When the Bruderhof community came to the Inverell district in 1999 they were seeking a return to agronomic roots and in the years since have lifted their beef production as a direct result of growing soil carbon.
A Christian community originally founded in Germany in 1920, Bruderhof was ousted by the Nazis and fled to the Cotswolds, in England, where they changed-up a local farm from poor to high quality in just four years. When World War Two loomed large they sailed over the Atlantic and crossed the equator to set up camp in the jungles of Paraguay.
"My father was a Gaucho," says community farm manager Johannes Meier. "They clawed out a life in the remote jungle and savannah and they were on horseback sunrise to sunset, raising tick-resistant Zebu cattle."
German farmers perfected sustainable agriculture in the millennia before their scientists discovered a way of making nitrogen fertiliser from the air but those old-school methods were maintained by the Bruderhof community - formed three years before the invention of the Haber-Bosch process.
After 20 years in Paraguay the community expanded to the United States and shifted away from farming and into manufacturing. Decades later they moved Downunder.
"We were inspired to start in a new location and go back into farming ... go back to our roots and produce our own food in a great place," Mr Meier said.
Danthonia, an aggregation of three properties comprising 2350ha, has access to good rain, being higher and further east than Inverell and on the foothills of the western slopes, and is gifted with self-mulching black basalt soils that are responding very well to the increase in plant diversity, biology and carbon.
"We learned to farm here in Australia from our neighbours and a local agronomist," Mr Meier said. "Our approach was conventional but we found we couldn't pay the bills."
When Mr Meier arrived on the farm in 2004 it was in the middle of the millennium drought and the landscape all around looked degraded. There were no cover crops to be seen.
A year later Danthonia adopted Allan Savory's holistic methods of grazing management and the following season introduced ways of slowing the flow of water in the landscape and using plants to revitalize soil as taught by Peter Andrews.
In 2007 government infrastructure grants allowed Danthonia to erect fencing - enough to create 30ha paddocks that were segregated again with electric wire into eight and 10ha allotments.
"We went from 45 to 250 paddocks across 2300ha, allowing us to apply grazing management much more effectively" says Mr Meier
Water reticulation points were added and the community planted 30,000 trees, natives and exotics, and converted 400ha of cropping country to permanent pasture. But it wasn't enough.
"We were doing our best with the tools we had and we were flat-lining. Holistic grazing management and Natural Sequence Farming were very beneficial, but something was still holding the country back. We hadn't yet managed to restore living soil," Mr Meier said. "Paddocks that had a long history of cropping with chemical application were struggling to produce much at all."
In fact, teachings by Dr Christine Jones advocating for pasture diversity and soil biology adopted at Danthonia in 2018 pushed production to the next level. Advice from regenerative grazing consultant Geoff Bassett proved invaluable.
"We are finding that in addition to good grazing management and retaining water in the landscape, soil biology and plant diversity are the key tools that create fertility in nature. Tillage, chemical no-till, monocultures and overgrazing that allows erosion are impediments to the natural functions that create fertility. We had to find a way to reverse the years of damage to our soils. We need to work with nature," Mr Meier says, advocating empathy for the land.
"Biology and diversity builds more biology, diversity and biomass. It is a strongly positive feedback loop but it has taken us on a long journey of learning and talking to a lot of people to find the tools that allow the land to become productive - always picking up a tip on how to do things better. And it's not over yet. We're not fixed on natives," says Mr Meier, noting the pasture a Danthonia was planted with Rhodes grass, fescues, paspalum, phalaris and cocksfoot to increase perennial diversity and along the way native Queensland blue grass and Wallaby grass have returned. Plantings of cereals, legumes and herbs add even more diversity.
"You can buy it as a commercial seed mix," he says, "and with it we are seeing really exciting results. We are building soil and carbon much more quickly and rainfall use efficiency has doubled in the past 10 years."
By growing a biodiverse forage crop, applying bio-amendments and applying micro nutrients like boron and zinc, molybdenum and cadmium, the paddock production began to improve rapidly. Pasture forage production has doubled in the past two years due to this change in management.
"You can't just choose one tool to get over the line. You have to look at all the pieces of the puzzle. If there's anything I'd recommend it is to keep looking and never be satisfied."
Danthonia's farm operations have made a point of good recordkeeping. In the beginning there were charts on a corkboard and darts to keep track of rotating paddocks. Adoption of the pasture planning program Maia Grazing followed, with Danthonia one of their earliest customers.
"The software made a massive difference in forward planning and measuring results," said Mr Meier. "But it requires careful and precise data entry. Our farm management is based on sound planning and implementation; trialling tools, evaluating results, being very observant and then applying the tools that work."
The majority of cattle on Danthonia are there on agistment but the community runs a separate breeding herd of Angus with Pharo genetics breeding bulls for Pharo Cattle Australia at Furracabad Station Genn Innes. The moderate framed cows are handled with low stress livestock handling techniques and as a result are extremely quiet.
A new line of Mashona cross calves are now on the ground, artificially inseminated over Pharo-blood Angus cows to produce a heat tolerant line.
"These moderate sized Pharo cattle are more efficient in producing kilograms of beef per hectare," he says.
"Their fertility and ability to fatten on grass is excellent. And they're tough. This type of grass-finishing animal fits well into our environment and our management strategy.
At Danthonia a 500kg cow produces a 250kg weaner for a 50pc weaning percentage.
"With moderate sized cows it takes less grass to produce the same saleable article, or less grass to produce a kilogram of beef."
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