Australian farmers manage approximately 60% of the Australian landscape and witness firsthand the role soil health plays in driving the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Australian farm businesses.
Recently soil, and the relationship between healthy soils and the environment, has been formally identified as a significant national asset under the Federal Government’s $196.9 million National Soil Strategy.
With an increasing focus on the importance of soil and soil health, the questions that’s front of mind for many Australian farmers and their advisors is how best to achieve and maintain healthy soils within a productive and profitable farming system? For senior agronomist, Jim Laycock, the ability to measure and monitor the soil’s key biological, chemical and physical characteristics is essential to understanding and improving soil health.
Based at Cowra in Central West New South Wales, Jim has worked as an agronomist for 26 years, specialising in broadacre cereal and legume crop production.
He has been instrumental in the development of a new soil health test package from the Nutrient Advantage Laboratory, designed to help farmers better measure and manage their soil health.
“The package comprises four tests and looks at the total carbon and total nitrogen, and C:N ratio of soils, as well as aggregate slaking and dispersion, active carbon and microbial respiration,” Jim says. “These four quite simple tests, when taken together, can yield very useful insights that can be addressed in both the short term and over time, in the long term as well.”
With soil health being linked to total nitrogen, total carbon and active carbon levels, these tests can alert farmers to shortcomings in their overall soil health, prompting practice changes to fix any problem areas.
Jim says that while soil health and building total carbon in soils is a long-term and wide-ranging pursuit, there are short term practice changes that can help counter particular issues.
“For example, if a test reveals low levels of labile, or active, carbon in soils, that means soil microbes are short on nutrients and nitrogen supply and recycling can be slowed.
“Fortunately, once identified it’s relatively easy to increase labile carbon levels within a twelve-month period, for instance by implementing a pulse crop into your rotation to boost biomass.”
Similarly, the aggregate slaking and dispersion test looks at the response of a soil aggregate to water by identifying sodic and dispersive soils with structural instability, and determining if a soil will slake, set hard or crust when wet.
“Slaking, hard setting and crusting all increase erosion potential and nutrient run off, and reduce air and water movement through soil,” Jim says.
“So, if the soil health package reveals highly dispersible soils, simple agronomic tools like the addition of calcium can be used to correct the issue.”
While increasing data on overall soil health is the first step to improving it, Jim sees the recommendations and guidance that comes with that data as absolutely critical.
“The real value for farmers is in having support around their decision making,” Jim says.
“The Nutrient Advantage soil health package delivers tailored recommendations alongside its laboratory data test results.
For more information go to nutrientadvantage.com. au or speak to your Pursehouse Rural Agronomist.