Soil lays groundwork for farm business health

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Project Pioneer and RCS workshop facilitator, Nic Kentish, has seen grazing business owners across Australia make uncomplicated changes to how they care for their soil, to reap big benefits.

“There’s been some serious lightbulb moments when producers have seen how they can make an extreme improvement to the health of their land, their commodity and their business through simple changes to how they manage soil,” Nic said.

“Producers buy their real estate, and their soil health and their real estate go hand in glove. Real estate is not just a commodity, it is living and breathing, and it is the genesis of everything they do.”

For producers in the Great Barrier Reef catchments prioritising soil and vegetative health also helps to ensure reduced runoff and that an operation’s most basic, yet vital asset – its soil – is not washed away.

“Dirty water going down the river is your real estate. It’s your land and your soil. What you want is your soil to stay in situ and grow more grass,” Nic said.

One of the most effective ways to monitor soil health, and to gain line of sight into what lies beneath the ground’s surface, is paying close attention to the behaviour of vegetation.

“The formula used to be ‘stick some more fertiliser on and watch it grow’, but each year people would realise it took more and more fertiliser to get the same result. I can think of examples in each state where farming businesses are not able to produce anything of substance because the soil has locked up and become like a brick, because it’s been handled the wrong way,” Nic said.

“It’s all about your attention to detail and listening to grass. Maybe if you got down and could listen to what it was telling you, it would be saying it doesn’t need fertiliser but does need some rest and a more developed root system to live off because that’s the only way it’s going to source nutrients.

“A lot of these plants are living in the top, shallow area of soil, and their roots aren’t deep enough, so they run out of moisture as soon as there’s a pinch in the season.”

Nic said techniques such as fixed-point photographs taken every six months to document vegetative progress were a simple but powerful way to observe changes to ground cover and diversity, while layering this with strategic stock movement and grazing can be a game-changer. After two or three years, the cumulative effect of even subtle ongoing changes can be dramatic.

Another important theme that runs through all RCS workshops is the concept of being ‘rain ready’ and that a thirsty ground does not automatically equate to growth when rains do come if soil is in poor condition.

“When you’re getting rain, and you’re expecting grass, and there isn’t any, that’s a really raw moment for any producer,” Nic said.

“When too much fertiliser has been used, or pasture overgrazed, and the soil hardens and locks up, like that brick that I talked about, the moisture just can’t be absorbed.”

“So, training people to understand how to graze plants the way they would like to be grazed, how to rest them, and how to feed them means they will get the results.”

“By improving the ability of the soil to maintain moisture profiles, producers can extend their growing season and ultimately manage around not getting an average annual rainfall because they’re maximising the rainfall they do get at the time.”

“We can’t do anything about the amount of rainfall we get, but we can do a fair bit about how much we hold on to.”

Project Pioneer is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The project is delivered by RCS with support from WWF, Maia Technology, Farm Map 4D and CQUniversity.