CEO’s Report

from Acting CEO, Narelle Luff.

It has been my pleasure to support the Soils For Life team whilst we seek a new CEO. It hasn’t always been easy with my new (home) office also being a school and childcare centre!

The view from my new office!
Kangaroo grass thriving in my backyard after Canberra’s autumn rain

During the COVID-19 lockdown the Soils For Life team has been finalising case studies commenced before travel and social distancing measures were implemented. Salisbury is the last of these to be published.

The team has also been working to design a comprehensive evaluation plan for the case study program and we have been looking at ways we can develop education resources to support learning. We hope these resources will act as a catalyst for you to take some action on your property or to seek a new path of professional development through further reading or training.

The team at Soils For Life are relieved to see some changes to the travel and work restrictions and we expect our field teams will soon return to farm visits. We will continue to publish our monthly newsletter however over the coming months instead of publishing a new case study with each newsletter we will republish a previous case study and alongside this we will publish an education resource.

It is our plan to develop field days for the new case study farms. When there is greater certainty about social gatherings we will start scheduling these events. We will keep you informed via our website, newsletter and our socials.

Finally, we have revised the case study program application form. We value feedback from our audience and case study participants and have taken the opportunity to simplify the application form after speaking with farmers. Learn more about being a case study participant here and find the application form here.

Our team are here to help, so if you want to have a chat or want some assistance to complete the application give us a call.

Narelle Luff

Operations Manager / Acting CEO

Meet Katharine Brown

Katharine Brown recently joined the Soils For Life project team, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and curiosity about soils. We asked her what she finds most fascinating about soil in this Q and A.

Q: What do you find so fascinating about soil?

A: There are an infinite number of fascinating facts about soil! If I were to choose one, it would be that “each soil has had its own history. Like a river, a mountain, a forest, or any natural thing, its present condition is due to the influences of many things and events of the past.” That’s a quote by soil scientist Dr Charles E. Kellogg from 1938. When you observe a soil, you gain an understanding of its past (how it formed), its present (how it functions), and its future (how it responds).

Q: You’ve been a soil scientist for 20 years now. What has been the most exciting thing/change you’ve seen in your career?

A: I am encouraged by the growing consensus on the significance of soils and the value of soil information. In particular, the recognition that soil is a finite natural resource and that soil condition will determine the extent society, the nation and the planet will benefit from ecosystem services. I am equally encouraged by the increase in the number of women soil scientists in what continues to be a male-dominated profession.

Q: What’s your new role with SFL and what will you be doing?

A: As a Soils For Life Project Team Member, I will be researching the benefits of regenerative agriculture on the soil, encouraging the adoption of land management practices to improve soil condition, sharing soil science knowledge with my colleagues, community and regenerative farmers, and increasing my understanding of regenerative agriculture practices.

Q: What’s one myth about soils you’d like to see busted?

A: That the “magic” happens in the topsoil. To understand the past, present, and future of a soil, we need to dig deeper!

Q: If you could change one thing about how people think about soil what would it be?

A: I would like to dispel two common thoughts:

1. That we can take from the soil without giving back.

2. That soil is dirt. Dirt is inert. Soil is alive.

Read more about the expertise on the Soils For Life team here.


Is a ‘food crisis’ the next big hit for humanity?

By Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE

The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security.

As the world reels under corona virus and the resulting economic meltdown,  another crisis – far more serious – appears to be building: the potential collapse of global food supply chains.

For those who cry “We don’t want any more bad news”, the fact of the matter is we have landed in our present mess – climate, disease, extinction, pollution, WMD – because we steadfastly ignored previous warnings.

The first warning of a corona pandemic was issued in a scientific paper in 2007 and was blithely ignored for thirteen years. In it, the scientists explicitly stated “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.” [i] 

Similarly, in 1979, the World Meteorological Organisation warned “… the probability of a man-induced future global warming is much greater and increases with time. Soon after the turn of the century a level may possibly be reached that is exceeds all warm periods of the last 1000-2000 years.” [ii] And climate warnings have been coming thick and fast ever since, to scant avail.

