Tim Wright – Why On Earth? Using Farm Animals to Regenerate the Land

Tim Wright regenerative farmer, holistic manager, educator and soon to be published author joins me to discuss regenerative agriculture. There are important things to learn from this episode, whether you are living in the country or city, we are all dependent on agriculture for the food we consume. Tim's family have been connected with the land since the first settlers, so he has deep roots with the land. Today, Eastern Australia is going through the worst drought in our history, if ever there was a time to build resilience this is it.

Tim Wright – Why On Earth? Using Farm Animals to Regenerate the Land Introduction

Identifying and minimizing the effect of stress on our health, and then focusing on pillars of health to build resilience is a theme we revisit in different forms on this podcast. Also, exploring what ‘holistic’ actually means is another one. I’m also pretty passionate about increasing the understanding of those of us in the city as to what goes on for people in the country. Growing the food, the nutrient dense food, and ideally low or no chemical food we need to be healthy.

Well, my guest today is Tim Wright, regenerative farmer, holistic manager, educator, and soon to be author … a published author, whose family has been connected with the land since the time of the first settlers in Australia. Living on the land and managing that land in Australia’s climate is challenging at the best of times. I mean, I’ve lost count of the droughts that have occurred in the last 50 or 60 years, but today eastern Australia is going through the worst drought in our history.

So, if there was ever a time to build resilience, or to hope you already had done it, this would have to be it. There are some important lessons to learn, and things to be aware of, so I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Tim Wright.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Hello, and welcome to Unstress. I’m Dr Ron Ehrlich. Identifying and minimizing the effect of stress on our health, and then focusing on pillars of health to build resilience is a theme we revisit in different forms on this podcast. Also, exploring what ‘holistic’ actually means is another one. I’m also pretty passionate about increasing the understanding of those of us in the city as to what goes on for people in the country. Growing the food, the nutrient dense food, and ideally low or no chemical food we need to be healthy.

Well, my guest today is Tim Wright, regenerative farmer, holistic manager, educator, and soon to be author … a published author, whose family has been connected with the land since the time of the first settlers in Australia. Living on the land and managing that land in Australia’s climate is challenging at the best of times. I mean, I’ve lost count of the droughts that have occurred in the last 50 or 60 years, but today eastern Australia is going through the worst drought in our history.

So, if there was ever a time to build resilience, or to hope you already had done it, this would have to be it. There are some important lessons to learn, and things to be aware of, so I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Tim Wright. Welcome to the show, Tim.

Tim Wright: Thank you. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Tim, I wanted to talk to you today about regenerative agriculture and holistic management of the land, but I think it would be good to set the scene, ’cause you come from a long line of farmers, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that story, a little bit about the traditional approach to farming in Australia.

Tim Wright: Well, gee, we go back a bit there, Ron. My family comes back through a long line. I guess they’re the first settlers. They brought the first Herefords into Australia. They also started the first winery at Wyndham Estate Winery. That’s the oldest winery in Australia. And my family, Wright married a Wyndham, and that’s how it started. Then they went to Queensland and then came back to the Northern Tablelands, because of the climate I guess. And they settled on the eastern side.

I guess my family has been in the agricultural side for quite a few generations, really. And on the closest side to my family, my grandfather was involved with the University of New England, and he was the chancellor there for a number of years, and he instigated Rural Science, the degree, along with a couple of other farmers as well. But, he was one of the main ones behind it with Professor Bill McClymont, who’s now deceased, but.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I know that name very well because of two very dear friends of mine, Vicki and Tim Poulter, Vicki McClymont, of course. It runs in the history.

Tim Wright: That’s right, yeah. Yeah, so my father got on well with Bill, and I think … We’re talking about agriculture and where it’s sitting, I think it was on the right path, definitely, back in those days, ’cause they were teaching … Rural Science was everything in one. And now, it’s 100% silo thinking. They’re all in their own little faculties, all fighting for funds and most of the funds, most of it is research, which is dominated by corporates. And it’s so sad because there’s no outward thinking. Students aren’t really taught to think outwardly. More inwardly, I think, than anything.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: When you reflect back on how agriculture was, I don’t know, in your grandfather’s day, 50, 60 years ago, things were good? Things were more, what? In tune with the land?

Tim Wright: I think so, yeah. It was definitely a challenging time in the sense that the … Even back then, I can remember my father going … running and chairing a meeting in Armadale, and it was to do with the cost-price squeeze. We refer to it now as the decline in terms of trade. That’s sort of the term. In other words, our cost of production is overriding the returns we’re getting. And so, you’re flat out breaking even, and that’s how it was when I took over in 1980.

I graduated from Orange. I got a diploma down there. I also did UNE economics at university went off and did the farm management course, which was good, but it was … In hindsight, there was a lot of good stuff, but I had to basically close the door on most of it, because it was traditional farming, and I could see that I was locked into this cost-price squeeze. We weren’t changing, we were still marking time. We were still making hay, sowing crops, sowing pastures, putting out fertilizers, drenching. And when you think about it, it’s all about spending money. I should be saving money, not spending all that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Right, at the end of the day, it’s not just about covering the cost. It’s actually moving somewhat ahead.

