Answers and actions for healthy soil in a changing climate

Soil and ‘life beneath the surface’ were the focus of the successful SRF Biology Farming Day Forum held in Dandaragan recently.

Organised and conducted by Soil Restoration Farming in partnership with NACC, the day provided a wonderful opportunity for more than 80 farmers and members of the community to learn more about methods of enhancing and protecting their soil, and especially their soil biology, to combat limiting factors in plant performance.

Attendees learned about the science and theoretical ideas of soil biology in relation to agriculture, which they could put into practical terms when making management decisions on their properties.

NACC CEO Richard McLellan opened the event providing a “big picture” perspective, exploring the challenges and opportunities of farming in Southwest Australia under a changing climate and environmental conditions.

“The future sustainability of our farms, and indeed our rural communities, depends upon successful and sustainable adaptation to these changes,” he said. “And the foundations for that sustainability depends on soil conservation and successful farming operations.”

Nicole Masters talking about organic matter a soil pit on David and Joan Cook’s nationally renowned organic beef property, Dandaragan. Yes there are worms in that sand! Through biological farming practises David and Joan have fattened organic cattle despite rainfall well below average.
Nicole Masters talking about organic matter a soil pit on David and Joan Cook’s nationally renowned organic beef property, Dandaragan. Yes there are worms in that sand! Through biological farming practises David and Joan have fattened organic cattle despite rainfall well below average.

Soil microbiologist/ ecologist Walter Jehne focused on the complex and inter-related physical, chemical, biological and even microbiological processes taking place beneath the surface affecting productivity. No-one was left in any doubt after his enthralling presentation that soil carbon absolutely needs to be a primary focus for farming into the future.

This message was further reinforced in the subsequent and very practical presentation by agro-ecologist and educator Nicole Masters. Dr Masters peppered her talk with numerous “real-world” case-studies of successful biological farming approaches – many of which in very challenging conditions – which helped explain biological farming processes.

A key message was that healthy soil microbes build good soils … that help combat weed, disease and pest problems, and reduce the impacts of acidity and salinity.

This was followed by another “real-world” presentation by local livestock and cereal producer, Di Haggerty. Ms Haggerty said that she has been farming with a biological farming approach, and had seen excellent outcomes resulting in increased productivity and reduced input costs. She provided examples of changes and outcomes right at the “farm-face”, and decribed step-by-step actions that she has applied with success, beginning with good seed dressing as the first step in the right direction.

The group then headed into the field, to David and Joan Cook’s property, to see soil amelioration in action. The Cooks are successfully applying a number of soil conservation and enhancement strategies and techniques, and producing internationally renowned organic beef.  Dr Masters gave a handson Soil Pit talk, pointing-out the key features, and characteristic signs to look for, to assess biological soil health. While at the Cooks, Dr. Jehne demonstrated water infiltration testing, pointing-out how best to increase water infiltration – such as through the use of perennial grasses.

NACC’s verdict on the event

NACC NRM officer, Heather Legge, said she was most impressed with the workshop. “Events like this help farmers to better understand their soils, ensuring that they are keeping up-to-date with current best practice approaches and innovative new ideas.”

“No-one was left in any doubt that all of the fungi, bacteria and bugs which make up soil biology are critically important for productivity. In particular, mycorrhizae (fungi) appear to be the key to just about everything for soil health – helping to improve compaction, soil structure, and even protect against frost. “I really enjoyed the day, as did everyone who attended, learning a lot about both the practical and theoretical sides of biological farming and soil biological processes. I can see this increased focus on soil biology really taking-off, and personally expect that biological farming will the next big thing for WA agriculture. It already is for many farmers.

This approach may be a key enabler for farming sustainably in the increasingly challenging conditions,” she said.

The day concluded with an interactive panel session, followed by a sundowner BBQ – at which many of the participants shared their perspectives on the day’s learnings with fellow farmers and forum presenters.

NACC extended its thanks and congratulations to Dandaragan farmer, Christine Smith, who was the driving-force behind the informative and inspiring day.

NACC was also presented with a Soil Restoration Leadership Award by SRF in recognition of its endeavours to increase community awareness and adoption of sustainable farming practices.

This event was supported by NACC through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme, as part of the NACC’s Regional Landcare Facilitator project. Other key funders and partners for the day included Best Environmental Technologies, NutriSoil, Eco-Growth, Hi-Tech, Wheatbelt NRM, Healthy Soils Australia, National Australian Bank, Shire of Dandaragan, and Midwest Optimal Health.

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