Biodiversity research supports reduced chemical reliance
30 November 2015
Named in Australia's top 10 young environmental leaders in 2009, Andrew Watson has a long-held interest in biodiversity. Two years before the award, he and wife Heike had bought "Kilmarnock", at Boggabri on the Namoi River in north-west NSW, from his parents Robyn and John.
Way back in 1990, the elder Watsons began impressive restoration and revegetation works, including along 35 kilometres of the river bank. In the past eight years, Andrew and Heike have expanded on his parents' efforts.
Their aim has been to invest in native-vegetation restoration across the farm, to encourage beneficial insects, micro-bats and birds, as well as their native habitats, to reduce pesticide reliance.
Andrew and Heike manage some 6,000 hectares — 1,400ha is owned, with the balance both leased and share farmed. Around 2,000ha is irrigated for crops, with cotton grown on a further 2,400ha. The Watsons also grow wheat and barley, and lease 300ha to Robyn and John for "retirement" beef grazing.
Andrew — who was the NSW Farmers' Young Farmer of the Year in 2004, and Australian Cotton Grower of the Year in 2008 — says, "We wanted to increase our use of native, natural processes to replace chemical pesticides, so potentially lower our costs but not impact our yields or profits."
Utilising North West Local Land Services' funding from the State Government's Catchment Action NSW programme, the Watsons have been working with PhD students from the University of New England (UNE) studying entire ecosystems, comparing beneficial insects, birds and bats as part of the Native Vegetation as Pest Control Project. The project aims to understand native vegetation's role as habitat for natural pest-control agents and the potential impact on cotton growers' profits.
This is one of three projects partly funded by North West Local Land Services , one of the others being the Brigalow Nandewar Biolinks Programme, which comes from the Federal Government's Biodiversity Fund.
"There are three UNE projects now on our property and others, which North West Local Land Services is helping to fund. They're really important because they inform us how what we believe works, does actually work.
"Two years down the track, one project has discovered the benefits of tree lines and nearby sizeable shrubs that change the behavioural patterns of birds and bats. It's found that if these animals feel they can escape somewhere when their predators come — like bigger birds — they're more comfortable to forage further out into your cotton crops. So we're starting to understand why our maturing tree lines are having a bigger impact. It's been quite interesting.
"Initially, we measured 'good insects' and 'bad insects', written up on a weekly basis to see whether or not fruit counts were keeping up, despite a bit of damage. We believed that we were sustaining a good fruit load, but now we're starting to understand why we've been able to. And that's changed because of the research that has been conducted on our farm and some other farms."
Current research is looking at where beneficial insects go in the "off season", how soon they come back, and which particular areas of native and surrounding vegetation they come from. Andrew said this will inform them how they can encourage greater numbers.
"We really appreciate the North West Local Land Services funding for those UNE researchers to work with cotton farmers, because it's really helping us to understand what's going on.
"It's not even that I don't have the time to do it, it's just knowing how. I'm amazed at some of the techniques these students are using. They know their stuff, they know what the birds are, what the bats are. I know a couple of birds but I certainly don't know what they know."
According to Angela Baker, Senior Land Services Officer, Natural Resource Management, North West Local Land Services, "The Native Vegetation as Pest Control Project is critical in demonstrating how native vegetation can directly profit from cotton, and how ecosystems can benefit agriculture now and in the future".
Andrew said the family had well and truly met its aim of using native vegetation to reduce chemical reliance.
"Since 2007, I have done a maximum total of one full-pass spray. We've done one spray on canola, and one on barley for pests, so we've had to rely on our beneficial insects, birds and bats in that time. And we've expanded, so there's been no negative impact on our profits, they're still keeping us in good stead!"
Andrew said the next phase will be working on the fertiliser balance.
"We want to rely more on the natural process and less on chemical fertilisers. It's the same philosophy, but that's the next step."
** The full list of funding organisations for the two University of New England PhD students and the post-doctoral research project working on Kilmarnock and neighbouring properties is: University of New England, North West Local Land Services, Northern Tablelands Local Land Services, Australian Government Biodiversity Fund, Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, Birds Australia, and the Iraqi Government.
For further information or to speak with Angela Baker or Andrew Watson please contact
67 429 209.
Local North West Local Land Services' Offices:
Moree (02) 6750 9000 Goondiwindi (07) 4671 0518 Walgett (02) 6828 6404
Narrabri (02) 6790 7600 Gunnedah (02) 6742 9220 Tamworth (02) 6764 5907
Warialda (02) 6729 1528