Tim Wright: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. I needed to change, and I could see that … It always takes an incident, such as a drought, and droughts are generally the ones that change peoples’ thinking because they either realize that if they don’t change, they’re going be out of business. It was the ’82 drought, which was way better, and it was regarded as the worst drought. Worse than ’65, and all the other ones how farmers talk about. But the ’82 drought was 100 mils, 150 mils more recorded at Lana than what we got this … during 2018.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. We’re going to talk a lot about this current drought, ’cause I know it’s incredibly challenging, but I’m just intrigued to take you back to those times of ’82, and that I remember, of course, I thought it was Bob Hawke that had solved the drought problem, but it was probably a lot more complicated than that.

Tim Wright: Yeah. All prime ministers will hang their hat on it. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, yeah, but things were bad in ’82, worse than ’65, but not as bad as today. What was going on, on the land there, for you, the … How were things being done, that you felt you needed to change?

Tim Wright: Well, the big thing, the main thing was, I’m in the livestock game, and the main thing that I had to change was I had to stop the bleeding. This was something I’d learned over the last few years, or 20 odd years, is you’ve got to stop the bleeding.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: The bleeding? The bleeding?

Tim Wright:  The bleeding? Yeah. How big a Band-Aid do we have … you know?

Dr Ron Ehrli  Yep.

Tim Wright: How big a suture? Are we in major surgery or what? That’s how I look at it. Medically. In terms of money going out the door. That’s the bleeding, and it’s the blood going out. And it is, it’s genuine, and I was … Basically, it took me five years to recover financially, and at least that time for the land to recover, because of the bare ground, and the fact it was harder, and the pastures were buggered, and I had to resew, and all this stuff, because … basically because, I didn’t know how to manage drought alternatively to hay and grain, and buying, or selling.

I went through the process. I sold old stock. You don’t hang on to that sort of thing, and your bare core, but all the hay and stuff I had in the shed, that all went within the first six months or less, and then I was buying in, thinking, “Oh yeah, it will be all right.” And it wasn’t. But the stock was still in the same paddocks and they were flogging it out. It was just dirt like you see on a lot of the farms now.

What was really missing was a grazing plan, and I was never taught that. No one really knew it… Even now, most people don’t know what a true grazing plan is. The plan is how to forward plan your paddocks so that you’ve got rest, and so it will start coming back, and so you’re not over-grazing, and you’re not … So there’s stock moving onto fresh paddocks. That’s how I’ve done it this time.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: The model that you were stocking your barns with six months’ worth of hay and … That would have been a fairly typical approach. Is that how people typically prepare? They always, every year, tuck away about, what? Three months, six months, 12 months’ worth of hay? How much can you tuck away?

Tim Wright: Well, generally it’s six months. I’d say most people would say they can put in for … One year. Yeah, some people can do that, and then they’ll go silage, they’ll go underground. And there are some fellas that might have done that over the years, and they’ve … But they don’t all add up now, ’cause it does store for a long time, and it’s 50-50 on the quality of it. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good, but [inaudible 00:10:44] on what’s happened there, whether the water’s got into the pits, and all that sort of thing, over the years.

But the thing is, all that thinking, it’s a cost. A huge cost. And so, people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got all the hay here,” but you’ve got to look at the opportunity cost or the marginal reaction. That’s our term for it. What’s the opportunity cost? You could sell that hay for three times the price of what you made it for in a drought if it was an enterprise. But if you lock it into going towards your running a few cows, you’ve got to cost that against your breeding enterprise, and you can’t. You’re flat out breaking even. You couldn’t do it, and no one costs it in.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: People actually dig a pit and put grain in there, and bury it for … in the same way as they would store hay in a barn?

Tim Wright:  Yep. And hay. Grass. They put pasture away in silage form. Sometimes they’ll bury grain as well, in a pit, but generally, that’s in a silo. What I’m looking at, is it’s not the hay or the grain, it’s the opportunity cost of that grain and hay. Farmers don’t think that way, but it’s relative to your enterprise. If you’re doing … No matter what your business is. If you run a book shop or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to cost your … You’ve got to put it against your business, haven’t you?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yep. Yeah.

Tim Wright: No one does that. They just say, “Oh well, we’ll just see, and we’ll go to the government and get more money, or bring it across from Western Australia.” That is the biggest Band-Aid. It’s a good social thing. It’s more of a social event, and I don’t decry that. I think it’s a good thing for farmers to get out and talk, but it’s not helping them in the future. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now, Tim, I first heard your name, and I mentioned my dear friends, and I consider them my mentors in farming, Vicki and Tim Poulter, and then I read about you in Charles Massy’s fabulous book, The Call of the Reed Warbler, and something happened in 1989 that changed things for you quite dramatically. I wonder if you might share that with us. What was it? Why was it so important to you?

Tim Wright: Well, it was important because the interest rates were going up, the costs of production were still … I was very conscious … I was just fortunate that I’d learned economics basically. I think it’s something all farmers should learn. At least some form of economic training, so they learn the basics of supply and demand, and the costs relative to your business, and your business skills. That’s why I’m trying to get some management skills back into agriculture because it’s very lacking … severely lacking, but it was basically the cost of production relative to our returns.

