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Farming Action: Catchment Reaction: The Effect of Dryland Farming on the Natural Environment

Farming Action: Catchment Reaction: The Effect of Dryland Farming on the Natural Environment

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Farming Action: Catchment Reaction: The Effect of Dryland Farming on the Natural Environment

1,308 pagine
13 ore
Jan 1, 1998


Dryland farming is a major export earner for many temperate-zone countries, yet it continues to degrade a country's natural resources. Effects are not restricted to the land - changes in water quality can reduce the potential uses of water and bring about catastrophic changes in both freshwater and coastal ecosystems.

Farming Action: Catchment Reaction provides a comprehensive technical overview of the relationships between dryland farming systems and catchment land and water quality in Australia, and integrates it in a whole system framework. It deals with the issues in terms of people, pointers, processes and prediction as it discusses social aspects of developing and implementing research to improve dryland farming systems in catchment management programs, indicators of catchment health, and the processes which determine the impact of the farming action on the catchment response. It concludes by considering the adequacy of our ability to use this process knowledge in models to predict the effect of dryland farming on catchment condition.

Jan 1, 1998

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About the book

Farming Action Catchment Reaction: The Effect of Dryland Farming on the Natural Environment has been published as part of the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program. Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care is a research program that aims to undertake research into problems relevant to Landcare and catchment management groups. The program also aims to provide these groups with knowledge and information from research that will help in land and catchment management.

Farming Action Catchment Reaction is a major publication in the dissemination of such information to Landcare and catchment management groups and provides an overview of the current understanding on which the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program is based. The book is about our understanding of how dryland farming practices cause change in the land and water quality of the catchments in which they are situated. It is also about the use of indicators for assessing farm and catchment condition and trends, and the capability of current methods, mostly mathematical models, to predict the effects of dryland farming. In addition, having arisen from papers presented at a workshop held in Canberra to establish the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care research program, the book discusses the social aspects of implementing such a program within the current whole catchment approach to land management.

Most chapters in Farming Action Catchment Reaction are derived from reviews commissioned for the Canberra workshop. The objectives of these reviews are discussed below in Background to the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program. A strong view of workshop participants (drawn from scientists, farmers and support groups for the rural sector) was that the reviews presented valuable information which should be made available to others. In putting the information together, the editors have taken into account the workshop comments on each of the reviews, as well as the suggestions of members of a small advisory group representing the various partners in the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program. The challenge has been to incorporate the view that the science and concepts should be retained and that the publication should not ‘popularise’ the issues, while taking account of the need for the information to be more accessible. As one farmer put it, ‘there is nothing in the reviews which is not relevant to the farming community — the challenge is to make it more readable’. The challenge has been increased by the diversity in educational background and technical understanding of those involved in catchment management.

We have endeavoured to meet the above challenges by keeping the individual papers presented at the workshop but simplifying the language where possible. Names of previous CSIRO Divisions have been retained in the text to identify the origin of various concepts and, in some cases, to illustrate the organisational challenges to be overcome in catchment management. We have provided additional material to help readers understand concepts and terminology. The type of material added has varied according to the nature of the reviews. For example, the book chapters relating to social and economic issues (Section One) have been summarised as we felt that it was their length and detail that may obscure their main message for some readers. On the other hand, in chapters dealing with the linkages between farming systems and catchment land and water quality (Section Three), our aim has been to clarify difficult concepts primarily with the help of figures and diagrams, and the provision of explanatory information in boxes. With the chapters on models (Section Four), we felt that for those not involved with modelling, the problem was more basic — for most people the issue is, what precisely are models? The first chapter in Section Four, therefore, provides explanatory material about models and modelling. We have also included tables of modelling groups and models in Appendixes at the end of the Section. These tables provide rapid access to information on relevant models developed both in Australia and other countries, as well as providing a guide to the Australian groups involved with modelling farm production and catchment processes. Section Two, on indicators, is different from the other Sections in that it contains a single chapter. This chapter has been rewritten since the workshop so as to incorporate recent work within the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program to identify indicators suitable for use by individual farmers and catchment and Landcare groups.

As well as these specific additions to each Section, a Glossary is provided at the end of the book to assist with explanation of terms used in Sections Three and Four that are unlikely to be found in a standard dictionary. Terms included in the Glossary are printed in bold where they first occur in chapters in Sections Three and Four.

We do not imagine that we will have been successful in making all information accessible to all individuals. Our aim has been to encourage everyone involved with catchment management, from scientist to farmer, to increase their knowledge about the perspectives of others. Rather than being a ‘how to’ manual, Farming Action Catchment Reaction aims to help increase understanding of the problems and processes involved in managing the land. We hope that over time, readers will ‘dip into’ different sections and chapters and gradually broaden their knowledge and perspectives.

Background to the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program

Since the early 1980s there has been a major shift in community attitudes towards the environment. There is now widespread concern about the effects of land use, whether for urban and industrial purposes, primary production, tourism or recreation, on natural resources and the environment. In rural areas, the concern is primarily associated with the deterioration in land and water quality brought about by agriculture. Many people now acknowledge that farming practices which continue to reduce the quality of the resource base will adversely affect the future viability of agriculture and prosperity of the rural sector. Recognition of the need to develop agricultural practices that cause less damage to the environment is manifest in phenomena such as the growth of the community Landcare movement.

The changes occurring in community perceptions and attitudes are essential if we are to bring about real change in our management of the land. Motivation on its own, however, is insufficient for implementing sustainable agricultural systems. Knowledge and resources are also required. The success of Landcare groups and individual farmers will be underpinned by our knowledge of the effects of farming practices on the properties of, and processes within, our different landscapes and catchments.

The CSIRO, together with other institutions and groups, has a major role to play in providing the knowledge necessary to develop farming systems and practices that are both economically and environmentally sustainable. CSIRO regards this as an area of high priority to which it can contribute considerable expertise. As a result it has established a multi-divisional research program — Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care — to support Australian Landcare and catchment management groups.

