From ‘No Hope In Heck’ To Regenerative No-Tilling

In the drylands of Southwestern Australia Ian and Dianne Haggerty are using the concepts of “Natural Intelligence Farming” to build a regenerative enterprise focused on zero tillage, livestock integration and biologically sourced inputs that boost their soil resources and profitability. Ian and Dianne Haggerty are using the concepts of “Natural Intelligence Farming” to build a regenerative enterprise focused on zero tillage, livestock integration and biologically sourced inputs that boost their soil resources and profitability.

Written by John Dobberstein, No-Till Farmer Magazine, USA

Married and both raised in farming families, Ian and Dianne Haggerty were shocked when they sought advice from a farm advisor on managing their fledgling operation in the drylands of southwestern Australia. After looking at their farm size and financial capital, the advisor told them they should get out of farming because they didn’t have “a hope in heck” of surviving. “Fortunately, Ian and I are both pretty stubborn customers and we just took that as a bit of a challenge,” Dianne says, lamenting that her father was a successful conventional farmer. “We didn’t have any room for error, so we had to start to look at things in a different way. At that point in time, using better and different types of machinery wasn’t going to be the answer.”

Rather than internalizing the advisor’s stinging advice, Ian and Dianne researched biological farming methods and have pushed through early challenges to grow their operation and take excess costs and waste out of the system. The Haggertys now no-till cereal grains and multispecies hay or fodder crops and raise specially bred sheep for wool and premium-grade fat lambs. Over time, their 1,600-acre operation has grown to nearly 65,000 acres as they’ve patched together leases and shares and some purchases later on. They’ve actually covered close to 185,000 acres in the country’s central wheatbelt, many parcels having different terrains, soils and rainfall zones.

They describe their approach to notilling as “Natural Intelligence Farming” — which means harnessing dynamic, natural relationships that exist between all the organisms in the ecosystem and the environment itself — particularly the soil. “Really, it’s minimizing our interference as humans,” Dianne told attendees of the No-till on the Plains Winter Conference in early 2020. “We don’t have to actually have an answer all the time. We trust the natural processes and just do our best to enable them to occur.”

Starting from Nothing

Their two main farming bases are at Mollerin and at Wyalkatchem, where the original farm is located. Precipitation is fleeting: During the 1990s, Dianne says, it wasn’t unusual to see 12-13 inches of rain annually, but lately precipitation has been 20-30% lower, equating to 8-9 inches of rain per annum, and at times as low as 5-6 inches. The Haggertys started farming in 1994 although they didn’t inherit any land, which is unusual in western Australia. They didn’t have any money for machinery at that point, but were able to buy about 300 breeding ewes and a piece of land. They borrowed machinery from Dianne’s parents in exchange for Ian doing some seasonal work.

After years of conventional farming, the Haggertys realized their farm was vulnerable to dry seasons. Input costs were steadily increasing without increases in productivity, and even though soil tests showed their soil had adequate nutrient levels, tissue tests showed nutrients weren’t getting to the plants. Hardpans in their soils were also restricting root growth. There are other challenges as well: Saline Soils. Many fields have had salinity issues that have impacted crop and livestock production. Poor Policy. In the early days of farming, the Australian government encouraged the clearing of large tracts of land for farm production. “Unfortunately, that’s had a really severe impact on the whole ecosystem and environment in western Australia,” Dianne says.

Low Organic Matter. In some of the farms they’ve taken on, the Haggertys have found paddocks with no cover at all and very low organic matter — at times as low as 0.15%.

But those challenges, Dianne notes, have taught them to pay attention to how different soil types respond to different cropping approaches and how the livestock in particular respond. “We realized pretty quickly that we had to be fairly resilient, not only in our thinking but also in how we set up our farms so that we could try and overcome a lot of the risks and the challenges,” she says. So they started researching biologically based farming systems to increase their soil’s microbial population, nutrient availability and moisture-holding capacity.

