Encouraging native regrowth yields benefits for farmers Graham and Josie Volck

For over 20 years, Emerald farmers Graham and Josie Volck have shown that protecting endangered natural habitats while supporting a sustainable irrigated cropping enterprise is not only achievable but also economically desirable.


Graham and Josie have been farming their 249 hectare property, Retreat, since purchasing it in 1994. At the time, Graham identified a previously cleared rocky ridge was at high risk of salinity, and some scalding was already evident. Rather than further develop the 36 hectare parcel, Graham decided to allow it to naturally revegetate with Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla). 

Brigalow communities are endangered, having been extensively cleared in the past. In fragmented landscapes, remnant and revegetated Brigalow communities provide valuable habitat for a diverse range of animals. They also benefit irrigated crop production as they reduce salinity in neighbouring fields and prevent further salinity occurrences. 

Adaptive management

Initially, Graham used fire to manage the regrowth area; however, he noticed it encouraged Sally Wattle (Acacia salicina) and reduced the abundance and diversity of native animals. As a result, Graham reconsidered using fire and now manages the area using four simple principles: 

  • avoid fire
  • limit vehicle access
  • exclude stock
  • control pests. 

For Graham, the benefit of this approach is obvious. “Many farmers and graziers could retain more native habitat without negatively impacting productivity,” he said. “Managing marginal land types can incur greater costs and lower returns. However, strategic clearing and reintroducing native habitat areas can improve productivity, reduce erosion and salinity, and increase biodiversity.”

Obvious success

The area is the start of a wildlife corridor, joining other regrowth areas on properties to the east, and is also close to remnant vegetation along Retreat Creek. Graham monitors weeds and pest animals in the regrowth area; however, with no stock pressure, native grasses have out-competed and replaced the weeds. He controls pest animals such as pigs, when necessary. 


His ‘hands-off’ approach to vegetation management has been a resounding success. There is strong Brigalow regrowth, few weeds and plenty of hollows and logs for wildlife habitat. There is a diverse range and good coverage of perennial grasses, including Queensland Bluegrass (Dichanthium sericeum subsp. sericeum), which is a reliable indicator of grasslands in good condition.

Applying experience

The Volcks purchased nearby Clearview in 1999. Within three years they chose to stop farming a 50 hectare area that had grown wheat for over 15 years and allowed it to revegetate naturally. The area faced similar salinity issues to Retreat, and the biodiversity potential of returning the area to native vegetation was a motivating factor.


With the exception of allowing two house cows to periodically graze the Clearview regrowth, the management of this area is the same. Subsequently, there is good ground cover, pioneer tree species have established and perennial native grasses such as Queensland Bluegrass are slowly replacing the weeds. 


The Volcks’ commitment to biodiversity and natural resource management extends beyond these two areas of regrowth, though. At least 15 per cent of each property is dedicated to native vegetation and includes remnant stream bank vegetation. On-farm water storages also encourage biodiversity as they feature grassed slopes and are very close to corridors of existing bushland. Additionally, Graham has stocked Clearview’s water storage with barramundi fingerlings and has continued to manage it in a way that ensures their survival. 

Incentives are important

Initially, Graham used fire to manage the regrowth area; however, he noticed it encouraged Sally Wattle (Acacia salicina) and reduced the abundance and diversity of native animals. As a result, Graham reconsidered using fire and now manages the area using four simple principles: 

Graham believes protecting native vegetation while maintaining a profitable agricultural enterprise is possible. However, incentives are needed to encourage farmers to further integrate environmental stewardship into their daily operations. Such an approach would lead to better environmental outcomes that go well beyond minimum legal requirements.

“A change of attitude toward tree clearing is long overdue. The current cycle of changing legislation is counterproductive and is reducing the likelihood of a mature, informed, sustainable outcome,” he said.

Graham estimates that returning highly productive agricultural areas to native vegetation has cost him up to $8,000 per hectare in annual lost income. He says that this is something he can do – and does gladly - but not all farmers can, and the community can help.

“The community at large, specifically urban populations, government and nature conservation groups can contribute to the value of native habitat retained by rural people,” said Graham. “There is a greater good for the community that can be recognised, acknowledged and financially supported.”

This updates a case study first published by the former Cotton Communities Catchments CRC in August 2006. You can find out more about brigalow regrowth management at: https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/assets/documents/plants-animals/regrowth/brigalow-management-guid...

By encouraging connected corridors of native regrowth across their irrigated farms, Graham and Josie Volck have witnessed a significant increase in the diversity and abundance of wildlife, while remaining financially sustainable.

