Cotton grower Andrew Watson, named one of Australia's top 10 young environmental leaders by The Weekend Australian in 2009, has a longstanding interest in biodiversity.
Two years before receiving the environmental award, Andrew and wife Heike bought Kilmarnock, a property at Boggabri in north-west New South Wales, from Watson’s parents, who’d completed large-scale revegetation works at Kilmarnock, including extensive riparian restoration of 35 kilometres along the Namoi River bank a few years prior.
Since taking over the property in 2007, Andrew and Heike have expanded on his parents’ efforts, investing in farm-wide plantings of useful native vegetation.
The idea is to provide suitable habitats for beneficial insects, micro-bats and birds that can help control crop pests, reducing the Watsons’ reliance on pesticides.
Andrew and Heike manage around 6,000 hectares of land: 1,400ha of it is owned; the balance is leased and share-farmed. Around 2,000ha is irrigated for crops, a further 2,400ha is used to grow cotton. The Watsons also grow wheat and barley, and lease 300ha to Andrew’s parents for beef grazing.
“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,” says Andrew, who was NSW Farmers’ Young Farmer of the Year in 2004 and Cotton Australia’s Monsanto National Cotton Grower of the Year in 2008.
Using North West Local Land Services (LLS) funding from the NSW State Government’s Catchment Action NSW program, the Watsons have been working with University of New England (UNE) PhD students examining ecosystems and comparing beneficial insects, birds and bats as part of the Native Vegetation as Pest Control Project.
The project aims to further knowledge of the role native vegetation plays as habitat for natural pest-control agents; and the potential impact on growers' profits of planting suitable native vegetation on-farm.
"There are three UNE projects now on our property and others, which North West Local Land Services is helping to fund,” Andrew says. “They're really important because they inform us how what we believe works does actually work.
Angela Baker, Senior Land Services Officer, Natural Resource Management, North West Local Land Services (LLS), concurs.
“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,” she says.
The good news
Working with the UNE researchers has been a positive experience for the Watsons, deepening their understanding of how the native vegetation they’ve planted is reducing their pest problems.
“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,” says Andrew Watson.
“It's found that if these animals feel they can escape somewhere when their predators – like bigger birds – come, 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.”
Initially, Andrew says, they measured ‘good’ and ‘bad’ insects, writing up the findings weekly, to see whether fruit counts were keeping up despite pest damage. “We believed that we were sustaining a good fruit load, but now we’re starting to understand why,” he says. “And that’s changed because of the research that has been conducted on our farm and some other farms.”
Andrew said he and his family had more than met their aim of reducing their reliance on chemical pesticides by planting more, and more suitable native vegetation farm-wide.
“Since 2007, I have done a maximum total of one full-pass spray,” he says. “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.”
The Watsons are now working towards improving the fertiliser balance on-farm. “We want to rely more on the natural process and less on chemical fertilisers,” Andrew says.
“It's the same philosophy but that’s the next step.”
Meanwhile, the UNE researchers will be investigating where beneficial insects go in the ‘off season, how soon they return, and which tracts of native and surrounding vegetation they come from.
Andrew said this will inform them on how best to encourage greater numbers of useful critters.
Find out more about how native revegetation can help your farming operation’s bottom line at the NSW Government’s Department of Environment.
Source: NSW Local Land Services (LLS), North West Division: read the original article here.