The wool market was fairly low, I’d be lucky to get $300, $400 for a weaned calf, and the wages kept going up. That was at a time when Hawke was … His effects were going on, and wages were going up nearly all the time, every second month, and so I had to look at ways to eliminate the major costs. I was looking for alternatives. I was looking, but I knew that what I’d learned was not bad, but it wasn’t where I wanted to go.

I guess, the other thing here, the catalyst, was the fact that my time at Orange was … The most I got out of it, apart from good times, was the fact that I was learnt to question. I learnt how you’ve got to question what goes on. Every second week we were out on a bloke’s farm, and we were questioning him, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?” And we would have to go back and write a report, and so we learned to question what was going on. Not saying it was all bad, but we had to reason why. And my father did that way too. He said, “Well, always question what you’re doing. You don’t take it for granted that what you do today is going to be the same tomorrow.” Every day is different.

That was the catalyst. If I didn’t learn that, then maybe I wouldn’t have … I would have muddled along and then probably, may not be here, because of the costs. But I questioned it, and I was looking for alternatives, and along came this fellow called Stan Parsons, arrived in Armadale, and I had no idea. He just wrote a little article saying, “Do you want to save your enterprise from going bankrupt?”

Dr Ron Ehrlich: That would get your attention, I imagine.

Tim Wright: Yeah. Just the simple, basic stuff, and he was a great analogist, very switched on, and he was an economist, so I really warmed to him. I spent $100 on this day, and I thought, wow, that’s a lot of money to go and listen to some bloke for a few hours, in those days, but it’s the best $100 I’ve ever spent, and I mention that to nearly every group of people I see, I say, “That $100 was the cheapest money ever spent, because it’s completely changed my thinking, and when I walked out the door, there was six … “

There was only eight of us, I think. Six or eight farmers, and out of that, there’s two that have changed in the last 10 years. Three of those have now changed in the last five to 10 years, down my track, what I’ve done, but I was the only one that took it on.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: What was it? What was the key message?

Tim Wright: The key message was reducing the cost of production. He basically said that “70 to 80% of your costs, indirect costs, are land and labour-related,” and I just never forget that, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve cut my costs back by much the same. Around 70%.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Land and labour-related.

Tim Wright: Yes. If you’re sewing pasture, putting out fertilizer, spraying weeds, spraying thistles. All that stuff is land, and then you’ve got your labour, your costs, your time into it. Or your contractors, or whatever you’re doing; land and labour. And labour’s bigger than the land side to it. It’s always the biggest one. I concentrated on that side all the time, I just use contract labour now, and casual, and that’s it. Yeah, and I don’t have any of those big costs anymore; superannuation, workers’ comp, and all that. I don’t deal with any of that stuff.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yep. Now, listen, the word holistic is an important word. It’s informed my professional life for the last 30 years, but … and many people have some funny ideas about what it actually means. I mean, to some people, it’s some kind of new age philosophy, and I know Allan Savory is somebody that’s had an impact on your life. I first listened to him a few years ago, and I realized that there were so many similarities between a holistic approach to health and a holistic approach to the land and food production. Can you tell us a little bit about what that might be? Yeah, for the land and food production?

Tim Wright: Well, all I can do, all I can say really, is that in my opinion, the definition of holistic thinking is … I draw the analogy of an orange or a mandarin. Now, when you peel that, let’s call it a mandarin, you won’t make as much mess. When you peel your mandarin, you’re left with segments that are linked together, but you’ve got to pull them apart, haven’t you?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Wright: It’s about managing the whole, so the whole is that piece of fruit before you have interfered with it. And then you have got the segments, and every segment represents a part of the whole, obviously, and that’s what focuses us on thinking holistically because we could have a livestock leg, we could have a lambs leg, we could have an ecological … We have all these different segments, but one affects the other as if we don’t get the water cycle right, we don’t get regeneration of our trees. Only today, we’re screaming about cattle being out in the open with no trees, and that’s going get worse, not better because management isn’t allowing regeneration to happen. That’s a simple example.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: How is that received by your peers? By the other farmers out there?

Tim Wright: They accept it, but they won’t budge. They don’t say, “Well, you’ve already done it. You get the rain, or … ” Or come up with some pathetic excuse, or it would be like Bullshit Barnaby, and he’ll say, “Oh, it’s just the cold.” He came to a field up here. I don’t know if I mentioned it to you earlier, but he came to a field out here.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: This is Barnaby Joyce, our former deputy prime minister, your local member.

Tim Wright: Yeah. Before he got there, before he became a member, and he was in the box seat to learn here, and he walked away. The group of us who ran the show, which was done through Landcare, we said, “We’ll let Barnaby say a word or two, but that’s it.” Anyway, he just waffled on about nothing when he did say something, but the guy who took him back to the aeroplane, he told me later, he said … If you knew him, he came from St George, in Queensland, so he took him back to the plane, and he said, “Oh, what Tim’s doing is a cult.”

Dr Ron Ehrlich: God.

Tim Wright: He literally said it was a cult. Now, if he’d picked up, just take five seconds to think about what we were on about, and question, why is it there were busloads? A couple of hundred people were here. Why is it people were wanting…? All he had to do was ask, why? But he didn’t.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, well, I think this could be one of the things that are very similar to healthcare and land management, and that is there is a very strong influence coming from industry that gets the ear of government, but some common sense, sometimes falls well short and is dismissed as a cult.

