Avoid Magic, opt for Science

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Contributed by Dr Phil Holmes and Ian McLean

Unfortunately, and to its detriment, broadacre agriculture is not always an evidence-based industry at producer level. Yes, there are areas where evidence drives what is done, but it is far from universal. Too much attention is placed on fads and searches for silver bullets.

By way of contrast, consider engineering. If it was not based on hard evidence, planes would fall out of the sky, buildings would collapse and bridges would cave in. It is the ultimate discipline in everyday life.

But back to broadacre agriculture, specifically livestock. Fads go past the front gate of the property every day. Some of them are relatively benign and some seriously detrimental to business. There have been heaps of them. The whole Soft Rolling Skins crusade with Merino sheep, feeding heaps of muck out of bags to speed up rumen development, cell grazing, flat-boned cattle; the list goes on.

The problem is that most of them have a sprinkling of ‘science’ in order to render them semi-credible, forming an attraction for those who lack the skills to sort good evidence from bad. At the end of the day, these fads mostly deliver nothing, as the quality evidence is missing.

Enter, stage left, Regenerative Agriculture (RA); the latest fad and hot topic! This one is a doozie because it tugs at the heart strings. ‘Australia’s rural landscapes are degrading. Our agricultural production systems are unsustainable. We are losing biodiversity and the list of fauna extinction is a national disgrace’…….. and so on, goes the mantra. Unfortunately, most of these statements hold at least an element of truth.

However, the statements do nothing more than identify some of the issues. Hidden within the RA (and to an extent cell grazing) approach are the very things that conventional agriculture advocates – matching stocking rates to carrying capacity, retaining appropriate levels of ground cover and residual biomass in the landscape. There is nothing mysterious or new about these approaches- it’s what all good land managers and grazing scientists have been advocating for decades.

You don’t need complicated grazing systems that run animals around in circles to achieve better grazing land management, livestock performance and business performance – in fact the published evidence suggests the opposite.

If this surprises you, do your own research, as you should for all things. In doing so look for bodies of empirical evidence presented in reputable scientific publications, not anecdotes. The peer-review process ensures a scientific approach, complete with the mandatory control cohort and demonstrated repeatability, has generated the results presented.

Back to the demonisation of agriculture. The main aspects of this discussion with which we take issue are;
• Conventional agriculture is portrayed as archaic and unsustainable
• The suggested approaches are not supported by sound science or economics
• There is an element of magic involved in transforming landscapes and businesses, through the revelation of secrets or the burying of cow horns.

Firstly; conventional agriculture as a whole is neither archaic nor unsustainable. It is not, and should not be presented as a binary choice, i.e. either conventional or new-age. There is a continuum of management practices within so-called conventional agriculture. At one end there are agricultural professionals who incorporate the latest proven research into a management system which effectively manages the fundamentals for their enterprise and location, these producers are seriously profitable and can tick all of the boxes for a sustainable agricultural business.

At the other end there are those who are best described as archaic and unsustainable, and whose management practices, particularly environmental management, could provide a justification for the reintroduction of capital punishment.

Conventional agriculture should not be judged by the practices of this minority of bad performers; it is the equivalent of saying we should disregard conventional medicine due to the spurious activities of a few rogue quacks.

Secondly; agriculture is arguably the most multi-disciplinary of vocations! Producers need to be adept in many areas to manage their land, their plants, their livestock, their people, their business and their finances. However, the over-arching disciplines covering all of these should be science and economics. We have science and economics to thank for the advancements in humanity, particularly standard of living and life expectancy, over the millennia.

Science advances knowledge through falsifiability; being able to prove or disprove phenomena from experimentally derived evidence. Economics has many facets, but in this context, it is about the rational allocation of capital and ensuring the incremental benefits of an activity exceed the costs. These disciplines are not perfect, there will always be a lot we do not know and the practitioners do not always agree (it has been said that if all the economists in the world were lined up in a single line, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion!). However, it is the pursuit of these disciplines, the ongoing intellectual debate and continually asking these questions that ensures our progress.

Moreover, any bodies in charge of public or industry funds should also ensure that an appropriate level of rigour is applied to their allocation of funding. It is incumbent on them to ensure the public purse does not fuel, or perpetuate, any fads. The conundrum is that academic libraries are full of peer-reviewed journal articles on agricultural research conducted from the 1960’s on that has never been extended. The ‘golden era’, the 1960’s through to the 1990’s addressed some of the critical issues that constrain livestock productivity and it is this material that we refer to more than anything else in our work. This material is literally a goldmine for anyone who is serious about hard-core evidence.

Thirdly; there is no place for magic in the business of agriculture, beyond that of mother nature.

We can concurrently achieve financial and environmental sustainability. We can do this by letting science and economics show us the way, not relying on magic.

Ask yourself
Here are ten questions that we think may help grazing businesses to achieve financial and environmental sustainability:
1. Can you articulate what your core business is, and why your enterprise is the most suitable for your location, scale and long-term aspirations?
2. Do you know what the key profit drivers, within management control, are for your enterprise?
3. What strategies do you have in place address those drivers?
4. How are you measuring enterprise performance?
5. Have you ever benchmarked the production and financial performance of your business against your peers?
6. If you are operating in the north, do you know your long-term carrying capacity, can you demonstrate that your stocking has been in line with this environmental limit and that land condition is maintaining or improving?
7. If you are in the south, do you know your optimum stocking rate and have an economically and scientifically sound pasture plan in place?
8. Do you have a working understanding of the seminal and timeless research that has been done of relevance to your region/ production system/ enterprise?
9. Do you have a process to keep up to date with current research?
10. Do you invest in professional advice across the key aspects of your business and invest in your own continuing professional development?
If your response is yes to most of these, then congratulations, you are part of the bright future that agriculture has. If you don’t then what is your plan to address them?

Ticking all of the above is not easy, it requires skill and discipline. However, being a manager of a multi-million-dollar modern business is not easy in any industry, and agriculture is no exception.

The successful agricultural business managers of the future will be those who have the discipline and diverse skill set required to run these multi-million-dollar businesses. These managers will apply science and economics, they will not look to the silver bullets and fads that currently distract too many in agriculture.
We don’t have all of the answers but believe that more answers are to be found in science and economics than anywhere else, and that they should be central to any conversation around agricultural practices.

Related reading
Below are some key papers we think that may help further your knowledge in this area. Your local librarian, extension officer or university student will be able to help you track them down.

‘Rotational Grazing on Rangelands: Reconciliation of Perception and Experimental Evidence’ a paper with multiple authors published in volume 61 of the Journal of Rangeland Ecology & Management by the Society for Range Management in 2008.

‘Evidence-based Agriculture-can we get there?’ a paper by Jim Virgona and Geoff Daniel in the Agricultural Science Journal in 2011

A book review of ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’ by Jen Silcock and published by CSIRO in volume 40 of The Rangeland Journal in 2018

This article was first published in the Queensland Country Life on October 17, 2019.

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