SPREADING THE WORD ON SOIL HEALTH

WEBINAR PART 1

HEALTHY SOILS – WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT, WHAT IS THE SCIENCE TELLING US, AND A VIEW FROM THE GROUND

The Hon. Michael Jeffery, Mike Grundy and David Marsh

Yesterday, in partnership with the National Landcare Facilitator, we hosted Part 1 of our three part webinar series on Regenerating Australia’s Soils. Our presenters were The Hon. Michael Jeffery, Mike Grundy and David Marsh. We were delighted to have over 550 primary producers, NRM Group/CMA reps, consultants, Landcare members and Government reps registered to take part.

The webinar was hosted by National Landcare Facilitator, Brett DeHayr and Soils for Life Program Coordinator, Simon Gould. You can view the whole webinar here.

Happily, the webinar ran smoothly, aside from a few technical glitches, but we seemed to get them sorted out alright. The challenge of using such technology across the country with varying internet service! Thanks to those affected for persisting. We had around 250 tune-in live, of which approximately:

  • 32% were from QLD
  • 27% NSW
  • 17% VIC
  • 9% WA
  • 7% SA
  • 5% TAS
  • 2% NT
  • less than 1% ACT

Approximately 63% of participants indicated that they were already involved in groups dealing with soil health issues and/or taking active steps on their property. 29% were interested in learning more in order to take active steps to improve soil health and 8% were just generally curious about soil health issues.

PRESENTER KEY POINTS

THE HONOURABLE MICHAEL JEFFERY – Former Governor General and the Advocate for Soil Health

  • The world has to almost double food production by 2050
    – when we are losing agricultural land at a rate of around 1% per year, waterways are polluted, input costs are increasing and soil health is degrading.
  • In Australia, around 60% of our landmass is used for agriculture, much of it is degraded to some extent.
  • Around 1 million kilometres of our rivers and streams are incised, damaged or degraded in some form.
  • We need a national understanding regarding regenerating and managing our landscape so it is fit for purpose.
  • To do this we need to recognise the importance of the integrated management of soil, water and biodiversity of vegetative cover.
  • Look to those who have made the decision to actively manage their landscapes – soil, water and vegetation – and their production line and are doing this successfully.
  • Need to be sure that we’re teaching the right things to our NRM organisations/CMAs, farmers and land managers, asking the right questions of science and distributing the knowledge appropriately.

MIKE GRUNDY – leading CSIRO’s research into observing and understanding trends in Australian landscapes

image of Australian map showing soil differences
  • Soil performs a range of services, some obvious, some hidden. These include:
    – producing biomass and food, store and provide water and nutrients, filter pollutants, store and cycle carbon, provide habitat…
  • Soils are diverse, with many types and capacities, hence soil health means different things in different places.
  • Soils change over time. Resistance and resilience vary, but can be improved. However soils have thresholds, complete regeneration may not always be possible.
  • Soils are part of the environment – the climate and vegetation shape the soil and its properties as much as the rock it forms on and the management it has endured.
  • Soils are both living and non-living – both aspects are important.
  • Key threats to soil health are acidification, erosion, physical condition, nutrient status and soil biology (refer to the State of the Environment 2011 Report for maps and data)
  • Know your soils. Healthy soils will result where the management matches the function.
  • Improved soil health will result in:
    – less degrading land – and less leakage into the environment
    – higher levels of productivity – efficiency in water, nutrients, energy
    – unique habitats – soil-vegetation-fauna survive and thrive.

