A different approach … outside and inside
ANYBODY who has attended one of the many NQ Dry Tropics pasture management workshops presented by Dick Richardson would have heard a “Dick-ism” or two.
For example, one “Dick-ism” suggests water vapour may be the most dangerous greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
“We all woke up at 3am when heavy cloud cover blew over,” Dick earnestly told a workshop audience.
“The temperature shot up by six degrees in a matter of half an hour… dangerous stuff, that water vapour.”
It’s all part of the show.
Dick believes the best way to open minds is with humour, and he’s good at it.
From a five-minute summary of seven billion years of evolution, through to the thought-provoking gems about driving plants, particularly grass, to do our bidding, nobody loses focus, or nods off in his classroom.
Dick Richardson volunteers Warrawee Station grazier John Healing to demonstrate how an endophytic relationship works in the plant world.
The now-famous “beer-can lecture”, this time delivered larrikin-style by Dick sitting backwards on his horse to better face the audience. That’s Adelle (Dick’s second wife) waiting patiently, having heard it all before.
He has had plenty of practice. The 56-year-old began educating primary producers, and particularly graziers, even while he was studying what he was teaching.
South African born, and now Aussie to the core, (provided you sidestep the Wallabies versus Springboks debate), Dick grew up on the family farm in the KwaZulu-Natal province in the spectacular Drakensberg, the eastern edge of the Great Escarpment mountains.
They raised cattle and Corriedale sheep (meat and wool).
Dick’s father, Clive, however, recognised his business was unsustainable in the severe mountain climate. Getting stock through winter on grass that had almost no nutrient value was expensive and getting more so every year.
He sold up and moved the family to a farm outside Vryburg about five hours west of Johannesburg.
Dick was packed off to boarding school, the elite Michaelhouse, then straight from school into National Service with the South African Army.
He spent two years in the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment, and was promoted twice, winding up as a corporal.
Condensing 7 billion years of evolution to a five-minute lecture.
With half of his four-year obligation completed, he could spread the remaining National Service time across the next decade, so he headed to Cedara College of Agriculture where, in two years, he earned a diploma and a good understanding of the science and book-keeping behind farms, including the one on which he had been raised.
Meanwhile, with half his National Service obligation remaining, he was seconded to the historic Natal Carbineers Regiment, and, again, was promoted, this time to sergeant.
Much of his National Service was spent serving in the brutal, township and border wars. Twenty-five years on, the experience continues to interrupt his sleep.
After a stint in Canada and the United States – time spent mostly on horseback chasing cattle – he returned to South Africa and looked for an entry to farming that didn’t involve the family enterprise.
He landed a series of positions managing other people’s properties but quickly realised that farm managers did not hold a strong bargaining position in the labour market and decided there was a more lucrative and secure future in becoming a diesel mechanic.
Farm managers were so far down the pecking order in South Africa at that time, Dick hardly noticed the drop in pay to become a first-year apprentice, working for a company that sold and serviced John Deere equipment.
Exacerbating his employment problem was the ongoing National Service obligation.
Because the Natal Carbineers had an exemplary reputation for fair and professional conduct, its members were often called away to intervene in the increasing number of internal conflicts flaring up all over the country.
“Getting 24-hour notice call-ups and not coming home for two months made us virtually un-hireable,” Dick said.
An apprenticeship in mechanics wasn’t a random choice… even then he had his eye on emigrating Down Under and he had read that Australia was short of mechanics.
Nor was he your typical apprentice, being a keen polo player and, in his spare time, running a farm for his father in thornveldt country (semi-arid savanna consisting of grasslands interspersed with thorn bushes).
Managing that particular property was also made a little more complicated because it happened to be in the centre of the hottest inter-tribal warfare in the country.
After a couple of years, the restrictive nature of his job in a workshop became too much and he threw it in to go on safari.
He took tourists on photographic safaris through Namibia’s Koakoland across to Etosha National Park, into Botswana, the Okavango and through the Chobe to Victoria Falls.
It was a great fit for his personality, army fieldcraft, and skills acquired growing up in the bush.
He also met first wife Judy, who was also “on safari” working with the same company and she came with him when he returned to the family farm to run the grazing side of the operation.
While working for his father, Dick had two experiences he would call “aha” moments. Life-changing moments.
The first followed hard on the heels of family tragedy.
His sister-in-law (Judy’s brother’s wife Carol) was killed in an apparent “ambush” in Johannesburg and the whole family rushed to the city to support each other.
At home, the head stockman was given instructions for stock movements for the few days Dick expected to be away before setting off on the five-hour drive to Johannesburg.
