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In their quest to revive unproductive areas of their Burdekin property, Barry and Leanne O'Sullivan discovered a wealth of opportunity through high density grazing, with their business, and landscape both reaping the benefits.
Purchased in 2003, 'Glenalpine', south west of Bowen, consists of 23,385 hectares - originally divided into just seven paddocks.
Yet with the landscape a variation of undulating ridges and steep hills through to creek flats and hollows, Leanne explains that carrying capacity in those early years was limited.
"When we arrived we were set stocking, which was restrictive, and erosion was a problem."
"The paddock layout meant cattle would graze near the lower creek flats of the property, leaving little ground cover at the end of the dry - inevitably this soil would then wash away with the first rains of the season."
Initially the couple set out to change the grazing pattern of their cattle, subdividing and fencing to soil types for rotational grazing - ensuring their previously unused ridge country could be utilised, and their lower flats recovered.
"This ability to strategically spell country resulted in a significant productivity shift, our paddocks returned higher bodies of feed, cattle maintained higher weights and 80 per cent of groundcover was retained before the wet season," Leanne said.
And while the O'Sullivans' rotational grazing results were encouraging, they still continued to seek knowledge for improved productivity.
A high density grazing and biological carpeting trial with inspiring results
In 2015 Barry and Leanne took part in a NQ Dry Tropics Holistic Management program through Rodger Savory, a two-pronged initiative trialling high density grazing with biological carpeting to heal the soil and increase productivity.
This, Leanne said, delivered them the mind-blowing results.
"During the trial our aim was to heal an eroded gully that had not grown grass for as long as we knew," Leanne said.
"The gully was fenced into two small sections, in which the cattle were camped each night for seven nights."
The aim of this, she explained, was to create an inch of slurry across the soil - a biological carpet.
"During the day, we'd let them out onto the paddock flats for high-density grazing, focusing on using large mobs of cattle across the landscape to stimulate the biological system," she said.
The difference between high density grazing, and simply overgrazing, Leanne said, was ensuring cattle are moved off the paddock quickly.
And while rotational grazing is the process of moving livestock through pastures to graze forage, high stock density grazing is the intentional application of grazing livestock in higher than normal concentrations to achieve landscape-focused objectives.
By moving large herds on and off areas quickly, Leanne said hoof impact, dung and urine helps improve the mineral cycle, creating a different seed bed, and a shift in plant species across paddocks.
"This also encourages microbial growth in the soil, which is the catalyst for nutrient flow, and balances the system."
The area was then left to rest, before germinating after the next rain event.
Once cattle were moved off the paddock, a subsequent hailstorm jeopardised the whole biological carpeting component of the project.
"We had an eroding black soil gully with no groundcover, erosion was an issue for us and after the hailstorm we thought we were back to square one - but after a nerve-wracking six weeks the gully had feed higher than our heads, it was an incredible response," Leanne said.
Likewise, the high density grazing in the paddock around the gully, resulted in an increase in biomass and plant species.
"This trial proved that you can change your landscape by changing the way you move cattle across it - our minds were blown, and it represented enormous opportunity for our property, our livestock and our business."
"We were so energised from these results, and equally buoyed by the opportunities from a business and environmental perspective.
"It cemented our commitment to a holistic grazing practice."
The family has now adopted a strategic high density grazing management system across the whole property, moving cattle through 84 paddocks in mobs of 1,500 to 3,000.
The improved results are significant.
"What was traditionally a landscape dominated by Indian Cooch, now flourishes with a variety of pastures including verano, seca, butterfly pea, native pastures, blue grasses and green panic."
The improved soils and additional minerals have shifted pasture quality, and consequently, productivity, with weight gains increased by 0.2 to 0.3kg/day.
"We don't have a set timeframe for our herds in each paddock, due to the variabilities of each paddock, however we do fodder budgets, create a grazing plan and monitor cattle performance to achieve our desired grazing and business outcomes," Leanne said.
During the non-growing season, large herds traverse the landscape under a holistically managed grazing plan. This sets the pastures up to be rain ready which in turn creates productive growth when the wet season starts.
Observing the herd mentality
Whilst frequently handling mobs of up to 3,000 head through small spaces may seem daunting, Leanne said it was fascinating to watch how quickly cattle adapt.
"We need limited numbers of people to move the mob, as the property is efficiently divided into 84 paddocks, accessed through laneways.
"Whenever working our cattle, you can see the herd mentality play out.
"Each beast has a role, the leaders, the middle mob and the tailers, and we utilise this knowledge to process and move our cattle with limited manpower.
"Maintaining a positive psychological state is paramount for the cattle as this ensures sustainable outcomes.
"They do a lot of the work for us, even getting 3,000 head through a three metre wide gate - they seem to stand in line patiently to go through.
"We work as a team, it's incredible to be part of," she said.
A focus on continual self-improvement
Equally as important as landscape improvement, the O'Sullivans' believe, is self-improvement, and the couple has long taken advantage of knowledge-sharing and upskilling opportunities.
Leanne views continual education as the key to a modern farming operation.
"We're on the world stage as leading food producers, and if we're going to receive the respect and recognition we deserve from urban consumers - our biggest market - then we need to know how to run a complex, modern farming business."
Leanne said one of the most powerful tools was exposing yourself to fields that you don't think are necessarily relevant.
"It's actually very powerful to open yourself up to different opinions, management systems and ideas - often the most thought provoking conversations are the ones you don't expect."
An eye to the future and the succession of farming
With three growing sons, Wayde, 23, currently managing a property in the Kimberley, Luke 18 now working at home and Daniel in year 12 next year, Leanne said it was heartening knowing their new systems could support an expanding business.
This was exemplified through the 2021 purchase of their fattening block, north of Bluff.
"It was at the back end of a run of dry years, and we could see that there was opportunity - we knew it wouldn't take long to turn around under our holistic management," Leanne said.
"Already we're seeing a shift in the landscape, which further strengthens high density grazing as a powerful expansion tool.
"With the price of land, we know now we don't necessarily have to purchase premium properties, we can expand through the purchase of more marginal country, building carrying capacity and productivity naturally."
A partnership for growth with Rabobank
Equally as valuable to their business is the O'Sullivan's relationship with their Rabobank rural manager, Justin Spinks.
"Once we joined Rabobank we realised instantly that we had another team member in our business, supporting us to comfortably move our business forward," Leanne said.
"The opportunity to tap into Rabobank's global wealth of resources and expertise was a great benefit and 'as graziers, we feel that respect and expertise in return'.
"To have success in life you need a team of professionals, and we're very grateful to have Rabobank included in our decision making."
To read more thought-provoking agri stories visit www.rabobank.com.au