DOWNLOAD PRESENTATION (3MB)

DAVID MARSH – grazier from near Boorowa in NSW, former board member of the Lachlan CMA, Landcare member.

image of degraded landscape
  • Soil part of the national capital; you cant keep drawing on the credit – you need to invest something back.
  • Previous grazing and land management practices were degrading the landscape, soil was not retaining moisture and pastures were struggling. Productivity was not increasing as expected.
  • Acknowledging that personal decisions were contributing to the situation was a powerful catalyst for change in 1982 (see image right)
  • How we make decisions determines how landscape look (see image lower right)
  • Undertaking a Holistic Management course and applying planned grazing provided the tools to look after the landscape
  • Planned grazing techniques allowed plant succession, from weeds to a community of grasses, including natural re-establishment of many native perennial species
  • Increased green-leaf growth due to recovery periods better harnesses sunlight energy
  • More fungi appeared – these are an important agent in recycling plant material as they can draw Phosphorus out of the soil bank and communicate it directly to plants
  • Ground cover has been retained even through drought, tree cover has increased, bird species have increased
  • Livestock is better matched to carrying capacity and there is no additional feed provided

DOWNLOAD PRESENTATION (3MB)

Q & A

During the webinar we asked a couple of multiple choice poll questions (participants could select more that one answer). It was positive to see that many wanted more tools and information that they could use themselves to manage their soil health, and that soil biology is the primary area of interest.

graph of poll results
graph of poll results

Thanks to everyone who asked the variety of questions at the end of the webinar. Participant questions ranged from scientific explanations from Mike on whether soil degradation experienced in some areas reflected general problems in Australia to specific questions of David regarding how he determines his stocking rate.

We’re collating the questions and answers at the moment and will make them available on the Soils for Life website shortly.

TUNE IN NEXT TIME…

Due to the somewhat rushed feeling we experienced with our first webinar, we will be focussing on just two speakers in subsequent weeks. This will ensure that we have more time for individual presentations and on-air Q&A.

Next week’s presenters are:

  • Colin Seis, grazier and cropping from Gulgong in NSW. Col is the leader in ‘Pasture Cropping’ and his techniques are being trialled more widely in Australia and overseas.
  • Shane Joyce, grazier from the Brigalow Belt outside of Theodore in Central Queensland.

As a result, we now wont be having Graeme Hand, grazier from Western Victoria and CEO of STIPA Native Grasses join us, however for those who were looking forward to what he has to say, listen to this podcast. It covers many topics including grazing management, reading the landscape and making a change…

You can still register for our future webinars via the National Landcare Facilitator website.

We look forward to you joining us!

PS. Please leave a comment below with how you would have responded to our poll questions or what you think are the questions we need to be asking of the scientific community to regenerate Australia’s soil health.

SUPPORT TO CHANGE

support organisations, such as Landcare, Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) or other Natural Resource Management (NRM) organisations.

Our case study participants also emphasised that presentations, field or open days are excellent opportunities to visit other enterprises and learn, also creating a forum for information transfer and peer review. These activities encourage cumulative learning, and knowledge sharing can be empowering. Such activities also create a community – even if it is separated geographically – which is essential to support widespread adoption of change.

Taking advantage of support mechanism as listed above can also be very useful to provide confidence in changing practices after attending training activities or demonstration days. Soils for Life is pleased to have such organisations and individuals present at our demonstration and field days to share knowledge and information about what tools and support mechanisms are available to help farmers and land managers.

We’re also very excited to be working with the National Landcare Facilitator to deliver a webinar series on soil health. Building on the growing trend of farmers using social media, we are exploring all avenues to share information and encourage adoption of regenerative practices.

Find out more and register for the ‘Regenerating Australia’s Soil Health’ webinars now, and join in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #soilhealth.

Extension activities in focus

As part of our case study research, Soils for Life selected two case studies to look specifically at support mechanisms. These examined extension activities underway which are successfully leading, guiding and encouraging farmers and land managers to learn about and adopt regenerative land management practices.

The North East Catchment Management Authority (CMA) in Victoria and the Tasmanian Natural Resource Management body, NRM South, provide two of many possible examples of effective means which are being used to provide encouragement and support to farmers and land managers to adopt regenerative landscape management practices.

North East CMA Soil Carbon Programme

North East CMA is achieving catchment-wide change in knowledge of how to build healthy soils. By identifying a critical knowledge gap – the ability to understand and respond to soil tests – the CMA developed the Soil Carbon Programme. This program provides practical action and advice, in the form of:

  • soil tests
  • agronomic advice on options on how to respond to the soil tests
  • ongoing engagement and
  • information activities based on farmer and land manager requests and requirements.