Things didn’t go smoothly, and when Dick returned a few days later than planned, the stockman had not moved a mob of cattle that should have been moved to fresh pasture.
“There was nothing left in that paddock, nothing,” Dick said.
Fortunately, the cattle weren’t overly stressed. They had eaten every bit of visible forage but they had not been without feed for more than a few hours.
Welcome to Pallamana Station, south of Charters Towers.
Dick Richardson (left) explains the intracacies of “reading” dung to Six Mile Station grazier Ross Tapiolas.
The real concern was the damage to the paddock.
Worse, it was a paddock right next to the road, the bare red earth on show to all the neighbours as they drove past.
“Dad was not happy,” Dick said.
He talks about the incident as being seminal in his philosophy and methodology, and often presents it as the crux of a sudden rift between him and his father.
“Really, it wasn’t the cause of our differences,” Dick said.
“It was just something that happened and our decision to part ways was nothing to do with that.”
It was about three years before Dick saw the paddock again. It had bounced back lusher and more vibrant than he had ever seen it previously.
Coupled with what he had seen on safari, he had that “aha” moment at that paddock gate.
Dick’s method of choosing a “priority paddock” to graze repeatedly during the growing season stems from that incident.
The other life-changing moment was at a grazing management workshop in Graaff-Reinet presented by Allan Savory.
“I was very taken with the holistic management side of what he said, even more so than the grazing side,” Dick said.
Dick was so taken, he signed on to do an educator’s training program in Zimbabwe.
It was a difficult course to get into… and expensive.
Dick got around that by working his way through school.
A benefactor offered to loan Dick the money.
“It was very generous, but I never had to take up that loan, because I started work as a consultant straight away,” Dick said.
He had managed to do a similar thing in America, when, on a course with about 30 farmers, he offered to go and implement on their farms what they had learned on the course.
Every cow pat in the paddock is a temptation. Dick Richardson shows Pallamana Station grazier Kale Robinson what can be learnt by inspecting dung.
Allan’s fatherly advice helped.
“If you let people set the price for what you’re doing, you will do better than if you try to set the price for them,” Allan said.
“And he was right. I offered to work for nothing, and nobody ripped me off… ever,” Dick said.
He established his first business – called Whole Concepts – and the die was cast.
Almost 20 years later, Grazing Naturally, a mature version of the original, is flourishing.
Based on a system designed to improve the soil health and pasture performance on a property, one paddock at a time, he advocates grazing a “priority” paddock hard and often during the growing season to provoke a response from the plants.
It’s sometimes contentious as to how hard and how often that paddock is grazed, but, it’s only a small part of a bigger picture. It’s the principle, not the detail, that really matters.
Dick Richardson shows Pallamana Station grazier Karin Robinson and son Harry how dung beetles work. Watching are Warrawee Station grazier John Healing and Karen Bowey.
Dick said the priority paddock, having been grazed a little more intensively every year leading up to it becoming the centre of attention, then was pushed hard for one season, and rested entirely for at least 12 months, and grazed very lightly in the first couple of years after that.
“It’s like preparing a lawn,” he said.
“Mow it, water it, feed it, mow it again, and repeat… and in no time, you end up with a lush, thick carpet of grass.”
In the Grazing Naturally program, it’s the grazing animals that naturally provide the fertiliser.
Dick takes his program, or versions of it, consulting with graziers right across Australia.
But it is by no means a fixed curriculum.
“I am always trying to learn more, to learn from experts, to better understand,” Dick said.
One area in which he has a keen interest, is quorum sensing in plants.
Basically, it’s when plants change their behaviour when there is enough diversity in their immediate environment – a quorum, in other words.
He believes it is already possible to “read” a landscape using the telltales of quorum sensing to determine how well the plants in that landscape are supported by water, nutrient, trace elements and consequently, the energy underground.
“There’s still an awful lot to learn. Who knows what’s in the future?” Dick said.
While he is learning, and travelling the world imparting knowledge, he is also focused on home base in South Australia where he and wife Renee run their own cattle and sheep enterprise, applying the principles of Grazing Naturally… and experimenting.
However, it is the workshops where most people will encounter Dick Richardson. Delivered with a smooth South African-accented patter, a great sense of timing, a bank of anecdotes and one-liners, and an almost unhealthy fascination with cowpats – fresh or dry – he opens minds so they can receive those nuggets of wisdom, and a Dick-ism or two.
As Dick might say about a rock that doesn’t yet realise it is soil, the knowledge gained at a workshop will be invaluable… you just don’t know it yet.
The Pallamana Station workshop.
wall a clear threat
a laughing matter
a new opportunity
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