Soil is everything according to Byron Hubbard, general manager of Balarang and Crawney stations, at Timor in the Upper Hunter

Balarang Station, Timor in the Upper Hunter was totally restocked during the drought to preserve the soil and ground cover. Photo supplied.
Balarang Station, Timor in the Upper Hunter was totally restocked during the drought to preserve the soil and ground cover. Photo supplied.

Soil is everything according to Byron Hubbard, general manager of Balarang and Crawney stations, at Timor in the Upper Hunter and for a cattle grazier he suggests you have to love your soil more than your cattle.

But coming to that realisation has been a journey for Mr Hubbard who now describes himself as a 'recovering conventional farmer'.

Summer cover crop of sunflower, millet ,sorghum lab lab, cowpeas and radish being munched and trampled.

Summer cover crop of sunflower, millet ,sorghum lab lab, cowpeas and radish being munched and trampled.

He grew up in the Central West returning to his family's cropping property near Forbes, once he finished school, where he began his farmer career by trying to produce as much grain as possible using conventional farming or industrial farming methods.

"My father had used crops to improve his soils, but the new approach, was simply to rely on chemicals and fertilisers and that's the path I took and as I look back now those farming methods were extremely detrimental to the soil," he said.

Eventually he went out farming on his own and was joined by his wife Fiona and the pair moved into grazing before taking up his current role in 2010.

Balarang Station ranges in altitude from 400 metres to 1100 metres and combined with Crawney station covers some 8900 hectares (22,000 acres) devoted solely to cattle production. Located an hours drive north east of Scone the district should average 700mm of rain a year but during the drought, which lasted three years, that figure dropped dramatically.

Fiona Hubbard on Balarang Station, Timor

Fiona Hubbard on Balarang Station, Timor

Summer rains transformed the properties and proved beyond doubt to the Hubbards that their decision, supported by the owners the Plunkett family, to convert the farms to holistic management was well and truly the best decision not only for themselves but the long term sustainability of the business.

"I think if we hadn't changed our way of farming I may not be in the industry today," Mr Hubbard said.

"Conventional farming had become almost soul destroying. We all have to all get of the idea of a perfectly tidy farm, don't fixate on weeds and start working with nature rather than against it.

"We have proven on these farms that you can remain profitable and at the same time increase productivity through holistic or regenerative farming practices."

The first steps towards this new approach were taken in 2011 with Mr Hubbard undertaking a course in holistic management.

From there began the journey of realigning the management on farm with the construction of 36 kilometres of fencing, addition of many watering points as the property was to be divided into 10 hectare paddocks.

"After just a couple of years of intensive grazing we could see an incredible change in the soils," he said.

"You could see big green pockets being created in the cells as the water holding ability of the soil increased."

Eight years after they began soil tests have shown that the miracle of attaining organic matter in soil has lifted from 2.2 per cent to 4.6 per cent.

Today no chemicals or fertilisers are being used on-farm thereby reducing input costs.

As to troublesome weeds like saffron thistles, wiregrass and radish Mr Hubbard said they virtually disappeared after two years of the new regime.

"Start grazing properly and the weeds go away," he said.

Given the priority was to protect and enhance the soil as the drought worsened the stations were totally destocked before prices crashed and ground cover was lost.

Work on-farm during this time was spent on improvements without the worry of feeding livestock, carting water and the unbearable stress that many farmers were enduring as they fought to keep their livestock alive.

Summer rains enabled cattle to be purchased in February with fat cows turned off by the end of March.

Grazing of the summer cover crops

Grazing of the summer cover crops

"Because our soils and ground cover were not damaged during the drought the response once the rainfall arrived was very quick and we were able to make the most of that growth," he said.

Summer cover crops of sunflower, millet, sorghum, lab lab, cowpeas and radish that had been sown in October 2019, germinated in January 2020.

"We terminated it in April with 130,000kgs/ha or 280 cows on 1 ha per day," he said. "This was directly seeded behind as the cattle came off the 1ha with oats, vetch, chicory ,clover turnip, radish, and rye. The crop has been grazed again twice and will now be terminated and sown to a mixed summer forages of buck wheat, silky sorghum, butterfly peas, cow peas, lab lab, shiroi millet."

"But the success of these crops is due to the microbes and organic matter that is now in our soils. We have to stop mining our soils to give people cheaper food and instead know they are the lifeblood of our farming operations."

With a few neighbours now joining the Hubbards in using holistic management practices Timor is home to a 'cluster' of regen farmers.

If you need an example of how vital it is to protect your soils Mr Hubbard said when the big rains arrived the Isis River that runs through the station ran red for weeks as top soil denuded of ground cover was lost.

"That soil won't be replaced in the landholders lifetime so they have to do everything they can in the future to preserve what they have," he said.

"Rather than dictating to people what they have to change to prevent this happening we need to show them the success we and others have achieved by using holistic methods."

Part of that eduction process for the Hubbards involves employing Tocal Agricultural College, graduates on the two stations.

"We have found those that have competed their Cert 3 at the college are great workers keen to learn what we are doing here," he said.

"Hopefully what they see and learn while working for us they will continue to use on the future."