Prospect for a new agriculture: Natural Intelligence Farming

June 26, 2019

This article appeared in the Vic No-Till Members Magazine From the Ground Up, Autumn 2018 edition, and Ian and Di Haggerty were guest speakers at our 2018 Conference. We print three magazines a year and post to our members, with the focus on innovative Australian farmers such as the Haggerty family: more membership details. 

SNAPSHOT

  • Ian and Di Haggerty, children James, Josh and Matthew
  • ‘Prospect’
  • Northeast of Wyalkatchem
  • Central Wheatbelt WA

THE HAGGERTY’S NATURAL INTELLIGENCE FARMING

  • Since 1994, farmed over 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) from one end of the WA Central Wheatbelt to another
  • Currently farming around 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres)
  • Varying soil types from heavy red clays through to high acid, high aluminium non-wetting soils, and extreme low fertility/low structure ‘beach type’ sands.
  • Typically, higher grain quality than in traditional cropping systems ie hectolitre weight, grain size, tolerance to sprouting, levels of true protein (not nitrate-driven protein)
  • Continually taking on farms with chemically resistant weed problems but are rapidly able to improve susceptibility of these weeds to chemicals initially, then alter the soil ecology so these plants no longer thrive, hence reducing numbers
  • Sheep not drenched for 17 years, no scouring problems and no problem transitioning between food types
  • Robust performance in sheep during limited food seasons (maintain good weight, raise lambs, produce wool) and increased water-use efficiency

Prospect for a new agriculture

By Melissa Pouliot

At first glance, Charles Massy’s bestselling book ‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth’ is a daunting prospect. At 569 pages its sheer size makes you wonder if you can take it on. Then there’s the content, a brutally honest picture of industrial agriculture that offers a groundbreaking alternative to the conventional farming systems Australia has adopted in his short history.

One of many farming families who have crossed Massey’s paths are Ian and Di Haggerty from the Central Wheatbelt in Western Australia. They demonstrate that being daunted by change is something we face every day but their story will bring you closer to realising the capacity to change is within us all.

This progressive farming couple started out running a roadhouse at Derby to scrap together the funds to purchase their first 650 hectares (1600 acres) in 1994. They have since farmed an area of over 40,000 hectares and are at the forefront of a new style of agriculture many people haven’t yet heard of – natural intelligence farming.

To explain what this means though, we need to backtrack to when Ian and Di’s mutual love for horses brought them together and opened up a whole new prospect for their future.

Ian and Di both grew up on farms and although they didn’t inherit their own family farms they knew that wherever life took them, it would be to the land. Di says she didn’t fully appreciate what the land meant to her while growing up. It wasn’t until she was away at boarding school and studying a Bachelor of Applied Science and Occupational Therapy at university she realised how connected she was to her natural landscape.

When Ian left agricultural high school he worked the family farm, worked for other farmers and drove road trains between Perth and Darwin. This allowed him a different view of the land and gave him an appreciation of the extremes within the natural landscape, making him wonder how to farm the land better.

Conventional start

After they got married they bought and ran the Derby Roadhouse in the Kimberly before buying their first parcel of land next door to Di’s parents place and 300 head of merino sheep. They had no machinery, nothing, and Di’s Dad helped them put a couple of paddocks in crop.
For one or two seasons they’d borrow her Dad’s machinery in exchange for working for him during harvest and seeding. At the same time they would take on lease land, whatever they could, to try and build up their farm capital.

Gradually they were able to buy their own machinery and slowly expanded. They farmed conventionally, as it was the only system they knew, using direct-drilling and an increasing amount of chemicals.

The seasons were quite good in the 90s, with their average rainfall being between 300 and 325 millimetres. In 2000 someone turned the tap off and the average rain dropped down to 200mm and they suffered through a number of unfortunate growing seasons of between 100 and 110mm. Fortunately they’d already started looking into biological techniques before seasonal conditions changed.

Di says: “It wasn’t less rain which prompted us to change, we were already looking at some of the inefficiencies of a conventional system in getting nutrients into plants. We were looking at the discrepancies between soil tests and tissue tests and the poor rooting depths in the soil. Compaction was also a critical issue – crops would tip off very quickly with hot and windy weather in spring because our soils had no water-holding capacity or resilience to maintain the crops through those conditions.”