Tim Wright: Yeah. That’s right. And basically, the way I see it if someone says it’s a cult, that immediately means to me that they don’t understand. That’s their quick way out. It’s just like an escape route, where they’ve opened the gate and they’ve run, and they called it a cult, and they, “See you later.” Haven’t faced the music and tried to understand what’s going on.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:  Now, Tim, I know when we first spoke last week, you said, “This drought that’s affecting Eastern Australia now, is the worst drought in history,” and it’s a word we hear a lot in Australia, but for us in the city, the word, drought, means water restrictions and some terrible things, Tim, like you can’t use a sprinkler on your garden, or when it’s really bad, you can’t wash your car. But if we go back to basics, what actually constitutes a drought? How do we define it? You just look out your window and go, “Gee, it hasn’t rained for a while; the land looks terrible,”?

Tim Wright: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’ll say, most droughts are manmade. Okay? They’ve got to look at it … I look at it in that light, where we have very extreme, dry seasons, and that’s … A couple of years ago, we had another dry spell, not long ago; Two or three years ago, and 2016 was wet, and I thought it was great. But it’s part and part of living in Australia. We have dry seasons. This time is that it is … the seasons are more hotter and colder. They are more extreme. You have hotter temperatures, and we all agreed, it seemed to be fine. We’re agreeing, that, that’s what’s happening. But a real drought is when the creeks stop running, we go … When the rain doesn’t come when it normally comes. And at that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: The fact that it doesn’t rain is one thing, and you mentioned manmade droughts, so there must but something about how we are leaving the land, that makes it even more vulnerable.

Tim Wright: Yes. Good point. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: What are some of those factors?

Tim Wright: Well, the biggest one is, like if you manage, and I’ll come back to the holistic model, and there are four ecosystem blocks. We’ve got a water cycle. Imagine a house on four legs, four stilts. Right? And each one is very … If one’s not … is shorter than the other, it will fall down. So, you’ve got the water cycle, the mineral cycle, and then on the other side, you’ve got sunlight energy flow, as in photosynthesis transfer of energy, and the other one is what we refer to as community dynamics. In other words, the ecology, to do with ants, and birds, and spiders, and all the things which … Earthworms, and all the things which … The community that we’re managing.

If we’re not managing those, then things got worse, and so drought is an indicator, what we’ve been doing because we haven’t had a proper grazing plan. I mentioned earlier, that in ’82, that we had a problem because it took four years to get out of it, and it’s going to be the same, or more, for most people, at the moment. At least that long. But we bared the land.

Tim Wright: In other words, we hardened the soil and there’s more evaporation, more sunlight hitting the ground, but not hitting the plants. That’s a poor water cycle, and so, when they do get a bit of rain like we might get three mils of rain, but we get growth. I complain and say we haven’t had much rain, but we’ve actually … we still get a bit of growth, because the plants haven’t been damaged, so the animals moved on. They move on twice a week. I move them. And that allows the plants to just sit there, and it allows ground cover. We’ve got to aim for ground cover, hummus in the soil is vital. If you haven’t got hummus, you haven’t got biology, and that’s … this is the community dynamic side to it, and unhealthy soil, we’re buggered. And there are your unhealthy people.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I remember talking recently, to Graham from KLA Marketing, and … Graham Reece and Graham was talking about how quickly water gets absorbed into the soil or runs off, depending on how rich that soil is. The rate at which … I mean, Graham had this incredible statistic that enriched the soil, it penetrates in about 10, 15 seconds, and in unhealthy soil, it could take 15 or 20 minutes, by which time a lot of soil’s been washed away.

Tim Wright: That’s right. Yep. Yep. Yeah, so the ground cover is vital, and so, in drought management, at most droughts … That’s what I was saying, most droughts are manmade. We’re coming back into the next drought quicker than before because we haven’t recovered from the last one in time. bit of a hot, dry time, which is what’s coming up. We’re going to get hotter times, and so it’s vital. It’s so crucial that we have a good ground cover. People say, “How are we going to do that? It’s too late.” Well, it’s not too late. The answer is to go and do a course, understand how to do it, to get a grazing plan, and if it means de-stocking, then that’s what you’ve got to do to allow the land to recover because it’s not going to get any better. It’s going to cost them more.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: When you talk about a grazing plan, I’m picturing myself driving through the countryside in Australia, in New South Wales, and I see these huge paddocks, and I see about 50, 100 head of cattle clustered around one spot.

Tim Wright: Under a tree.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, probably under a tree. And that’s just leaving cattle out there to graze, but your approach is different to that, isn’t it?

Tim Wright: Very different. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: What’s the difference?

Tim Wright: Well, when they’re just left out in the paddock like that, to start with … I’ll start with the water. They generally haven’t got a trough. If they’re lucky, they’d have a water trough. Most of them, they might be in a dam, which is muddy, unoxygenated, sour, and then they’ll walk up to their bellies in it and … because they’ve been there for too long. But there’s less stock.

