Surviving Real Drought
John King is Director of Succession. Succession organises and facilitates a range of activities to help farming families and discussion groups explore sustainable agriculture and the technical, financial, and social features that make it a success.
Australian farmers David and Mary Marsh know a thing or two about surviving drought. Despite 9 years of drought conditions they survived and prospered by changing their farming focus. Over this time, these ideas saved the business over A$500,000 in feed costs.
Public often underestimate the effect of drought on farmers. Rural suicide doubles the background rate during times of drought in Australia. Throughout drought farmers are torn in three directions; rising tension within the family, increasing debt, and despair at watching the landscape they love blow away due to choices they’ve made.
University of Sydney research shows farmers who understand how to strengthen land function are happier. Having environmental goals during droughts provides another way of measuring progress, especially resilience. However, understanding goes beyond planting trees and fencing off riparian areas.
The Marsh’s property is located near Boorowa, on the NSW southwest slopes about 90 minutes northwest of Canberra. David has been running it since 1971.
Farmer David Marsh on his property at Boorowa in southern NSW. Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia
Financial analysis showed while crops generated lots of cash they were least profitable. They focused on grazing merinos but as the 2002 drought began biting, David revisited strategies for coping with drought. Adequate rains never arrived until 2010.
David’s advice for surviving drought is pretty straight forward. Regularly assess feed; be aware of how many livestock you can run and for how long. Make decisions before you have to, which means controlling optimism.
However, the biggest change he made was his mind set; David switched to watching pasture plants and soil cover. Animal production while very important became less of a driver. Instead of thinking enterprises are his business, he became a grass and soil farmer; matching his business to its landscape, not the other way round. This dropped production costs and boosted flexibility.
Rotational grazing itself didn’t save the Marshs it was how they used the technique to strengthen their land. If the flock left bare soil, they destocked further as it revealed feed calculations were wrong for rotation length. Sheep eating pasture litter covering soil surfaces reduces effectiveness of any future rainfall. Litter slows surface runoff and shades against evaporation. Bare soil represents lost fertility as topsoil is the true wealth of a farming property.
David and Mary Marsh are top farmers in their district because they demonstrate how livestock enhance environment and strengthen resilience. Improving land function lifts bottom lines, soil health, and peace of mind. The Marshs enjoy their way of life.
To find out more about John King and the services Succession offers, visit the website at: www.succession.co.nz.