Steps to change

They tackled the problems they were seeing from several fronts.

Step one was a four-day workshop with Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Arden Anderson in Perth which fired up their interest in linking human health to animal/plant and ecological health. Di says Elaine’s description of a fully functioning microbial system made perfect sense.

“She described so well that the microbe community in the soil was a workforce that could replace deep tillage and lime and rectify all the nutritional deficiencies we had, and that a fully functioning microbial system could provide resilience to pests and disease.”

However, they did face a hurdle to this new way of thinking. They had limited finances and machinery. But they had animals, and the right mindset.

Step two came in the form of Jane Hinge, animal nutrition consultant from Hingee Rural. She sold free choice minerals for livestock and Di worked carefully with her for many years to support her stock in weaning them off grain supplements and chemical drenching to restore their gut flora.

“By taking away chemical drenching and not feeding them grain we were able to get rid of the acid and maintain a good balance of microbes in their gut. In restoring the animals’ gut health and allowing natural intuitive behaviours of feed selection to occur by providing as diverse a diet as possible, the animals showed greater capacity to utilise paddock feed and demonstrated a transformation in the effect their manure had on soil ecological health.”

While Di focussed on getting the animals right, Ian focussed on the cropping side, with the two working hand in hand the whole time. At times their isolation made them feel ‘alone in the west’ where not many others were going down the same track.

We were going against so much of what conventional science was telling us and there weren’t a lot of people we could have a good chat to about what we were seeing on our land as a result.

Animals and landscape

In his book Charles Massey describes the coevolution of animals and landscape and Di says reading his words makes them feel privileged to have witnessed this on their own farm in their early stages of change.

“Meeting people like Charles, Dr Christine Jones, Dr Martin Stapper, Walter Jehne and Nicole Masters from New Zealand along the way has been really interesting for us. Things would be happening in our paddocks that we didn’t really understand then we’d meet the scientist who could explain exactly what was going on. We had the lay terms of what we were seeing but it is always great to have it explained to us in more technical terms, and provide us with the opportunity to really cement our knowledge. It was also good to confirm that what we were seeing was real and it had scientific backing.”

They also got into the car and drove, travelling to every state in Australia to visit farmers trying similar methods. “We met so many other farmers doing similar things to us in a whole range of different environments. It was really reinforcing to see similar methods working no matter what soil types, rainfall or climate. For example, our environment is fairly dry and hostile compared to Tassie and it was fabulous to see the same things working well in both environments. This demonstrated that rainfall was not the limiting factor.”

Having a go

For the past 12 years they’ve taken on between 800-2800 hectares (2000-7000 acres) of new country each year. Several have had significant resistant weed issues and histories of excessive chemical or tillage use and hence high levels of soil degradation.

“Every farmer will know when you take on new land it takes about three years to get a good grip on it, and so this puts our business at a lot of risk. Because we started with nothing we never had much to lose, so from day one it’s just been a case of having a go.

It’s been a massive learning curve and fortunately the methods we use, no matter what the land base is like, is giving us an economic result.

Mobile biodigesters

Sheep are their first line of entry into transforming the biological health of a new piece of land. They haven’t drenched or mulesed their sheep for 17 years and can take them from drought conditions to lush green feed without a problem.

“They are our very own ‘mobile biodigesters’. We’ve got the gut flora in those sheep well integrated with the environments of the wheatbelt so they can go in and start pooing, or the more technical term, transfer micro-organisms and nutrients.”

What takes their system to the next level is their use of specially-developed worm liquid and  compost extract. To kickstart the cropping season, they coat the grain with 100% worm liquid which facilitates development of strong rhizosheath on the emerging seedlings. The liquid worm/compost extract goes into their tyne seeder, positioned close to the seed at planting, consequently supporting the crop growth rather than feeding weeds in the inter-row.

Low rainfall areas

There’s a critical link between the microbes coming out of sheep gut and their liquid compost, particularly in their low rainfall area.

