Barjarg Pastoral Co.
John and Fred Forrest
What we’ve accomplished:
Brothers Fred and John Forrest are fourth generation farmers at Mansfield, 180km north east of Melbourne in the foothills of the Victorian Alps. Their great grandfather started the original farm nearby (now run by their brother Dick), while Fred’s grandfather started on this farm in 1915. Fred and John ran a transport business for many years, returning to take over the farm in 1991. John was a fly in fly out worker on gas pipelines for many years, and did most of the mechanical repairs on the farm, leaving Fred with the main responsibility for running the farm. The farm comprises 2000 acres (800Ha), including some rough bush areas. The bush areas provide excellent shelter, and sometimes in bad weather Fred puts the cattle in there.
Fred’s father was at the forefront of new developments in conventional agriculture, as recommended by the Victorian Department of Agriculture, and was also one of the first to develop problems, for which the Department had few answers. Problems included declining production despite steadily increasing artificial fertilizer applications, and escalating animal health issues. Standard vaccinations increased from two-in-one to seven-in-one plus two others, while drenching for worms became more and more critical to keep animals alive. At one stage worm resistance to the drenches reached a point where a major brand released a drench so potent that cow pats would take up to two years to break down (it was later modified to reduce the toxicity).
Fred knew things were not right, and that a better way of farming had to be found. He pondered long and hard about which way to go. In 1992 he attended the annual conference of the Grasslands Society of Victoria and heard a talk given by Don Rathbone, a Goulburn Valley Biodynamic irrigation dairy farmer. Don had also had serious problems with conventional farming. With Biodynamic methods he had solved all his soil and animal health problems, and had turned 75mm of topsoil into 900mm over a 30 year period! Fred visited Don’s farm and was deeply impressed by what he saw. He wrote to Alex Podolinsky (Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association of Australia), who came to see him a few days later. He read Alex’s books and started spraying 500 on the farm in 1994. Results were a bit patchy at first as he made some mistakes such as applying 500 on frosty evenings, but after re-reading Alex’s books and talking to other BD farmers, he improved his technique and began to see substantial changes. Fred’s first indication that something was happening was the improving health of the animals. Later, he noticed that the plants were a better colour and seemed more robust, and that the reddish soil was changing and deepening to a darker brown colour.
After a prolonged drought in 2002/3, when the rain finally came, the conditions in the area were perfect for capeweed, which grew so prolifically that it choked out all the better pasture grasses. Capeweed is well known for causing nitrate poisoning and deaths in livestock and Fred’s neighbours were all buying in hay (which was very expensive after the drought). Fred, being Demeter Biodynamic certified by that stage, couldn’t source any Biodynamic or organic hay, and was very worried. However, his cattle and sheep actually got fat on the capeweed, and suffered no ill effects! This really brought home to him that he was on the right track with Biodynamics. He realized that the plants had fundamentally changed - his animals were even able to eat and digest onion weed. Fred no longer worries about capeweed, which comes and goes periodically, especially if he has hay to go with it. It does cause some scouring, but otherwise no ill effects.
Fred sprays prepared 500 over all the accessible areas of the farm once a year, mostly after the autumn break, while there is still some warmth in the soil. He has a twin barrel stirring machine that stirs 40 acres of 500 at a time, and a spray rig on a Landcruiser ute that covers a width of 56 feet (17 metres). The rig has 3 windscreen wiper motors that drive the 6 reciprocating spray nozzles. He uses a foam marker attached to one side of the boom to mark where he has sprayed.
Stock numbers fluctuate according to the seasons – last autumn was very dry here so Fred cut back to 180 Angus breeding cows, plus heifers and steers, a total of 300 at present. He will slowly build up numbers, and may buy in some BD certified steers to fatten later this year if there is surplus feed. Fred doesn’t tolerate any cattle that are not quiet – these are sold. He has cut back to 650 ewes plus lambs and another 150 young ewes, and will also build these up again as conditions allow. The sheep are Border Leicester/Merino crosses, with Texel rams. He likes the Texels as they are not just a very good meat breed but also have a good temperament and are easy to handle.