What are dryland farming systems?

Dryland farming systems, in the context of this program, are rainfed food and fibre production systems. Neither irrigation agriculture nor pastoralism are included. Dryland farming encompasses only those animal and pasture production systems where there is a relatively high degree of management. Plate 14.2 shows the major dryland farming regions of Australia and Plate 14.3 gives the location of some of the major catchments. Generally, Australian dryland farms undergo a period of water stress that limits production to part of the year and, typically, they are characterised by a mix of cropping and pasture or livestock production — the so-called wheat-sheep farms. Dryland farming systems, however, can be based purely on grazing or on the production of crops, including cotton and sugarcane.

Aims of the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program

The specific aims of the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program are to:

develop an improved capability for analysing and predicting the effects of dryland farming on the land and water quality of catchments; and

determine the broad principles that provide the guidelines for determining best management practice and, where possible, to develop best management practices for particular dryland farming systems or regions.

Central to this program is an understanding of the biophysical processes in the landscape that link farming action to catchment reaction. Based on this understanding, tools will be developed for analysis and prediction that can be used by government agencies, and Landcare and catchment management groups.

Landcare and Whole Catchment Management (WCM) groups have arisen as many land and water degradation problems need to be dealt with cooperatively at catchment level. Such community groups also acknowledge the social dimension to problems relating to land management and the desirability of involving those people who are affected by land management changes in the planning and decision process. In establishing the Dryland Farming System for Catchment Care Program, CSIRO recognised the view that research is part of the WCM process and that those involved in land and catchment management should be involved in developing research programs. A key concept of the Program was that it should be collaborative and developed in partnership with Landcare and WCM groups — the potential research users.

Integrating the research program into whole catchment management — the Canberra workshop

As part of the collaborative approach, a workshop was held in Canberra in May 1994, early in the program’s development phase. The objective of the workshop was to bring together research scientists, those involved with resource planning or assisting Landcare and WCM groups, extension staff (both government and private) and farmers participating in Landcare or WCM groups, to:

establish a partnership arrangement;

determine the need for new knowledge and identify the tools which would assist in improved catchment management; and

establish an overall CSIRO framework for research and development in catchment care, within which the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program would provide a focus.

The workshop was also seen as an appropriate time for the normal process of review — to pause and evaluate ‘where we are now’. Assessing our knowledge is a necessary part of identifying the problems and gaps that require research. To facilitate workshop discussion, formal reviews were commissioned to cover four areas in which our understanding and knowledge are critical to developing sustainable farming systems.

The conceptual basis of the reviews — a whole system approach

A farming system may be considered as incorporating several components, with the processes operating determined by many factors (see Factors that affect the productivity of a farming system and its influence on land and water quality box).

The landscape and natural resources

The basic component of any farming system is the landscape in which it is operating. The landscape provides a particular set of biophysical resources — climate, geology, topography, regolith and soil, vegetation and fauna. These characteristics vary considerably from place to place and give rise to the enormous variety of landscapes within Australia. Despite this variety, the same fundamental processes occur in each landscape — those involved in the movement of water and the movement and transformations of energy and nutrients. The rate and exact nature of these processes, however, vary between landscapes, depending on their characteristics. So, for example, hilly landscapes with clay soils of low permeability will tend to shed water, whereas flatter terrain with similar rainfall but deep sandy soils would have little runoff.

Factors that affect the productivity of a farming system and its influence on land and water quality

The factors that influence the outputs of a farming system and their interrelationships are:

landscape characteristics (climate and land-regolith-soil properties);

farming system (management strategy and practices); and

socioeconomic conditions.

By influencing landscape characteristics, the farming system affects soil and regolith, and plant and animal processes. Outputs as a result of these processes include marketed product and changes in the land resource base. Although not shown here, changes in the land resource can affect the quality of water resources. The outputs, in turn, feed back into the system (shown by the heavy arrows) and, hence, influence the future condition of the land and its productivity.

The farming system

The imposition of farming on the natural system effectively changes system functioning by changing some of the landscape characteristics, particularly those associated with the vegetation, but also some soil properties. This can have marked effect on the processes occurring, and the change in processes can, in turn, cause further substantial change in system characteristics. This is the way that farming systems impinge on the resource base (see The ramifications of changes to land properties box).

For example, farming practices often reduce the natural vegetation cover. The reduced vegetation cover can reduce the resistance of the surface to water flow and also soil cohesion (through root loss), thereby increasing soil erosion. Soil erosion may, in turn, result in the loss of well-aggregated and nutrient-rich topsoil, and the exposure of less well-structured and less fertile subsoil. The condition of the subsoil may result in reduced plant cover and continued exposure of the soil to overland flow. In addition, soil loss will reduce the total water-holding capacity of the whole profile, which may also exacerbate runoff. These changes are likely to lead to further erosion. This process of change and feedback is continual until some condition or equilibrium is reached at which no further change tends to occur.

The socioeconomic context

So far we have considered the biological and physical components of the farm system. Social and economic factors must also be added. Education, for example, may influence the farming and management practices that a farmer adopts. Certainly the economic constraints under which a farm is operating will determine enterprises selected and the level of management. Application of superphosphate and other fertilisers, for example, is notoriously tied to farm profitability in a given year. Consequently socioeconomic factors, by influencing farm management, ultimately influence the biophysical processes and the effect of farming on the resource base.

The ramifications of changes to land properties

Land characteristics such as topography, vegetation type, and soil texture and structure, are inextricably related to the processes occurring and consequently, any changes to them (e.g. reducing the vegetation canopy and plant root depth and density, increasing the amount of exposed soil, or reducing soil porosity and aggregation) affect the processes. Each of these changes in process, in turn, affect land properties, the changes in properties feeding back into the processes, and so the changes go on. The development of farming systems has affected, and continues to affect, our land resources in this way.

The aim of land management to achieve sustainability is to instigate changes which ensure that deleterious processes are reduced or prevented.

