Why Pasture Cropping is Such a Big Deal

Pasture cropped oats growing in symbiosis with
native perennial pastures at Col Seis’s farm

Grain cropping is something that, for the vast majority of us, is someone else’s problem. We just eat the results; certainly every day, and nearly with every meal. Bread, rice, corn, soy, beans and so on. Produced somewhere out there, by someone else.

So a portion of our every single meal is coming from a grain crop, somewhere way out west. We wish it were grown organically, and in a way that doesn’t destroy too much of our topsoil. But we’ll eat it regardless of the farming practices, really. It’s in our diet. It’s what we do.

Tilling the soil, ready for planting. See ya later, soil food web

Normal cropping, even organic cropping, turns the soil over and lays it bare in the process of planting the grain. If you know anything about soil biology, carbon farming or even just permaculture, you’d know that destroying soil structure and leaving it bare is non-ideal, as far as the soil food web is concerned. Especially when done on an industrial scale.

So scope out and imagine, just for a second, all the soil in Australia that it takes to grow all the wheat and the spelt and the corn and the buckwheat and the whatever else you like in your bread or your muesli, for all the people in Australia. Add to that grain for animal feed, and all the other crops we produce. That’s a lot of bare soil. And most fields are cropped multiple times a year. That’s a lot, times two.

Dust storm in South Australia, 2009.
Thousands of years of topsoil, up, up and away…

We’re all familiar with the figures concerning loss of topsoil, I’m sure: "a University of Sydney study found recently that soil is being lost in China 57 times faster than it can be replaced through natural processes; in Europe the figure is 17 times, in America 10 times while 5 times as much soil is being lost in Australia as can be replaced naturally."

So we’re in front of America! Or at least not losing our topsoil at the fastest rate on earth? Well, no. Australia’s ancient landscape does not have the reserves of topsoil that other continents do. We’re actually in far deeper trouble than other continents….

Topsoil is the soil layer that is alive, or capable of being alive. It is humus, the bodies of dead soil life, and it is the living sponge that has the ability to feed our species by nurturing plants to produce food for us. Without topsoil, it’s all bad. Why this subject doesn’t come up in more tragic ballads is beyond me.

So you would think it would be logical if our mainstream agriculture, and our grain cropping in particular, were trying to move towards a model that retains topsoil. Or a model that maybe even creates topsoil! But you would be wrong. No such luck. Not yet.

Darren Doherty and Col Seis discussing pasture cropping
in Col’s pasture cropped oat field

Enter an extraordinary yet ordinary 4th generation farmer from Goolma, just the other side of Mudgee from Milkwood Farm: Colin Seis.

Col Seis has been ‘doing thing a bit differently’ on his farm ‘Winona’ for decades. About 15 years ago he started fiddling with an idea he had called pasture cropping – sowing crops directly into pasture, without first tilling the soil and turning it over.

Harvesting pasture-cropped oats at Winona. You can see the green of the
perennial pasture in between the brown of the oat stalks.
Now this is groundcover!

Pasture cropping relies on many factors to work, including timing and good forethought, but in a nutshell it allows cereal crops to be sown directly into perennial native pastures and have them grow in symbiosis with the pasture, for the benefit of both the pasture, and the crop.

This process has the effect of producing a very respectable yield from a field (as good, if not better, than conventional cropping, in terms of profit to the farmer), while retaining perennial pasture (which is also a big deal). And, perhaps even more importantly, pasture cropping preserves the soil structure, builds biomass and results in no loss of topsoil. An unheard-of approach to cropping within modern agriculture.

Pasture cropped oats growing in symbiosis with native perennial pastures

Which is why pasture cropping is such a big deal.

But there’s more to it than just cropping. Introduce some herbivores to that same paddock, after the crop has been harvested, and the nutrient cycle really starts to get interesting. By using Holistic Management techniques of herbivores like cattle or sheep, the biomass and available nutrients of that pasture builds even faster. Which means the topsoil, in turn, also builds at a rapid rate.

Pasture cropped oats and Goolma spring skies

Anything that actually builds topsoil (and there’s not many agricultural systems that do) is sequestering carbon. Meaning pasture cropping is, on top of everything else, a carbon sink technique. Which is in marked contrast to agriculture as we know it.

So, to summarize hugely on what is a complex and exciting subject; pasture cropping builds topsoil while simultaneously producing a grain crop, improving a perennial pasture and also feeding up some livestock and sequestering carbon while the system is at it. Not bad for one paddock!

Darren examines some of the native perennial pastures beneath the oat crop

It’s estimated that there are now thousands of farmers across Australia and beyond either trialling or doing pasture cropping, as the results and benefits speak for themselves.

Warrigo grass – a native perennial harvested at Col Seis’s place as seed stock

for other farms wishing to build perennial pastures

More reading and resources: