Matthew Pitt

Farm: 'Cluny'

Region: Hamilton, Tasmania

Commodity: Beef

Farming area: 70 hectares

Rainfall: 400 mm average per year

Email: matthew@clunyfarm.com.au

Twitter: @MatthewPitt2

Phone: 0419 628 230

 

The view I’ve taken to grazing is that we don’t need to spend any money on re-sowing paddocks. All we need is a little bit of patience.

 Matthew Pitt portrait

 

Hear what Matthew has to say about:

Kelpie logo Watch: The urgency of managing and mitigating climate variability

 

Promoting sustainable agriculture

I’ve been farming in Tasmania for over 3 decades now, and my interest in sustainable agriculture has grown steadily over that time. These days my focus is largely on promoting sustainable practices to other Tasmanian farmers.

I was President of Landcare Tasmania for 5 years and am now Acting Executive Officer. Part of what we’re doing at Landcare is trying to build a better relationship with the regional NRM bodies. 

As part of this we’ve been working with NRM South to set up, manage and organise grazing programs, particularly for people who have come onto blocks of ground and need a hand. 

This may involve me running cattle or other stock there myself, or I may provide advice and point them in the right direction, and then go back and make sure it’s going as it should be. 

I’m constantly getting calls from people to go and look at their land, to start looking after the native grasses or just get some good pastures going. 

I was invited to become part of an organisation called Climate Tasmania because of the things I do. Our aim there is to deliver commentary, maybe advocate for better practices in climate change, and analyse what government and local governments are doing. 

With my history in agriculture, building on a lifetime of on-farm experience, I bring a practical side to this work, and can hopefully balance the argument there. 

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Showing people how to make grazing profitable

Part of my career shift towards a more advisory role, has been the recent sale [2015] of my property, ‘Cluny’ in southern Tasmania. 

Cluny, which sits between Hamilton and the Derwent Valley, had been in my family since the early 20th Century—I grew up on the property and farmed it for about 30 years.

It used to be a grazing enterprise—beef and wool, with some prime lambs—but over the years that changed. 

In recent decades we farmed essential oils such as fennel and lavender, and we had a farm contracting business, where we’d do direct drilling of crops.

Direct drilling is a one-pass operation where you’re only opening up a small furrow; so you get minimum disturbance to the soil, and it saves the soil structure. You don’t get so many weeds being a problem, you can reduce the amount of chemicals you need to use, it saves you money in the end, and it’s better for the environment. 

But the contracting business wasn’t viable. I couldn’t sustain it because I didn’t have enough capital behind me to wait for people to catch on. You still see people around here burning stubbles and ploughing them in—all the things that reduce your soil carbon, your organic matter, and just waste money really. 

Now I’ve sold the property my primary focus is to try to prove what I’ve been talking about all this time—I want to run the stocking side of things for people, show them what they can do with their grazing, and how to be profitable. 

Matthew Pitt Derwent River

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Seeing changes in when the rain falls 

Cluny relies more on irrigation than natural rainfall. The Derwent River, which flows alongside the property, is a great source of water for irrigation.

The only impediment to pumping the water out of the river is the need to have a licence, which is relatively cheap. The main cost is the energy getting the water from the river. Cluny has a 150-megalitre licence. 

In the last couple of years, the area has had about 400 mm of rain [a year], a little bit more than the previous decade. But it’s when the rain falls that has become the problem. 

Normally we’d have a winter/spring-dominated rainfall, but this is starting to change. We seem to get more summer rainfall than we used to, which impacts on our farming practices.

In 2014 we had a really good spring, a relatively normal summer, and then an autumn break which was fantastic. We don’t normally get autumn breaks.

Then, we had an unexpectedly early winter, a dry for three months, and unexpected rain in December/January. With our normal dry summers, we don’t get much use from rainfall if it does happen—it can generate a break but there’s no follow-up.

These are the changes we’re starting to see. 

I believe tree clearing has had a big impact on how and where the rain falls. 

30 years ago, you’d be out driving your tractor without a cab on it and you’d watch the clouds coming in over the hills and you’d say to yourself, “I’m going to get wet sometime today”, and you would. 

Today, the same clouds are there, but there’s no rain. We don’t get the same rainfall we used to. 

We’re getting more of these localised streams of rain coming through, whereas in the past it used to be reasonably broad. 

Nowadays it can be raining at Cluny while Hamilton will get nothing. You’ll go across the lake and it’ll be dry as a bone. The further east you go, the lower the rainfall. Five kilometres away, average annual rainfall could be 250 mm less.

We’re not all getting wet at the same time like we used to.

Matthew Pitt paddock

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Giving pastures a rest

Rest periods for plants are the most important guiding principle I use in creating sustainable pasture management. The plants can dictate when they can be grazed and when they need to be left alone.

Where my cattle are running at the moment, the grasses have been well over-grazed for a lot of years and there’s a lot of ‘rubbish’ grass species in there. I’ve only just started really grazing it. 

The view I’ve taken to grazing is that we don’t need to spend any money on re-sowing paddocks. All we need is a little bit of patience. In some instances, we’re only talking about maybe 12 months; in bad cases it might be 2 years. But that’s not really that long in agriculture. Too often we just rush about everything, as if everything’s got to happen tomorrow.

I recommend a rotational grazing system where stock are moved around and not sitting in one place overgrazing the paddock.

