Caring for their land

Marianne Sawyer with Gemma and Sassy.

PRECEDE: Ron and Marianne Sawyer transformed a run-down 27-acre former rose farm into a model for sustainable farming.
They showed CASEY NEILL around the Macclesfield property, now home to horses and lowline cattle.

QUOTE: “When you get compaction you get mud, and when you get mud you get runoff and siltation and sedimentation going into the dam, clogging up the waterway. It’s all very interconnected.”

“We’ve got a combination of native vegetation, grass and livestock – all in the same location but one’s protected from the other.
“The environment benefits but the stock benefits as well from the way we run the farm,” Marianne Sawyer said.
She and husband Ron operate Rose Hill Lowline Stud in Macclesfield with an environmental focus.
“We’ve only got one planet,” Ron said.
“When we bought this property it had previously been a rose farm.
“In the steeper areas there’d been quite a lot of erosion.
“One of the things that we’ve been working on is trying to rebuild the soil, particularly on the slopes.
“One of the things we’re quite proud of is the way we look after our water.
“We’re on Woori Yallock Creek and it’s one of the priority areas for Melbourne Water to clean up the Yarra.
“There’s a lot of agriculture along Woori Yallock Creek.”
Ron pointed out a pristine dam, surrounded by vegetation and with a glassy surface.
“When we bought the place, the stock used to drink out of the dam here,” he said.
“The dam was brown, opaque…
“We put a fence around it to keep the stock out and we revegetated to try and reduce evaporation.
“The water in the dam used to drop by over a metre just through evaporation.
“By planting some trees around the top edge we give it a bit more shade, and it also helps to filter the water as it runs in.
“And the trees reduce the wind across the dam.”
They have three dams.
“They’ve been treated in different ways,” he said.
“The water quality of the two where we keep the stock out is so much better than the water quality in the one where the stock goes in.
“We’ve done a couple of Landcare workshops.
“We take people down to this dam here, show them the water quality here, and then we show them the bottom dam where the cows walk in and they’re amazed at the water quality.”
Melbourne Water helped with the fencing and revegetation, Marianne said.
“Melbourne Water have been very supportive of some of the projects that we’ve tried to implement to protect the waterways,” she said.
“Any of our land-management projects that we’ve had, if any of them improve water quality or have the objective of improving water quality of our dams or the creek, we’ve approached them because we know they provide some really good grants for landowners for these things.”
She said even aerating soil had a positive impact on water quality.
“The soil gets really compacted with the animals on it, because the horses are really hard on the land because they’re heavy and they’re hooved. The same with the cows,” she said.
“When you get compaction you get mud, and when you get mud you get runoff and siltation and sedimentation going into the dam, clogging up the waterway.
“It’s all very interconnected.”
The wider environment benefits from the way the Sawyers organise their paddocks and move their stock.
The two horses, Gemma and Sassy, were in a gravelled area but Ron explained that they could also access paddock area.
“We’ve got electric fences that we use to break it into smaller paddocks,” he said.
“In the springtime we break it into quite small paddocks.
“In the winter we’ll probably have that as two, and the animals will spend a lot more time in here and they’ll eat more hay.
“We’ve done a few courses through Landcare on managing the soil and we’re following some of the recipes they’ve given us.
“The paddocks have a good rest without being stomped on.
“They’ll typically have six-weeks’ rest without any stock.
“At the moment we’ve got the horses on this side and the cows on the other side.
“This used to get very muddy so we put this stone surface on so that it doesn’t get muddy.
“When horses are standing in mud most of the day they get all sorts of health problems – they get cracked feet and they get ulcers and they get mud fever and fungus infections.”
Ron said that through this equicentral method they could rotate horses first, cows second, or cows first, horses second, or run them separately.
“The past few months we’ve had the horses on this side and the cows on that side, and the horses have rotated around here and the cows have rotated over there,” he said.
“Cross-grazing is a concept where two types of stock are rotated over the same pasture in quick succession, providing a tool to help manage the amount of feed available to stock.”
The Sawyers already had horses – they were a big reason for their move to Macclesfield.
“When we got married we were down in Caulfield and Marianne grew up in Monbulk, so shortly after we got married we moved to Upper Beaconsfield,” Ron said.
“We had an acre and a half in Upper Beaconsfield, which is big by urban standards, but once the kids developed an interest in horses it just wasn’t enough.
“We bought some horses and had them agisted less than a kilometre from where we were living, but it was such a pain every day – twice a day – we had to drive the kids down to the horses so they could do their stuff.
“When we bought this property it was so good for the kids to go out and do stuff with the horses and if they needed some help, they could shout.”
So Ron and Marianne looked into which animal would best share their pastures with the horses.
They learnt sheep preferred short grass and needed different fences, goats would be great for the blackberries but needed different fences, and alpacas also liked short grass.
They came to cows.