Now we have a new warning from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a cautious body if ever there was one, that states “We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.” [iii]

Border closures, quarantines and market, supply chain and trade disruptions are listed as the chief reasons for concern. However, like many national governments, FAO insists “there is no need to panic” as world food production remains ample.

This, however, depends on fragile assumptions. It assumes that farmers and their families do not get sick. It assumes they will always be able to access the fuel, fertiliser, seed and other inputs they need when supply chains disintegrate. It assumes the truck drivers who transport food to the cities do not get sick, that markets, cool stores and food processing plants are not closed to protect their workers. That supermarkets continue to function, even when their shelves are stripped bare. All of which is starting to appear tenuous.

There is never a ‘need to panic’ as it does not help in resolving difficult situations. But there is definitely a need to take well-planned precautions – as we have failed to do in the cases of climate and corona virus.

The looming food crisis starts from three primary causes:

  • The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security. It is all about money, and not about human safety or nutrition. Its links are fragile and any of them can break, precipitating chaos – especially in big cities.
  • The agricultural system we know and love is becoming increasingly unreliable owing to climate change, catastrophic loss of soils worldwide, shortages of water and narrowing of its genetic base. Farmers are struggling with their own pandemics in the form of swine fever, army worms and locusts. This unreliability will become increasingly critical from the 2020s to the mid-century.
  • The predatory world economic system now punishes farmers by paying them less and less for their produce, driving them off their farms and increasingly forcing those who remain to use unsustainable methods of food production. This is causing a worldwide loss of farmers and their skills and destruction of the agricultural resource base and ecosystem at a time of rising food instability.[iv]

The reason that a food crisis is far more serious than either the corona virus or its economic meltdown, is that the death toll is generally far larger. More than 200 million people have died in various famines over the last century and a half, and many of those famines led to civil wars, international wars and governmental collapses. That is why we need to pay attention now – before a new global food crisis arises. Not brush it aside, as so many inept world leaders have done with the virus.

The Spanish have a well-learned saying that “Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.” [v] The French and Russian Revolutions both arose out of famines. WWII arose partly out of Hitler’s desire to capture Soviet farmlands in order to avoid another WW1 famine in Germany. Many modern African wars are over food or the means to produce it. The Syrian civil war began with a climate-driven food crisis. Indeed, there is growing evidence that lack of food plays a catalytic role in around two thirds of contemporary armed conflicts. As US former president Jimmy Carter has observed “Hungry people are not peaceful people.” [vi]

Food failures bring down governments and cause states to fail. In 2012 a drought in Russia and the Ukraine forced them to cut grain supplies to Egypt and Libya – where governments promptly fell to popular revolutions. It was a strange echo of history: in the third century a combination of climate change and a pandemic caused a failure in grain supplies from North Africa, an economic crash and, ultimately, the end of the Roman Empire.

While there is ‘no need to panic’ over food, there is a very clear and urgent need for plans to forestall major shortages around the world. Yet, there is very little evidence that governments worldwide are preparing to head off a food crisis, other than to reassure their citizens, Trumplike, that there isn’t a problem.  However, lack of trust by citizens in their governments has already prompted a global rush to stock up on staple foods which has ‘upended’ the vulnerable ‘just-in-time’ food delivery system in many countries.[vii]

Over four billion people now inhabit the world’s great cities – and not one of those cities can feed itself. Not even close. None of them are prepared for catastrophic failure in fragile modern food chains, on which they are totally reliant. It would appear almost nobody has even dreamed of such a thing. We are sleepwalking into something far larger and far more deadly than corona virus. The delicate web of modern civilization is fraying.

What is to be done? The short answers are:

  • Introduce emergency urban food stocks
  • Compulsory reduction of food waste at all points
  • Prepare for WWII-style rationing if needed
  • Pay farmers a fair return
  • Increase school meals programs and food aid to the poor
  • Encourage local food production and urban food gardens
  • Develop a global emergency food aid network as a priority
  • Reinvent food on a three-tier global model encompassing: regenerative farming, urban food production (and recycling), accelerated deep ocean aquaculture and algae culture.

