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Kachana Landscape Management Workshop 2003

“Building Soil”: the ecological foundation for productive landscapes

27th, 28th, and 29th August 2003

Workshop Report

Below a subjective assessment with personal comment by Chris Henggeler of Kachana Pastoral Company:

Day one: Wednesday 27th

After a 32-minute low-level dawn flight over the Dunham River Catchment, unusually windy conditions and cloud cover greeted the participants who arrived at the Alligator Creek airstrip on Kachana.

Dr. Elaine Ingham who had been invited as keynote speaker, surpassed all expectations by incorporating a two-day soilfoodweb seminar in the program of events. After a “cuppa” and a bite to eat we departed for the main camp. Elaine wasted no time in beginning to explain the complexity of the subject matter. Attention was drawn to the fact that we need to look into our landscapes rather than at our landscapes; i.e. reading what nature is actually telling us right now. To set the stage we began by discussing the meaning and relevance of “ENERGY FLOW”, “WATER CYCLE”, “MINERAL CYCLE” and “COMMUNITY DYNAMICS” (the level of succession above the ground as a function of succession below ground). As we moved from the areas burned last year (where there was much exposed and capped/compacted ground with little perennial groundcover) to the more intensively managed areas where we have been endeavouring to cause succession to advance, we got to see the above ground results of the processes that Elaine had described to us.

We stopped for lunch at what was “Goanna Vlei”: an area where now an estimated million tons of sandy, peaty material erodes most years from about 40 hectares. There we discussed what events could have caused an area to change from rain forest to swamp to a desertifying landscape whilst under the management of humans.

Elaine alerted us to the interplay between “intensity” and “frequency” of a single type of disturbance. In this instance the disturbances we know of, came from fire, flood and animals. It must also be understood that a total lack of disturbance will eventually lead to a decline in health in such an area.

On arrival at the main camp we viewed two short videos that gave an insight to both the challenges and the aims of Kachana Pastoral Company.

Thomas and Dominique who formerly owned and managed “Rumours Patisserie” in Kununurra prepared dinner by candlelight under the stars. Good food was enjoyed whilst accompanied by lively discussion. After dinner we shared some thoughts on the topics of the day.

Day two: Thursday 28th

The first discussions began not long after 05:00 am. The Day´s topic was soil-building and we looked at many different examples: different land types; different management tools (fire; no fire; large animals; the absence of large animals; various combinations of these); different types of “disturbance”; different results and the soil profiles that “grew” them.

Whilst looking at the soil-profile in an area where fire had been excluded since 1991 it became obvious that the only way to mitigate the effect of a future fire event would be if we could deepen the root-zone of existing vegetation. Elaine suggested that the challenge was to ensure that the right functional groups of organisms were present in the ground as these would then break up existing compaction and prevent anaerobic conditions from reoccurring. This would need to be complemented by appropriate above ground management. How do we do this?

After a hearty breakfast Elaine extended our “level of conscious incompetence” on the new learning curve we were on. In a systematic, understandable and logical manner we were guided through some of the intricate functional connections in the soilfoodweb. Questions were asked and many examples given. Elaine gave us the framework to understand the soilfoodweb although the actual learning will continue for years. We were also asked to challenge some prevailing theories on “root-pruning”: recent studies in plant physiology indicate that root-pruning may have more to do with local compaction caused by herbivores than a severe pruning above ground… How much of our rangeland wisdom comes from the study of dysfunctional or functionally impaired situations?

After a break and a short field-walk Elaine backed up theory with photographs and commercial examples. Many of us were also introduced to “Compost Tea” — Elaine appears to be the “Bud Williams” of micro-organisms…. Making the little fellows want to do what they are designed to do (i.e. what we need them to be doing)… Get the biological foundations strong enough and it is amazing what all could be built on top. But where do we start?

Kachana Pastoral Company started in 1992 by simply changing large animal behaviour. Elaine presented the option of an additional biological tool: micro-organisms in the form of Compost Tea. Both techniques are people-friendly and very low-tech. Can/will they compliment each other? What is behind these “snake-oils”? This is what the soilfoodweb labs, that Elaine manages, are all about: replacing guess-work and speculation with scientifically solid data. Hopefully this will give us land managers better management information. Also if the “snake-oil” works we can find out “how” and thereby improve our management skills and devise our own “snake-oils”.

After Lunch:

We viewed and discussed the Millennium Project. During the day we also passed four photo-monitor sites: 02; 13; 12; 11. Then we visited “middle level management” who had just come back home after six weeks of working independently at the Northern end of the Valley: in this case a mixed cattle herd of ninety trained animals that equate to a versatile 65- 70 horse-power rangeland management tool.

We use the “natural disturbance” (or “animal impact”) that these animals create in what we call a controlled “biological storm”: I.e. we influence:

Furthermore we can associate this event with other things like nutrient transfer; seed dispersal; the stabilizing of creek-banks; the reduction of “problem species”; the favouring of desirable species by how we prune, mulch and fertilise; and more….)

In production situations we can additionally manage for:

(Can we improve the “value” of senescent material by crushing it with hoof-impact, thus favouring bacterial/fungal breakdown??? We need to research this! Our cattle seem to be telling us they do not mind eating the stuff when they return after a few months; What else are they telling us? Has the nutritional value improved?)

