Salt land pastures can pay

Rob Welsh analyses salt land pastures
Rob Welsh, one of the DPI economists involved in a farm level analysis of salt land pastures.

A recent study by NSW Department of Primary Industries’ economists shows a farm business investment in sowing salt land pastures to combat salinity can provide a positive return.

It is further proof that farmland previously thought barren and unproductive due to the effects of salinity can contribute significantly to total farm income. If saline areas are left unmanaged there is a real risk of the continual spread of scald and salt affected areas on the farm, reducing productivity further and placing pressure on long-term business survival.

The study highlighted that not only does the salt land pasture allow more stock numbers to be carried on the saline areas, which is the main driver for returns, it also provides a valuable out of season feed source for the livestock enterprise during dry times.

This can reduce some supplementary feed costs and maintain satisfactory body weights and, in the case of sheep enterprises, wool quality. In addition, the study identified environmental benefits such as reduced soil erosion, improved water quality and enhanced biodiversity could be gained at relatively low cost where stock access was limited on saline areas instead of promoting full saline pastures for them to graze.

The up-front capital input is much lower where appropriate fencing and stock watering infrastructure is installed to suit a more selective grazing management system and pasture is allowed to colonise naturally from surrounding areas. However, without going the full saline pasture route, productivity is not as great and time required to rehabilitate affected areas is increased.

It is important to have a grazing system to manage pasture growth during good times to maximise feed benefits in the drier times. Left unmanaged, salt-tolerant pastures have the potential to become overgrown and unpalatable to stock during good seasons when feed is plentiful. Careful grazing management during these times will ensure feed quality is maintained for when it is needed most.

Barriers to the adoption of saline pastures included the large up-front capital outlay of establishing pasture, infrastructure requirements, the risk of complete or partial failure of the pasture and the significant lag time before full production was achieved. Producers also had to weigh up the additional cost of interest on borrowed funds or the opportunity cost of greater returns from applying funds to other uses.

Business equity and gearing ratio of the business would also influence producer decisions. Although outside the scope of the analysis, it is reasonable to conclude the environmental outcomes stemming from both the establishment of salt land pasture and the changes to grazing management on the saline areas of farms in the study have positive catchment-wide implications for land resources and water quality.

The farm level analysis by NSW DPI economists was undertaken for the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) program and used real case studies to come up with its findings.