There are few crises that cannot be avoided with careful forward planning, including the ten catastrophic risks now facing humanity as a whole. [viii]

It is time we, as a species, learned to think ahead better than we do, and not listen to those who cry “no more bad news, please”. They only lead us into further crisis.

*Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His book Food or War describes what must be done to secure the world’s food supply.


REFERENCES

[i] Cheung VCC et al., Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. Clinical Microbiology Reviews Oct 2007, 20 (4) 660-694; DOI: 10.1128/CMR.00023-07

[ii] World Climate Conference 1979, http://wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/wcc-1979.html#flohn

[iii] FAO. Will COVID-19 have negative impacts on global food security? March 2020. http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/en/

[iv] These issues are extensively analysed in my recent book Food or War, Cambridge University Press, 2019. https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/food-or-war

[v] Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.

[vi] Carter J., First Step to Peace is Eradicating Hunger. International Herald Tribune, June 17, 1999.

[vii] Lee A, How the UK’s just-in-time delivery model crumbled under coronavirus. Wired, 30 March 2020.

[viii] Cribb JHJ, “Surviving the 21st Century”. Springer 2017. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-41270-2

A NOTE FROM THE DEPUTY CHAIR

APRIL 2020

Above: Charles Maslin embarking on some “slow travel” aiming to ride a push bike from Perth to Pambula.

What a turbulent time, with so much of the economy and people’s lives thrown into total disarray due to the corona pandemic. When will life pre-2020 resume? Fortunately most farms can continue on as “business as usual”, maybe with less social interaction, but relatively normal farming operations being able to be maintained.

On a positive note, a large part of the eastern states have had great autumn breaks, some the best in recent history. Sadly, other areas just a stone’s throw away, remain gripped in drought…and many land management issues still abound, not hidden by a film of green.

At the Soils For Life office work continues on, with all staff working from home. Later this month the ‘Fairhalt’ case study will be published and next month the ‘Salisbury’ case study will be released. We are always on the lookout for new case studies, so please contact us if you would like to apply.

In the “office”, Narelle Luff has been doing an outstanding job as operations manager, keeping the new “at home workplace” going in as full swing as practicable. Recently there have been new additions to staff: Jen Richards as Communications Manager; Katherine Brown from a soil science background; James Diack, an Agricultural Scientist; and Rebecca Palmer-Brodie from the field of social science. Welcome all to the S4L team!

Other happenings include the refinement of our website to make valuable information and contacts easier to access. We continue to post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and are now active on LinkedIn as well. Any feedback on any of these is always welcome!

On another front, I have been embarking on some “slow travel” aiming to ride a push bike from Perth to Pambula…where is Perth I hear you say! The ride is as a fundraiser for the country education foundation, to raise funds for rural students to get opportunities in education that they would otherwise miss out on. Have a look at cef.org.au/charlie for more info. Unfortunately with borders closed, I was able to ride from Mildura to Narrandera and then Adaminaby to Pambula before the lock down, covering about 750km of the state.

What does this have to do with Soils for Life? Quite simply, “slow travel” enables me to observe changes in the landscape and differences in management between places in a district. The management of ground cover, species diversity, riparian health and weed infestation are some of the things which stand out…the seven days of bike travel so far seemed to go faster than the two of car travel to get there….with so much more to be observed when travelling at a slower pace!

It really makes me realise that we still have a long way to go with environmental stewardship and the long term health security of this land we all love. There is still much to be done to get the Soils For Life message out there…and implemented!

Olsen’s Hallora

Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shaun, Jamie and Shane through careful management and the invention of the “SoilKee Renovator” have developed a property in Hallora, West Gippsland which produces healthy pasture year round. In 2019 the family were recognised for their exploits in sequestering soil carbon by being the first farm in Australia to be awarded carbon credits for doing so.

Angus cross cattle enjoying healthy pasture.