“If we just went in with the animals they’d have great impact but it takes some time for the ecosystem of soils to change in the low rainfall environment we have here. If you were in an area with high humidity and more rain you could make some fairly good progress just using animals, but here you can get six to eight months of minimal plants growing green. Even our perennial grasses shut up shop if we don’t get adequate rain. For example, some land farmed in 2017 and early 2018 received less than 100mm of rain over 16-month period. This gives a clear indication of the need for diversity of plant types in the landscape including perennial edible shrubs to support the livestock and photosynthesis during these prolonged dry periods.

Going onto these really degraded lands by using our cropping process worm liquid and compost down the tube after the animals have grazed lifts things to another level quickly.

Natural intelligence

Their goal from the beginning was to find a way to mimic nature by combining the sheep transfer of microbes with cropping practices that also promote microbial populations in the soils.

“By utilising three opportunities for soil fertility progression (pedogenesis) – one, worm digestion; two, compost process; and three, ruminant digestion – there is a triple whammy and escalated opportunities for microbial interactive diversity to occur.”

By taking away all the reliance on chemicals for fertility in both their sheep and soils they are allowing the natural systems to use their own intelligence to optimise functions.

“This is where the term ‘natural intelligence farming’ comes in and we can now see its more than just biological farming, which can still be very prescriptive and human driven. What we have done is stripped this back and in degraded ecosystems we’ve allowed nature to truly be the driver of the system as best as possible. This has taken results to a level we never dreamt possible in the beginning.”

Consistency

Di says their consistent approach has helped them learn and understand their system.

“We’ve had soil types that normally need potassium to fire but we haven’t put it on and yet they’ve returned viable yields and demonstrated adequate levels of potassium in tissue tests. This highlights the wonder of microbial systems in accessing nutrients from further afield than soil testing alone might indicate. By not having to use fungicides and insecticides we get a lot of cost savings and that is increasing the profit back to us.”

They admit there have been times when they could have pumped urea onto leased land, and that from an economic point of view it would make a lot of sense.

“Yes there have been the odd times we could have banged on heap of urea on a short-term lease and put more money in our pocket but decided not to. We’ve made the decision that we want to regenerate land wherever we go. We don’t want to go against our principles, regardless of whether we own the land or not, or whether we could make more money in one given year.”

This in itself has contributed greatly to their learning to see how detrimental some of these traditional temptations can be to inhibiting soil health progression.

“The work of Dr Christine Jones has been particularly illuminating as the ‘liquid carbon pathway’ is dependent on an appropriate microbial bridge functioning between the plant and soil environment for carbon to be deposited at depth in the soil and the associated benefits,” Di says.

“A key outcome from encouraging this pathway has been the rise in soil organic nitrogen levels and corresponding high levels of nitrogen in plant tissue testing. There is a significant difference between producing labile carbon in soil via the decomposition process and long-lived humus-based carbon via the liquid carbon pathway and associated microbiology.

“In our brittle environment this pathway has been the greatest assurance of ensuring positive progression despite very trying seasonal conditions.”

Disc system

They are looking forward to the Vic No-Till conference in (July 2018) and are keen to spend more time with Vic No-Till growers using a strip and disc system as they know the next step for them will be a disc seeder.

“We’ve had to maintain a tyne bar as we’re going into seriously compacted country. We see the disc as being great from an efficiency perspective and handling stubble loads, but for now we’ve been managing our stubble through the sheep.

“The key to our approach though is not to make anything a stumbling block to making changes. Just because we don’t have a disc or the latest and greatest equipment to start with, we haven’t let that stop us from doing what we want to do. The microbes fund all our machinery, not the other way around.”

Covers

They have an interest in cover crops and the role they could play in their system, especially on land they have under long-term lease. They tried covers years ago but had to back away due to drought conditions resulting in poor or no growth. This made the risk versus reward on land they only leased for short periods too heavily weighted on the risk side.

“Coming onto someone else’s land we try to keep costs to a minimum and covers are too big a risk and too costly over a short period of time. After a couple of failed attempts we decided to put all our focus into restoring the natural microbial system and let nature put forth a plant to grow. By changing inputs the plants that grew then changed and we started to see nature provide the diversity and preferred cover we were seeking.”

