Justin and Lorroi Kirkby began their regenerative agriculture journey when they bought an old, conventionally run property. The land was highly degraded and so began their journey in working to restore and rvive the soil. They have found that planting multi-species crops, and ensuring ground cover to protect the soil, to be a cost efficient way of running their dorper sheep stud in Northern NSW. It has also led to re-hydration of the land, ensuring their property is more resilient to drought. Read on for Justin's interview to learn more about their journey.
What does regen ag mean to you?
I think you’d get different answers from different people but personally we’re trying to regenerate the land back to the way it used to be. Then again, we don’t really know what it was like before. But I know the soils were more in balance. To get the soil right you need to cover it and protect it. You need to bring life back into it.
What was your personal journey to regen ag?
20 years ago, Lorroi and I were backpacking around the world and we spent three months in Africa where we ended up on a dorper farm. When we finished our travels and came back to Australia we were able to lease some land and make a start with our own dorper stud. Lorroi, being a vet specialised in artificial breeding, brought a lot of technological knowledge into our operation. The first couple of years were tough but since then the dorpers have taken off and we now have two of our own properties 50km East of Moree comprised of 1000 Dorper Stud Ewes and 500 White Dorper Stud Ewes.
The financial situation when we first started was one of the key driving forces of switching into that regenerative side of things. We didn’t have a lot of money to throw around synthetic fertilisers so by default we were pasture cropping. When we first bought the farm it had been managed with those old, traditional, conventional farming techniques so it was very degraded and rundown and covered in weeds and bare ground. Going down that same path seemed to be flogging a dead horse but doing something different wasn’t looked upon well. The mentality was that regen was for tree huggers. I went to a field day on a regen farm nearby and saw a different mindset to the traditional paradigms of farming. It wasn’t long after that we started multi-species planting.
What practices are you using on your farm?
Mainly its ground cover, trying to maintain that and keep living plants there. That ground cover drives the soil health. Even with degraded soil there’s life there, and you’ve just got to feed and stimulate it to get it going again. We don’t like the idea of chemicals but we won’t run around waving placards about it and will use chemicals if we have to. We also practice adaptive grazing. When we bought the property we had 2200 acres and we had probably 12 paddocks, now we’ve got 60 paddocks and we’re still continuing to split up more. We’re not using a managed grazing charter, we tend to be a bit loose.
What benefits have you seen?
Probably the big thing coming out of this last drought was how quick we had a lot of feed, and it was just because the soil was looked after and we didn’t overgraze it. The energy was still stored in the root system, so when it rained it just went really well. We’re very aware that we are in a dry spell at the moment and everyone is worried about it because of what happened with the millennium drought, but we’re not worried about it. From the last drought we learnt how to manage and how to do it again, and hopefully we can instil that education in the next generation so we don’t make the same mistakes again. We were only one of two clients at the local bank to keep paying off our debt during that drought and the other was a very big cotton cropping farm. So when we came out of the drought we were able to make money straight away and capitalised on the markets and the rest of it.
What have the challenges been?
In the early days it was an information thing. There wasn’t a lot out there so it was a lot of trial and error. We’re quite happy to show people what our early failures looked like because that’s part of the transition. we have a couple of field days a year to show people what we’re doing. Now there’s quite a bit more information around the place.
What have you learned?
We’ve learnt a hell of a lot and we’re still learning a lot. We really know nothing in the grand scheme of things but we’ve been learning about how the different plant families work with each other and talk to each other.A plant doesn’t do more than it has to, so if you plant multispecies or companion crops they will build the soil together.
Do you have any tips or messages for other farmers?
It’s just a matter of getting your head right. Once you’ve got that train of thought and understand the basic principles,then you just need to give it a crack and get stuck in. I started by watching videos on YouTube and reading Dirt to Soil (Gabe Brown) and then read Nicole Master’s book (For the Love of Soil) because it's more complicated. If you’re already thinking about it, then you just need to get started. Start with the multi species planting and see what happens.
What do you hope for the future of people and planet?
We’ve heard that we’ve only got 50 years left of farming and that’s a scary thought. Something is going to have to change. Farming and grazing cows is not going to kill the world. So if we actually embrace the idea of regenerative farming we will start to reverse the problem of climate change. we don’t have to have that highly intensive farming system where, for example, pork and chicken are in sheds. If we can start to make conventional farmers understand that they don’t need to stop what they’re doing entirely, they just need to understand what it is doing to the soil, then they can have a bit of empathy and we might start to see that change. Our boys have grown up with our farming system and they understand it, and that is part of that change as well. If this next generation already understands those principles then we can drive in the right direction.