A saline solution

Location: Kellerberrin, WA.

Enterprise: Sheep – prime lamb; wool; cropping – wheat barley

Producer: Murray Clement

Soil type: Range from medium to heavy clay; some saline areas

Pasture type: Saltbush, some medic

A researcher visiting Murray Clement’s farm at Kellerberrin in Western Australia a few years ago gave the producer a new perspective on his challenging saline soils. 

Murray said, “He told me I didn’t have a salt problem, I had a salt opportunity. Now, I reckon that’s true.” 

Murray came to the realisation via saltbush, a forage plant initially introduced for a local Landcare demonstration in 2005-06 and now considered instrumental in maintaining production through climate variability. 

“I guess productivity is different things to different people. But if I can turn bare and degraded saline country into country that I can run stock on, then I reckon that’s improving productivity,” Murray said. 

Murray freely admits he was initially badgered into planting saltbush. But now it’s hard to imagine anyone being more passionate about old man saltbush or the research Dr Hayley Norman is conducting. 

“We put the first saltbush in around 2005–06 as part of a demonstration that Glenis Bachelor was organising for the local Landcare group. Glenis was the Natural Resource Management Officer and I had a lot of respect for the work she was doing, so I eventually agreed to give it a go,” Murray said. 

“We had a lot of valley floor salinity – it was very soft country, and was unproductive and eroding. It was so bare it used to blow. It was just horrible.” 

It was into these areas that Murray put the first saltbush seedlings, initially planting river (cultivar Rivermore) and old man saltbush. Small-leaved bluebush naturally populated the area. Sheep were excluded from the area for about a year after the seedlings were planted. 

“We’ve now planted almost 200,000 saltbush seedlings on the property,” Murray said. 

Before the first saltbush were planted, electromagnetic surveys were conducted to determine salinity levels. Murray combined the knowledge gained from those initial surveys with experience gained since to work out where to plant saltbush on his property. He aims to plant around 1,000– 1,500 stems per hectare, and estimates about 150ha have been planted. 

“We plant the seedlings with a Chatfield tree planter – in one pass it deep rips and plants the seedlings. When you deep rip, you want to leave the soil cloddy,” he said. 

“If you’ve got bare, saline country that’s blowing, the best things to do is exclude sheep and plant saltbush around the outside. Deep ripping is an option. If there’s samphire growing, it’s too salty for saltbush – but that area won’t be blowing anyway.” 

More than saltbush 

Murray doesn’t just plant the saltbush and walk away. He sees it as the lynchpin in a whole new pasture system. 

“After a year or two, you can go back and plant Rivermore between the old man saltbush and the samphire,” he said. 

“The Rivermore seems to tolerate greater waterlogging and we seem to be able to sneak it further into the saline areas than we can the old man. And because it’s more prostrate, it catches whatever seeds are blowing through – native seeds, ryegrass, all sorts of things. It creates a microclimate for the annuals to grow in.” 

It is important to control weeds when establishing saltbush. For Murray, that means controlling ice plant. 

“It’s no good if ice plant becomes the dominant understorey. However, I have found that it can be controlled using herbicide. 

“We’re now working on growing Yagan barley, which is an old variety, in the area near the saltbush. In those saline areas, it’s important to get a quick-maturing barley variety and plant it as late as you can. That gives you the best chance of a reasonable harvest. Barley is a better option in saline areas than wheat – it tolerates more salt.” 

Productive saltland 

The productive saltland that Murray has created using saltbush as a base was instrumental in getting the farm through the dry, difficult seasons of 2010 and 2011. 

“Most of the ewes spent the whole of last year in saltbush. The lambs did well and the ewes went in to the summer in really good condition. Our lambing percentage was around 90% and we had very little tender-wool. I was happy with that – it was a difficult season and feed was at a premium,” Murray said. 

“I think the biggest negative with saltbush was the low nutrient level and palatability, and Hayley Norman is addressing that now with the new saltbush cultivars that she’s working on. I have tremendous respect for that work, and for Hayley herself. She’s a world-renowned scientist and she makes her research relevant to our bottom line.” 

Lessons learned 

  • Plant saltbush around the edge of bare saline areas and exclude sheep during establishment. 
  • Rainfall will always determine the stocking rate. 
  • Different approaches, and different plants, are needed for areas with different salinity. 
  • Barley tolerates more salinity than wheat. Plant a quick-maturing variety as late as possible.
Kellerberrin, WA.
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