There is also feedback in this part of system. Management practices that degrade the resource base may result in productivity declines, reduced total income and consequently, reduced capacity for either repairing degradation or implementing less damaging practices which require a greater financial outlay. One could imagine, for example, a farm on which erosion and nutrient loss have been allowed to occur without remedial activity or a change in management. Deterioration may be such that the returns to the farmer for food or fibre produced severely limit the capacity to add much-needed fertiliser, improve pastures and/or cropping technique (e.g. through purchasing new equipment) or to implement soil conservation measures. Further declines in farm production are inevitable. In this way, downward spirals in farm productivity and viability may become established.

The four workshop reviews

The four reviews (1–4) covered different aspects of the system, as follows.

Socioeconomic issues.

Our knowledge of the biophysical characteristics of, and processes within, landscapes and the way these are affected by different farming practices to produce changes in soil and vegetation status, and in the resource base.

Our capacity to simulate various interactions in the farm-landscape system and predict the resultant changes in land and water quality.

Using indicators to monitor the effect of farming systems. While many processes occurring in the environment are not observable, often the consequences of these processes, the changes in land and water condition, are readily seen. Changes in the condition of the land or in the quality of produce from it can, therefore, indicate the occurrence of deleterious processes. The content of these reviews and their objectives are discussed more fully below.

Review 1: client needs and user involvement

The two main objectives for Review 1 were:

to provide the scientists who are involved primarily with understanding the biophysical functioning of catchments with a wider perspective; in particular, an understanding of how social and economic factors influence management activities, and how research can best be oriented to facilitate the uptake of findings; and

to obtain a better understanding of who the users of the research are at the levels of farm, industry, catchment, and different tiers of government (local, state and federal); the problems they face and the potential scope for the kind of contribution research can make.

The commissioned papers covered aspects of community participation in research programs, strategies for facilitating adoption of new technology, and economic analyses that consider natural resources. The overall context for these papers was how scientific knowledge and process management can contribute to the success of WCM.

Review 2: the linkages between dryland farming systems, the land resource and water quality

Review 2 assessed our understanding of how farming systems are linked to land and water quality. Extensive research into processes of land degradation is allowing us to gradually piece together an understanding of how farm/catchment systems function as a whole. An objective of the review was to determine how well we are now placed to answer such key questions as:

which farm management practices have a substantial effect on surface and groundwater?

in terms of their effects, how significant is the location of these practices in a catchment?

what is the role of large rainfall events in the relationship between farming practices and water quality?

how fast does water quality respond to changed farming practices? and

are water quality objectives and sustainable farming practices compatible and, if so, do we know how to achieve either?

Review 3: models of farming systems that predict production and its effect on catchment land and water quality

Using the understanding derived from research, we can construct models that simulate particular processes within farming and catchment systems. Such models can have enormous benefits. Firstly, they test our understanding of the system. Secondly, they allow us to investigate the interrelationships between system components and the effects of various management practices without having to trial all practices in the field.

The Australian experience in the evolution of farming and grazing systems is a cyclical one of development followed by attempts to find solutions to soil and land degradation problems as they have arisen. Now that we understand that different components of the agricultural system are linked, the unforeseen deleterious ramifications of dryland farming are hardly surprising. If we are to avoid continuing in the same cyclical fashion, however, we must do more than merely identify solutions to individual current problems. We need to develop methods to predict the consequences of remedial action on other components of the ecosystem. The experimental approach, while essential, is not sufficient on its own — we cannot hope to include all the variables that must be considered, nor do we wish to wait the decades that are sometimes needed before we can observe the results. Mathematical models can provide the necessary methods.

The objective of Review 3 was to identify available models of farming systems and catchment processes, and to evaluate their capability to predict production as well as the effect of management practices on land and water quality, and catchment biodiversity.

Review 4: indicators of catchment health

Although we can use models to predict the effects of different management practices on the biophysical resources and economic status of a farm, we need a way to monitor and assess farm or catchment condition. We need to ensure that changed practices are effective and are not causing further degradation. A currently favoured method is the development of a suite of indicators which can be monitored over time. Numerous agencies are developing sets of such indicators for use at scales ranging from farm to continental. The aim of Review 4 was to outline the past and current work, and to identify some of the difficulties and problems involved in selecting a suitable indicator set. Against this background it is possible to identify indicators that could be used by Landcare and catchment management groups to monitor the health of local catchments.

What gaps in research and understanding were identified?

An important outcome from the reviews was the identification of major areas where our lack of knowledge or understanding is impeding our ability to implement sustainable dryland farming systems.


We have only limited ability to successfully combine the three key elements necessary for change in the way we manage our land and catchments — motivation, resources and knowledge. Current approaches in catchment management tend to be piecemeal. There is not only lack of integration between social, economic and biophysical aspects, but we also lack knowledge of how to integrate management of biophysical resources so that we consider the whole system and not just individual components. In many instances, researchers and others involved in catchment management still need to acknowledge the necessity of a whole system approach, including maintaining the natural biological diversity.

Social and economic systems

We need to consider the costs and benefits associated with treating land degradation and implementing practices to avoid it, as they have a large influence on what can and will be done. There are still major difficulties in how we cost environmental damage. These difficulties are beyond the problems of estimating the area and extent of different forms of degradation and the degree to which it has reduced productive capacity. The problem of costing reduced productive capacity is even more difficult when off-site consequences of land management are considered. There is a need to determine offsite costs and benefits of particular management practices relative to onsite ones in order for cost sharing to be equitable.

Functioning of biophysical systems

There is variable but considerable knowledge about many of the key biophysical processes and the effect on them of farming practices, particularly at the individual field or research plot scale. However, our knowledge is incomplete. For example, in many instances we have yet to identify the dominant processes involved in the transfer, storage and transformations of nutrients and pollutants. In addition, there is little integration of knowledge about a wide range of phenomena. This reflects the tendency for research to focus on particular system components. While scientists recognise the need to synthesise knowledge of the different components to understand the system as a whole, so far we do not have a well-developed capability to do so.