The thing which really clicked with me, after Stan Parson’s talk on the economic side, he also touched briefly on the power of stock density. Now, it’s a tool no different to your shovel in your paddock … in the veggie garden. It’s a tool. And so, the higher the stock density, the better it works, but you’ve got to have a plan to move them on. This is where the debate of people saying, “Oh, we’ve got too many animals. Not enough … We’ve got to get rid of the cattle and the sheep. They’re causing the problem.” It’s not a problem. It’s the way they’re managed that’s the problem.

Tim Wright: It’s time that we woke up and realized that it’s the way they’re managed. It’s the management, and that’s what is the crucial thing that’s missing, is the lack of understanding of how to manage them. And it was that problem as well, back in the ’80s. After going through and getting my diploma and all the rest of it, I wasn’t given a grazing plan. I wasn’t taught about that. It was just put them in a paddock and hope for the best, and that was so bad because no one had really thought about it, except Allan Savory and a handful of others around the world.

It was Allan who, in his wisdom as a theorist or whatever … He was a park ranger. If you look at his history, and there he was in Zimbabwe, as a park ranger, watching the wildebeest coming and going, and what did he do? Did he ask the question, why? “Why is it that all those thousands of wildebeest, and whatever, have moved on, and I haven’t done a thing? I’ve just sat here under a tree.” He comes back three months later, four months … “Oh, why is they’ve come back, with grass up to their bellies?”

Now, those animals have never been drenched, never vaccinated, never had a damn thing done to them, in a national park. Nothing’s ever happened to them and they’re as healthy as will be, and yet we fool around because we’re settlers in our way. We’re not nomadic like the Aboriginals, but we’re … And there’s another story there. But because we’re not nomadic, we put a fence around them. We lock them in an area.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I think I remember you being quote in Charles Massy’s book as coming back, at one point and saying, “I need more paddock,” and then you realized, actually, you had enough. It was just the way you were managing it. Can you explain that one?

Tim Wright: Yes. I was looking for more paddocks to start with because I didn’t have enough rest. I only had, say, two paddocks, and it wasn’t enough. The stock were in for too long. If you talk to a botanist, a pasture botanist, that is, you’ll learn that grasses need rest, because if they’re over-grazed, then the energy for new shoots to come back, doesn’t come back in time. In other words, you’ve got a window of about a week for those plants to recover, and if it comes back for a second bite … the animal comes back and it’s grown a little bit, which is what happens, the energy comes from the roots, not the plant. It’s like a little engine sitting at the base of your plant, and that’s the fuel tank for the plant, to recover. Now, which …

Dr Ron Ehrlich: So, do you…? Yep. Go on.

Tim Wright:  … in just finishing, if it comes … This is a really important point, because if we understand what’s going on with the plant, then we’ll make adjustments, because under set stocking, or leaving them in for a month, you get over-grazed and underutilized. Huge amounts of land are underutilized. Our farm was probably 60 to 70% underutilized, never been grazed. Only 30, 40 % of it, and it was on the sheep camps. The sweeter part. That’s where the stock lived, and yet, the old, rougher grasses were never touched.

This is where the tool of stock density comes in, so the bigger the number, like Allan saw in Turkey or … not in Turkey, in Zimbabwe, and he saw these animals, and there were huge amounts of manure, dung beetles. It looked a mess, but the land responded, and that’s what it needed. And so away it goes, and so the grasses weren’t overgrazed. They responded quickly with a shower of rain, and they came back, there was healthy soil, earthworms, the whole bit. It was all there.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: How long do you have to rest a paddock, before you bring the cattle back, or the animals back?

Tim Wright: Yeah. That depends on the season. Generally, in summertime, if we’ve got moisture, we would be back in within two months, 60 days, and then in the wintertime, we’ll go out another month. Maybe 70 to 80 days in the winter, and then in drought time, we’ve got to slow it down more, because it’s going to take longer. We come back within maybe three to four months. Yeah. So.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Traditionally, you were, and this was before you learnt this lesson, you would have been doing like so many other farms do, set-stocking, which is overgrazing, underutilizing, then you divvied up your property and moved the animals around. What effect did that have on stock numbers?

Tim Wright: Well, by allowing the plants to recover and be healthier, we also allow the plants to increase in number, in species. We weren’t just dominated by old spear grass and whatever, we had better grasses. That meant that our stocking rate increased, so we nearly doubled our stocking rate.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow. And I’m guessing the land costs that you mentioned; land and labour were the main costs. I guess, just by managing it better, the land costs went down?

Tim Wright: It did. Huge. That’s what I say. 60 to 50% on average. It’s around 70% now, but the big thing that you’ll get thrown at you all the time is, “Oh, I can’t afford to do it.” Right?

Now, I’ve put in huge amounts of fencing, and it’s all permanently fenced. No electricity, because our electric fencing is a cost in time, in trying to fix the faults. A kangaroo will twist the wires up, or it then goes over it. You’re constantly fixing up wire in electric fencing, and that’s a labour cost. So I decided that I would do it all steel, no timber, suspension type fencing, which I could build, and I did it all, and every time I built a new fence or put in a new water trough, which always followed, I got it back within two years.