They gained a sense of direction when soil health expert Elaine Ingham and health professional Arden Anderson visited Perth — about 150 miles from their farm — for a 4-day workshop. Ingham emphasized nutrient cycling and water-holding capacity and rebuilding soil structure. Anderson talked about producing the highest quality food possible to restore human health for people in their food chain. They also learned about free-choice mineral systems and livestock integration from south Australian consultant Jane Slattery.

“There are lots of minerals livestock could go and access at their own choice. It wasn’t all premixed and they could select what was needed from different paddocks as required,” Dianne explains.  

“By doing that we’re able to stop drenching the animals and feeding any grain supplements to them, which has had a big impact. Free choice mineral supplements have not been required now since 2006, as epigenetic progress of self-replacing livestock, landscape management and microbiome development has enabled this.”

Making Changes

The Haggertys made a number of changes to their management that they believe contributed to economic and production success:

• Reducing Chemicals. One of biggest changes the Haggertys made was reducing their use of synthetic fertilizers and eliminating fungicides and insecticides. They turned to new technologies that allowed them to apply “worm juice” and compost extract as a way to fertilize crops and improve soil health.

In many cases crops between the two systems were similar but those fertilized with the all-natural products had different rhizosheath development.

• Integrating Livestock. Dianne says working with self-replacing livestock on the farm has made perhaps the most significant impact.

When grain is harvested, the stubble in their high-microbial environment provides nutritious grazing fodder for the sheep. The stubble is eventually trampled and broken down by fungi to add to the organic carbon in the soil. Sheep are shorn every 8 months and produce lambs at a rate between 90% and 150% per annum. By not using drenches or feeding grain to the animals and being able to provide a biodiverse food source for the diet, “the animals have been able to optimize their gut microbiome development and that has really contributed significantly to the farm progression,” Dianne says.  

“What we’ve been able to rely upon is that innate wisdom of those animals, that they know when their health is at a good level. They are able to then smell out those nutrients and things that they require in different plants and also through their learned behavior, if those plants are available. This opportunity for diverse self-selection enables the sheep to optimize conditions in their rumen for appropriate microbiome function. “Of course, if I’ve got a restricted diet with only grass and clover or something, they have only got a couple of choices so there’s not a lot of opportunity. But if they’ve got access to natural bushland or a lot of different plants integrated throughout their paddocks, then they can do that good balancing on their own.”

• Cover Crops. The Haggertys are currently seeding 5,000-7,000 acres per year of cover crops for hay or fodder, mostly in the fall and mainly a mix of cereal grains and a few legumes. Dianne says summer native actives are self-generating over large areas and are bulked up with volunteer pastures.

About 26-30 different species are being used over each year and some of the covers are being grazed.

• Self-Replacing Livestock. Having selfreplacing livestock has been key as well. Research has shown that a lamb inside its mother’s uterus actually receives a lot of information and feeding preferences can be picked up by the lamb before it’s even born, Dianne says.

For example, if the mother’s been eating saltbush or something like that while it’s pregnant, when the lamb is born it can actually tolerate those foodstuffs a lot better than a lamb that wasn’t. “The lamb alongside its mother can learn what plants are most suitable to eat as well. That capacity of having that mother/baby unit for progression is really integral.” 

Prior to reestablishing microbiome integrity in the sheep when they were still requiring drenching and receiving grain supplementation their manure piles were larger, but they’re now half to three-quarters the size with a more diverse feed source that includes native vegetation. Pasture quality is vastly more nutrient dense and diverse: it’s not uncommon to have brix levels in pasture plants at 15- 20 in winter and over 30 in early spring, she notes. And due to the higher-quality diet, the animals don’t have to graze as long or overeat to get what they need, meaning their energy requirements are lower, she says.

