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Searching for the Soil Health Sweet Spot

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Sustainable Industries

A the Talkin’ Soil Health conference in early March Buntine farmer Stuart McAlpine shared how he has been searching for the ‘Sweet Spot’ where the chemical, physical and biological processes intersect.

This allows plants to concentrate more of their photosynthetic energy into production and maintaining soil health rather than diverting energy into dealing with soil constraints to production. This should be a journey of continuing improvement as positive changes gather momentum to increasing step changes to the soils capacity. We must reactivate soil biology along with any physical and chemical improvements if we are to see lasting soil improvement.

Stuart was a popular presenter and as part of a follow up with participants, he shared his top 3 management practices to promote soil biology and plant health.

Stuart recommends:

  • Test biostimulants on different locations on the farm to kick start biology. Start with products that have been around for a long time.
  • As biology is activated set up demonstration areas to compare reduced/eliminated fertiliser and pesticide rates to current practice. Monitor above and below ground across the season, grain quality and do profit margins across all treatments as the highest yield is not always the highest profit
  • Understand what constraints are present, and if there are physical and chemical treatments you can address this with the use of biostimulants to activate and assist the soil biology to work deeper into soil profile

He advises that farmers looking at this method of farming and increasing focus on soil health start with:

  • Some comparative treatments to stimulate biology like multi-species cropping, biostimulants and input reductions and combinations of treatments to evaluate methods best for their environment
  • Using a shovel to look at roots is a great step in understanding what is going to build the soil health the fastest. Roots should have a thick rhizosphere. Compare the plant's roots with a healthy rhizosphere to ones that are not as active. Look for differences in leaf colour and deficiencies, disease and insect infestation. Usually, poor plants have a poor root system.

Stuart is a high profile early adopter of biological farming techniques and while he has seen others, including in his local area, have a look at some of his management processes, they can get stuck on the treadmill of doing things the same old way as there has been little agronomic support for change available. He is having discussions with many farmers around the current system limitations and feels that there is a growing realisation that we need to get away from the risk of higher input systems that rely on large pesticide use.

While Stuart is not attacked for his early adoption to alternative methods he does think that many would not follow him until there is a certain level of industry ‘acceptance’ of the practice.

Stuart has fully committed to these farming methods and others may not be ready to jump in boots and all, but every farmer facing increasing challenges and costs could find something in Stuart’s Toolkit 

Stuart’s presentation can be seen here

wheatbeltnrm.org.au/sites/default/files/basic_page/files/3%20StuartMcAlpine-compressed_1.pdf

And here is a useful link on biostimulants

www.nutrientadvantage.com.au/~/media/Files/NA/AgronomyCommunity/Nikki%20Seymour%20-%20Biostimulants.pdf

This Wheatbelt NRM project is supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

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