Accessing These Resources

RSNR-403-503 was originally issued in 2008. The University of New England is licenced by the Trust to deliver this module as part of its formal curriculum. This Module is no longer being delivered by UNE. The version here is the same as that produced in 2008.

Educational Institutions. other than the University of New England, wishing to utilise these resources as research and/or reference materials will be provided a copy of all the materials, including source documents in Microsoft Word format, subject to their acceptance of a licencing contract with the Australian Wool Education Trust. This contract spells out their obligations to AWET and the limitations in the use of the materials. Such institutions must have an appropriate licence with the Copyright Agency Ltd.

Institutions or individuals who wish to utilise the materials as references or for self education will be provided access to the source documentation in PDF format only, subject to their acceptance of the terms and conditions. They can request modules and/or topics. If they have a CAL licence then the materials are provided free of charge. Otherwise a fee of AUD50.00 will apply.

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RSNR 403-503: Sustainable Land Management

Revision Notes

RSNR-403-503 was originally issued in 2008. It was created with funding provided by the Sheep CRC supported by MLA and AWI.

This Module is no longer being delivered by UNE. The version here is the same as that produced in 2008. .

Topic 1: Introduction to Sustainability

This topic provides an introduction to this unit ‘Sustainable Agriculture and Catchment Management’. The purpose of this introductory topic is to introduce to you the concept of sustainability and the issues related to sustainability that are currently being faced by Australian farmers. It will also provide an introduction to key sustainability principles, and the important organisations and policies that assist Australians to move towards a more sustainable future.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand the key concepts of sustainability;
  • Recognise different scales of sustainability;
  • Have an overview of agricultural sustainability issues, with particular reference to the sheep industry; and
  • Have a view on the likely success of various government policies in regard to sustainable agriculture.

Topic 2: Introduction to Ecology

As outlined in Topic 1, ‘sustainability’ is the capacity to continue indefinitely. However, the concept has assumed more in the environmental, resource management and development literature than its literal definition would imply over the past three decades. The environmental concept had its genesis in the World Conservation Strategy (Anon. 1980) that promoted the need for the simultaneous productive use and conservation of natural resources.

At the end of this topic you should be able to:

  • Explain what ecology is and its relevance to sustainability and farm and catchment management;
  • Understand in broad terms the concept of stocks and flows of energy and matter through ecosystems, the ways in which ecosystems can change in response to external factors, and the state and transition framework for summarising ecosystem dynamics; and
  • Appreciate the critical role of biodiversity for life on earth and a range of views about its importance for agriculture.

Topic 3: Economic Sustainability

‘Today’ – at the beginning of the third millennium – the agricultural output and input subsidies are largely gone and in Australia, as in other countries, the community demand for environmental services has been growing.

As incomes have risen, particularly in the developed countries, people have been able to meet their basic needs for food etc. with a declining share of their incomes. The result is that there has been enough ‘spare money to go around for the environment’.

As part of the growth in demand for environmental services, the community at large has claimed increasing ‘ownership’ of environmental resources. In Australia, landowners are now likely to be called stakeholders and to face increasing controls over use of the environmental resources they once commanded largely at will.

On completion of this topic you should have:

  • An appreciation of the background behind the current focus on sustainability in Australia and elsewhere;
  • An understanding of the determinants of world wool market trends and how they impact on the economics of wool growing;
  • An understanding of the key economic principles associated with sustainability; and
  • An introduction to how government can promote sustainability

Topic 4: Social Sustainability

Sustainability and sustainable development are regarded as being synonymous. They are also regarded as being a process or a journey, rather than an end point. Thus they are elusive goals. Sustainability is generally considered as being ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the abilities of future generations to meet their needs’. Sustainability is viewed as having a triple bottom line quality, that is, it has social, economic as well as environmental dimensions. While maintenance of natural capital is the general requirement for ecological sustainability, and economic growth (and profitability) is the requirement for economic sustainability, the characteristics of social sustainability have been less clear.

On completion of this topic you should have:

  • An understanding of the concept of social sustainability and what it might mean in Australian agriculture;
  • A comprehension of the concept of the Triple Bottom Line;and
  • A realisation of the importance of social issues in agriculture.

