Dishing the Dirt on Ground-Breaking Soils

The end of November saw NACC NRM’s RALF team getting their hands dirty with EarthWhile Australia during their soil health workshop at Grant Bain’s property in Walkaway!

A group of enthusiastic landholders got a close up look at what is in their soil and a greater understanding of the roles that different micro-organisms play in their soil. The workshop was led by the team from EarthWhile Australia who have extensive knowledge and expertise which they shared with the group.

Following the ethos of Sir David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”, EarthWhile aim to extend their knowledge to farmers, schools and gardeners around WA in the hope that more people will understand the importance of our soil, what is really in it, and what we can do to look after it. 

Soil is a living resource and is home to more than 25% of our planet’s biodiversity. It contains the most diverse terrestrial communities in the world, with more organisms in one gram of healthy soil than there are people on Earth!

Ideally, healthy soils should be teeming with microbes. These are our unseen, underground livestock, and they play a vital role in our farming and agriculture systems. These micro-organisms are invisible to the naked eye, but once under a microscope, you will never view soil in quite the same way.

The workshop focussed on the four main groups of microbes living in the soil; bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. These organisms feed on soil organic matter, plant material or each other. They each perform several processes that are vital to soil health, including improving soil structure.

A great way to think about it is to compare bacteria in soils to brickwork. Bacteria helps to stick soil particles together to make bricks, and the fungi are like the glue that binds the bricks together. The protozoa and nematodes feed on the bacteria and fungi and help to cycle the nutrients through the system.

We also need biologically active soils to create humus, which is a stable form of carbon (or a complex carbohydrate). Humus rich soils have a hugely improved ability to absorb water, store it like a sponge and then release it slowly, which would be beneficial for all agricultural soils within our region. 

By the end of the day, the group had a basic understanding of soil food webs, an idea of the roles of these four microbe groups and could identify and distinguish each type under the microscope. 

Plants and soil microbes have evolved a complex symbiotic relationship over millions of years. Much of the research and knowledge in this field is relatively new. Consequently, our understanding of the importance of living soil is increasing all the time.

Our conventional agricultural practices can disrupt this relationship and reduce soil microbe populations. With a greater understanding of how and why soil functions, we can look to make small changes to our management practices that will protect soil microbes and encourage their populations to flourish, which can, in turn, improve agricultural resilience and productivity. And it all starts with a handful of dirt and a microscope.

If you would like more information please contact our RALF team:

Annabelle Garratt (E) Annabelle.Garratt@nacc.com.au or (P) 0448 986 879 or Lizzie King (E) Lizzie.King@nacc.com.au or (P) 0447 361 335

There are some great resources available through the EarthWhile Australia Website: https://www.earthwhileaustralia.com/ 

Annabelle Garratt & Lizzie King – Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitator

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