The combination of their sheep, liquid worm/compost and cropping system were delivering more preferential species, even on chemically-degraded land.

“Within two to three years we’d get all the clovers and natural diversity coming back into our paddocks without having to use covers. Getting the worm liquid and compost extract into the soil combined with livestock microbes seems to be making the biggest changes for us.”

Last summer (2017-18) presented the perfect example. Across one area of 1800 hectares (4500 acres) they had 60mm in January and an amazing number of summer grasses (perennial natives) appeared.

“We’ve been there four years and it was incredible to see these come up,” Ian says. “We’d never seen anything like it. Those natural seeds just took off and grew when conditions were right. We nurtured those grasses forward by manipulating our grazing before the air seeder went in.”

The grasses were still green at base when Ian seeded. “We seeded without any knockdowns, which has been a gradual achievement over the past four to five years. It has been very exciting to see the unfolding potential of Col Seis’s ‘pasture cropping’ and Bruce Maynard’s ‘no-kill cropping’ here in WA with our poorer soils and drier climate.”

Since cropping a further 12-15mm has fallen. “They are the most advanced crops compared to areas where there are no pastures by a country mile.”

Di says it’s amazing to see how plants function once you start taking artificial things out of the environment.

Different plants do come; nature can just be waiting with species you didn’t even know about.

Answers from nature

They say the key for them was recognising and then having confidence that the natural system provides many answers.

“Things we might perceive as weakness can change if given time and space. It might take two to three years but it can be a pretty powerful change. Sometimes we just need to allow the time for the natural processes to show themselves instead of trying to dominate or dictate what might be best.

“Once you start changing the soil ecology the plant diversity is quite remarkable and they sort themselves out. Take melons, they are just trying to cover the ground and trying to stimulate the mycorrhizal fungi populations, but once you boost these populations in crops and pastures the melons just don’t grow because the mycorrhizal needs are being met by more preferred plants.”

Global thinking

They say their approach has made them think beyond their own operation.

“In the past 16 months we’ve had less than 100 millimetres of rain and it’s been a very challenging time to deal with, but it just makes us want to work harder and learn more. We’re not prepared to let go or give up because we are so fortunate to be working alongside nature in this way. We also know that when the rain comes back, we can make the most of every drop that falls.”

Di admits she feels overwhelmed at times when she sees vast areas of hot baking land across the wheatbelt, but in amongst it all are areas of massive revegetation that are achieving impacts on local rainfall.

“It takes more than individual farmers to address restoring water cycles globally and locally, this needs government policy and world-wide engagement. But as individuals we can make it a priority to do the best that we can for water cycles.”

The couple continues to travel whenever possible and in the past four years they’ve been on a grain mission to South Korea, a trip to Sweden and a tour of New Zealand. They have also formed a group Bio-Integrity Growers with another young farmer to focus on ways to provide meaningful health measurements for grain and meat for both farmers and consumers.

Always learning

They never stop learning and never want to. They’ve always got a shovel with them to dig up paddocks to see roots growing deeper into the soil and different plants turning up. “There’s so much more we’d like to research, particularly with our sheep. Not only their capacity to optimise nutritionally in the bush or a paddock but how their whole water use efficiency has changed. We’ve got sheep who don’t go to water points because they’re getting all they need from a little bit of green pick in the paddock. We’ve had times where they haven’t watered from April to October. You’d think they’d be needing water but they don’t have the need like they used to.”

It’s exciting to know that there is so much more to learn and to see how much better things can get.

 

Q&A with Ian and Di Haggerty

How do you go about changing the way you farm if you’ve done it for that way for your whole lifetime and generations before you as well?

Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can. Visit people trying different things in your area but get beyond your area, look at others around the country and overseas. Start to build confidence in having a go. Once you step onto that path, you’ll be constantly amazed by things that can happen. We’ve all got soil. While we all have different issues they all seem to be rectified through natural processes. They have been in place for millions of years and created the planet that we’ve got. Natural processes are there to improve things and get things functioning better.

What are some of the challenges you faced when you started moving away from a chemical to a biological farming system?