As a result of these various deficiencies, we are unable to define a quantified set of realistic objectives for land and catchment management. For example, we cannot specify local river salinity levels that could be achieved through changed land management. At large catchment scales the difficulties are greater, since water quality at the mouth of major rivers reflects land uses and practices across large areas. In many instances we do not know how much water quality still reflects nutrients and sediments stored within the system from earlier erosion from farm land and how much it reflects current practices. Nor can we specify the length of time such sediments and nutrients may be in the system. One consequence of our incomplete and fragmented understanding is that we cannot be confident in using our current knowledge to provide reliable estimates of the importance and effect of different management practices in different landscapes, at different catchment scales and through time.


Despite the excellence within modelling groups in Australia, modelling of production systems has suffered through lack of focus, with the various groups working in relative isolation. One result is that Australia lacks a model for its key cereal-pasture-livestock-grain legume farming system, although single crop or pasture models are available. The production focus of single crop and pasture models means that these have little capability to assess the effects of farm production on land or water quality. The cropping and farming systems models are better placed for this purpose but even these remain extremely limited. Farm production models are mostly one-dimensional and assume uniformity of conditions. This means they are inadequate for dealing with the spatial distribution of crops, trees and pastures. One-dimensionality and assumed uniform conditions restricts their use at catchment scale because conditions and the lateral transfer of water and nutrients is important.

There is a wide range of catchment models available or under development in Australia, but these have a general weakness in the links between the farming system and the effect on sediment, nutrient and pollutant movement through the catchment. Modelling the effects of given farming systems on the distribution of salinity, nutrient flux, acidification or soil structural change is well beyond current catchment model capability.

Many effects of farming systems and practices on land and water resources cannot be predicted using current models. Determining the effects of land use and management practices at scales ranging from paddock, to farm, to local catchment, to regional catchment, is one of the biggest challenges facing biophysical modellers. Despite these deficiencies in our modelling capabilities, the view is that we need to make better use of the available models rather than continue to develop new ones. The desired outcome is not to produce models, rather, it is to use models to improve management. Several impediments, listed below, will need to be overcome if there is to be greater use of current models.

We need to be able to link existing models. This will require greater coordination of, and collaboration between, modelling groups. The research and development corporations have a role in helping achieve this.

There needs to be validation and testing of existing models in agricultural production areas.

Many people responsible for land and water management do not understand models. It is unlikely that the community will benefit from the current capability of models, let alone future developments, until this issue is addressed.

Workshop outcomes

One of the main workshop outcomes was identification of the major issues for the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program and translation of these issues into a desirable set of achievements for the Program. These are:

developing effective partnerships between groups within CSIRO and between CSIRO and catchment management groups, state and federal agencies, and landholders, that allow focussed and integrated catchment management;

quantifying the interrelationships between land use and particular processes of land and water degradation (e.g. quantifying the effects of large-scale tree planting on water and salt yields from catchments or the effect of different agronomic practices on recharge) and, as a result, developing best management practices for particular dryland farming systems; and also, identifying factors inhibiting the likely adoption of such management practices;

providing a coherent set of tools and models that can be used to predict the long-term effect of current and alternative farming practices on the land and water quality of catchments — this includes tools and models that can be used by government agencies and catchment management groups;

developing a set of indicators and benchmark values that can be used to predict problems and detect changes in catchment health; and

providing informed advice to local, state and federal governments, relevant to creating effective policies on catchment management.

Publication of information relevant to Landcare and catchment management groups is also regarded as a major component of the Program.

The research and development program

After the desired program achievements were set at the workshop (see previous section), the research and development program was established by scientists responsible for the work within CSIRO, using input from individuals with experience in catchment management. The large range of processes involved in the effects of dryland farming on natural resources and the diversity of landscapes in which dryland farming occurs meant that the research program had to be selective in what it covered. While restrictions were inevitable, an integrated research program focussing on generic issues has been developed to allow maximum benefit to be obtained. Integration is achieved through interrelating the three scientific activities central to the program of research. The three scientific activities are:

understanding the landscape characteristics and processes that link farming action to the catchment reaction and analysis of the system;

quantifying relationships between landscape characteristics and processes and the development of models able to simulate the processes quantitatively; and

identifying indicators of catchment health and deterioration in the resource base.

The eight projects that comprise the research program are related to four themes that are discussed below. The projects are described in more detail in the Operational Plan (1996–2000) for the Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program (Williams 1996).

Farming system models

Two projects aim to further develop the capacity to model and predict the productivity and economic returns of different dryland farming systems and the effect of this production on water, sediment and nutrient fluxes at paddock and farm scale. The computer simulation tools developed will be tested against data collected at Temora, New South Wales, in the Loddon and Campaspe catchments in Victoria, and at other suitable sites. They will also be used to assess the long-term effects of different agronomic options and management practices on the drainage of water past the root zone in different soils and topographic positions.

Dryland farming and catchment salinity

There are three projects associated with dryland salinity. These aim to provide:

methods for predicting groundwater recharge at catchment scales and the risk of land salinisation at regional scales;

information on the likely effects of continuing salinity in areas with shallow water tables on the sustainability of vegetation; and

quantitative information on the expected trends in salinity of rivers and streams in the Murray-Darling Basin as a result of dryland farming, on the reduction in recharge necessary to ensure that future stream salinities are within acceptable levels, and on the effect of large-scale tree planting on water yields and stream salinities.

The relative contribution of different sediment and nutrient sources to catchment water quality

Projects associated with sediment and nutrient aspects of water quality aim to develop a set of methods for estimating the relative contribution of sheet or rill erosion and gully or bank erosion to river sediments, and the associated contribution of ‘native’ phosphorus, for a range of catchment scales. The method will be applied in the Murrumbidgee and Darling River catchments in temperate southern Australia, and in the Johnstone and Herbert catchments in the tropics.

