Life on the land has always been tough in Australia and things are only expected to get harder as climate change leads to drier conditions and other weather-related challenges.
Fortunately, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) have found that farmers are recognising the interplay between environmental management, productivity and the state of their own mental health.
Ecologist, wildlife biologist and conservation scientist Professor David Lindenmayer from Fenner School of Environment and Society has spent 20 years collecting data from hundreds of farms across south eastern Australia that informs ANU’s Sustainable Farms program.
The aim of the “truly multidisciplinary” project is to package this research in a way that teaches farmers about the environmental, financial and mental health benefits of sustainable farming.
Farmers don’t want to rape and pillage
As one of the research directors on the project, Professor Lindenmayer says he’s come across very few farmers who want to “rape and pillage the land and leave it in worse shape than they found it”.
To the contrary, he has observed a growing interest in environmental management with farmers calling up his team to ask how they might attract more native birds and other wildlife to their properties.
Interestingly, the researchers have found that the mental health of farmers improved when they became involved with restoration and conservation programs. Professor Lindenmayer says that these restored sites are often the only patches of green in an otherwise dry landscape where they can ride their horses or “sit at a picnic table and have a glass of wine” with their partners.
Sustainability linked to profitability
The sustainable farming practices promoted through the project are also meant to improve productivity without asking farmers to drastically alter their operations.
Professor Lindenmayer used farm dams as an example. He says 97 per cent are poorly performing that can affect water quality and potentially the health of livestock.
By making dams deeper, planting trees and other vegetation and fencing the area off, the water quality of the dam can rise significantly. The dams become “micro hotspots for biodiversity”, he says, and ultimately lead to better quality cattle that put weight on faster and are less likely to fall ill.
“You want things that eat the snails,” he says. “Shingleback lizards that live in tussocks, for example, can provide a really important parasite control service that means you pay less to the vet from livestock scouring.”
Healthier dams also contribute to drought resilience because vegetation around the dam can help keep the water cool. This is important because many southern species of cattle can’t drink water above 30 degrees Celsius.
Shelter is also critical for livestock. Trees planted between grazing paddocks can become shelter for ewes to have lambs in the winter, which can lead to higher lambing success.
“It doesn’t sound terribly profound but when previous owners have been so greedy that they’ve knocked over every tree then imagine what the land is like.
“And then you have black Angus cattle outside in 40 degrees… the whole notion of shelter is really important. Livestock are under less stress, show faster weight gain and consume less water.”
Research is only part of the answer to sustainable farming solution
Professor Lindenmayer says research programs are part of a broader solution to the challenges that climate change poses for the agriculture industry.
“Our sense is we’ve got to come at this from multiple scales.”
He says tackling the problem will need the involvement of groups such as Landcare that work on individual sites, farmers to reorganise the land appropriately, as well as governments to provide funding and develop incentive schemes to encourage people to farm sustainably.
The university has received funding from the Ian Potter Foundation, Vincent Family Fairfax Foundation, the Calvert-Jones Foundation, and Meat and Livestock Australia for the five-year project.