A balancing act at Balala

Resurrecting historic Balala Station involves effort above and below


On Farm
Richard Daugherty and Sarah Burrows have made a project out of Balala Station that is yielding interesting results regarding livestock production.

Richard Daugherty and Sarah Burrows have made a project out of Balala Station that is yielding interesting results regarding livestock production.

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Seven years ago, when Richard Daugherty and Sarah Burrows became custodians of historic Balala Station, the deteriorated property brought just the sort of challenges this couple desired.

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Seven years ago, when Richard Daugherty and Sarah Burrows became custodians of historic Balala Station, the deteriorated property brought just the sort of challenges this couple desired.

After all, they had met in the wilds of Botswana’s Okavango Delta of South Africa so a romantic project on the north-west slopes, not far from the university city of Armidale, looked like a grand idea. 

In a previous life, Richard had experience in corporate construction management,which gave him an eye to renovating the sprawling settlement –  dating back to 1839. Surely this would be a good opportunity!

The year they moved on was an exceptionally good one, if not a little too damp for those on lower plains. It was 2011, the wettest year on Balala since the 1930’s. 

Since then there has been a succession of dry summers culminating in the current drought, which is best summed up as being unpredictable and never experienced before – uncharted territory. 

Balala Station is actually in an above average year, with 835mm measured July to July, although only 180 fell from January to the half-year mark. 

“We have come to the realisation that to capture the rain, when it comes, we have to somehow increase organic matter in the soil,” says Mr Daugherty.

On the day The Land visited there was indeed rain, and thunder, with 4mm dampening the ground – enough to take laundry off the line and to lend a bit of positivity to an otherwise drab situation. 

“These bleak trap soils we are trying to work with now are really hard,” says Mr Daugherty. “Especially going into uncertain times. 

“Yet we must work on solutions from the soil up.”

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Being naturally high in magnesium and low in calcium wreaks havoc with soil consistency so the laying down of lime has been crucial. 

Supplementary feeding of superfine wool Merino ewes is a given on these north-west slopes during the winter feed gap. Cotton seed, Faba beans, corn and wheat are standard fare in winter. This year that supply is slim and extremely expensive.

“There has been much money, including hard won government grants and time spent on internal fencing to exclude riparian zones and to reduce the size of paddocks from hundreds of hectares to an average 10ha each,” said MrDaugherty. “Some 30km of internal fencing has created 40 paddocks across 1200ha of country and yet we have hardly made a dent, with many more km to do.”

Despite the enormity of their task the couple share a good feeling about the place. Farming with nature rather against it carries a feel-good factor that helps counter negative thoughts about cash flow, at a time like this. 

“Our end game is to create paddocks 10ha in area,” said Mr Daugherty. “With smaller paddocks we can rotate stock more often so they are getting feed in areas they normally wouldn’t and leave their manure behind. The question of where animals go and why is an important one. 

“We have been able to increase stock numbers substantially in the seven years since we started because we can now make better use of the entire property,” he said. 

“Balala was sold to us with the capacity of 6000 Dry Sheep Equivelent. Now, after chasing a balance in the soil health and after fencing, we believe we are closer to 8000 DSE. But the process has been trying and testing.”

There has been much effort into restocking dry ewes, pregnancy testing the viable ones, and electronic tagging the younger females – which lately have been put to Cressbrook rams. 

Their non-mulsed status and 16.8 micron wool clip attracts a premium and their 14.9 micron lambs’ wool garnered the third highest price nationally at the time. It is a transformation of Balala’s heritage wool brand, MT over diamond, which is meaningful as ‘MT’ stands for Morse and Tourle, who first settled Balala run.

Mr Daugherty also runs dual purpose Dohne sheep, with Alfoxton Blood, which have proven hardier with far more condition score although their wool is slightly broader at 17 to 18 micron. 

Suffolk rams go over classed out ewes and lambs are sold in store condition.

“We find it hard to finish these lambs in current conditions,”’Mr Daugherty said. 

The property’s 120 Bald Blair and Kilburnie Angus breeders have gone through an artificial insemination program to increase genetic gains. 

Some of the most interesting work has gone into balancing the trap and light granite soils under yellow box grassy woodlands. 

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Last year Balala received monoammonium phosphate (MAP), Sulfur, lime and trace elements including copper, zinc, molybdenum and boron. 

“We are following Albrecht’s principles of balancing base saturation percentages,” Mr Daugherty said. 

“We are also trialling sowing multi species pasture cropping into native grasslands to help feed soil microbes through carbon cycling over winter plus addressing key limiting factors such as aeration, compaction, nitrogen fixation, organic matter.

“We have found through scientific assessment that there is greater biodiversity in a true yellow box grassy woodland rather than a woodland choked with young saplings,” he said. “That proves to us we need a balance.”

Scientific assessment of the landscape has thrown up some questions to accepted practice, particularly in regard to tree stem density. 

“We have found through scientific assessment that there is greater biodiversity in a true yellow box grassy woodland rather than a woodland choked with young saplings,” he said. “That proves to us we need a balance.” - Richard Daugherty, Balala Station

Carbon content under dense regrowth forest, 300 stems plus a hectare, was found to be the same as in 120 stems/ha but the biodiversity in the latter of both fauna and flora was markedly more diverse which posed a conundrum because land clearance is not encouraged by the Native Vegetation Act, although Local Land Services have been accommodating and helpful.

The paperwork involved before a grazier can thin dense regrowth is onerous and yet Mr Daugherty points to the greater diversity of plant life under the less dense forest canopy –  which, of course, is a healthier habitat and supports greater numbers of stock, balancing nature and productivity. 

“Our vision is to farm with the environment rather than against it,” said Mr Daugherty. “We’re using what is needed to kickstart our system such as calcium, phosphorus, trace elements and minerals to balance the soil.

“I believe we are moving into exceptionally exciting times as we understand where we are headed using scientific traction. 

“This is not about being airy-fairy but about validating our position through science, taking advantage of the mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria in our soils with healthy soils being the foundation block for a healthy plant ecosystem.  

“The challenge is to beat and reverse climate change by learning how to farm holistically, sustainably and regeneratively. Understanding the importance of water cycles, nutrient cycles and realising that by increasing humus in the soils we can become more resilient in such challenging times. 

“Of course it is all a balancing act. While we want to encourage the production of native grasses and we want to farm with ecology, we still have to fit in with our market specifications. There is no point having a grass fed beast that takes 10 years to get to the right weight.”

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