Indicators of catchment health

One project in the research program is formulating a suitable and robust set of indicators that can be used by Landcare and catchment groups to reliably assess the affect of farming practices on water and land resources, and catchment health. The project includes testing and validating the indicators with Landcare and catchment groups.

Other publications from the CSIRO Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care Program

Since providing knowledge and information to Landcare and catchment management groups is a major aim of the program, it is anticipated that publications will arise from the different projects within the program. So far, two such publications have been produced:

Indicators of Catchment Health: A Technical Perspective (Walker and Reuter 1996); and

Predicting Farm Production and Catchment Processes: A Directory of Australian Modelling Groups and Models (Hook 1997).

In Indicators of Catchment Health: A Technical Perspective, various authors assess the different measures that could be used to provide indicators and, on the basis of criteria such as cost of measurement and ease of interpretation, select the most appropriate. Preceding this technical assessment, three chapters provide information on the use of indicators and summarise the key indicators selected.

Predicting Farm Production and Catchment Processes: A Directory of Australian Modelling Groups and Models brings together information about the modelling groups in Australia and the models available or being developed which are relevant to dryland farming and/or land and water quality in catchments affected by dryland farming. Models are described in a uniform manner so as to facilitate identification of their similarities and differences. The Directory includes both dynamic and static models, as well as some of the expert systems and decision support systems that incorporate mathematical models and which are designed for use by land managers and those without a scientific background.

Other publications are near completion. The series, The Basics of Recharge and Discharge (Zhang and Walker 1997–98), will provide details of techniques and methods for estimating recharge to, and discharge from, the groundwater and for investigating groundwater movement.


Hook, R.A. (1997). ‘Predicting Farm Production and Catchment Processes: A Directory of Australian Modelling Groups and Models.’ (CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic.).

Walker, J. and Reuter, D.J. (1996). ‘Indicators of Catchment Health: A Technical Perspective’. (CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic.).

Williams, J. (1996). ‘Dryland Farming Systems for Catchment Care: Operational Plan 1996–2000’. Internal Report, CSIRO Land and Water.

Zhang, L. and Walker, G., Eds (1997–98). ‘The Basics of Recharge and Discharge’. (CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic.).

Chapter 1

Introduction: perspectives on the problem

Colin J. Chartres CSIRO Land and Water. Current address: Australian Geological Survey Organisation

Adrian A. Webb Webbnet Land Resource Services

One does not have to be directly involved in land management to be keenly aware of increasing concerns about natural resources: their use, abuse and decline. Human needs for food, fibre and shelter have led to practices and processes which have had enormous effects on the environment. The processes causing concern are not restricted to particular parts of the production or consumption chain. Clearing for industrial and urban development can have as much effect on vulnerable species and biological diversity as logging or clearing for agriculture; sediments, chemicals and wastes can pollute the environment whether they arise from industrial, agricultural or mining operations, or urban areas.

The concerns have been expressed vividly in the media through stories about the effects on land and water resources of logging, clearing natural vegetation, disposal of urban effluent, and mining and processing operations. Both freshwater and marine ecosystems have been affected. In Australia, where population pressures cannot be described as high except in localised areas, 200 years of European settlement have precipitated considerable destructive change to our environment. The extensive area of the continent used for agricultural production means that agriculture has been one of the major agents of change.

In most instances, excluding point source pollution and irrigation, changes to Australia’s rural environment appear to have been caused by extensive, but often apparently innocuous, land management practices applied to what turned out to be old and fragile soils and ecosystems adapted for the most part to dry environmental conditions. In the recent geological past, Australia has not experienced the same extensive glacial, tectonic or volcanic activity that has provided the relatively young and nutrient enriched soils on most other continents.

With the exception of some quite rapid phases of soil erosion promoted by farming practices, drought and rabbit plagues, much of the degradation has in itself been insidious and often hidden beneath the ground surface. Furthermore, in many instances we have not realised that changes to the land may reach critical thresholds, beyond which processes start to seriously affect the health and quality of our river systems. Thus, in-field farm management practices can set in train processes that not only result in land deterioration but eventually, loss of water quality and deterioration of our aquatic and near-shore environments. We can observe such a ‘degradational cascade’, for example, following replacement of native woodlands with annual pastures. In many instances this has led to increased groundwater recharge, rising saline water tables, intersection of the groundwater table with the land surface, seepage of salt into adjacent streams and migration of that salt downstream. Improvement in land management practice, however, can similarly instigate a reduced rate of degradational processes within the catchment, or a reversal of the effect. Hence the title of this book: Farming Action Catchment Reaction: The Effect of Dryland Farming on the Natural Environment.

The downstream effects of the processes that on-farm management can set in motion are an accumulation of salts, sediments and nutrients and a reduced diversity of aquatic biota. The resultant problems in water quality affect rural dwellers and people who live in our coastal cities and towns. Of equal concern is the sedimentation of near coastal water, pollution of fishing grounds and despoliation of natural environments such as wetlands and the Great Barrier Reef.

Land management and water quality are problems that have stirred both political and ‘grass-roots’ action. Although there is ample evidence of local groups having success in combating degradation at farm and small catchment scale, the overall picture in large catchments such as the Murray-Darling does not reflect these successes. Just why this is the case is open to debate. Some might argue that we are dealing with the legacy of past land management; others that we have not dealt with key issues such as phosphorus inputs to streams from non-point sources; and yet others that we are extracting so much water for irrigation and urban use that we will never be able to achieve optimum water quality These arguments demonstrate that catchment behaviour and condition are complex issues influenced by a plethora of physical, social and economic issues and decisions. We cannot claim to understand all processes operating in catchments, nor the complex interactions between them. It is clear that there will be no quick fix to our catchment management problems and that there are considerable research and development tasks, behavioural adjustments and probably critical evaluation of some of our economic sacred cows ahead of us, if we are going to revitalise many of our inland and coastal water systems.