In early days we were pretty much going it alone and the key was to find other farmers around the country or scientists from around the world with experience in seeing these natural things occurring. Back then we didn’t have the technology or communication globally like we do today, so seeking out those like-minded people was the biggest challenge. We were lucky to meet Tom Nicholas in 2008 who probably knows just about every farmer working on improving their soil carbon levels in the country and he introduced us to a number of others which was a great confidence booster. We have been very privileged to be able to bounce off brilliant Australian scientists such as Dr Christine Jones, Walter Jehne and Dr Maarten Stapper who have reinforced observations with sound science to encourage us to continue pushing the boundaries.

What do others say about the way you’re farming?

A lot of farmers that visit our farm are very happy with the simplicity of the system, the capacity to scale up easily from conventional farming practice and the reduction of financial risk. We hosted an on-farm day with Nicole Masters in 2016 and this provided great opportunity for other farmers to see first-hand outcomes from following natural intelligence farming in contrast to conventional practice and be pleasantly surprised to see that you don’t fall over the edge of the cliff!

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is a science which looks at the changes that can be made in gene expression as a result of nutrition, age and the environment. Whereby the knowledge used to be that you were your DNA, the science is now unfolding as to how immediate an impact can be made by switching genetic information on or off depending on the food you eat, and the environment in which you live. This has huge ramifications for our food industry and the importance of environmental health ie pollution, water quality, air quality, presence of toxins etc. All of these factors not only affect the expression of your own genetic information but can also influence the genetic expression of your children and grandchildren. This is a critical issue if we are wishing to reduce incidence of chronic disease in our population such as immune system dysfunction, degenerative disease, allergies, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity – you name it, the list is long. We have been very fortunate that through working on improving soil pedogenesis and animal health at the same time via natural processes, we have been witness to positive epigenetic changes in our sheep flock due to the speed at which they can reproduce a new generation as opposed to humans which take a far greater time for these effects to be noticed. We are also seeing positive epigenetic outcomes in the grain seeds and behaviour of the crop seeds in our environment. Charles talks about co-evolution in ‘The Call of the Reed Warbler’ and this is what we have been lucky to see occurring. We call it ‘positive epigenetic spiral’ so that health of the environment and its occupants (microbes, plants, animals and humans) improve together with improved diversity along the way.

With your natural intelligence processes how long do some of the changes take to happen?

We can get them happening really quickly. We’ve taken on a new property in March, put sheep in then are seeding by the end of April-early May and we see responses quickly. We go straight into our system and see small changes in that first season. It depends on what you’re looking for and the condition of the property. It can be as simple being able to get the crop out of the ground quickly with improved rhizosheath development by using the right stimulant with worm liquid/compost. We treat all new land ‘cold turkey’ these days so we drop the synthetic fertilisers immediately. By supporting the crop with biology and not feeding the weeds with synthetic P, K or N we are not feeding the weeds so the crops get the jump on the weeds.

When you get these things happening, do you see a lot less pressure from insects, diseases etc?

Yes, the reduction in disease and insect pressure is noticeable very early in the process with it being typical that we do not use fungicide or insecticide from year one. Some land is so seriously saline affected we choose to crop barley on barley at times with no fungicide support as it is most important at this stage to have a plant that will grow with vigour on this land type until we can see some change in its ecological progress ie emergence of summer native grasses. So even with pushing a cereal rotation we choose not to use a fungicide even if low levels of disease are present as we have found that a foliar of good bugs/nutrition can assist the plant in these early days to maintain its immune response to achieve a profitable yield. We are always about Optimum outcomes rather than Maximum outcomes as this gives us our best step forward for the future.

How do you manage logistically and physically to farm this way over such a large area?