I always aim to get 100% return on capital within two, and 90% of it came back, I’d say, within one. It’s not a cost, and I looked at it as the cost, initially, was the savings in not doing the super soft state, not doing the drenching. Drenching livestock is once, twice a year. Most people do it every month, and it’s not … And the chemical, most people have got a situation now where the sheep, they’ve got resistance to the drenchers, because they’re drenching so often, and they can’t run sheep.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I’m just trying to picture these eight of you, doing Stan Parsons’ course, all those years ago, and you walking out, making the change, and you said, two or three of the others have now, in the last five years, starting to make that change. I mean, the resistance must be … Don’t people look at your property? Don’t people look at your property and go, “Well, it may be a cult, but I want to be part of it?”

Tim Wright: You’d think so, and when you come through, and you’d be welcome to drive through here and have a look when you come …

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. I’m looking forward to it.

Tim Wright: … up this way. Lecture theatre one is in the woolshed, where I do the intro, and then I say, “We’ll go to lecture theatre two,” and we go through the neighbours, back into Lana again. And two neighbours, both different. One’s cattle and the other’s sheep. And they’re both as bad as each other. One’s a heavy seeper. He puts the seeper on, and he set-stocks all the time, then he just offloads everything. And the other one just set-stocks all the time, and he’s a sheep operator, but it’s like going from … You blink, and you think, “Gosh, where have I been?” You think you’ve been on the moon. You come back into Lana and all of a sudden, there’s tree regeneration, there’s grass a foot high, you know?

Dr Ron Ehrlich:             Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I was kind of …

Tim Wright: These blokes have been watching me for 30 odd years, and he hasn’t changed.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow. Incredible. I was going to say, when it comes to an individual’s health, an important theme of this podcast is always to identify and minimize those things that stress us, or compromise our health, and then build resilience by focusing on some basic pillars of health. It’s a pretty logical model. A lot of what you’ve just said, how does that translate to a farmer and their land? Resilience?

Tim Wright: That’s a good word because resilience is obviously closely linked to regenerative. If you’ve got a regenerative farm, as I think I do have now, and you can see that in the whole ecological cross-section, and I have had ecological studies done here over the years. Quite a lot, actually, using the Botany Department, and it’s all proven scientifically, we have a range of species here. We have everything happening, so it’s functional right across the board, which means that the health of the farms I always healthy, the water is always clean, and you never see any dirty water running off the property, and the stock is healthy, which brings us really, to the ethical side.

We’ve got to start to farm ethically as well as ecologically, and market … The other big thing with this is that finally, the consumers are starting to demand food that is ethically and ecologically sound. There is a movement of … not many of us, but there’s quite a … Regenerative farmers, we want to market our produce that way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah, and I think that’s huge … If money talks, and clearly it does, well, let’s start talking money. Let’s start talking money, and saying, let’s vote with our dollars. Listen, one thing I wanted to also ask you, ’cause I was reading about it today; water management’s a big topic in Australia, and obviously, with everything that’s gone on in the Murray-Darling with the fish kills, it’s a-

Tim Wright: Yeah. Daily.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. What’s your view of that? I mean, water allocations? Are crops like rice and cotton appropriate for this country? We’re so drought susceptible.

Tim Wright: Well, I think they’re appropriate, but they’re in the wrong area. It’s pretty basic. I think it’s time, the billions of dollars that we’re spending on this Murray-Darling Basin inquiry, and they’ve just announced something today, but there’s nothing in it, as far as I can see. From others, I know, who have been involved in it, it’s just a and the governments are sort of … You blame the governments, but we put them there, but the whole thing is. Barnaby Joyce, again, you know, he’s a … I shouldn’t quote too much, but he’s behind a lot of this stuff, growing up there. should be growing up in the Northern Territory somewhere, or maybe up around Cairns, or with higher rainfall.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Tropics. Up in the tropics.

Tim Wright: They grow sugar cane. They should be growing rice. And cotton. Dryland or nothing, because cotton, they actually watered cotton last year, in the heatwave. They were watering it, stopping it from wilting. Huge amounts of water. Now not, obviously, just to make it grow, but just to stop it from dying in the heat. That is not sustainable. Yeah. It doesn’t add up, does it?

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I imagine the water allocations, upstream, must be a very hotly sought after thing? If you can get the water-

Tim Wright: Yep. Always will be. Yeah. Our property, our land here, is the catchment for the to the Murray-Valley Basin, so we haven’t … We’re at the top of the catchment, and we haven’t had run-off here for nearly two years. We’re at the top of the catchment. Cochrane Dam. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but when it’s full, which is probably once in its lifetime, it’s the equivalent of three Sydney Harbours or something, and it’s a huge dam, and it’s only 15 or 10% in an hour about growing cotton out west, and it’s … I work on the concept of matching the enterprise to suit the environment, not the other way around.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Nice one. Yeah.

Tim Wright: Nine times out of ten, we’ve got to change it. It’s not the environment doesn’t suit the enterprise. We used to run beautiful wool-growing sheep out the Western division, and those fellas out there now have got their crops there, will be sitting on their backside, not earning a cent. All that land, sitting idle, blowing away in the dust. Only a handful of people with sheep left out there. Sheep will survive. They don’t need much water, and this is the with cattle. I’m really questioning the value of cattle, in terms of protein, in terms of how much we need cattle. Everyone’s gone into cattle.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Right. Including you?

