*Ben Sippel and his dorper sheep (Photo: Daniella Scotti)

There’s a hint of green in Central West paddocks, but the long dry spell is yet to be broken.  

Local farmers like Narromine’s Ben Sippel learnt long ago not to wait. He’s been using Old Man Saltbush to drought-proof his property since 1994.

The schoolteacher turned farmer has a simple message for graziers in Western NSW who truck in expensive hay from as far afield as South Australia. That is, “just plant saltbush”.

The perennial Australian native shrub has been hailed for its ability to tolerate dry conditions – yielding benefits for both land and livestock.

Mr Sippel says saltbush maintains a root system that is “four, five maybe six metres deep, but more importantly it’s able to actually draw moisture up from that depth.”

The shrub plays a crucial role in protecting nutrient topsoil and keeping his paddocks harvesting sunlight all year round.

These benefits come in addition to the high value grazing performance he gets from his Dorper sheep.

“I can’t see how we’re not carbon positive out here.”

But while a sustainable alternative, saltbush is yet to replace hay as the most common form of forage. Mr Sippel suspects this is due to the plant’s lead time and cost.

“It’s about a four-year process… but when it gets its feet in the ground and gets going, you’ve got it for over 100 years.”

The Department of Primary Industries notes that it is “seemingly costly to establish – up to $700/ha”

Mr Sippel thinks of the long-term. “You can plant a wheat crop for about $180 an acre. But [with saltbush] your returns are always there, and year after year your inputs are less. So, as a business structure, you’ve got a very efficient system to work with.

“Wheat relies on rainfall. . . we’re not betting on the weather anymore; we know in fourteen months [that] we’re going to have food here for our animals. Whereas with a wheat crop, you don’t know when the rain is going to come.”

He points out that the biggest challenge is the ‘generational parameters’ that linger in all farming families.

“There seems to be a big problem out here with the family history of a property. It’s like, why do you do it that way? That’s what dad did. Why did he do it that way? Well, that’s what his dad did.”

Ben Sippel acknowledges that “over the fence conversations” are becoming increasingly difficult.

“It’s really hard for guys to get their head around and just justify to their closest friends why they’re doing something different.

“It’s about taking your eyes into different places and seeing things from different perspectives – which takes a lot of training and encouragement and effort.”

—    Daniella Scotti @daniella_scotti

*This story has also appeared in Dubbo’s The Daily Liberal