Case study - Demonstration farm takes science out of the lab and into the paddock

​Case study – Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Australia’s Farming Future Climate Change Research Program (CCRP)

Demonstration farm takes science out of the lab and into the paddock

A 1600-hectare parcel of land near Pingelly in Western Australia is helping show primary producers what some of possibilities are for adapting to a changing climate.

The University of Western Australia’s (UWA) ‘Ridgefield’ property, two hours southeast of Perth was one of four demonstration sites across the country supported with funding from the Australian Government’s $46.2 million Climate Change Research Program (CCRP).

Graeme Martin heads the School of Animal Biology at UWA and is responsible for the direction of the ‘UWA Future Farm 2050’ project.

Professor Martin said a major aim of the project was to show producers that it was possible to maintain productivity and profitability in spite of a hotter and drier climate.

“Most of the science predicts that there will be a reduction in rainfall over the next 30 to 40 years,” Professor Martin said.

“So we have to make sure we are really clever with whatever rain falls and have a visionary process for animal and crop production and ecosystem restoration.”

Professor Martin said the University of Western Australia purchased ‘Ridgefield’ in 2008.

“The university has always had a farm, but it was in a region that was too close to the city and had become irrelevant to mainstream agriculture,” Professor Martin said.

“We decided to purchase Ridgefield, which is in a classic mixed farming area of WA.”

UWA is developing Ridgefield as a best-practice management farm, which 1600 hectares (approximately 4000 acres) with an annual rainfall of 425 millimetres.

According to Professor Martin, the UWA’s Future Farm 2050 is a different project for several reasons.

“Rather than just being a classic research farm, which can be a patchwork quilt of small trials, we’ve tried to ensure that we address the challenges we’re going to face between now and 2050 when the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people,” he said.

Professor Martin said like any farm, the main aim of Ridgefield is to be profitable. But added that, given it is university-owned, the researchers are not averse to trying new things.

“We’ve tried to develop a visionary research focus, but at the same time put up a realistic example that we can expect farmers to follow.”

He said the three main areas of importance at Ridgefield are animal production, crop production and ecosystem restoration.

“We have a mantra at Ridgefield that the sheep produced will be clean, green and ethical,” Professor Martin said.

“By clean, we mean we will use as few hormones and chemicals as possible. It will be green, in that it will have as small an environmental footprint as possible and it will be ethical, in that animal welfare is at the top of our minds.”

He said the crop production focus is on minimum tillage, maximising the use of rainfall, managing soil carbon and reducing nitrous oxide emissions. While ecosystem restoration, although not a commercial enterprise just yet, is about landowners maintaining biodiversity.

“Farmers really are the primary custodians of the Australian landscape,” Professor Martin said.

“While restoring ecosystems can be costly, in the long run revegetated areas could be used for things like shelter belts, which are useful for lamb survival.”

He said in 2010, they undertook a massive replanting program at Ridgefield which was guided by a high-level team of ecologists.

“These scientists measured the landscape and the native bushes in the area to estimate what may have been there prior to European settlement,” Professor Martin said.

They then planted 14,000 bushes, trees and shrubs. He said while they normally get 425 mm of rain, in that year they received just 230 mm.
“Despite the fact it was one of the driest years on record, we had 90 per cent survival rate. These plants that had evolved in this ecosystem just didn’t think it was a drought.” Professor Martin said. 

But native trees are not the only good news story to come out of Ridgefield. Two other projects received funding through the CCRP.

Coordinated by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), the projects were just some of the 39 that made up the Reducing Emissions from Livestock Research Program (RERLP).

Professor Martin said one of the RELRP projects at Ridgefield, led by Associate Professor Phil Vercoe, focussed on species of native forage that may prove useful in reducing methane emissions in sheep.

The work followed tests on more than 150 potential fodder plants, as well as some novel plants that are, or could be, used in wider livestock production zones in Australia. At least six of the plants showed real promise in reducing methane production.

“Of those six plants, one in particular, Eremophila glabra, a shrub that tolerated harsh growing conditions, showed potential to reduce methane production in livestock,” Associate Professor Vercoe said.

“It seems to alter the diversity and activity of the rumen microbes without affecting the volatile fatty acid concentrations, the major end products of rumen microbial fermentation,” he said.

Associate Professor Vercoe said that Eremophila glabra reduced methane production by over 50 per cent when it was tested in the lab and as the sole source of food for the lab-based system. 

Eremophila glabra does not produce much biomass and producers are not going to feed it to their stock as 100 per cent of their diet. It will only ever be a relatively small proportion of an animals’ diet,” he said. “And when we fed it to animals at only 15 per cent of their diet, it reduced the amount of methane they emitted by 10 per cent.”

Associate Professor Vercoe, also from the University of Western Australia, said another project run at Ridgefield involving the Sheep Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) tried to reduce methane emissions from sheep through breeding and a DAFWA-led project tried to improve the maternal efficiency of sheep, which had the potential to improve emission intensity.

“We know that the base merino flock of Australia is not super fertile, so if 25 per cent of your ewes don’t get pregnant, those 25 per cent will only be producing methane,” Associate Professor Vercoe said.

“And if 15 per cent of the flock gets pregnant, carries the lamb and then loses it, then technically you have the same situation.”

He said we need to view efficiency in terms of kilograms of methane produced per kilogram of product.

“If we can increase the reproductive efficiency of female sheep, we should be able to reduce the amount of methane per kilogram of meat produced,” Associate Professor Vercoe said.

Associate Professor Vercoe said they concented on several areas including when ewes are first mated.

“If we can get ewes to have their first lamb earlier that means a year less worth of methane is produced before they produce a real product,” he said.

Professor Graeme Martin said, while it is hard to gauge just how many people will adopt the new technologies underpinned by science conducted at Ridgefield, there is no doubt it has set tongues wagging.

“We tried to show everyone that this was a normal farm with normal profitability and that the things we did here were not just the pipe dreams of academics in white coats saying ‘this is what you should do’,” he said.

“Farmers are very busy people, so new technologies need to be simple and straightforward if they are to be adopted.

“We have to show them that improving reproductive efficiency and breeding animals that produce less methane or growing forages that can reduce the amount of methane produced, will not only be good for the environment but will also make them more money.”

Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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