A hardy native Australian plant is helping a central west family drought proof their farm by improving water efficiency, while also value-adding their lamb products.
With an ability to survive in low rainfall areas, while still producing very high grazing performance, saltbush was first planted on Ben and father Andrew Sippel’s family farm at Narromine in 1987.
Ben Sippel said his father started establishing the first blocks of saltbush in the Narromine area while he was working as a regenerative officer for Yates.
“The variety is Old Man Saltbush and it takes about three years to get a block established properly,” he said.
“Once planted it is ideal to give it a light grazing after 12 months, then again at two years. At year three it should be established, by the fifth year it should be up and running at solid capacity.”
The saltbush is planted in two to five metre row spacings, with 800 plants per acre on the Sippel farm.
“Native pasture such as Queensland Blue grass, Warrigo Summer grass, Mitchell grass and Kangaroo Paw, are grown between the rows,” Mr Sippel said.
“The saltbush acts as a keystone species that provides shelter to the grasses, allowing them to grow well.”
Every drop of rain falling on the property stays on the property, Mr Sippel said with little to no run off.
“It has helped drought proof our property – we know we have food 14 months down the track because of the water efficiency of the plant,” he said.
“Salt bush is very water efficient – it takes seven litres of water to produce one kilogram of dry matter, whereas it takes 23 litres of water to produce one kilogram of lucerne.
Mr Sippel said they have taken weather out of the equation, something that is very powerful in conditions like this.
“The root system of the plant is four to five metres in depth so it holds on in dry times and holds its leaf which is important” he said.
With three times the carrying capacity of grass country, Mr Sippel said the saltbush plant is not hard to manage once producers understand how to manage.
“It is ideal to put a big mob on it and give it a big, hard graze over time then let it rest eight to 14 months,” he said.
“By giving it a longer recovery period, the grasses come back and strengthen the whole system.
“We cell graze it and flog it out, then rest it. If managed correctly it can stay for up to 100 years without having to re-plant, unlike most species.”
While working with the Old Man Saltbush plant, and Mr Sippel’s father Andrew travelled around establishing blocks of the plant, people were telling him “you haven’t had good meat until you have had mutton or lamb finished on salt bush”.
“So dad got his teeth into some and they were right. We then realised we could very easily produce a premium product,” he said.
The Sippels run about 90 head of Dorper sheep on their 32 hectare property.
“We have about 50 ewes and 40 lambs that are about to be processed under the Drover’s Choice Saltbush Lamb brand that kicked off as a concept in 1998, and have owned and operated since,” he said.
“We started in a serious manner in 2007 by attending farmers markets in the Dubbo area and surrounds, and in October 2007 we started going to the markets in Sydney before further expansion in 2008.”
Saltbush allows for production of high quality, consistent lambs regardless of the seasonal conditions, said Mr Sippel.
“Lambs come straight off their mum and are weaned onto the truck,” he said.
“We try to get them to 50 to 55kg livewight which is a 22 to 24kg carcase.”
Despite the drought conditions all Dorpers are finished completely on saltbush with no supplements provided, but Merinos are different Mr Sippel said.
“Dorpers store fat internally and get enough carbohydrates and protein from the saltbush and the grass in the rows,” he said.
“Merinos are different – they do need a carbohydrate top up as a lot of energy goes into their skin and wool production.”
Mr Sippel said no mineral supplements are being supplied to the stock as it is not required.
“The (saltbush) leaf has a high protein and mineral content, so there is a good mix of trace minerals and a quality protein base in the diet,” he said.
Demand for Drover’s Choice Saltbush Lamb is continuing to grow slowly with products also available online.
"The more effort and time we put in to getting out and selling our lamb and gravy rolls direct to the public at shows and events will help increase brand awareness,” he said.
“Since last June we have been slow roasting the legs and shoulder, to allow us to use the whole animal, and turning them into lamb and gravy rolls.”
The Sippels hope to grow market demand for saltbush-grown lamb, so they can encourage more producers to grow saltbush and help drought-proof more country.
“More people want to know where their food is coming from while also wanting it to be sustainable,” he said.
“It is a premium product and by selling it at a value-added price we can help get better returns for farmers whilst improving water efficiencies.
Mr Sippel said through implementing saltbush they have been able to “sustainably improve their ecological base on-farm with a positive economic effect”.