A small step for farmers could be a big step for farm profits

Nicole Masters checking out a soil pit to inspect soil structure, root penetration and soil life.

Across Western Australia, regenerative farmers are yearning to build healthy, resilient soils to pass on to future generations.

But while the chemical and physical requirements of soil are relatively well understood, biological properties remain more mysterious.

Without a functioning soil biology, our soils will continue to rely heavily on chemical inputs and physical interventions, all at an ever-increasing cost.

By harnessing the power of soil biology, we could win a “free-kick” for farm efficiency and profitability. But how can farmers do this in a practical sense?

Enter Nicole Masters, a New Zealand agro-ecologist who has been working with soil biology for almost 20 years. Nicole recently ran workshops in Donnybrook and Katanning to help local farmers tickle some biology into their farming systems.

Nicole’s aim is to help farmers develop healthy soils that support biology and build water-holding capacity, soil structure, nutrient cycling and protection from pests and disease.

She says the place to start is to supplement chemical analyses of soil and plant tissue with biological soil tests. These tests can provide a guide on what group of organisms may need stimulating, and which “foods” or carbon-based amendments might help.

“People need to be stimulating biology instead of suppressing it,” Nicole said.  “What things suppress biology? It’s all our modern farming practices.

“So, if we are going to disturb biology with chemicals or cultivation, then we need to feed biology whenever we can.”

Nicole’s take home message to farmers was to think more and more about carbon.

“Any action needs to consider carbon,” she warned.

“So, if you’re spraying or putting on fertiliser, put carbon in with your herbicide or your fertiliser. It’s the first stepping stone to rebuilding life.”

Nicole believes that carbon-based amendments such as humic or fluvic acid, added to the mix at one litre per hectare, can increase the efficiency of nitrogen and herbicides by 30%, allowing these inputs to be reduced.

She also discussed a range of carbon-based products that farmers can use to support biology and address other limitations that may be identified by soil or tissue tests. For example, fish hydrolysate is also a source of protein and phosphorus, while seaweed is a source of trace elements.

There is also the option of inoculating soils with biology, either with packaged inoculants that contain an array of species, or with compost.

In broad-acre situations, compost is often seen as un-economical. But some broad-acre farmers are experimenting with compost teas and extracts which require less product.

“Compost teas are the ones that you’ve got to brew and feed,” Nicole said.  It takes maybe three days and can be troublesome.”

“With extracts, you just mix about one kilogram of compost with water per hectare.

“You need a good quality extract, and that’s where worm extracts are good. You need to put it through a coarse filter, although some farmers triple-filter theirs and put it out through their normal gear.”

Above all Nicole recommends ‘keeping it simple’.

“This system takes a while to balance itself, but in the meantime, you’re building soil and it’s not costing too much,” she said.  “And you’ve still got a harvestable crop, so I think it’s a good system.”

Nicole also spoke about promoting crop or pasture diversity, but said that while a diverse system is ideal, it’s not a deal-breaker.

Feedback from more 60 workshop participants was overwhelmingly positive.

Local avocado grower Peter Gwynne said he now has the confidence to implement system change at a farm scale.

He said he came out of the course with a more rounded knowledge and the confidence to create and implement a regenerative farming system on the farm he manages.

If you are interested in joining a small discussion group to help local farmers interested in regenerative farming practices to building strong networks to share their successes and failures  please contact SWCC Regional Landcare Facilitator Peter Clifton on (08) 9724 2400.

The workshops were supported by the South West Catchments Council with funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

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