Topic 5: Sustainability in Context

This topic commences with a definition of sustainability and examines the question of why it is important, what scale we might assess sustainability on and highlights the great difficulty that human society has in striving to achieve the goal of sustainability.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Discuss definitions of sustainability from a range of perspectives;
  • Appreciate how sustainability might be assessed at different scales; and
  • Understand the common biophysical attributes of different forms of sustainable land use.

Topic 6: Soil Sustainability

In agricultural systems, an adequate level of economic return from animal production is the final objective but economic sustainability will not be attained if ecological (or environmental) sustainability declines. This topic will emphasise the ecological sustainability of sheep production enterprises from the point of view of soil health. Soil health, or quality, has been defined as ‘the capacity of a soil to function within ecosystem boundaries to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality and promote plant and animal health’ (Doran & Parkin 1994). Soil health has three main aspects, all of which interact with each other. The three aspects are chemical, physical and biological. Of these, it is the soil biota (organisms, other than plants, living in the soil) which perform vital functions that help to sustain both the chemical and physical fertility of soils. Without soil organisms, organic matter would not decay and release plant nutrients and chemical fertility would decline. Without soil biota, soils would also have poor physical structure and water and air transmission into and through soil would be impeded. Hence the emphasis of this topic will deal with roles of soil biota in pasture ecosystems and how management can affect their function, and thus sustainability.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe the main groups of beneficial decomposer organisms that live in soil;
  • Explain the roles of soil biota in the sustainability of Australian temperate agricultural systems by improving chemical and physical fertility of soil, with a focus on sheep production; and
  • Understand adverse or stimulatory impacts of management practices on soil biota.

Topic 7: Water Sustainability

Adequate quantities of water of appropriate quality are essential to raising livestock. Where water quantity (e.g. during a drought) or quality (e.g. as a result of salinisation) is compromised, the farm fails. Therefore, water quality and quantity must be sustainable in a production sense. We now recognise that ecological processes underpin much of the sustainability of water quality and quantity, and this module focuses on how to maintain the ecological processes that maintain water sustainability.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the hydrological and ecological relationships between catchments and their surface and groundwaters, and why maintaining these relationships is critical to water sustainability;
  • Discuss the main drivers affecting water quality and quantity on farms, understanding the difference between water and catchment issues;
  • Interpret relevant literature about water resource management and sustainability;
  • Access and use findings from recent research and extension to improve water management and sustainability on the farm; and
  • Be able to collect and interpret several diagnostic features of water quality that would indicate threats to or impacts on sustainability, and know how to remedy these threats.

Topic 8: Plant Sustainability

This topic discusses how the plant ‘layer’ contributes importantly to sustainability. Plants are the primary means by which we capture the sun’s energy. All of our fossil fuels (e.g. coal, oil and gas) have come from energy captured by photosynthesis over millions of years. Currently, humankind is attempting to harvest fuel from a single year’s photosynthesis (e.g. ethanol from grain or sugarcane) and hence the sustainability of this practice will depend very much on its energy efficiency.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Explore the ways in which sustainability might be achieved in a range of crop and livestock enterprises;
  • Understand the importance of stability in plant populations and to briefly explore the place of biodiversity in productive systems; and
  • Examine some of the principles behind sustainable cropping, pasture and grazing management.

Topic 9: Remnant Vegetation

Remnant native vegetation occurs in all sorts of shapes, sizes and types and has a range of values associated with it. It is the vegetation that remains after broad-scale clearing, which has largely occurred in southern and eastern Australia. In this topic we will examine the values and benefits of native vegetation (focusing on ecosystem services), its extent and condition and the threats and pressures on remnant vegetation. A number of principles for managing and monitoring remnant vegetation will be presented in the context of sustainable farming systems, as most remnant vegetation occurs on private land.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Define the concept of remnant vegetation condition and know about systems for determining vegetation condition;
  • Appreciate the ecosystem services provided by remnant vegetation and their links to human well-being;
  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the sustainability issues facing remnant vegetation;
  • Discuss the principles for managing and monitoring remnant vegetation and revegetation in a production matrix; and
  • Access and utilise recent resources on the ecology and management of remnant vegetation.

