Alternative farming inputs gaining momentum
By Kate Raston
The growing number of farmers wanting to step outside the square when it comes to traditional farming inputs has triggered interest from the country’s peak grains research and development body.
The GRDC has budgeted $650,000 for the Understanding Biological Farming Inputs project, although very much still in its infancy.
If the project goes ahead it will use grower groups to trial the effectiveness of live and dead microbial solutions, humic acids, manures, earthworm casts and compost teas.
The project would need to meet a rigorous tender process, but potentially could run for three years from 2014.
This is welcome news for Bruce Rock farmers Chris Butler and his son Callan, who have already begun their own investment in alternative farming inputs.
“I’ve always been interested in finding out more about biological farming, but there hasn’t been enough information on it,” Chris Butler said.
The Butler family crops roughly 2000 hectares of wheat, canola, lupins and barley, in conjunction with 1900 Merino sheep.
“We’ve always grown above average crops for the district, but questioned the need to continuously lime to address acidity in the soil,” Chris Butler said.
“Instead of looking at the plant on top and adding synthetic fertilisers to fix deficiencies, I’ve always felt by getting the soil balanced we could do a better job.”
The focus is now on improving the microbial activity in their soils, in an attempt to build soil organic carbon levels, which helps improve moisture storage.
To do this, they’ve adopted the Australian Mineral Fertilisers (AMF) Grow Safe farming system.
At the heart of it is the introduction of soil microbes in the form of a seed dressing and the application of alkaline mineral-rich fertilisers, rather than commonly used acid chemical processed fertilisers.
“We’ve used this system on 40 per cent of our wheat crop, and on top of the soil it’s hard to tell the difference between our crops grown using synthetic fertilisers,” Chris Butler said.
“But below the surface it is a very different story.
“We’re seeing much deeper root systems going into the sub soil which is really important as it helps the plant to cope with acidic soils, high aluminum levels and moisture stress.”
When Chris and Callan Butler compared the root zones, the crops grown on the Grow Safe system were more than 50 centimetres deep, rather than the traditional crops of 20 to 30 centimetres.
“You can notice straight away how robust the roots are, which when you have a dry season, is really important because it helps the plant become more resilient,” Chris Butler said.
The work being done on Chris and Callan Butler’s property has grabbed the attention of natural resource management group Wheatbelt NRM.
Wheatbelt NRM, with funding through the Australian government’s Caring for our Country program, has been working with the family on projects managing saline soils and understanding soil biology.
Wheatbelt NRM has also formed a partnership with AMF, to work more closely with farmers in helping them improve soil health.
Wheatbelt NRM’s program manager for sustainable agriculture Dr Guy Boggs said drought and frost were taking their toll on farming businesses.
“One of the ways to improve the sustainability of farms is through improving the health of our soils,” Dr Boggs said.
“Acidification has become one of the biggest threats to WA agriculture and has been estimated to cost the sector between $300 and $400 million each year.
“We need to build healthier soils so crops can better cope with our variable climate.”
Soil scientist Dr Fran Hoyle from the Department of Agriculture and Food WA said while it was fantastic that farmers were taking a closer look at how to improve soil health, changes wouldn’t happen overnight.
Dr Hoyle said growers should always compare new products.
“Strip tests within a paddock are a great idea and allow the grower to test multiple solutions,” Dr Hoyle said.
She said farming practices like liming were still crucial.
“Liming is still necessary for soils below their target pH (pHCaCl 5.5 in the surface), as acidification cannot solely be addressed through improving soil biology or a change away from traditional fertilisers,” Dr Hoyle said.
“Processes including nitrogen leaching as a result of either inefficient fertiliser use or the turnover of organic matter contribute to acidification.”
To help Chris and Callan Butler improve the knowledge of soils on their farm, they’ve also sent samples to the UWA’s School of Earth and the Environment to measure just how much life exists in the soil.
Keen to hear the answer will be AMF’s senior microbiologist Paul Storer.
He said the Grow Safe farming system incorporating beneficial soil biology and non-leaching, highly efficient nutritional bio-mineral fertilisers was the culmination of 15 years of research and development.
“People are starting to question conventional management practices and if the commonly used ‘basic’ soil and plant testing is really giving them a ‘complete’ picture; and if this in turn is only providing them with band aid solutions,” Paul Storer said.
“With the recent advent of modern soil microbial testing and comprehensive soil analysis, our understanding and appreciation of the living soil system and what drives it has markedly increased.
“Because farmers are having to deal with adverse conditions like drought and frost, they realise the need to improve soil health and soil nutrition, increase organic matter and organic carbon and strengthen the plant to better cope.
“This is where the Grow Safe system steps in.”
For Bruce Rock farmer Chris Butler, the decision to expand the new system won’t be made until harvest.
“We’re going to wait until the header is in the crop and find out what the yield and quality of the grain will be,” he said.
“But at this stage it looks promising, because the strength of the root system is so impressive.
“We’re hoping this system will provide an alternative to the traditional broadacre farming practices, which have focused solely on yield, using fertilisers that don’t encourage soil health.”
Example of Grow Safe on Bruce Rock paddock
Crop: Magenta wheat sown on May 14th at 70kg/ha using a seed dressing containing soil microbes
Fertiliser: Urea replaced with 15kg/ha sulphate of ammonia and 10kg/ha sulphate of potash instead of muriate potash.
An AMF NP bio-mineral fertiliser product was also used at 60kg/ha.
10 weeks after sowing, 35kg/ha of calcium ammonium nitrate and sulphate ammonium was added using a super spreader.
Spraying: Knockdown using glyphosate and trifluralin during seeding for ryegrass control. Follow up spray to control turnip and capeweed.