last week and you can understand how a good cover of vegetation helps hold the soil together in extreme weather events such as flooding or high winds, or conversely, how in dry times, covered soil full of organic matter remains moister for longer than exposed bare ground.
Healthy soils also support production – and not just for this or next season, but with the right investment, sustainably for the long term.
Isn’t soil formation a natural process? Why do we have to manage it?
Through the soil’s natural formation process, pedogenesis, it takes around 2000 years to build 10 cm of fertile topsoil ( 1). However, soil erosion due to traditional agriculture is occurring at a rate between 10 and 100 times faster than this formation process (2,3). Although the lack of good data makes predictions highly uncertain, at the current rate of topsoil loss, indications are that the earth may only have around 50 years of topsoil left (4).
The first Global Soil Week, last week in Berlin, looked at issues such as the how it is a combination of environmental/climatic conditions and political-economic processes (both past and present) that have brought about land and soil degradation. Global Soil Week brought together stakeholders from around the world to translate land and soil knowledge into societal action – an international version of what we’re trying to do here at Soils for Life!
What we try to focus on here at Soils for Life, is that it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, globally, landscape degradation is extensive and has the potential to lead to many challenges – particularly in producing sufficient food and fibre to support a growing population. But solutions do exist now.
Innovative farmers and land managers are fighting the trend – building, not degrading their soils – by restoring natural pedogenesis processes. These farmers are delivering sustainable production on fertile landscapes, and providing a model for all farmers and land managers to follow.
What can we do to look after soil health?
The Soils for Life case studies demonstrate a range of ways Australian farmers and land managers are already looking after soil health – with positive results.
Some farmers take action to directly address soil health, such as Greg and Sally Chappell of Shannon Vale Station near Glen Innes, NSW, who apply tailored solid organic fertilisers and liquid foliar fertiliser to target specific deficiencies in nutrient availability. Combined with their grazing management, they’ve consequently increased soil organic carbon and soil fertility, have overcome a weed invasion and now have highly productive pastures – as I’m sure all who attended the Field Day there last week could attest to!
For other case study participants, improved soil health was more of a consequence of other actions. Tim and Karen Wright of Lana, also on the NSW Northern Tablelands, use their grazing management as a farm tool as a part of a Holistic Management approach across their property. As Tim says, “We use the farm livestock as the tools to enhance the land as well as their being a source of income. The slasher in their teeth, the plough in their feet and the fertiliser equipment in the rear. Animals distribute nutrients across the grazed areas and build soil.”
As a result, due to improved soil health and a functioning soil-water-vegetation cycle, the Wright’s stock carrying capacity has increased from around 8000 to 20,000 dry sheep equivalent (DSE) and they have sustained this even through periods of reduced rainfall.
How can we encourage the wider adoption of practices such as these?
If you’re a farmer or land manager, what support do you need to adopt regenerative practices to look after your soil health?
Click on ‘Comments’ below and tell us what you think.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the physical, biological and mineral qualities of soil, what our innovative farmers are doing to address each of these specific areas and the results they are achieving by doing so.
The Soils for Life Team
(2) United Nations Environment Program, 2012, UNEP Year Book 2012: Emerging issues in our global environment, www.unep.org/yearbook/2012
(3) Pimentel, D., 2006, ‘Soil erosion: A food and environmental threat.’ Environment Development and Sustainability, 8, pp119-137
(4) Marler, J.B., and Wallin, J.R., 2006, Human Health, the Nutritional Quality of Harvested Food and Sustainable Farming Systems, Nutritional Security Institute,www.nutritionsecurity.org/PDF/NSI_White%20Paper_Web.pdf , p1
Soils for Life,