With this pessimistic beginning, you may well ask is there any hope? Is the situation with many of our catchments so serious that we may simply have to abandon large tracts of once fertile and productive land? Are we paying for the land management mistakes and excesses of our forebears? Do some of the emerging issues such as dryland salinity, in particular, represent the tip of an iceberg? Are our irrigation districts doomed to follow the footsteps of past civilisations based on irrigation once their 100–200 year ‘use-by’ date expires? Will our coastal river systems, like so many European rivers, become increasingly choked with sediment, refuse and chemical pollutants from a wide range of land uses?

The authors of chapters in this book believe that there is hope and it is based on several factors. For example, there have been successes in righting past damage in other countries, and our knowledge of the effects of different farming practices is improving, along with our understanding of key aspects of soil and water movement and in-stream processes. We have also developed computer-based technologies that allow us to model activities and responses across whole catchments and to predict outcomes of various management scenarios. Furthermore, the Landcare movement has mobilised landholders to tackle some of the better understood problems in the field. Examples of their success at farm and local catchment scale are evident across the country.

Indicators of environmental damage and also of recovery are being developed to help manage our resources. In addition, as a nation and at the community level, we recognise the seriousness of the problem and that something has to be done about it. However, two critical issues are currently impeding our progress, as follows.

In natural systems there are frequently long lag times before the beneficial effects of improved land and water management are observed. These lags may amount to decades in the case of sediment and groundwater movement, and sometimes we have to accept that things might get worse before they get better because of slow responses.

Complex interactions mean that any action in a catchment may not have the anticipated result downstream. For example, sediments removed by erosion may move spasmodically through a catchment, being entrained in flows for only short periods, while frequently being held in temporary storages. What happens in each part of a catchment cannot simply be added to the other parts to generate a whole catchment picture. As a result, we do not know how effective on-farm management will be in improving water quality in large catchments.

Australia’s knowledge and skills in the biophysical sciences are among the best in the world. The continuing success of many rural industries is largely the result of genetic improvement programs, and improved production and processing practices. Yields and quality of many crops and animal products have been maintained or improved sufficiently to offset, at least partially, the continued decreases in price paid for many products in international markets. In addition, our knowledge of natural resources and ecosystems has reached a very high level, and, in many areas, so has our ability to manage them. Increasingly, however, this knowledge is indicating that we have been affecting many of our natural systems in ways which are reducing their ability to cope with the effects of farming, and that many of our practices are not sustainable.

This chapter gives a brief overview of various perspectives of the land and water quality problems associated with dryland agriculture, giving an overall context for the book sections that follow.

The problem

According to Hamblin (1992):

Agriculture uses over two thirds of the Australian land mass, and its activities affect all other land uses... Australian agricultural systems may or may not be sustainable, but we have no generally accepted methodology and only partial information for assessing this.

This is the broad context in which farmers and their advisors and research support are attempting to develop and implement production systems.

The meaning of sustainable

It has been said that a problem with the concept of sustainable agriculture is that it means different things to different people. The concept as used here involves the notion of ‘keeping going’. Sustainable agriculture implies that the management practices used are such that the system can be maintained over long periods of time. The biophysical resource base is maintained so that its uses for future generations are not impaired (usually referred to as ecological sustainability) and to ensure that the system is economically and socially viable.

The concern is that current systems of agriculture are reducing the quality of our biophysical resources to the extent that their capacity to maintain productivity and use at current levels is being compromised. Although it is not possible to make a definitive statement on what practices are sustainable, the extensive land degradation in rural Australia is evidence that many current farming practices clearly are not sustainable.

Deleterious effects of dryland farming on the land

Changes and decline in soil biota

Caused by: change in soil condition as a result of cultivation, a decline in organic matter which provides the food source, and the application of herbicides and other pesticides.

Soil organisms are critical to the breakdown of organic matter and the cycling of nutrients, and also perform a variety of other important functions. Decline in their total biomass, loss of species diversity and/or the favouring of particular species groups (e.g. herbicides can affect the balance between fungi and bacteria) can cause loss of important processes.

Loss of habitat and exotic invasions

Caused by: clearing and grazing which has reduced the area of native vegetation and the associated fauna. Exotics have invaded native vegetation from farm land and fragmentation has interrupted ecosystem function. In addition, remnant native vegetation has been affected by salinisation and the use of pesticides.

Biodiversity at continental scale has been reduced by extinctions, and locally by the loss of characteristic species and communities. Changes to natural ecosystems have also disrupted population dynamics and allowed some pest species to have a greater effect.

Nutrient decline

Caused by: removal of nutrients in agricultural products, leaching and erosion, and the addition of insufficient fertilisers, composts and manures to replace lost nutrients. Loss of organic matter through frequent cultivation and insufficient replenishment reduces the nutrient holding capacity of the topsoil and exacerbates leaching losses.

Loss of nutrients leads to reduced plant yield, produce quality (e.g. grain protein) and animal vigour.

Pollution by pesticides

Caused by: use of chemicals to control weeds and pests in crops and pastures and to maintain animal health.

These have affected small areas, such as around dips, for many decades. The problems have increased with increased mechanisation and broadacre cropping and, more recently, with minimum tillage. Use of chemicals can increase the incidence of root disease, induce weed resistance, reduce nitrogen fixation and nutrient uptake, and affect the soil biota.

Pollution by heavy metals

Caused by: application of fertilisers with increased cadmium concentrations and sewage sludge containing heavy metals. Inputs are minor and restricted to small areas, but locally can be a problem.

Soil acidification

Caused by: mineralisation of fertiliser ammonium and atmospheric nitrogen fixed by legumes, followed by leaching of nitrate not then utilised by plants, and associated cations; alkali export in products such as lucerne hay, grains, meat and wool.

Acidification reduces crop and pasture productivity through removal of nutrient cations, decreased availability of phosphorus and the increased availability of toxic elements such as aluminium and manganese.

