The question we often get asked is “we want to improve our soil health and we don’t want to be so reliant on external inputs. How can we achieve this?”
RCS recently held a two-day online workshop with some of the pioneers from all over Australia and around the world to examine how we improve soil health while reducing reliance on external inputs. What was the outcome? We have refined our six soil health principles and developed a workshop that will be launched in 2022.
The message from the workshop for me was the role that diversity plays in any business. Diversity in the ideas we are open to, and from whom seek out information. Diversity in the enterprises we run. Diversity in the livestock we manage, plants we grow, and time of year we sell produce. All this diversity leads to resilience that protects us from extreme events.
In the Riverina region, we are facing a far wetter than normal November / December period. As I drive around the landscape I see and hear farmers cursing the very thing that is outside their control. After putting a lot of time, effort, and money into growing a magnificent crop, for some this has been cruelly damaged by rain events. In other instances, growers have already had 2000-3000 DDH [(DSE x days) / ha] of grazing of some crops, so not all is lost. This diversity of enterprises and time of harvest has provided resilience and reduced risk in their business.
We need to ask ourselves the question, what can I do in our existing enterprise that will add diversity? How can I spread our risk, so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket? This might be as simple as running some breeding and trade animals, or different species of animals. It could be sowing a multispecies crop instead of a monoculture, reducing our synthetic fertilizer and buffering with humates, or adding some biology on the seed. Anything that can add diversity, rather than simplify our community dynamics.
Regenerative cropping may require a transition, this needs to be managed carefully. To quote Garry Zimmer “You have to earn the right to go biological”. Many existing high-input cropping enterprises are reliant on herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, and synthetic forms of phosphorus and nitrogen, the price and availability of which are completely out of the control of the farmers. Do we want to be running a business that has so little control over our inputs? All the while, working against rather than with nature.
Here are some learnings from farmers that have successfully transitioned. Firstly, we need to have a clear goal of what we are wanting to achieve. Secondly, we must ask ourselves; do I have the capacity and desire to take responsibility for learning a new way to farm? There are no silver bullets, but many growers that have reduced their reliance on the “cides” are using nutrition as the basis to improve both plant and soil health. The outcome is reduced risk, increased biodiversity, increasing profit, and a renewed sense of enjoyment with cropping enterprises. Sounds like a great outcome to me!
|1. Plan, monitor and manage soil health||People||• Clear direction
• Understand purpose
• Managed change
|Maximise photosynthetic capacity and capture||Sunlight||• Max root biomass and exudates
• Stimulate biology
• Build soil carbon
|Balance soil biology, plant nutrition and soil structure||Balance||• Increased water holding capacity
• Increased nutrient access and production
• More effective photosynthesis
|Introduce and foster biodiversity||Biology||• Increased system resilience
• Ensure functional redundancy
• Ensure functionality
|Optimise soil surface protection||Cover||• Buffers soil temp
• Protect biology, structure, moisture
• Reduce erosion and weeds
|Incorporate livestock||Recycling||• Break down cellulose and recycle minerals
• Increase biological diversity
• Increase plant availability of nutrients
RCS Advisor and Educator