Graham and Josie Volck’s commitment to sustainable irrigated farming extends beyond encouraging native regrowth. They have stocked barramundi fingerlings in their water storage areas, which are managed carefully to ensure the barramundi thrive.

Graham and Josie Volck’s commitment to sustainable irrigated farming extends beyond encouraging native regrowth. They have stocked barramundi fingerlings in their water storage areas, which are managed carefully to ensure the barramundi thrive.

 
 

When the company purchased Brayland in October 2013, they knew its irrigation system would need to be redesigned. Managing Director Hamish Millar said water was previously pumped from the Nogoa River into a supply channel and then used to fill Brayland Lagoon. Water would then be re-pumped from the lagoon to a head ditch.

“When the infrastructure was built in the 1980s, electricity was cheap, diesel was cheap, water was cheap, and there wasn’t the same legislation or focus on water quality of these areas,” Hamish said.

“We had identified within the first month of purchasing the property that this was one of the key legacy issues that we wanted to sort out. However, it was placed in the ‘too-hard basket’ while we focused on getting the operation rolling.”

Wetland importance

Brayland Lagoon is a significant wetland covering 113 hectares with links to the Nogoa River and its anabranch. In a heavily fragmented landscape, the wetland retains important remnant bushland and a small pocket of endangered sub-dominant coolibah woodland.

In addition to being an inefficient way to deliver irrigation water, Brayland Lagoon was used to drain irrigation tailwater and stormwater run-off from 180 hectares of irrigated fields, substantially increasing the risk of contaminants reaching the Nogoa River.

With the support of Fitzroy Basin Association Inc. (FBA) through funding from the Australian Government’s Reef Programme, Cowal Agriculture redirected irrigation supply, tailwater and excess stormwater via earthen supply channels instead of using the wetland, thus reducing the risks to the wetland and Nogoa River.

Hamish also worked with FBA contractor Liz Alexander from Blue Dog Agribusiness to develop the significant infrastructure investment project, which started in July 2015 and took over four months to complete. The task involved extensive earthworks to lay 220 metres of 900mm pipe underneath the wetland, which was no small feat. This pipe created an inverted syphon between two supply channels on either side of the lagoon. Not only is the wetland now protected, but irrigation is significantly more efficient as water is only pumped once.

Immediate results

Since the project’s completion, Hamish and Greg have seen substantial improvements in water use efficiency, production efficiency and the quality of the lagoon’s vegetation. According to Hamish, they have reduced their pumping and delivery costs by 25 per cent, or about $8 per megalitre, resulting in changes to their production decisions.

“We wouldn’t bring parts of the Brayland farm into production because there was higher cost, now it’s on par with the rest of the farm,” said Hamish.

Because the wetland relies on natural rainfall and water flow, Cowal Agriculture continues to release clean water through the lagoon to maintain the system’s health. They have also identified other areas of environmental importance across the farm and have a cautious approach to pesticide application. To minimise the risk of drift, herbicides are not applied by air adjacent to sensitive areas or the Brayland Lagoon.

Best management practices

Hamish and Greg worked with Liz to complete the water quality related modules from the cotton industry’s best management practices program, myBMP, and said he would recommend the program and catchment management activities to others.

“It’s always difficult to put a value on activities like this. Sometimes on-farm projects can’t be linked to a direct financial benefit and we need to think more broadly about value. Cotton myBMP is a great example; people sometimes see BMP as a cost, but if you think of the indirect benefits provided it’s clearly of value,” Hamish said.

“If you can meet all of the BMP targets around water use efficiency, you might save 1 or 2 megalitres per hectare, which you can then apply to another crop or capture as increased productivity.”

Protecting off-farm habitats

While the Reef is not always front of mind, the Cowal Agriculture team are always thinking about where their water goes. In the past 15 years, cotton irrigators have focused on building reticulation infrastructure to prevent irrigation tailwater from leaving their farms, and now it is an industry norm.

When talking about the Brayland Lagoon, Hamish says that it is an area of real value. “Greg and I are just in awe of it; they are beautiful, these waterways. We haven’t yet, but we want to get some kayaks and go for a paddle into the wildlife and just enjoy what is down there,” he said.

You can find this case study and more about sustainable agriculture in Central Queensland below.

Fitzroy Basin Association
Images © Fitzroy Basin Association, Graham Volck, Susan Maas, Greg Kauter, GBRMPA Image Collection