Tim Wright: No, I’ve halved. I’ve de-stocked by 80%.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Right. So what-

Tim Wright: I’m sheep.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Oh, you’re doing sheep and you’re doing some cattle, but sheep.

Tim Wright: Yeah. I’ve always had 50-50 sheep, cattle, but most of the cattle were so I bring them on just to … if there’s a big season, like a lot of grass and I want to … And that’s my slasher. I just see them as slashers.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Why are you questioning the value of it?

Tim Wright: Because of the water consumption. We’re looking at 60, 60 litres a day, a cow. Huge amounts, if not more with a calf. Then a sheep are lucky to have one litre.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Really? One litre a day, for sheep?

Tim Wright: Or less.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow.

Tim Wright: Most merinos will live for weeks without water. They come from Spain. They’ve evolved over thousands of years without much water. They have a really different gut. Like goats, they don’t need water much. They get it off the morning dew on the leaves, and that’s enough. Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: God. Now, Tim, that’s just blown me away. Let me just get that straight. 60 to 80 litres a day for a cow; probably more if they’re calving, and one litre a day for sheep or goats. Or less.

Tim Wright: Or less. I’d say or less. Probably half a litre.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Is that not a no-brainer? Why aren’t we all eating lamb all the time? Or sheep, or whatever? Mutton, or…?

Tim Wright: And then you look at the amount of feed. This is where it does blow you away. Sit down and do the economic sums, it takes, for one cow, and let’s say, a little calf; cow, calf unit. Not a big calf. That is the equivalent of 14 sheep.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow.

Tim Wright: 14 ewes with lambs, sort of thing, and so if you … It doesn’t take much to do your economics, and you’ll find that the actual gross margin is double on the sheep enterprise, let compared to cattle.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow. That’s just incredible. I’ve never actually looked at it like that. It’s just so, well, it’s almost a no-brainer, really, isn’t it?

Tim Wright: It is. And then you go further into it, in terms of meat production. You might think, oh, it’s a big beast, but then a huge amount of that cow, of that steer, is wasted. It goes into offal, or whatever. You might be lucky to get 40 or 50% meat product, and then that’s got bone in it as well. The actual value from the meat is … Then if you go and look at the feed industry, the cost of growing all this grain. The fuel costs, and labour, and freight. The whole business.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Are sheep just grass-fed? Do sheep eat grains?

Tim Wright: Yeah, they eat grain, or nuts, or something. Processed. The lamb industry has got a lot going for it. The massive amount going for it. And you’ve got the skin side to it as well. You’ve got the leather off that. The cattle have their place, but only in a wet time, I think, in swampy areas or [inaudible 00:48:58], but as far as enterprise gross margin goes, sheep are double

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Right. Now, Tim, you’re writing a book. You’re writing a book. It’s called, Why on Earth? And I’ve got a feeling I know why you’ve done this, but can you tell us a bit about it?

Tim Wright: Well, yeah, I guess it’s because I’m always questioning, why is it? We’re not getting anywhere. It started because in the last four or five years I’ve been trying my damnedest, with a bit of help on the side, to get a management course going at the university. I thought, well, there they are. They’re screaming for assistance there, and they can’t bring in a basic farm management course, along with the lines with rural science. And they won’t do it. I thought, well, this is the answer to a lot of our problems. We’ve got to learn different ways of management. There’s only one …

When I went to Orange, back in ’74/5, I was told I was the one percenter of the group of us. There was 14 of us who went there in the first year when it opened, and we were the one percenters. In other words, only one percent of students in tertiary, do farm management. Now, if you did now, it would be lucky to be half a percent, maybe a quarter of a percent.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on, that’s … If I’ve just heard this correctly, only one percent of … when you were doing it, did actually a course on rural science or farm management, and you’re saying, even less today.

Tim Wright: Farm management. Yeah. Farm management. There would probably be 15% … 10 to 15% who would be doing economic … Ag. Economics or rural … studying farm … But not management. I would never bring on a student from the university as a manager, ’cause they’ve never had the training. They’ve done rural science. They know how to be a scientist, but they don’t know how to manage.

Now, here we are, in Australia, relying wholly and solely on agriculture. It’s the big industry, and it is. It’s a massive industry, but where the hell are the managers coming from? Who’s training them? They go off and do the odd course here and there, in a day, but there’s no ongoing training, and if we want to look at the weak link in the chain, it’s the lack of rural training. It really is sad. And the politicians don’t know about it. I mentioned it to Bullshit Barnaby one day, in Armadale, when I saw him, and he said, “Oh, good on you, Tim. You go and do it.” I said, “Well, thanks a lot, Barnaby.”

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Tim, I’m picking up … I don’t know if I’m being oversensitive here, but I’m picking up that you have some reservations about where Barnaby’s coming from.