“Something else that we’ve noticed, even in our really hot, dry environments, is that over the winter/spring period the animals have become very water efficient,” Dianne says. “There’s been times in a winter and spring period where they haven’t gone to the water trough for 6 months. It shows that their digestive system is very water and food efficient.”

• Liquid Carbon. After working with Ingham in 2006, the Haggertys started with using vermi-liquid and composts in their farming system.

In the Ingham course, Dianne sat next to Rachelle Armstrong, whose father had set up a massive vermiculture farm and they sold a worm liquid concentrate which made it possible to make adoption of an injection system with the liquid a priority. They learned from Dr. Christine Jones the concept of providing a “liquid carbon pathway” so carbon could find its way deeper into the soil profile to help free up the soil’s productivity. Getting carbon established with residue mulch was proving tough due to the lack of rain and establishing ground cover.

“Christine talked a lot about the importance of that appropriate rhizosheath and that microbial bridge between the plant and the soil so that liquid carbon pathway could actually do something,” Dianne says.

They now use a combination of compost extract and worm liquid on foliar post-emergent following broadleaf herbicides if required, using 13 ounces an acre of worm liquid and up to 10 gallons an acre of compost extract. They also do use some plant foods with humics or fulvics at times, and may come back with a second foliar spray if there’s good yield potential, a higher rainfall year or some other restraint to plants identified. The liquids are not only applied at planting but as a foliar to assist crops with pushing roots into compacted acidic or saline soils. This is done, Dianne says, to boost microbial activity and micronutrient availability.  

The Haggertys have a compost extractor from Midwest Biosystems on their farm that creates the liquid. It used to produce about 1,000 liters every 20 minutes, or 20,000 liters in a day, but they could only apply 1-2 gallons an acre. But in 2019, Ian built a 5,800-gallon tank that allows them to apply 1,000 liters in one pass. The tank has a large impeller inside and hoses on the bottom that pumps air through the liquid. The Haggertys own a 60-foot John Deere disc seeder, 50-foot Morris Industries C2 Contour drill with knife points and a 70-foot Morris Quantum air drill with knife points. Both styles are needed as they often take on new land each year with varying conditions.

When it comes time to seed wheat or barley with their air seeder, seed goes into one tank and a trailing liquid cart carries compost extract and worm liquid. They apply the worm liquid sparsely at about 0.5 gallons per hectare to keep costs to a minimum. They also use a boom spray for foliar applications, setting it up with a flood jet system so the extract is applied without restrictions. They were able to apply about 475,000 gallons of compost extract and worm liquid across the crops in 2019, at a rate of 7 gallons per acre at seeding time with the air seeder. In 2020, they applied 660,000 gallons, followed by a 10-gallon-per-acre foliar application post emergence.

The cost to acquire and apply the worm juice and compost extract is about $12 per acre. In ideal rainfall years, Dianne says, the farm is likely to have less crop production than highly fertilized crops, but in drier years — which are 8 out of 10 years — they can often have higher production outcomes and always high-quality grains with high hectoliter weight, good protein and low screenings.

• Retaining Seeds. “Epigenetic progression” is a key part of their farming practice, which includes selfreplacing livestock and retaining seeds every year. Because they are saving varieties, Dianne says they don’t have to chase different varieties that come out “because the seeds we retained ourselves are just improving all the time as they go along.”

Dianne illustrated the difference in pictures that showed the behavior of their wheat seed compared to the neighbor’s, seeded at the same time with the same amount of rainfall.

The photos indicate the Haggertys seed showed a different behavior, as it started developing a root system and engaging soil microbes before it even surfaced to start photosynthesizing. The neighbor’s seed did put on roots but was “really wanting to get out and start photosynthesizing as much as possible,” Dianne says.

“I guess, to me, it just means that our retained seed has got perhaps more energy in it to be able to do more work before it ever needed to start relying upon photosynthesis to recharge its system.”