Topic 10: Animal Sustainability

Profitable animal production systems are largely based on converting rainfall into grass and then grass into either food or fibre. If only it were that simple! Inherent within any animal production system is the need to balance an array of factors so that the enterprise is ‘sustainable’ in the longer term. For example, while animal production may be able to be increased significantly in the short term by increasing stocking rates, such a strategy on its own may also degrade the resource base and impact negatively on animal health or product quality, especially in a tough year.

The primary focus of this topic is on sheep production systems and examining the balance required to maintain the sustainability of the production system and that of the business enterprise.

At the end of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the factors that impact on sustainable production for an animal (specifically sheep) enterprise;
  • Discuss the impacts of management practices relating to animal welfare, animal health, pest management, grazing systems, production levels and the resource base; and
  • Access and utilise recent research and extension efforts describing sustainable production systems.

Topic 11: Sustainable Biophysical Systems

This topic on ‘Sustainable Biophysical Systems’ (SBS) aims to integrate the conclusions reached in Topics 6 to 10. Integration is built on inter-connections and these are presented within an ecosystem context. It is clear from Topics 6 to 10 that the challenge for management is to accommodate both agriculture, with its human need for food and fibre, and the protection needed to sustain the off-farm landscape.

This topic starts with a simple statement and an arrangement of the ‘drivers’ of SBS. Climate and management are imposed and largely external to the ecosystem, the first being largely outside man’s control and the second being substantially within his control. Climate and management function conjointly with the internal ‘drivers’, which are plants, grazing animals, decomposer biota, and soil function (physical and chemical).

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Recognise the importance of external controls for the function of biological systems. These are exercised by climate and by human management;
  • Understand the importance of the four internal core elements, which drive terrestrial ecosystems and interact between themselves in major ways: Soil, Plants, Animals (Grazers) and Decomposers, along with two external elements: Climate and Management;
  • Appreciate the fourteen factors governing soils, plants, grazing animals and water. These factors are inter-related in ways which affect the sustainability of farm production and landscape management. Understanding these inter-relationships is the key to this topic; and
  • Discuss the tension between on-farm production and its potential impacts off-farm and to suggest ways of minimising landscape problems by sound farm planning.

Topic 12: Natural Resource Policy

Natural resource policy covering areas such as water usage and water quality, native vegetation, catchment management, salinity, Landcare and biodiversity has developed rapidly over the last decade. For many involved in agriculture, it is a struggle to understand what changes are occurring and why. In addition, natural resource policy often has biophysical, economic and social components and impacts which add to its complexity.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand what public policy is and how the policy process is influenced and created;
  • Be able to identify the range of policy mechanisms which are available to Government to implement policy, and be able to make judgements as to where particular policy mechanisms might be most appropriate;
  • Be able to identify the respective roles of the States and territories and the Federal Government in natural resource policy making;
  • Understand the roles of different stakeholders in the policy process; and
  • Know where to find information on evolving policy frameworks such as those concerned with native vegetation management and water management.

Topic 13: Catchment Management

The need for Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) has been demonstrated by the rising levels of land degradation and escalating resource deterioration of soil, water and vegetation in Australia. This topic deals with ICM as a philosophy, a process and a product, and summarises the guiding principles that underpin catchment management as it has been adapted across Australia.

In the future you may find yourself as a land manager or natural resource professional seeking funds from or working in a catchment management organisation, depending on your position. It would be useful to understand the following and be able to:

  • Define catchment management and to list the key principles and attributes that characterise the nature and scale of catchment management;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the history of catchment management, and some of its theoretical underpinnings;
  • Provide a summary of the goals, difficulties, future needs and trends of catchment management based on activities over the last 20 years (mid 1980s to 2006);
  • Describe the current structure of catchment management at the Federal and State Government level, with examples from NSW, Queensland, Victoria, WA and the Murray-Darling Basin; and
  • Give examples of catchment management in action using case studies that exemplify the ideals of catchment management, and its impact on soil, salinity, biodiversity and vegetation condition.