“The cows will eat different grasses and weeds to the horses,” Marianne said.
“If you put the horses in a paddock first, they’re very particular about what they eat.
“When you put the cows in after them, they will then eat some of those patches of messy weeds that the horses didn’t eat, so they tidy the paddock up really well and it means everything’s grazed down to the same level.
“Horses and cows don’t share the same parasites.
“You can have a horse grazing among the cow pats and they won’t pick up their parasites.
“The horses won’t graze grass that’s close to horse poo, but they will graze grass around cow poo.
“You get more total production off your pasture if you’ve got two different types of animals eating it because they’ve got two different palates.”
They settled on lowlines, a miniaturised angus.
“They’re just naturally placid. I think it makes them a really good animal to have on small farms,” Ron said.
“We were quite nervous about having cattle when we first got them.
“We weren’t confident about managing full-grown cattle.
“Having a tonne walking around a paddock … a horse at 700 kilos is enough, but having a tonne pushing you around a yard, it was a bit of a concern.
“But going for the lowlines where the girls are carrying 400kg … ”
Ron said they were about 60 per cent of the size of angus cattle and ate less than the larger beasts, but converted grass into beef at the same rate.
They have six female lowlines and hope to welcome a few more to the herd in October.
“With quite a few other lowline breeders in the area, it’s quite easy to get a good-quality bull,” Ron said.
“There’s five in Macclesfield, two in Yellingbo, one in Seville, one in Nar Nar Goon North, quite a big one in Lang Lang, a couple down on the peninsula.
“When they all have their calves we normally go up to something like 12 for a short time.
“Then we need to work out which we’re going to keep and which we’ll move on.
“We sell them for meat. We eat some ourselves.
“But we also sell them to people who want to do cross-grazing.
“My expectation is that we’ll sell off a couple of cow and calf combinations to somebody else that wants to do some cross-grazing.”
Ron said they were eagerly waiting to find out how successful the bull’s visit had been.
“We could pay to get a vet in, but one of the things about being a hobby farmer is everything costs money,” he said.
Marianne said: “And it doesn’t really matter for us because we’re not relying on them for an income.”
“It’s a bit of passive income when we do sell them, but we’re not relying on it.”
The paddock where the cows are spending the day is surrounded by bushland and filled with bright-green grass.
“This is an area that was extremely degraded when we came in,” Ron said.
“We’re trying to improve the soil by feeding hay out around the place.
“You can see where I fed hay out last winter we’re starting to get some grass.”
There are several towering pines in the centre of the paddock, which Ron recently poisoned.
“We had quite a lot of weeds on the property when we moved in,” he said.
“We’ve got rid of the Patterson’s curse. We’re on top of the ragwort and the blackberry.
“We’ve still got a bit of Spanish heath to work on.
“Now we’re turning to the bigger ones like the pines.”
He said they’d grown from seeds that spread through the bush from a few planted on an old farm 100 years ago.
“We’ve now got three generations of pines in there and they’re displacing the natives,” he said.
“It’s becoming almost a monoculture of pine trees.
“What was really pristine bush is now becoming degraded.
“The Landcare group and the fire brigade have got a project where they’re working on that area to restore.
“The pines will be burnt in a combination of fuel reduction burning and ecological burning.”
Ron and Marianne did a number of courses and workshops though groups such as Landcare and the Australian Lowline Cattle Association (ALCA).
They now share what they’ve learnt with others.
The Yarra Valley Equestrian Landcare group recently conducted a full-day workshop at Rose Hill Lowline Stud.
They also involve their neighbours – including a Scout camp – in various projects.
“When we’re doing something we let them know what we’re doing,” Ron said.
“If we’re getting a contractor in they’ll say ‘do ours, too’.
“We’ll have a bigger impact together.”
The Scout camp has become a haven for native wildlife, Ron said.
“All our perimeter fences are post and wire fences so the kangaroos and wombats can come and go as they please,” he said.
“They come across to our place to eat our pasture.
“That’s living in Australia.”
The Sawyers have provided more space for the wildlife to flourish by supporting a frog pond and fern gully.
“We’ve fenced this out so we can revegetate along the gully,” Ron said.
“It’s a sensitive waterway.
“It was mined in the 1850s, for gold.
“They found a little bit here and they made quite a mess.”
The area was popular for gold miners before word arrived that Bendigo and Ballarat were the places to be, Ron said.
Marianne laughed: “When Ron heard about it he went out and got his miner’s licence, because unless you’ve got one of them you can’t stake a claim.”
Ron said he struck a layer of quartz in the vegie patch one day: “I did rush out and buy a miner’s licence before I finished digging the hole.”
Marianne said the frog pond was a naturally fed spring.
“They used to pump the water out of this dam to supply the plants,” she said.
“In the wintertime there’s so many frogs down here, it’s just really nice.”
Our final stop was where the property met Woori Yallock Creek.
“It is really beautiful down here,” Ron said.
And the Sawyers plan to keep it that way.
“There’s a dedicated area along the creek that we’re protecting,” Marianne said.

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