MLA PDS – Alternative Pasture Legumes in Central West NSW

Project Durations:

2021-2024

Aim

To increase knowledge and adoption of alternative annual forage legume options available to meat producers in the low rainfall zone (LRZ) of central west NSW, which have not been traditionally used, by showing they can be easily integrated into existing mixed farming operations to assist in meat production and adaptation to climate variability.

Description and background

Traditional annual pasture legumes’ (subterranean clovers and medics) capacity to supply adequate nitrogen to drive pasture production and provide high quality feed to support high livestock growth rates in the LRZ of central west NSW (CW NSW) has significantly deteriorated. Reliance on traditional annual legumes and even the perennial lucerne for seasonal forage and animal production is no longer possible with climate variability, increasing acidity, changing fertility levels and more frequent dry periods and drought depleting seedbanks and persistence. Consequently, animal performance and the contribution legumes make to the whole farm production system has declined.

Producers in the central west have identified interest in increasing their capacity to expand livestock production and lessen the risk associated with high reliance on grain production. New feedbase options exist to better integrate current systems, including dual purpose crops and pasture ley legume phases, which will allow for better integration of livestock with crop production.

The focus away from livestock production in the 1990s and 2000s, followed by the millennium drought, resulted in a reduction in productive perennial pastures with a strong legume base towards continuous cropping. With the resurgence of livestock prices, growers in our region have been pushing back into livestock dominant enterprises, but the success of productive pastures with a strong legume base has not been what it once was. The current drought has contributed further to this decline in productive pastures in the central west. These factors have meant that growers are reliant on high fertiliser inputs and supplementary feeding to increase the protein intake of livestock, increasing production costs, reducing carrying capacity and reducing farm revenue.

There are very few ‘continuous croppers’ remaining in the central west region of NSW, with most farmers now realising stock provide a very valuable risk management tool and an alternative source of income. The recent drought has decimated stock numbers in the district, with typical stock numbers currently only 20–40% of the average. However, within Central West Farming Systems (CWFS) alone, 95% of our members would consider themselves to be mixed farmers, with livestock production levels currently lower than desired. Rebuilding the flocks and herds will be the target of most over the next 3–5 years, with greater feedbase options critical to that expansion.

Very little demonstration of new feedbase options has occurred throughout the CWFS region of recent years, with most efforts being devoted to annual cropping options, mainly dual-purpose cereals and canola. There is the odd farmer who has themselves tried some of the alternatives, and few have revisited the sub clover / medic scene that proved so successful for many years.

Through liaison with key researchers of the ‘Dryland legume pasture systems’ project, a current GRDC project (RnD4Profit-16-03-010), and other farmer groups (ASHEEP – WA, Pasture variety trials), this project will challenge traditional forage cropping systems that have not been implemented in this region before. The above projects are exploring how legumes can be better integrated into the wider cropping regions and which legumes have a better fit than others. Gaining access to such knowledge, especially about key species doing well in the above projects (potential DM and nitrogen (N) fixation rates for example) will enable this project to demonstrate those benefits to the core producers.

Core producers will work with researchers and experience first-hand how alternative forage legumes can contribute to their mixed farming businesses, help reduce the impacts of climate variability, reduce risk in pasture rejuvenation, and supply flexible options for the production of forage and meat. We will focus on annual legumes that extend sowing and growing season options and can be used as an ‘on-demand’ basis in the pasture-crop rotation.

It is through demonstrating the quite different establishment techniques (timing, placement etc) and management (phenology of the plant, importance of vegetative/flowering/seeding times etc) of deep-rooted, hard seeded legumes, in conjunction with the more familiar sub clover/medic/lucerne options, that we can compare the benefits of supplying large amounts of forage for the livestock business, while contributing nitrogen for future crop and pasture production. Being able to incorporate such a different feedbase option into current practices and rotations requires successful demonstration. There is significant capacity for these legumes in the central west of NSW, but they are yet to be widely adopted. 

CWFS will have three sites established, including one grower site, one trial site and one demonstration site.