Restoring the arid west

The arid zones around Cobar getting a helping hand thanks to carbon money


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Peter Yench believes there are still opportunities to be had in the Western Division and says income from carbon farming has real potential to get the land working to its full potential.Photo by DAN PEDERSEN.

Peter Yench believes there are still opportunities to be had in the Western Division and says income from carbon farming has real potential to get the land working to its full potential.Photo by DAN PEDERSEN.

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Carbon farming could provide a income for Western Division landholders to make the most of what they have.

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PETER Yench looks out across the arid farmland of Bulgoo Station, upon which he once laboured as a young rouseabout in the early 1960s.

He’s pretty chuffed he and wife Beverly now call it home.

Of the 52,600 hectares, an aggregation of Bulgoo, Meadows and Currawatha he’s got 8900ha locked up as a carbon investment.

The income from selling carbon credits – between $500,000 and $600,000 annually – is pumped back into the places in a bid to bolster carrying capacity and hence returns.

It’s a regenerative process, a recovery from the early 1960s, when the bottom fell out of wool prices and holders of soldier settler blocks tended to overstock to make a living.

When they were running heavy numbers, the native saltbush and grasses took a beating and the ground ended up bare.

In an arid zone, of about 400 millimetres a year average annual rainfall, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to restore bare ground.

As the saltbush disappeared there were about 50 varieties of opportunist woody weeds that sprang up in its place.

“That happened in the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s,” said Mr Yench, “ . . . no good for anything, stock won’t eat it, they take up the moisture and you lose grass.”

We’re seeking natural germination via a gradual reintroduction. - Peter Yench

As part of the country’s regeneration Mr Yench is experimenting with different types of bush fodder, a new strain of saltbush brought in from Western Australia, lucerne trees and buffle grass, which was once common but predominantly lost when the country was flogged bare.

Saltbush is being reintroduced on Bulgoo Station.

Saltbush is being reintroduced on Bulgoo Station.

“We’re seeking natural germination via a gradual reintroduction,” he said.

In one of his sheds he raises seedlings gathered from trips about the place where he sights a saltbush going to seed.

He raises them in pots until they’re large enough to hold their own in Cobar’s red soils then plants about four in a block and protects them with the aluminium cage off spray tanks that allows them to reseed areas.

Doing this he stops them all from being eaten before they’ve gone to seed.

He’s also introducing tropical grasses, Rhodes and serradella, once again opportunist grasses that will capitalise on any rain event, at any time of year.

Across the flatlands Mr Yench is using earthworks to slow and pool water to artificially bolster soak zones to create swales so “if we get 25mm of rain we’re effectively getting 125mm in the bottom of the swale,” he said.

And concentrating those amounts of water is what he hopes will allow him to introduce lucerne trees, or Cytisus proliferus, as another evergreen fodder crop, a deep-rooted perennial able to tap subsoil moisture, and produce green feed in rainless summers.

And Bulgoo has plenty of rainless summers.

All of this work is funded by carbon money.

Mr Yench says there are about 80 to 100 carbon farmers in the Cobar shire, an area about two thirds the size of Tasmania.

He says a big farm, like his, can draw about $500,000 annually from carbon payments, where smaller ones might manage $80,000 to $100,000.

“It’s got huge potential for the Western Division,” said Mr Yench, “I just don’t understand why the government doesn’t foster the practice more. It can pay for drought proofing.”

On his property Mr Yench has four bores producing saline water, brought to the surface with solar-powered pumps, that demand on-site desalination plants.

The water must be treated to be used as stock water and there’s a series of six troughs fed by polyethylene pipe. “The bores are only pumped as a standby, during times of drought,” he said.

Regardless of the improvements from Peter Yench, his Western Division holding is still doing it tough, with the daily feeding regime soaking up stored fodder.

Regardless of the improvements from Peter Yench, his Western Division holding is still doing it tough, with the daily feeding regime soaking up stored fodder.

“We’ve got water points strategically placed across the property, but they run out and, really, there’s a lot more required, we’re just restricted by finances,” he said.

The country set aside for carbon farming still must be worked to preserve it. Fences work to control vermin and fire breaks protect the resource on the land.

When Mr Yench first applied to become registered as a carbon farmer, on the 8900ha that are locked up there were 20 (acre) 0.4ha lots staked out and surveyors took a significant inventory of the land.

They picked over those lots to determine what vegetation there was, be it sticks, trees or grass.

“They cut some trees down and then stacked them in a shed to dry out and monitored the moisture levels as they dried,” he said.

“It was all methodology, to determine the worth of the land to the planet if left in its present state.”

“You get get paid for 10 years, but its a 100-year lease, so then you have to look after it for the next 90.”

But it is the continual improvements in those first 10 years that Mr Yench hopes will secure a relatively properous future for the country.

With the ability to pond water – he uses a Caterpillar grader, front-end loader and excavator to create bunds and swales – hay is grown and stored on farm and grain is harvested and stored underground to be used in lean times.

He has also dug about 50 significant ground tanks, and has been taking advantage of the dry to desilt them, which will fill given an inch of rain.

“Yes, you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” said Mr Yench, “you’ve got to increase your carrying capacity.” 

He now carries about 8000 breeding dorpers, turning off hopefully about 8000 lambs annually and 5000 to 6000 rangeland goats, which he is working to improve the bloodlines of with Boer males.

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