Soil loss

Caused by: exposing the soil surface to wind and water movement and reducing surface roughness and soil aggregate stability.

Wind, sheet and rill erosion removes surface soil which usually has a higher organic matter and nutrient status than the subsurface soil; with the result that productivity is decreased as plants are established in the less fertile subsurface soil; soil water-holding capacity is reduced and ultimately the soil resource is depleted. Gully erosion makes paddocks less trafficable.

Soil structural decline

Caused by: compaction by machinery and animals, inappropriate cultivation (too often or under too wet conditions) and inappropriate grazing management (too high stocking rates for pasture condition). Loss of organic matter is a major factor.

Loss of structure reduces the capacity of the soil to store water and can directly inhibit root and shoot growth; increased erosion can occur as a result of the increased runoff and reduction in plant cover.

Waterlogging and salinisation

Caused by: changes to components of the water cycle through replacement of deep-rooted perennial species by annual plants; salinisation is a problem when changes in the pathways of water movement occur where salts are stored in the regolith.

Reduces or prevents growth of crop and pasture plants; increased erosion can occur through lack of plant cover and increased runoff in salted areas.

Why has degradation occurred?

Research into the natural environment over the past two to three decades has been partly responsible for change in our understanding of agricultural systems. Rather than being regarded as different and separate from the ‘natural environment’, we now perceive agricultural systems to be governed by the same ecological principles and processes that apply in natural landscapes. Agricultural systems are modified ecosystems, for which the term ‘agroecosystem’ has been coined. The broad processes involved in ecosystem functioning are the movement of energy, water and nutrients. In agricultural landscapes, the introduction of farming practices has not only resulted in direct change to the biota, with a loss of native plants, animals and the introduction of exotics, both desirable and pest, but has also had a marked effect on these processes. As a result, their rates and patterns vary considerably from those which existed before the particular farming systems were established. Changes in these processes have, in turn, had a further effect on soil and land properties, in many cases reducing their capacity to support previous levels of growth and yield as well as the same variety of plants and animals.

Now we realise that agricultural systems are governed by the same ecological processes that operate in the landscape as a whole, we have become aware of the interconnections between the various system components. Processes of water, nutrient and energy transfer result in integration of the vegetation, land and water resources. We cannot alter these processes in one part of the catchment, without it having ramifications in other parts as the system establishes new balances.

How the production system interacts with water and nutrient cycles, and the implications of these interactions for longer-term stability and sustainability, has been neglected previously or studied in isolation from the production system. The focus on short-term soil, plant and/or animal productivity and neglect for other components of the ecosystem, has been a primary cause of land degradation. The first step in our search for ecologically sustainable agriculture is to consider the agricultural production system in the context of the landscape in which it occurs.

Effects of agriculture on the land resource

Major direct effects of agriculture can be linked to the underlying processes which have been altered. So, for example, increased waterlogging and salinity result from changing the fluxes of water associated with different components of catchment water cycles; structure and erosion have declined as a result of reducing the protective cover of soils and increasing their exposure; and addition of chemicals has led to pollution.

Agriculture has a long list of effects on land resources although each effect is not of equal seriousness. Ranking land degradation phenomena for severity, however, is fruitless. It is nearly impossible to quantify the effects of each form of degradation on ‘productive capacity’ of the land because of the difficulty in separating effects of land degradation from those of rainfall variations, crop breeding and other influential factors. A list of the major effects, along with a few key features, is given in the box Deleterious effects of dryland farming on the land.

There is considerable variation in the degree to which each of these land degradation phenomena are documented and/or understood. The forms of degradation and their seriousness have also tended to change with time. This reflects both changes in agricultural systems as well as the long time-spans necessary for some processes to produce a noticeable effect. From the late 19th century until after the Second World War, for example, soil erosion was the prominent concern. Concerted effort by the state soil conservation agencies and the relative control of rabbit populations reduced the acute seriousness of soil erosion, although erosion can still be a major problem, especially following infrequent intense rain and wind storms. On-farm soil conservation measures are now widespread in the dryland farming areas, and range from structural works, such as banks, to tillage and cover strategies.

In the last 50 years, soil acidification, waterlogging and salinisation, soil structure decline, weed invasions and an overall threat to our biological diversity have emerged as critical. There are likely to be other concerns in the future. All of these deleterious processes threaten the sustainability of Australia’s dryland farming and, along with pesticide and metal pollution, pose a serious ‘public relations’ threat to the clean green image of Australia’s farm produce. The extent and severity of this pollution in Australia appears to be slight, particularly when compared with other countries, but is nevertheless very real. This was seen in the imposition of bans on Australian export beef by the United States and Japan when above-zero levels of the pesticide chlorfluazuron were detected in meat after cattle were fed contaminated crop waste during a drought.

Effects of agriculture on water resources

We judge Australia’s water resource by its quantity and quality. The quantity is largely controlled by the amount and timing of rainfall, the amount of storage in reservoirs, and the amount taken for domestic, industrial and agricultural consumption. The quantity of water available for storage is affected by vegetation cover, but this effect is most marked in lower rainfall environments and small catchments (e.g. those supplying farm dams) for small rainfall events. In large catchments with high rainfalls, the effect of vegetation cover on runoff rate and amount is likely to be small in comparison with the effects of rainfall amount and intensity, although data on stream discharges prior to clearing are generally not available to test this hypothesis.

We are profligate users of water. On average we use 21 000 GL of fresh water every year, over 70% of which is used for irrigation (Cullen and Bowmer 1995). In southern Australia, this has reversed normal flow patterns (i.e. rivers are full to the banks in summer as they deliver irrigation water and are low in winter as storages are replenished). This has had profound consequences for the ecology of waterways, including favouring exotic species such as carp (Cullen and Bowmer 1995). Elsewhere, overextraction has diminished total flows and helped stimulate the development of blue-green algal blooms where nutrients are available. While this book does not deal with the direct effects of irrigation, the effect of water extraction for irrigation on catchment health cannot be ignored. We also need to be aware that, if irrigation levels stay constant, other well-intentioned catchment management actions might have unexpected adverse reactions. For example, we can envisage scenarios where major tree planting schemes to combat local salinisation, or for purely economic reasons, might use more water and reduce the inflow of fresh water to streams, exacerbating the already low flows in some catchments. Elsewhere, in different environmental settings, well-located tree planting may have advantages in reducing the accession of saline waters to river systems.