• Fighting Compaction, Salinity. Compaction might not seem like a big problem in an arid, dry environment, but Dianne says it’s a “massive issue” that they’ve had to contend with on new farms they’ve taken on, along with acid soils. 

Salinity is a problem particularly on land close to Lake Wallambin where salt picked up by wind is deposited on their land. They’ve planted lanes of saltbush and acacia in these areas. They use sheep to graze these areas and contribute to soil fertility through dung deposit. In the more saline areas they sometimes put out hay to attract the sheep and concentrate dung around the feeding point. Many Australian farmers are spending a lot of time and money applying gypsum or lime, or deep ripping on their land as a remedy, but Dianne says roots are able to deal with it without using mechanical systems.

She’s found that the root structure of wheat and oats, for example, are pushing through the acid subsoils and compacted layers. Tests of some new paddocks in the first year and 3-4 years later showed the soil had become five times less acidic without having to incur the considerable expense of applying lime. She notes some farmers 15-20 years ago were applying 1 ton per hectare but are now using 5-8 tons. This also translated into more carbon stored in the soil, Dianne says. As part of a national program to look at soil carbon changes around Australia, researchers tested the soil carbon to a meter and compared similar soil types under different management practices.

The researcher said he hadn’t seen any changes in carbon levels based on differing farm practices, only with different soil types. But after submitting samples, the Haggertys found they were still able to sequester — even with a continuous cereals rotation — a far greater level of carbon than their neighbor with the same soil type.

“What was really interesting was the carbon differences actually increased the deeper we went, so I really reflected what Christine had been saying about having a really good liquid carbon pathway,” Dianne says. “We had about 10 tons to the hectare extra carbon below these biologically managed crops, and there was actually more carbon under the crop than under a permanent pasture paddock, which you wouldn’t really expect.”

Tests also showed their soils were not only sequestering carbon but building nitrogen (N) stocks as well, as the associative N-fixing bacteria were doing their job. “Soil nitrogen levels in our continuous cereal program were higher than the neighbors’, which had included a legume phase in the previous two years. We’ve been able to grow crops with no nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium applied and that’s been happening for quite some time now.”

What is “Natural Intelligence Farming”?

It’s the term Ian and Dianne Haggerty use to describe the harnessing of the dynamic, natural relationships that exist between all the organisms in the ecosystem and the environment itself, particularly the soil. These relationships feature mutually beneficial interactions between the soil, plant seeds and roots, microorganisms, and the ruminants that feed on the plants and cycle manure and microbes back to the soil. Another definition coined for natural intelligence farming, Dianne says, is “integrating nature’s intuitive wisdom and biodiversity with food, fiber and beverage production.”

The key to natural intelligence farming is not to hinder or obstruct the interactions that support and inform these relationships. The Haggertys aim to facilitate natural intelligence with modern farming methods to create regenerative agricultural ecosystems that produce optimal food and fiber products.

MAKING IT WORK. A strategy of notill practices, livestock integration, cover crops and naturally sourced inputs has guided Ian and Dianne Haggerty as they’ve built a diversified 65,000- acre operation in southern Australia. Many parcels they have acquired were previously tilled and are located in different terrains, soils and rainfall zones.

NATURAL FIT. When seeding cereals, the Haggertys inject compost extract and worm liquid in one pass with the seed as a replacement for traditional fertilizers. Then they come back postemergence with a foliar spray of compost extract. Dianne says this setup seems to promote better production in drier years over conventional fertilizer, producing high-quality grains with good protein and low screenings.

COMING BACK. Ian and Dianne Haggerty say their dedication to no-till and “natural intelligence farming” has facilitated some major changes to their paddocks, including the return of native grasses, which provides a more diverse feedstock for their sheep.

DUAL PURPOSE LIVESTOCK. Sheep specifically bred for their wool, and premium-grade fat lambs, are key not only for the farm’s economic diversity, but for integration of microbes and nutrients throughout the Haggertys’ landscape, which spans tens of thousands of acres.