Topic 14: Property Planning

Property planning allows farmers to use farm financial information to develop management systems that utilise their natural resource base in a sustainable way to achieve their long-term personal goals.

On completing this topic, students will be able to:

  • Understand strategic planning and farm management processes;
  • Use economic principles to show that sustainability and profit, income and production maximisation are achieved sequentially;
  • Understand the concept of Behavioural Agriculture and the importance of personal characteristics of farm managers in determining farm performance;
  • Develop financial and natural resource budgets to determine optimal farm production • Assess enterprise and natural resource performance objectively;
  • Develop a physical property plan that achieves personal, financial and natural resource goals in the most effective way; and
  • Monitor the impacts of management change on key farm goals.

Topic 15: Measure/Monitor/Benchmark

While Measuring, Monitoring and Benchmarking can be important processes on farm, they must be seen as only one component of the complex mixture that goes into farm decision making. Farms are complex businesses and it’s easy to invoke the old saying ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. In this topic, we examine the concepts behind measurement, monitoring and benchmarking; some of the motivations involved; review some examples; and finally, examine the discrepancy between what we as technical experts think should be monitored, measured and benchmarked on farms, and what actually happens.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Explain the differences between measurement, monitoring and benchmarking;
  • Discuss the reasons why farmers might measure, monitor or benchmark to improve their sustainability;
  • Nominate key indicators of financial, social and environmental sustainability;
  • Access examples of benchmarking in the wool industry;
  • Reconcile the differences between what experts think farmers should measure, monitor and benchmark, and what actually happens on most farms; and
  • Utilise a simple planning process that can combine formal and informal information to assist key farm decisions.

Topic 16: Triple Bottom Line Approaches and Timescale

In this topic the main components that could influence the sustainability of grazing systems will be considered along with consideration of how they could interact and then what might be useful management solutions. Management solutions using a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) approach should mean that more comprehensive information is available and the resultant decisions are more robust. However, part of the objective of this topic is to consider if that is the case.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of the triple bottom line;
  • Discuss the current state of development of triple bottom line analyses;
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of triple bottom lines to sustainability; and
  • Access and use examples of triple bottom line reporting of sustainable grazing systems.

Topic 17: Managing Grazing Systems Sustainably

In this topic we will consider a broader vision for sustainable grazing systems and explore how common management criteria can be used to manage production, ecosystems and the environment. The relationship of animal and ecosystem needs to people management will also be discussed.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand the general concepts for managing grazing systems sustainably;
  • Discuss the linkages between components of grazed ecosystems;
  • Demonstrate how multiple management objectives can be implemented through a few management criteria; and
  • Discuss how sustainability and production goals can align to achieve win-win outcomes.

Topic 18: Case Study A – Northern Tablelands of New South Wales

The objectives of this case study are to briefly review the Northern Tablelands environment and farm structures before analysing the key sustainability issues facing the region’s graziers. The topic concludes by looking at what the future holds for Northern Tablelands graziers.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe in broad terms the biophysical environment of the Northern Tablelands and the structure of the main farming enterprises;
  • Understand the biophysical controls and the potential influence of management on pasture production;
  • Appreciate the diverse range of socio-economic and biophysical sustainability issues confronting New England graziers; and
  • Discuss some of the opportunities and hazards that the future holds for the region’s primary producers.

Topic 19: Case Study B – Southern Western Australia

The southern aspect of Western Australia was largely cleared of perennial native vegetation, mostly forests, from early in the 1900s until 1980. At that time a generalised ban on clearing was implemented, after which any removal of native vegetation was strictly controlled under permit.

The changes in soil characteristics and soil hydrology associated with this change in vegetation have progressed to the extent that many of the farming systems and practices in common use are now considered unsustainable. The ability of land to permit plant growth has been severely compromised over wide areas of the state, and the profitability of agriculture considerably reduced. Not only farmland is affected, but also native vegetation and urban areas.

Many of the specific causes of problems are now well understood; much of past practice was perpetuated in ignorance. The current state of knowledge and awareness is such, however, that remediation is possible, and certainly continued farming will depend upon changes in many areas.

In this topic a case study for a farm in the ‘South Central’ zone is presented.

