The students’ farm

By Louise FitzRoy

At Mulloon Creek Natural Farms, about 50 kilometres east of Canberra, the hens are roaming freely on green biodynamic pastures and the cattle are being trained to eat weeds.

From being executive chair of a large public company to founding one of the most inspiring agricultural enterprises in the country, Tony Coote has an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm.

Mullion ck

Executive chair Tony Coote

Mulloon Creek Natural Farms is 2500 hectares of certified organic and biodynamic land (1100 hectares grazing pasture). Pasture-raised hens, a commercial Angus beef herd and a few pigs enjoy the fertile creek flats and undulating pasture paddocks in this Southern Tablelands region.

Mulloon Creek’s general manager, Tobias Koenig, says, “Tony bought the first part of this farm about 45 years ago while still living in Sydney and spent many years commuting back and forth. His love has always been the land so after selling his interest in Angus & Coote around seven years ago, Tony was able to focus on the farms and his passion for regenerative agriculture.”

The basic principles of organic, biodynamic and regenerative agriculture are all the same in terms of increasing the general health of the soil, plants and animals.

Tobias says, “At Mulloon Creek we use biodynamic practices, holistic management principles and Peter Andrews’ Natural Sequence Farming methods along with some permaculture systems, with the aim of creating a healthy landscape to produce nutrient dense food.”

How they graze

To achieve a healthy landscape, livestock are used in a time control grazing system. This system gives the paddocks time to rest between grazing, resulting in 90–100 per cent ground cover, increased organic matter, better water infiltration and increased biodiversity and perennial native grasses.

Tobias says, “By managing the native grasses we are sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, so every farmer doing this is doing the environment a service.”

The two certified biodynamic farms are run as close as possible to a closed system, meaning as little as possible is imported onto the property.

Tobias says, “In our case with 13,000 hens it makes it difficult to contain all inputs on farm. Although an estimated 40 per cent (depending on season) of the hens’ feed comes from the pasture, we still give them free access to a certified organic feed mix from Country Heritage Feeds.

rsz_marema_dogs“Another certified organic requirement is that we must raise the chicks on farm. We don’t breed our own therefore we buy in one-day-old chicks that are flown from Queensland. The young chicks have access to pasture from the brood shed but come inside at night to sleep. At 12 to 14 weeks old, the birds are moved from the brood shed into a pasture paddock with two or three moveable sheds. The sheds are moved about 100 metres by a tractor to fresh pasture twice every week. The hens are never locked up, but are instead protected by a couple of Maremma dogs.”

Meanwhile the herd of 220 grass-fed cows with their calves are moved from a two-and-a-half-hectare section of the paddock to another every day, to allow the grazed land to regenerate. Six English Large Black sows and one Large White boar are also rotationally grazed.

Tobias says, “We join a rare pig breed with a Large White boar to get a tastier and leaner meat. The pigs will dig up the part of the paddock they are in so once they move on, we use the ploughed earth to direct drill oats or a pasture mix to rejuvenate the paddock. The pigs also increase the fertility levels in the paddock, which leaves them prime for opportunity crops such as pumpkins.”

Natural Sequence Farming

Another regenerative and organic practice used is Natural Sequence Farming developed by Peter Andrews, which aims to rehydrate the landscape. The Mulloon Creek (which runs through the farms) is the first national demonstration of this work.

Tobias says, “What happens when you slow down the flow of water and raise the level in the creek, is that there is a reduction of soil loss, decreased erosion and a minimisation of nutrient loss from the land.

“All the waterways in Australia are flowing much faster than they used to. In the past it was a system of ponds flowing from one to the other. If there was a flood, the water would spread over the land as a form of natural irrigation. Now the banks of Australia’s creeks and rivers are eroded due to the over grazing of livestock and devegetation and the water flows much faster, taking beneficial topsoil and causing significant erosion.

“Natural Sequence Farming involves slowing down the water by building structures in the creeks using rocks, timber and vegetation, which gradually raises the water level, bringing it back within reach of the plants’ root systems on the floodplain. We had a dry summer, however our creek flats had green healthy pasture all summer. It was the only area in the district that was green to this extent.”

Controlling the inevitable – weeds

There are extensive native and deciduous tree plantings on the property and no pests or diseases of any significance to battle with.

Tobias says, “In a healthy landscape that is managed for biodiversity you should have a balance between pests and predators. There will be times when pests build up quicker than predators but in a pasture system it has never been a problem.

“Blackberries and serrated tussock are our two biggest weeds. We believe that they will be outcompeted sooner or later, but the weed inspector often doesn’t perceive it this way. Therefore we have to slash the blackberries where accessible and hand-hoe the serrated tussock.

“There is also a lot of evidence that grazing cattle can be educated to eat weeds and we are in the process of implementing this approach. The process takes about 10 days. On the first day you feed your cattle a food that you know they will like, for example, oats or lucerne. The next day you mix a small percentage of weeds under their favourite food. The following day you increase this percentage. For the final two days, you just feed the cattle weeds and by then their taste buds have become used to the flavour and they know this is something they can eat when in the paddock. This is not only good for managing weeds, but also extremely beneficial to the cattle as most weeds are nutritious. Countless people have had success, and we look forward to seeing the results.”

Buying and selling

Up to 50,000 eggs are produced at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms each week and sold to organic shops and restaurants in Sydney, Canberra and along the mid-north coast of NSW, as well as at the farmers’ market in Canberra and other regions.

Tobias says, “Not only is the egg production certified by Australian Certified Organic but Mulloon Creek also received Humane Choice accreditation in April, prompting more orders from new customers. We currently can’t produce enough eggs to keep up with demand.

“Our 800-gram eggs are sold for $12.50 a dozen, but you need to remember that our organic feed is double the price of conventional – $950 organic, compared with $400 for conventional feed.”

PigsWhile the pigs are raised as certified organic, Tobias says he is unable to find an organically certified abattoir or butcher close by and therefore is legally unable to sell the meat as organic.

“The organic beef trade is also growing, but in reality we can only send 15 per cent of what is produced to the organic market with the rest ending up in the conventional marketplace. The organic beef market is just not big enough yet, which is one of the reasons small producers are moving towards selling direct to their customers. It is a wonderful initiative but it’s a niche market and difficult to achieve at our scale.”

The Mulloon Institute

After years of regenerating this land, working in conjunction with the Australian National University (ANU), Tony was inspired to found The Mulloon Institute to ensure his work will continue beyond his lifetime. The farms cannot be sold and will continue to be an example of regenerative practices well into the future.

For over 30 years students from ANU have been coming to the farm to perform their research projects; school tours, field days and internship programs are held on farm.

The Mulloon Institute also has partnerships with the University of New England and the University of Sydney. At the moment, Professor David Raubenheimer of the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney is looking at the diet of hens and the idea of putting cameras on their heads to monitor and record their actual eating habits in the free range environment.

Tobias says, “Not much research has been done into the diet of real pasture-raised chickens. We want to know, out of the 30–40 per cent of their pasture-sourced diet, what in fact they are choosing to eat.

“Generally hens eat about 125 grams of grain per day, while ours are eating 60–80 grams and supplementing the rest of their diet with food outside – even in summer when the grass turns a shade of brown. What are they eating? Roots? Worms?”

Tobias says research like this will benefit the whole industry because currently there is no base data about the requirements of pasture-raised birds as all research has been conducted on intense poultry production.

“Tony is an inspiration. He’s extremely passionate about the land, nature and the quality of food that we produce for our communities. He has put his money were his mouth is and devoted his life to leaving a legacy that will benefit future generations!”