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Perenjori farmer, Phil Logue's unique approach to sheep and carbon farming

  • 1.  Perenjori farmer, Phil Logue's unique approach to sheep and carbon farming

    Posted 07-06-2023 10:17

    Perenjori farmer, Phil Logue's unique approach to sheep

    A new player in the agricultural game has its future set on sheep - just not in the market one would expect.

    Based near Perenjori and operating since 2021, Weelhamby has broken away from traditional sheep farming to demonstrate the viability of carbon farming in a low rainfall zone. 

    To achieve this, Weelhamby farm manager Phil Logue adopted new management practices across the entire 6000-hectare property.

    These practices include a three-year pasture to one-year cropping rotation, with pulse grazing of pastures by Merinos.

    If proven to work, the ambitious project could be a game changer for mixed farming enterprises, particularly those in dryland areas. 

    According to Mr Logue, carbon farming is bigger in regions with higher rainfall, such as the Great Southern. 

    That is because landholders in those areas have greater capacity and stocking rates to do so.

    "We would be looking at 1.5 per cent soil organic carbon matter, whereas they would be sitting at about 7-10pc," Mr Logue said.

    "We want to show people you can do it (increase carbon stored in soil and vegetation) in lower rainfall areas.

    "However, they need the value of livestock to underpin the long-term value." 

    Given the past three years have been full steam ahead at Weelhamby - and sheep are the carbon project's backbone - the Federal government's live export phase-out could not have come at a worse time.

    Despite not selling directly into the trade, Mr Logue said the farm would still be heavily affected should the ban go-ahead.

    This is because, without live export or another market alternative, there would be no value in trading sheep.

    A reflection of this is the current market, with an oversupply of lambs, meat processing sector logjam and fewer live export ships leaving Fremantle port.

    Last year, Mr Logue sold one-year-old lambs for $180 per head, compared to $60 per head last month.

    "Live export underpins the price of sheep and there isn't capacity within local abattoirs to process the number of lambs produced in WA," he said. 

    "At Weelhamby, we need sheep onfarm to run our carbon project, but we also need to be able to sell them.

    "If we overgraze, or aren't able to graze our paddocks properly, then we don't generate carbon."

    The uncertainty and stress Mr Logue is feeling now, is a far cry from the optimism and confidence of almost 18 months ago.

    In January 2022, Weelhamby was awarded $738,600 in State government funding, as part of a $15 million carbon farming and land restoration project.

    The funding worked by an agreed portion being paid back once the carbon project had started generating Australian carbon credit units (ACCUs).

    As well as the financial boost, Mr Logue also decided to increase sheep numbers and land size, after two good growing seasons. 

    Now, like many farmers in WA, he has been forced to hold onto an extra 1200 to 1400 sheep for six months longer than budgeted. 

    And the fact a further 1500 lambs were expected to drop this month, only added to the mounting pressure.

    "We can't even sell this year's last season lambs, which have been ready since Christmas," Mr Logue said.

    "There's a snowball effect from that is seen in shearing, feed budgets, extra hand feeding and the environment.

    "It then cascades down through the entire mob and creates animal welfare issues (holding onto sheep for too long on degraded pastures because they've eaten them out). 

    "Land degradation would set us back pretty hard - it's not just about losing a few sheep."

    Having finished crutching three weeks ago, Mr Logue was fortunate there had been a dry spell in the weather.

    This allowed him to hold off on seeding commercial crops until it rained.

    Other cropping programs, including feed and carbon, are already in the ground.

    While some farmers could switch to a higher cropping program in place of livestock, this would be detrimental to the long-term business of producing ACCUs at Weelhamby.

    As such, Mr Logue said reducing sheep numbers was not an option, because rotation grazing aspects were needed to produce carbon. 

    The system works by high-intensity crash grazing or running mobs of 750-head sheep in smaller paddocks (50-70ha) over a short period.

    "Sheep spend 10 days, over two five-day periods, in one paddock during winter," he said."They're run in the paddock for five days, are taken out for three months and then put back in again.

    "The rotation gives a pulsing effect of the grass growing, reducing in size and pumping carbon into the soil.

    "In summer, you use the sheep to utilise pasture that has already grown over winter, they smash it down into the ground and sequester carbon."

    Given Mr Logue's role is focused on developing soil organic carbon matter, he needs to maintain environmental standards on the property, in soil cover and land management.

    Making a plan as to how he does this over the next four years, has proven "most urgent and stressful". 

    "We need sheep in the system to maintain carbon build, but do we not breach it?" he said.

    "Do we just run 1500 sheep in paddocks - and no lambs - and rotate them around the farm to maintain the carbon?

    "Is it even viable to have someone looking after a small number of sheep if they aren't lambing?

    "Our two to three-year plan is up in the air."

    Given Mr Logue can't make any big changes in one year, his focus has stayed on what was priority onfarm now - feeding sheep and looking after new born lambs and carbon build.

    "We are working on biodiversity studies and environmental projects on top of this, so we need those benchmarks," he said. 

    "The land and bush has to be benchmarked and the carbon has to be measured.

    "We've had a pretty serious look at how we would manage future programs within the property if there was no live export.

    "In the meantime, we need to maintain income and sustain jobs onfarm and in the district by running sheep."

    Source: Farm Online, Brooke Littlewood


    Emily Mason
    Sydney NSW