At the end you should understand:

  • The reasons for land degradation in the south-west of WA;
  • The major problems confronting farming businesses;
  • Indicators to measure and monitor soil, pasture and farm attributes; and
  • Remedial techniques offering a best bet at this stage to be put into practice.

Topic 20: Case Study C – Northern Wheat/Sheep Belt

Australia’s wheat/sheep belt encompasses the country’s most productive agricultural land, with major agricultural practices ranging from grazing of sheep and cattle on native or improved pastures, to dryland and irrigated cropping. It stretches in a broad band from the south-east of South Australia, inland of the Great Divide to south-east Queensland. The wheat/sheep belt coincides largely with the eastern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, which supports the relatively fertile soils of the region. Because of the large area covered by the wheat/sheep belt, the agricultural practices and major sustainability issues vary throughout the region, most notably from north to south.

This case study will focus on the part of the wheat-sheep belt that lies to the north of Coonabarabran, New South Wales, and extends into south-east Queensland. This area is termed the northern wheat/sheep belt.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Identify the major climatic, soil and vegetation characteristics that distinguish the northern wheat/sheep belt from other agricultural zones;
  • Contrast the major agricultural activities in the northern wheat/sheep belt with those of other Australian agricultural regions;
  • Recognise the major land degradation issues faced by northern wheat/sheep belt farmers and discuss potential solutions; and
  • Compare the agricultural practices and sustainability issues of two case study farms in the northern wheat/sheep belt.

Topic 21: Case Study D – Southern Wheat/Sheep Belt

This topic focuses on the southern wheat/sheep belt, which runs through the Murrumbidgee Catchment Area (MCA). The MCA covers from Cooma in the east, Balranald in the west, Temora in the north and Henty in the south. It includes the major centres of Wagga Wagga, Canberra, Hay, Griffith and Yass, as well as many smaller towns and villages.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the techniques used in the case studies to apply sustainable practices at a catchment level;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the techniques used in the case studies to apply sustainable practices during drought; and
  • Discuss relevant literature relating to sustainability issues in the Southern Wheat/Sheep Belt.

Topic 22: Case Study E – Rangelands

The rangelands of Australia cover over 75% of the continent, and include a variety of ecosystems such as tropical savannas, woodlands, shrublands and grasslands; 53 of Australia’s 85 bioregions include rangelands. The rangelands extend across the low and variable climatic zones of the continent characterised by high year to year variability in rainfall and land use is dominated by extensive grazing of native pastures with little broadscale cropping or cultivation undertaken. High rainfall variability produces, in turn, high variability in plant growth, provision of nutrition for herbivores, and the capacity to undertake necessary land management actions such as fire management.

The rangelands are a strong element in Australian culture, historical discourse, social imagery, and social history, and have significant cultural and heritage value, for both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. The rangelands also support diverse cultural and social structures at the individual and community level, as well as a diverse range of business and economic interests’.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Show an understanding of the complexity of rangelands;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the link between land condition and productivity in the rangelands; and
  • Understand issues beyond property boundaries that affect managers of rangelands.

Topic 23: Contemporary Global Issues and Future Directions for Australian Agriculture

Australian agriculture will need to adapt rapidly to the pressures of global and national changes, which are predicted for this century. These include climate change, global population increase and its attendant poverty, competition for markets, profitability, our problem of distance from international markets and the need to stabilise or even to enhance our national environmental resources.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Report the background to the Kyoto protocol, list the major emissions from agriculture and note the likely future need for farm enterprise flexibility;
  • Outline the ongoing tension between the projected increase in the human population, growth in agriculture and environmental constraints;
  • Discuss likely needs and benefits from changes in farm design, which also minimise off-farm environmental damage;
  • Outline some examples of precision agriculture, its underlying technology and its economic and environmental benefits;
  • Review current and potential future genetic advances in livestock production;
  • Describe the past and the likely future for the Australian wool industry; and
  • Show an understanding of the globalisation of trade and the work of the WTO.

Topic 24: Overview

This topic summarises all topics covered in the Sustainable Agriculture and Catchment Management unit. It covers the sustainability issues challenging Australian farms especially across southern and eastern Australia.