Tim Wright: Oh gosh, yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Let’s not go there. Let’s not go there. Listen- Okay. Now listen, let’s just … We’re going to finish up now, ’cause it’s been great talking. There’s some great stuff here. I wanted you to take a step back from your role as a farmer on the land, ’cause we’re all on this journey through life, in our own way. What do you think the biggest challenges for people on their health journey, through life, in our modern world? What do you think that is?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Tim Wright: The biggest challenge is the stress. The food health, the chemicals in the food, is in line with it, and maybe it’s linked to it, but I just think the stress factor, because we’re not making the right decisions. You see, holistic management is about decision making. Everything that I talk about, it comes back to decision making, and if we can make the right decisions, then we’re away. We’ll start to address the Band-Aids and move on, and look at where the weak link in the chain is, and address it. Treat the cause rather than the symptom. All the sort of stuff.

It’s the management that’s causing the stress. I can only just quote my son, who was with me now. He had to go out, ’cause his father-in-law passed away, so he’s gone out to his wife’s place, a property at. He’s under huge stress, and he knows what I do here, but he can’t manage that way, because his mother-in-law says, “You’ve got to do it this way.” But he’s had a breakthrough. This is just between us here.

He had a major breakthrough because he’s been able to get his mother-in-law, and his wife to go and do a course on holistic management., yes, and look at ways differently. But it’s taken the drought to do it. That’s the point. They are desperate. They needed to look at alternatives, and so, all of a sudden, they think, “Ah, right. Well, here’s an alternative,” and away they go.

Tim Wright:  That’s all very positive, ’cause there are people out there who can train and learn … you can learn from. But the other big problem, I think, is the chemical industry and the [inaudible 00:54:25] of cancers, and all the issues to do with our health; obesity, and everything that’s linked, and the fact that we’re tied to the corporate world. And that’s probably the other main reason why I want to write this book because I’ve been threatened by Monsanto, I’ve been … GM, I mentioned the word there.

I was asked what do you think about GM? It was in Parliament House, in Canberra, and I said, “Well, it’s a Band-Aid, because all we’ve got to do is improve our soil health, and we’ll double our yields. Why do you need GM?” And I was threatened afterwards, by a Monsanto bouncer.

It’s the corporate world out there, governing … The governments are getting their money from, and it really is a challenge, so I don’t know … I’m sticking my neck out, but I don’t care, because there’s a lot of other people out there, waking up as well. We know, as you would know, that it’s highly linked … Our health is highly linked to the food that we produce.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Absolutely. Couldn’t be more basic. Tim, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing some of your wisdom. And we will so look forward to reading that book, Why on Earth? When it comes out, and I’m so looking forward to coming up to the Northern … To New England, up there, and visiting with you, ’cause Lana, which you call a wildlife refuge, is something that I’m looking forward to seeing. Thank you for joining me today.

Tim Wright: Okay. Thanks, Ron.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: You might want to go back and listen to the interviews I did with Allan Savory. He’s a bit of a hero of mine, about holistic context, holistic management. And also, that interview I did with Charles Massy, the author of that great book, The Call of the Reed Warbler. In it, Charles talks about foundational concepts in regenerative agriculture.

Tim referred to four of those pillars of regenerative agriculture; the first, the solar or photosynthesis cycle. That’s just plants converting sunlight to energy. The water cycle; a rich soil absorbs water and keeps it on the land. Poor soils wash away the soil and you may not even have very much absorbed at all. The mineral cycle is the third cycle. If you have lots of microbes and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, more minerals are available for the plants and animals we eat. Now, that’s a good thing.

And community dynamics. I love that term. It’s another word for diversity. Community dynamics. And that is the diversity of plants, animals, microbes, insects, birds, that make up the land, which we rely on for our food, and which farmers rely on for their livelihood. It makes it all more resilient.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now, Charles Massy also referred to a fifth cycle, and that is the human social cycle. That includes the farmers who choose to do things as they’ve always done them and wait for the next drought or disaster. Now, I don’t know, maybe farmers make enough money from the good years to make it through the really bad years, but you’d have to wonder what’s holding them back from just having good years and even better years? I don’t know. But the human social cycle also includes you and me. The choices we make about how we spend our dollar. We have an overabundance of seemingly cheap food, but when you factor in the long-term health and environmental costs of that sort of food, well, it’s actually really expensive.

Supporting regenerative agriculture is a good lifestyle choice for us, as consumers. Tim uses the word, ethical and ecological consumers. He’s also talking about the farmers that service those type of consumers, so we get to vote every day, with our money, and we know that money talks. It’s a great way to ensure that we will be … we will have healthy food available, not just for us and our kids, but for future generations. It’s also a great choice for farmers looking to reduce stress and build resilience, environmentally, ethically, emotionally, and I dare say, financially. That’s a win, win, win, win.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: But change doesn’t come easy for any of us. It often takes a trauma. Now, personally, for something like cancer or other serious illnesses, many people make some serious changes when they are faced with that kind of trauma, and perhaps this kind of trauma, the drought, will have a similar effect on people on the land. I don’t know.

I am so looking forward to coming up to the Armadale area from the 21st to the 23rd of February, for the Southern New England Landcare Group. I am going to be giving a presentation in Uralla, on Thursday the 21st, in the evening. It’s free. It’s called, wait for it, Evolution Bites Back. And on Saturday, a workshop called, Unstress and Simply Be Well. That’s on Saturday the 23rd of February. Come along. I’d love to meet you.

Don’t forget, our Unstress app is coming. Actually, by the time you hear this, it may already be here. So, until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich, be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.