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Published: 10 Feb 2023

Greenhams’ far manager Aiden Coombe is Circular Head born and bred. The region includes some of Tasmania’s most productive farming properties and Circular Head is well known for its reliable rainfall and fertile green pastures

The area supports more than half of the state’s dairy industry output, which is about $350m annually.

Beef is also another major industry in Circular Head, and Mr Coombe, along with four staff, manages Westmore, a 3,400ha grazing property owned by Greenhams.

“I’ve been with the company for nearly nine years, and this is my fourth year managing Westmore,” Aiden said.

Mr Coombe said he developed a passion for livestock and the land by joining, his father Gavin - a livestock agent – at every opportunity he could growing up. Seeing so many farms presented Aiden with an insight into of how different management styles achieve different results.

Next week, Mr Coombe will host a Nexus Biochar Workshop at Westmore on February 15.

It follows Mr Coombe’s involvement with the research by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) and is the final of three workshops held across the state since November 2022.

The project, funded by Meat and Livestock Australia and delivered by TIA, is exploring profitable, sustainable livestock businesses in an increasingly variable climate, with this stage of the work focusing on involve and partner activities with industry stakeholders.

Westmore is working toward creating diversity in pasture and landscape to enhance the natural environment.

“Healthier soil means better ground cover and improved pasture quality,” Mr Coombe said.

“Westmore has gone into a non-synthetic stage of farming now, as far as fertilisers and sprays.

Mr Coombe is hoping the workshop will provide opportunities for other farmers and managers to gain an understanding of how soil works, what are the drivers of soil health, the benefits of healthy soil’s impact on cattle, pasture, and environmental health.

It is just trying to get that out there - that the soil is a living thing, not just what grass sits on.

TIA Social Research Fellow, Dr Nicoli Barnes is exploring the social issues that arise around climate change and livestock production in Tasmania.

“One of the most valuable things we are doing is working closely with our Tassie farmers,” Dr Barnes said.

“While we can provide them with information, it is their working knowledge that allows us to move forward with what we know.

“Aiden is passionate about what he does and has contributed a great deal of his own knowledge and curiosity into finding out how and why things work the way they do.”

Mr Coombe has seen improvements in both soil and animal health since he has been using biochar. Biochar has been used on Greenhams properties in the pit silage, while Aiden has been using it on his own farm in a dry granulated lick for the cattle.

And, after 12 months of the biochar protocol, Aiden is happy with the results, due to three observations: manure, animal health and meat quality.

“The faeces of the animal are a lot better consistency when they're on the char,” Aiden said.

“(The faeces are) a good yoghurt-type consistency, and when it dries off it has a dark purple look.

“They’re processing their food a lot better. If for whatever reason they don't have it for a few days and they go off it, you can really tell in their faeces - it's bubbling or it's runny.

“So, that's an observation that the gut must be processing that feed a lot better.

“And then visual livestock health - you can really see the difference in their coats and the way they lick themselves as well.

“At Westmore we’ve processed a lot of cattle last autumn in that period when we are feeding the char and our dark cutting percentage for the whole 12 months was only 2 and a half per cent.”

‘Dark Cutting' is a term used for meat that does not brighten when it is cut and exposed to air – which is preferred commercially.

“It really stems from the pH and the meat colour changes and the quality of the meat drastically decreases,” Aiden said.

“It's always to do with the stressors, whether it's heat stress, water stress, feed stress, temperament stress. it comes down to one of those stressors, but I think that adding the feed char has settled the cattle down in a lot of different ways.”

While the La Nina weather pattern has made the typically wetter and cooler far north-west warmer and drier in the past two seasons, Aiden said biochar use has also benefited the soil.

“Temperatures got a little bit higher in the last two years compared to what it generally has through the summer, so (climate) adaptation is more about making sure our soils are in the healthiest possible state they can be in,” Aiden said.

The biochar comes into its own around moisture soil retention and a place to house minerals as well as livestock health both directly and indirectly, benefiting the mycorrhizal fungi – the dung beetle, and the worms.

“So, for every 1 per cent of carbon you build in your soil you are able to store a heck of a lot more moisture, so that is where the key drive is for me - getting that soil in a position where it can retain so much more moisture and you have a healthy root system that can actually absorb that moisture when it needs it.”

Aiden is also noticing an increase in the number of pivots being built in the last two years.

“There are pivots going up everywhere and I wonder have we exhausted every resource we've got as far as our soil health before we start putting money into infrastructure, water, and power and all those things? And I don’t think we have.

“Our soils are left unhealthy, and we are trying to put a band aid on it by spraying water.

“It's a passion of mine, soil, because it's a key driver in a lot of things, right up to human health.”

Source: This article was published in Tas Country on February 10, 2023