Back at the camp Elaine went over the results of soilfoodweb data from samples taken on Kachana. (Data available on request.) Questions and discussions kept going until well into the night.

Day three: Friday 29th

The fire was stoked up at 05:00 and once everybody had surfaced, we went down to the cattle to view a “very high herd density” management demonstration…

91 animals were called into an area of 25 metres by 30 metres containing enough standing dry feed for the daily requirement of 15-20 head. About sixty came in readily and the tail was gently pressured in to demonstrate a herd density of about 1213 head/ha…

There was no stress, “herd effect” did not set in and the “landscape management tool” was functioning at about 30% of possible “RPM”, but the animals were soon telling us something:

Within minutes animals were leaving… (They were not locked into that area.)

Our options then were:

  1. Turn our backs and leave
  2. Bring them back and close the fence behind them
  3. Call them back and give them more
  4. Call them into a different paddock

We opted for choice number three. During the day we rationed out a 150-metre strip in that 25 m lane with three more moves. That night they got the remaining 50 metres. They had access to water and nitrogen supplements the whole time and they could have gone back to where they had come from. (24 hours later they had full bellies and were ready for their next assignment.)

Note: These animals are the descendants of the British Shorthorn first brought to this area over a hundred years ago. They have survived the harsh selection processes dealt out by this land and we have not introduced any new blood… they are rangeland cattle working for a living; at this stage we require workers not sumo-wrestlers or Olympic athletes, so there are no prizes for “looks”…

Before breakfast Mr Col Brown of “Catholic Earth Care Australia” introduced and showed the video “The Garden Planet”: A wake up reminder-call to people that we are the custodians of this planet.

Discussion followed and Elaine pointed out: “We need mother-nature if we humans are to survive on this planet, but nature does not need us humans for the planet to survive”.

After breakfast we took a walk through some of the forest on Karl´s Vlei to observe what was happening: Soil-building has begun, but there is no depth to the soils and often we run into anaerobic zones not far below the surface. In many instances we located compaction on / near the soil surface. These are some indicators of a soilfoodweb not yet suited for forest-growth. Data from last year confirms this.

In this particular area it took four years of stock-control and the absence of fire before we began to notice biological decay setting in on fallen leaves; compaction was still a problem, but at least there was no longer a distinct line between compressed litter and the soil surface. How do we enhance biological decay and the building of soils in such situations?

In a final discussion before lunch Elaine kindly wrapped up the workshop and we all had much to take home… (Please read the “Soil Biology Primer” and the handouts you were given for more detail and visit the www.soilfodweb.com web site for further information/advice. We also recommend subscribing to the monthly Soilfoodweb E-Zine.)

Due to time constraints we barely touched on the take-home messages that Kachana Pastoral Company had wished to table:

  1. Much of what we perceive to be “global climate change” has to do with how we manage the surface of this planet and how this affects “micro-climate”.
  2. We need to differentiate between pastoralism, food and fibre production, other industry use of land, and actual “landscape management” (i.e. an holistic perspective of landscape-management in the broadest sense; realistic and both socially as well as ecologically sound landscape goals that extend beyond city, farm, park, forest and river-catchment boundaries).
  3. Healthy landscapes offer: MORE OPORTUNITY FOR ALL
  4. We will need to define landscape goals that we manage towards. If these goals include situations that are socially desirable, but ecologically un-sound, we need to ensure that compensatory mechanisms are in place so that a beneficial net outcome is achievable over time. In many instances this will call for restorative measures to be taken.
  5. Landscape management is poised to be the biggest, healthiest, most challenging and most exciting opportunity that has presented itself in the modern age.

We need to create incentives for people to be doing the right things — even if perhaps some may start off by doing them for all the wrong reasons…
The presentation that we had prepared can be found here.

During the workshop the question was asked: “What are the greatest constraints stopping you from doing what you think is necessary?”
A discussion followed. The answer can be summed up in the following words:
Fundamentally flawed legislation that leads to the emotional and financial penalising of innovation, whilst politically correct extraction on a deteriorating resource-base is financially rewarded and tolerated by the broader public.


Can we use the people and animals that we blame for the destruction of our landscapes to reverse current undesirable trends?
It would seem: YES
Can we compensate for inherently infertile, old and leached out soils?
It would seem: YES
Is there a connection between healthy soils, healthy produce and healthy people?
It would seem: YES
Do unstable ground-water-tables have anything to do with soil biology?
It would seem: YES
Does the salinity problem have anything to do with soil biology?
It would seem: YES
Does the leaching of soluble minerals, fertilizers and pesticides into our drinking water have anything to do with soil biology?
It would seem: YES
Does the breakdown of chemicals added to our soils (and the time this takes) have anything to do with soil biology?
It would seem: YES
Is there a connection between soil biology and flooding?
It would seem: YES
Are there natural low-tech solutions that are safe?
It would seem: YES
Are these solutions cost-effective?
This will differ on a case-by-case basis.
Do we now require genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to feed an unprecedented number of humans living on planet earth?
It would seem: NO
Is there hope?

A final take-home message from Kachana Pastoral Company:

True profitability begins with healthy ecological assets!