Sheep are shorn in November – Fred tries to leave it as long as he can towards summer so that once they are shorn he doesn’t have to worry about flystrike. Four to six weeks after shearing, the sheep are put through a shower dip (sprayed from the top and then the bottom) with Flockmaster, the product allowed under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, to kill any lice.
Cattle and sheep are rotationally grazed through 15 paddocks. Fred would ideally like many more, but time and expense make this difficult to develop on such a large property. Paddocks are topped when necessary, mainly in spring and autumn.
Fred applies a little lime or dolomite at times, and occasionally a small amount of reactive rock phosphate. He used to do soil tests, but now just relies on his observations of the pasture to decide what to apply and when.
Because Fred is supplying butchers with certified animals, be needs a regular supply at the right stage. To accomplish this he calves half the herd in spring and the other half in autumn. He weans the calves at 5-8 months and grows them on to around 12 months of age by which time they have reached the weights required by the various butchers – this can be from 200-290kg dressed weight. Lambs are weaned at around 5-6 months and are ready progressively from then on, depending on their weight (around 40kg liveweight) and condition score. The meat is available at a number of Biodynamic butchers in Melbourne and also at Hoffman’s Fine Foods in Mansfield.
Many farmers struggle with animal health issues such as worms, flystrike, fertility problems, calving difficulties, milk fever, grass tetany and more. Fred was no exception when he inherited the farm. Now, there are very few problems at all. The animals are very healthy and hardy and don’t require chemical drenching. There are no problems with grass tetany, milk fever, or mastitis. Even in wet summers, very little fly strike occurs in the sheep. January and February 2017 were unseasonably wet, but there was not one case of flystrike. In 2010, after a drought broke, Fred bought in some conventional ewes which were quarantined from the certified flock for the required time. Summer rains saw a large number of these ewes flystruck, whereas very few of his own sheep were affected.
Fertility is excellent – nearly always, 99% of the cows get in calf. Very rarely one misses, and is subsequently sold. Most remarkably, Fred has not had to assist with a single calving in 12-14 years! Before he converted to Biodynamics he had no end of calving problems and used to check the cows twice a day at least. Now he watches the cows (particularly the heifers) closely for the first week of calving and if all is well (which it has been for 12-14 years) will just check them twice a week and leave them to do their own thing. Likewise, there have been no lambing problems for a similar length of time. Fred thinks that 90% of lambing and calving is nutrition, and the Biodynamic grass and hay provide excellent, balanced nutrition, supplemented by the range of minerals that he makes available. He mixes minerals including calcium carbonate, dolomite, yellow sulphur, gypsum, a little copper sulphate, diatomaceous earth (a coarse one, from Vitec) and salt, and also provides some individual minerals that they can self-select. These are put in trailers in the paddocks, protected from rain.
Any animals that are not doing well are treated and put in the “hospital paddock”. When they have recovered and have put on condition, they are sold on the conventional market. Fred finds hydrogen peroxide excellent as an antiseptic for any wounds. For flystrike, he first cleans up the wound, then sprays with hydrogen peroxide (the strongest solution he can find, about 6%, from the chemist), and then sprays natural pyrethrum on the wound. This does break down quickly in sunlight and may need to be applied a few times in bad cases. Fred uses zinc sulphate in a foot bath for any foot problems in the sheep, and copper sulphate for worms, and finds magnesium dissolved in a bath tub of water for cattle to drink helps reduce the incidence of pink eye.
Fred is more than happy with the results he has obtained with Biodynamics. His production is probably a bit less than that of his conventional neighbours but he achieves it at a much lower cost in terms of fertilizer/chemical inputs and vet bills, and has the deep satisfaction of seeing his soils progressively improving and his stock in robust health.