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Maintaining good ground cover with less chemicals

One of the changes we’ve really got to start looking at is getting out of the monocultures and trying to become more integrated in what we’re growing, so that the need to have chemicals in the system will go away.

I’m not advocating by any means that you should get rid of all chemicals in a system, because I think there’s some very good technology out there that organics prevents you from using. As long as you can minimise all the nasties as much as you possibly can. 

If you’ve got complementary plants in the paddock, that will bring in the insects that’ll look after the bugs you don’t want, and you’ll be getting adequate ground cover so that weeds can’t get a look in. If you can maintain good ground cover, you won’t get weeds. 

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Treating the dry times as normal and the wet times as a bonus 

Because of the demands on food production and the economics of trying to run the farms, farmers are pushing production a lot harder than we had to do 30 or 40 years ago. 

But we need to change our management practices to meet the climate; to treat the dry times as a normal occurrence, and the wet times as a bonus. 

Finances are obviously a problem but we have to help farmers manage susceptible and sensitive pastures so they can still sustainably produce and make a profit from them.

I encourage farmers towards a middle ground, being realistic, which is doing the right thing by your country within the boundaries of what your business allows you to do.

That’s the other part of agriculture—I think people have to plan how they’re going to run their farms and stick to it. Don’t be greedy; just maintain things the way you’ve set them up and have a good, sustainable system on your farm. 

 

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Using new technology and tools to do things differently

There are also more technology and tools available to us now. We have equipment to irrigate, spray and fertilise exactly how we want to. 

If we need to, we can look at our paddocks from above and work out where we want to get to.

But I’ve come to the realisation that we seem to be using it to maintain current practices, when we could be using it in a much different way. I don’t think we’re using it to our best advantage.

We should be able to use these tools and technologies to get away from a monoculture system, to a more biodiverse system and with complementary insects. 

The same goes for our livestock management. We’re mostly making practices marginally better with these tools, but not a whole lot better. 

We can still move towards getting productivity in place and be profitable.

Grain farmers on the mainland, for example, are doing an amazing job of this because they have to [with very low rainfall].

And just because there are tools out there that allow us to make quick decisions, it doesn’t mean we should use them if it’s to the detriment of the practice of the farm.

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Making decisions based on weather forecasts and climate outlooks

I use the Bureau of Meteorology website to guide me. I’ve got apps on my phone, such as CliMate, but I use the Bureau website for everyday weather. I tend to keep to what I’m comfortable with and what’s usually pretty accurate. Certainly the 7-day forecast is getting a lot better than it ever used to be. 

When I was doing contracting work, the weather forecasts were pretty critical for me daily, or a couple of days ahead, because I had to try and work out what I could do, and when I could do it. I was always using forecasts, and was usually on the BoM radar as well trying to see where the rain was. 

With grazing, you shouldn’t make decisions based on what’s going to happen long term, which is maybe 6 to 12 months, because some of the changes can be more short term. You might only need to be out a maximum of 3 months to know:

  • whether you have enough grass or not
  • what you should buy or not buy
  • whether you need to sell and not buy in again
  • when your cattle are ready to go; or
  • when you’ll replace them. 

At one of the previous MCV Climate Champion workshops, the Bureau staff were talking about the accuracy of their El Niño forecasts.

When I came home and talked to the guys around the place here about it, a lot of them weren’t aware that, when the El Niño is building up, the accuracy of forecasts is very low and, once the El Niño has arrived, the accuracy rises. 

So anyone who’s trying to use forecasts to make decisions without being aware of the accuracy factor could be making decisions based on erroneous information. 

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Learning from other farmers

The former MCV Climate Champion program, along with everything else I do, is part of the whole box and dice—all these things add to my own credibility. 

Having grown up and lived among farmers all my life, it’s taken me a little while to change my view in some respects, and to also work out a way to be able to influence other farmers. The program offered me that opportunity to gain more information and inside knowledge. 

Considering what I’ve been wanting to do, or have tried to introduce, the program reinforced the fact that I’m on the right track with it all. 

We got to see how other farmers do things and that exposure [through the program] was really good. 

I’m always amazed at how little rainfall a lot of grain growers on the mainland manage to grow a crop on. Our water-conserving practices are not anywhere as good as theirs. 

And it doesn’t matter where you are, or whether it’s a totally different climate—there are aspects and techniques of what is done elsewhere that you can possibly employ for yourself. That’s why I think this program has offered a lot, because you get to see the things other people have that can help you to make life easier or better.

That’s what I was trying to do with my contracting business—showing people what they could do with the machinery I had, as opposed to just talking about it. 

If you can demonstrate something and prove it, they’re more likely to go with it. If I’m talking to other farmers I try to bring the conversation around to their operations or how climate is impacting that. 

Although a lot of people pay lip service to climate change and climate action, you’ve only got to look at their operations to see they’re not actually living it. 

But trying to get change is a pretty long and tedious process; it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. So if you haven’t got any patience or you expect it to happen tomorrow, you better go find something else to do. 

The climate is in a cycle, a long cycle, but we’ve exacerbated the issues by our actions in this world. What we’re getting now is the extremes that probably weren’t quite so evident in the past, and that’s what we’ve got to be aware of and try and work out how to mitigate likely issues with those harsher extremes.

 

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Interview dates: 15 November 2010 and February 2015

 

Contact Matthew Pitt

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