Kimberley pastoralist shares ‘web of life’ insights from international conference

[April 2016] 

Kurt Elezovich of Country Downs Station in the Kimberley participated in the 2016 BEHAVE Conference in Dubbo in last month to learn about animal behaviour and how it is linked with the health of the landscape.

Cattle with lick drumsHis attendance at the five-day conference, titled The Web of Life: How Behaviour links Soils and Plants with Herbivores and Humans was made possible by Rangelands NRM and the West Kimberley LCDC with the aim to strengthen local knowledge and skills in the sustainable use of land and natural resources.

The conference was hosted by the Australian Behave Consortium and delivered by seven well respected scientists and researchers in rangelands management, including keynote speaker, Utah State University animal behaviour expert, Professor Fred Provenza.

Mr Elezovich said one of the key messages from the conference was that resource availability influences the species and behaviour of soil organisms, which in turn affect the type and palatability of plants available.

“Without plants there is no life below or above ground. Ultimately the health and wellbeing of all animals is linked with the health of our soils through plants and herbivores,” he explained.

Mr Elezovich said one of the most interesting topics covered at the conference that was ‘phytochemical richness’- a measure of food value of a plant depending upon the growing conditions of the plants which can vary greatly from plant to plant across the landscape. 

“This affects the quality of the diet of any animal grazing upon it, with diversity being the key to quality. This then effects the eating quality of the animal products they produce (meat, milk etc.).” 

“For example the yellow fat from range (grass) fed animals not only has much more flavour than the white grain-fed fat, but has also been proven to be more nutritious for humans, because the phytochemicals are stored in the fat.”

Mr Elezovich also talked about the concept of Epigenetics that was explored at the conference.

“Environments interact with the genome (genetic material) during growth to influence the physical form, function and behaviour of all animals. Experiences in-utero and early life are especially important, but these interactions continue throughout life and result in environmental adaptation.

“I think this is often overlooked when people are selecting herd genetics,” he said.

Calm cattle self herdingAnother key message of the conference was the importance of herd structure and the strong links between animals that are significant for their education and success within the landscape.

“Learning from the extended family/functional herd early in life can improve dietary diversity and set up a young animals knowledge of the landscape rather than the ‘concentration camp’ type of approach to educating weaners*.”


Mr Elezovich likened de-stressing weaners to corporate team building. 

“Helping a group to build trust and social structure is important for mental health, which in turn is important for nutrition, as a depressed animal won’t feed as well. Our animals are our workers, and need to be respected as such,” he added.

Other notable points he shared from the conference include:

•      Dietary experimentation is linked to social confidence and landscape knowledge. The more confident an individual within a group is, the more likely it is to experiment with unfamiliar foods - this is evolutionary adaption at work. 

•      A diverse palate in different individuals contributes to the total landscape knowledge of the herd and in turn the depth of education of the young animals. Which encourages better health through improved nutrition of a more diverse diet. 

•      Animals relocated in an unfamiliar landscape can take up to four years to properly adapt to new surroundings. This has huge implications for trading operations as well as restocking after drought. 

•      The importance of selecting the right genotype for your environment to begin with rather than what looks good or is cheap/available at the time. 

•      Ecological literacy - the concept of being able to read the landscape. Land managers need to understand the key landscape functions and managing landscape towards desired outcomes for example, understanding causes of woody thickening and so being able to manage in such a way to discourage these trends. 

•      Regenerative farming on a landscape level is the concept of using human management tools to positively influence the solar efficiency of the landscape. 

•      Effective water cycles require active management and raising soil carbon greatly improves water holding capacity, thus improving effective rainfall. Pastoralists need to be managing land to improve our soil carbon levels in the interests of productivity. 

Mr Elezovich thanked Rangelands NRM and West Kimberley LCDC for their support to attend this invitation-only international conference and welcomed other pastoralists to contact him to discuss what he learnt. 

*a recently weaned calf.
Images
1)      Lick drums used as a herd reward system. One cow wearing satellite tracking collar to measure grazing patterns after relocation to a previously unstocked area.
2)      Cattle demonstrating calm behaviour after destressing, walking calmly to the next yard under complete control.