WHY ‘SOILS FOR LIFE’?

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

http://globalsoilweek.org/resources/video-lets-talk-about-soil
(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,

THE REGENERATIVE SOIL-WATER-VEGETATION CYCLE

Together in a natural system, soil, water and vegetation – supported by a constant flow of solar energy – provide a regenerative cycle.

Improving landscape management practices can help to restore these natural systems, through which we can maximise water use efficiency, improve soil health, nutrient cycling and biodiversity of vegetation.

In simple terms, a properly structured soil, with good levels of soil organic carbon, allows greater infiltration and retention of rainfall. Every gram of carbon in the soil can retain up to eight grams of water. By improving soil structure – particularly soil carbon levels – through increasing organic matter in the soil, we can more effectively capture and retain any rain that falls, making it available to plants for longer.

Increased moisture in the soil helps to maintain a healthy biodiversity of vegetative ground cover. This in turn produces more organic matter (roots, leaf litter, etc.) which break down and continue to improve the soil structure, and enhance the ability to capture water. A healthy soil biology, comprising millions of micro-organisms, is also essential in this cycle to help convert and recycle nutrients.

If properly supported, this regenerative cycle can continue to sustain and improve the natural resource base, and therefore landscape resilience and productivity – and enable us to support ongoing agricultural food and fibre production.

It is because of this ability to continually improve the natural resource base that Soils for Life use the term ‘regenerative’ landscape management, rather than just ‘sustainable’ landscape management.

Supporting natural cycles…

Shane and Shan Joyce of Dukes Plain in Queensland provide an excellent example of the continuous improvement that can be achieved by supporting natural cycles. By controlling pasture grazing and recovery time and allowing natural revegetation of the brigalow native to their area, soil carbon has increased, water holding has increased – and production and profits have increased.

Importantly, the Joyces trialled a range of different practices over the years, until they settled on what worked best for them. As Shane says, “select the tiles that you want, and make your own mosaic”.

Essential ecosystem services…

In addition to enabling us to produce food and fibre, healthy soils and natural cycles underlie the production of essential ecosystem services.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Year Book 2012 (www.unep.org/yearbook/2012) describes these services as:

  • Support Services: nutrient cycling, water release and retention, soil formation, habitat for biodiversity, exchange of gases with the atmosphere, degradation of complex materials
  • Regulation Services: carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions, water purification, natural attenuation of pollutants
  • Provision Services: food and fibre production, water availability, platform for construction
  • Cultural Services: protection of archaeological remains, outdoor recreational pursuits, landscapes, supporting habitats

When was the last time you really thought about what provides all those services?
What are you doing to support their continuation?

Stay tuned next time, for the first in our series of posts focusing on soil…

The Soils for Life Team

ABOUT THE SOILS FOR LIFE BLOG

Soils for Life aims to encourage and support the wide adoption of regenerative landscape management by Australian farmers and land managers. To achieve this, we seek out leading practice in landscape management – where positive economic, environmental and social outcomes have been achieved – and share these experiences to assist others.

We’ll use this blog to discuss what we’ve found and what these innovative farmers are doing.

Hopefully we can de-mystify what are sometime still considered ‘fringe’ practices, and show that they are affordable, achievable, worth adopting – and not really on the fringe at all. Regenerative landscape management takes many forms.

You may be surprised by the number of farmers and land managers who are already applying, or thinking about applying regenerative landscape management practices. Hopefully we can bring this community together to support each other and further encourage regenerative landscape management to become the norm across Australia.

Much of our landscape is degraded and under pressure from production demands and a changing climate, but together, we can regenerate its productivity and resilience for generations to come.

We seek to provide a forum for researchers, farmers and the wider public who benefit from their endeavours to consider what is important for Australia’s future. We want to share experiences and information on landscape management in what is hopefully a user-friendly way. We fully support the need for specialist technical advice, such as from consulting agronomists, soil scientists or environmental organisations, but urge exploration into what are not currently conventional methods when doing so.

We hope you’ll join the conversation with us.

Keep an eye out for new posts each Thursday.