Water quantity can be substantially affected by the nature of vegetation cover in a catchment. Runoff from exposed soil carries sediment, organic matter, phosphorus, nitrogen, metals and pesticides. Some of these materials reach rivers, lakes, wetlands, reservoirs, estuaries and the ocean. Salinisation of soil and water results from converting forests and woodlands to crops and pastures. Water quality, however, is not just affected by the state of the land. Most rivers are formed in sediment, and the state of that sediment is crucial to the quality of river water. If the banks and river bed are unstable because of grazing, clearing, exotic species or pollution, then the river water will be muddy and possibly unusable. The construction of weirs and reservoirs has produced large and sometimes shallow bodies of still and often warm water, ideal for the growth of cyanobacteria. Maintaining high quality water is vital but poses numerous management problems. The box Deleterious effects of dryland farming on water resources gives a brief summary of key forms of water quality decline.

Deleterious effects of dryland farming on water resources


Caused by: acidification in surrounding soils.

The extent and effects of this phenomenon are unknown, although some streams (e.g. in northern Victoria) show a steady decrease in the pH of their water, attributed to the acidification of surrounding soil.


Eutrophication is nutrient enrichment that can result in excessive growth of algae and macrophytes. Growth is stimulated by runoff containing phosphorus and nitrogen, while certain types of organic matter can be a food source for sulfate-reducing bacteria which can be involved in the release of phosphorus from storage in bed sediments. Eutrophication can be exacerbated by water body management strategies and reduction in river flows due to irrigation.

Loss of habitat and exotic invasions

Caused by: clearing and grazing of riparian zones, and the introduction of exotic plants. This has not only had a marked effect on the native riparian flora and fauna, but has also influenced the aquatic biota through changes to habitat (e.g. from changes to the microclimate or addition of sediment from bank erosion) and to the type, amount and seasonality of organic matter (food supply) added to streams.

Pesticide pollution

Caused by: direct accessions of pesticides from aerial spraying or from drift from spraying close to water bodies; indirect accession in runoff water, often with pesticide attached to organic and mineral particles.


Caused by: movement of salt from salinised land or the direct seepage of saline groundwater to rivers through their beds and banks.

Increasing salinity of water can limit its use for domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes; it can also be deleterious to the aquatic biota.

Turbidity and sedimentation

Caused by: erosion of river banks and sheet, rill and gully erosion. Turbidity is exacerbated by the naturally very fine clays in Australian soils.

Sediments increase the need for water treatment and the fine sediments carry phosphorus, metals and pathogens. Sedimentation reduces the storage capacity of dams and reservoirs and affects the ecology of streams, estuaries and near-shore habitats.

Joint effects

Not only have different forms of degradation become important, but managing one type of land degradation may affect another as different forms of deterioration can be related to the same underlying processes. For example, farming practices which increase stubble retention, retain organic carbon, improve soil structure and increase soil water infiltration and storage while reducing runoff and potential erosion, are considered highly beneficial. Under some circumstances, however, these practices can promote acidification and groundwater recharge which may ultimately lead to waterlogging and salinisation. The problem is that soil structure, erosion, acidification and salinity are all related to components of the water cycle. Managing water fluxes to deal with one problem will change the flux of water associated with other components and so may exacerbate the other forms of deterioration. It is also possible for different processes of deterioration to interact, with one leading to another. So, for example, dryland salinisation leads to plant stress and decline, which allows serious erosion, sediment input to streams and the release of sediment-attached nutrients, thereby adding to the potential for eutrophication. Acidification, structural decline and pesticide contamination could also have similar effects. Consequently farm and catchment management has to be ‘holistic’, a factor recognised in the development of integrated catchment management, but sometimes overlooked at farm level.

Economic effects

There are at least three ways land degradation can have an economic effect:

costs of production forgone because of degradation;

costs of reclaiming past damage; and

costs associated with decreasing capital value of land and reduction in aesthetic appeal.

It is difficult to quantify these costs accurately. Costs of lost production run into hundreds of millions of dollars with acidification, soil salinisation and soil structural decline being the major current causes. The costs of reclaiming all past damage, even if this were considered feasible, are probably inestimable.

Changing perceptions of the problem

Historical perspective The development of Australian dryland farming systems is the story of the continued attempt by farmers, and later those involved in research and extension, to manage our different landscapes and their processes to produce food and fibre. From the start, managing our landscapes has not proved easy. While with current knowledge we now understand that many practices are leading to land degradation, production successes achieved are a tribute to the ingenuity, persistence and hard work of many individuals.

The early farmers and squatters encountered many problems in their agricultural endeavours. They managed their land under the same climatic constraints as current farmers, and often under similar economic constraints, with a lack of necessary capital or with large debts from land purchase. They faced similar pressures to maximise yields and minimise costs. Although many farming and grazing practices were imported from England, they were frequently modified to suit Australian conditions. For example, while rotations with pasture and manuring phases were common in Europe, continuous cropping tended to be practised in early farming in Australia. Here farmers found weeds rapidly grew in rested land and there were no nutritional benefits because native pastures lack the legumes necessary to restore lost nitrogen (Barr and Cary 1992). The early phase of agriculture was one of exploitative cropping and grazing, without fertiliser inputs.

In response, within a few years of the introduction of agriculture, there was often a reduction in pasture quality, soil fertility and crop yields, and an increase in soil erosion and other soil structural problems. These problems did not go unnoticed. For example, writing in

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