IT'S the quandary of many a small area farmer - whether or not the costs involved in pasture improvement will pay off and just how to match the right pasture with your production and budget goals.
The short answer, according to government agronomists and farming advisors, is that improving perennial pastures or planting annual species to increase stocking rates is the most cost effective way for smaller holdings to increase farm incomes and safeguard livestock health.
The secret, however, is in following the tried and proven formula for pasture establishment, planning ahead and making the right selection for both your operation, country and climate.
Coastal regions, home to NSW's largest number of small area holdings, present a wide range of species choices and combinations that can be effective.
On the NSW North Coast, subtropical grasses such as setaria, Rhodes, and kikuyu are the most common with winter oversowing of ryegrass and oats, according to Heritage Seeds' territory manager for the North Coast and Hunter Valley Riley Cooper.
Selecting a paddock early and reducing the weed competition before the pasture is established is key, he says.
"Whenever you look at improving a new paddock, spray out everything first and then on the next rain spray out the germination to reduce the weed seed burden in the soil," Mr Cooper said.
"The main reason pastures fail is due to weed competition during establishment."
For the NSW Mid North Coast and Hunter Valley, the same subtropicals are also well-used but paspalum is also generally a big part of the mix and newer options include prairie grass.
On the NSW South Coast, temperate species come into play and Auswest Seeds' Daniel Clydsdale said the two main choices were kikuyu with Italian ryegrass oversown or spraying out the kikuyu and going for a perennial ryegrass.
Fescues, forage sorghums, oats and Japanese millet are also used in pasture improvement programs on the NSW South Coast.
NSW Department of Primary Industry (DPI) Factsheets and Agnotes on pasture establishment say that temperate grasses and legumes provide higher quality forage than tropical grasses - animal growth rates are 1 to 1.2 kilograms per day for ryegrass versus 0.9kg/day from kikuyu.
However, the subtropical climate north of the Hawkesbury River favours the lower quality, summer growing tropical species, enabling them to nudge out temperate species in late summer and autumn.
Once the right species and variety to suit the soil, climate and purpose is selected, sowing improved pastures requires a commitment to higher inputs and improved management, according to NSW DPI industry development pastures at Tocal Neil Griffiths.
Mr Griffiths said a big limitation for small area farms was the cost of machinery, which often resulted in reliance on a local contractor.
The compromise, he said, could come through broadcast sowing which had been very successful with coastal ryegrass and clovers.
A program of eight key management practices had been developed, called the 3A Way, that when systematically adopted improved pasture establishment success, Mr Griffiths said.
It is detailed in the NSW DPI's Pasture and Winter Forage Crop Sowing Guides but some key points include conducting at least a year's worth of monitoring prior to improving a section of the farm, along with solid analysis of costs and returns; controlling weeds; removing excess plant material before sowing; accurate seed placement; targeting fertiliser and lime applications to soil requirements and ensuring appropriate soil moisture and weed and pest control.
Once established, careful management is required to ensure pasture is utilised in its most productive and nutritious phases of growth.
The NSW DPI provides, via the Agnote Matching Pasture to Livestock Enterprises, Coastal Regions, estimates of daily growth rates of all the common coastal pastures and guides to carrying capacities.
If you missed the special How To Guide edition of Farming Small Areas you can now see it online here.