authority area showed that properly managed free range egg farms have many benefits - including long term sustainability.
The Freeranger Farm was one of the participants and we believe that low density production is the key to sustainability. "It doesn't make any real difference whether you are running cattle, sheep or chooks, if your stocking rate is too high you will run into trouble" is our philosophy.
It's hard to justify European farming practices in many parts of Australia - they simply don't work with our soil types and climate. The current drought is a clear example of the stupidity in trying to maintain exotic pastures and growing crops which require huge and unsustainable inputs.
Apart from the massive problems of erosion and salinity, the inputs needed to maintain unrealistically high production levels create unhealthy nutrient loads and reduce farm viability over the years.
The report demonstrates that stocking densities have a direct impact on feed costs. Supplementary feed inputs rose significantly as stocking rates increased.
Once the results were produced in table form it was easy to see that a free range egg farm with a stocking rate of 9 Dry Sheep Equivalent (DSE) per hectare, produced an egg laying rate of 70% with feed consumption of 26 kg per bird per year. A farm with a stocking rate of 75 DSE per hectare produced a lay rate of 65% with feed consumption almost double at 48 kg per bird.
At current prices that's an added cost of nearly $10 a year for each bird - which doesn't sound much until you multiply it over the whole flock. The Freeranger Farm is at the most productive end of the scale.
Pasture management has been aimed at increasing the amount of native grasses in the vegetated cover. The report shows that soils on the farm are acidic and have relatively low nutrient levels.
It was felt to be counter productive to try to change the soil balance to favour exotic grasses and a management style was chosen with a preference for adapting farm practices to fit the naturally occurring soil type.
Microlaena stipoides is one of Australia's most important native grasses with a widespread distribution in the eastern States. Its bright green colour, drought and frost resistance as well as shade tolerance make it superior to any non-native species as it has evolved for thousands of years in the dry and unpredictable Australian climate.
It is easily out-competed by exotic grasses in neutral or alkaline soil conditions, preferring acidic soils like those at Grantville. During the trial, lime was only applied to small test sites. The majority of the pasture had no inputs other than chicken manure from the free-ranging hens and native grass coverage increased by about 25%. There was also a high level of activity by earthworms and dung beetles.
We appear to have two types of dung beetles on the property because there is evidence of activity all year round and some species are known to be dormant over winter.
The full report on the farm sustainability trials is available from freeranger or from the Free Range Farmers Association. Detailed sustainable farming information can be found on many websites including growsustainably.com and Economics Research, La Trobe University