Over 500 farmers became involved in the farm planning/soil management training, accessing free soil testing and agronomic advice and agreeing to change their management practices on a nominated area of their property.

Landholders selected to participate in the initial soil testing component of the project, came from a range of farming enterprises including grazing, cropping, horticulture, viticulture, dairy and mixed enterprises.

Interim reports demonstrated that, as a result of being involved in the Soil Carbon Programme, many participants adopted agricultural and management practice changes across their whole property, not just on the sites committed to the soil testing activities. These changes included:

  • Increasing paddock numbers and transitioning to rotational grazing management
  • Improved ground cover maintenance
  • Promotion or sowing of perennial species
  • Maximising species diversity in pasture
  • Increased stubble retention
  • Changes to fertilisers used, such as seaweed and trace element application rather than only annual NPK application
  • Application of more precise Calcium products, such as sulphur/calcium/magnesium mixes

With funding of $2.2 million over four years, over 500 farmers are actively involved and up to 1500 have been informed of improved soil management practices. This equates to around $1500 investment in each farmer over a four-year period, a relatively cost-efficient way of encouraging change in farming practice. For example, if extended across Australia’s other CMA/NRM organisations it could potentially realise 25,000 farmers actively changing their soil health for the better, together with more than another 50,000 informed to make a change…

Visit the North East CMA website for more information on the program and to review the soil test results.

NRM South Planned Grazing Trials

On a smaller scale, the projects being managed by NRM South are encouraging landholders to adopt regenerative landscape management practices in a low risk way that suits the situation of individual farmers.

NRM South provides a range of options to assist farmers to change their practices, with ongoing engagement to support changes beyond the initial enthusiasm experienced at field days or workshops. In particular, their Building Evidence for Regenerative Agriculture assisted trials in planned grazing are empowering farmers and land managers to understand new techniques at their own pace.

Trial participants set up two small half or one hectare paddocks for the trial and selected an area of conventional practice to be their ‘control’ or reference site. The trials comprise a short grazing event with intense stock density followed by a long recovery period.

Specific biophysical monitoring was performed on each trial site, including changes in soil organic carbon and soil water content. Evidence of improvement in soils and pastures on some sites were recorded in as little as 12 months.

Images from a 1 hectare trial paddock, Feb 2011 (left) and may 2012 (right), six weeks after 24 hours grazing by 700 sheep.
Note improved ground cover and concentration of manure.

You can download the NRM South Guide to Planned Grazing from their website for guidance on how to conduct a trial of planned grazing on your land and access planning and monitoring tools for ongoing refinement of the method.

NRM South found that trial demonstration sites also allow for sharing of results and broader discussion and to generate interest across the catchment. Through this support technique, the landholders are a part of the change, with minimal disruption to their production, and they can choose whether or not to adopt practices based on their own evidence.

Visit the NRM South website for more information on the services they provide.

Specialist skills

In addition to government-funded organisations, there are also many private consultants working in natural resource management fields who are having significant impacts in supporting the adoption of regenerative landscape management practices. The panel of agronomists accessible to participants of the North East CMA’s Soil Carbon Programme was an important part of the project, and numerous other case study participants made use of specialist consultants to provide specific advice on the implementation and management of their innovative practices.

You can read more in the Bokhara Plains, Jillamatong, Gunningrahand Briandra case studies in particular, which reference benefits gained from obtaining support from like-minded individuals, groups or organisations in adopting changed practices.

Seek the support that suits you

Identifying an individual provider or program which has an approach that aligns with your own values and requirements is central to the success of such support.

If you’re thinking about adopting regenerative practices, look around for different support options and select a mechanism that would help you to reach your goals.

Good luck!

The Soils for Life Team

PS. To all the agronomists, soil scientists, CMA, NRM, Local Land Services (LLS), Landcare and related organisations out there who are helping farmers to work with their land for environmental, production and social outcomes, keep up the great work! With your support we can make regenerative landscape management practices the norm in Australia…
Soils for Life,