Biology is the key. Our crops are no fuss crops and because the system is a natural system – a lot of natural things are working in our favour. We don’t have to live in those crops boosting them up with nitrogen and we don’t have to put minerals and disease resistance on. This gives us more time and there’s not a panic to have to get back to the paddocks. Di will keep a bit of an eye on things when she’s running around the sheep. I’ll seed, go and check for broadleaf then might not even see the crop again until just before harvest. We also have an easy seeding system. For example, I’ve just finished putting in 6000 hectares with one machine over a 100-kilometre distance. It’s a simple system and we’re not tailor making everything to suit different paddocks with all the bells and whistles. We tow a liquid cart behind our air seeder and all biological inputs go into that cart which leaves our bin filled up with seed. We aim for 100 hectares per stop and doing it this way means we haven’t had to go and buy a bigger air seeder. Our liquid system is on the bar and is a low pressure system. When you’re dealing with live cultures you don’t want huge amounts of pressure and filtration. A lot of it’s going in with no knock down or pre-emergent at all because it’s so dry and we are confident with weed levels in these paddocks. I will come back where necessary with broadleaf spray, but this is not a problem and I won’t need to on much of our home farms which have been in this natural system for a long time. For these I’ll give them one biological foliar, close the gate then come back and harvest.

What are the dust levels across your land?

We do generate some dust because we’ve got farms at all levels of being in our system from a long time to brand new land. This year we were seeding a north farm for the first time and it was creating a hell of a lot more dust than when we came back to seed on our home farm. At home the dust is down by 60-70% on similar country. As you get your system going and cranking up a lot of things like dust blowing about does decrease for sure.

How are you managing during the extreme dry season?

It’s been a bit of a dry spell and it hasn’t been much fun. But it is what it is. Last year’s crop was not a flash year, we’ve had bugger all rain all year and this year started dry as well. We had 15mm in late May but it was dead dry until that. We get what we get – we can’t physically do anything about whether it’s going to rain. Although at the end of the day you need some rain, it’s good to at least get 100mm on your crop, but you see areas where they get two to three times that amount and still complain. If you’ve got a small amount of moisture you can do a lot with that. Whether it be climate change or not, what the seasons dish up is what they dish up. By using biological systems and nature we can take some of the variance out of seasons.

Explain a bit more about covers in your system?

For us, the best way to cover crop is to have native plants come by themselves into the system. What we’re doing with our sheep and a few biological additives is encouraging native grasses to come. We don’t have to spend a cent and they’re very nutritious. Our native grasses are very fine grasses and don’t get clumpy, and it’s the cheapest way to go about growing covers. We’re not spending money on diesel or seed planting something. So although we are interested in further exploring covers, at the moment nature is working for us in this area. Having said that, we have got about 800 hectares into cover/fodder crops this season on land we haven’t cropped before to introduce the microbial component, commence the compaction breakdown and ensure some bulky growing plants in the paddock following such a dry year in 2017.

How do you think a disc seeder could improve your system?

We can see a disc seeder as the next step forward in our program. For the benefits of minimal disturbance and being able to handle the cover that’s on the paddocks, plus more speed putting crops into the ground. A disc would give us a lot more flexibility. There aren’t a lot of discs in WA especially out here. A few have tried with very limited success probably because they’re linked to a more traditional system. Our tyne works well on severely degraded land but a disc is the next thing to step into. The size we need and where we need to go has come down to economics. We would like to run two machines side by side, but with the recent seasons we’ve had, the disc has been on hold. The big disadvantage in WA is that I can’t go and talk to my dealers and have a demo of 2-3 disc machines, I can’t get a demo of even one machine. It’s a massive investment for the 60-foot machine we need and I’d just like to see a few options in action before we make that step. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the Vic No-Till farmers who are successfully using discs.

How important is it to share your knowledge and experiences with others?

We’re all learning as we go along, so if you can shortcut someone getting into something because you’ve been there and tried it, that’s definitely the way forward for us all. This is where we have stood all along. If we can make it easier for someone else that’s what we’re all about. We’re free and liberal with sharing our information. What goes around comes around. The more cover, the more green we can see across more of our landscape all year round, the better it will be for all of us so we are always trying to help others by sharing our successes, challenges and mistakes.

“The reality behind the work is revealed through Google Earth: if you search for the properties mentioned in the book, you will find oases of green surrounded by that parched devastation we have come to think of as the normal state of Australian agricultural lands. The stark comparison begs the question: why do we continue with morally bankrupt and dangerous ways of doing things, when better alternatives stare us in the face?” excerpt from Tim Flannery review ‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth’ by Charles Massy, October 2017, The Australian Book Review