The Olsen family is focused on improving the health of their land to its maximum capacity, they are willing to share this journey with many land holders visiting their property each year to gain insight into how the Olsen’s have achieved spectacular soil and pasture improvements.

FARM FACTS

Olsen Family Farm, Hallora VIC

ENTERPRISE: Angus cross cattle breeding

PROPERTY SIZE: 124 ha

AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL: 1000 mm

ELEVATION: 135 m

MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE

  • The over application of superphosphate fertilisers over the course of two years and the subsequent damage caused to their soil was the catalyst for Niels and Marja Olsen to reassess their farming strategy. Realising that healthy soil produces healthy food was a major factor in influencing their journey in becoming regenerate land managers.

INNOVATIONS

Regenerative landscape and livestock management regimes, including:

  • Increase paddock numbers to facilitate rotational grazing
  • Multi species pasture cropping
  • Carbon and nitrogen soil sequestration
  • Pasture growth improved to negate biannual “feed gaps”
  • Utilisation of the “SoilKee Renovator Machine”

KEY RESULTS

  • Significant improvements in soil health measures such as moisture content, biological activity and soil carbon levels. Pasture growth has increased significantly with up to 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare grown each year. Observations of biodiversity have increased on the farm with the number of birds, frogs and other reptiles seen greatly increasing. Landslips and washouts have stopped occurring.

The Hallora Story

Niels and Marja Olsen with the help of their three sons Shane, Jamie and Shaun have been managing and operating the family farm in Hallora, Gippsland, Victoria since 1985. Previously, the property was used for dairy cattle with Niels making the switch to a herd of breeder cattle in 2008. Over the years Niels has worked a number of off-farm jobs, supplementing farm income. In 2012 Niels with the help of his family designed and patented a machine to improve soil health on his farm, the machine was named the SoilKee Renovator.

Niels Olsen showcasing soil structure and root depth gained from utilising the SoilKee Renovator.
Multi species pasture cropping at the Olsen Family Farm.

Background

Niels grew up on a farm not far from his current property; for many years he lived the life of a typical dairy farmer, milking twice daily 365 days a year. Niels farmed the way he had learnt in his youth, the traditional West Gippsland way: growing pastures in the good seasons of the year to harvest and store later to be fed out during the other seasons. This method of farming was labour and time intensive.

In the 1990’s Niels started and managed an earth moving business whilst keeping the farm running. The earth moving business proved to be quite successful and Niels made the decision to invest some of the profits back into the farm in the form of superphosphate fertiliser. In 1999 upon consultation from a local agronomist Niels purchased and applied a large quantity of super on his farm. The results were fantastic; pastures looked green and grew significantly more than they had the previous year. Niels decided to increase the dosage of super the following year expecting to achieve better pasture growth results. However, the complete opposite occurred; after applying the super the Olsen’s paddocks turned brown and stopped growing whilst his neighbour’s paddocks were green with fresh pasture growth.

This was the catalyst for the Olsen’s to recognise these practices were harming the landscape and seemed unsustainable in the long term. Marja and Niels were horrified at the damage they had inflicted upon their soil. Their response was to seek out guidance and training, they started attending workshops and field days focused on improving soil health. Armed with the knowledge they had gained from the numerous workshops and field days they set about regenerating soil health on their farm.

The Landscape

The property is comprised of 124 hectares split into 28 paddocks, the water supply consisting of dams and an ephemeral creek running through the property. The property sits at an elevation of 135m above sea level with an average annual rainfall of 1000 mm. Prior to land clearing in the late 19th century for agricultural purposes the landscape would have consisted of what is now classified as a damp/ wet sclerophyll forest. Numerous species of eucalyptus and acacia trees would have been present in the landscape, only Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) is present today.

The property consists of low slopes and rolling hills with an acidic red ferrosol soil. The pasture species at the time of purchase were mostly rye grasses and clovers with no native grass species present. Signs of ecological health in the soil such as worms were rarely observed prior to 2002. The pH of the soil ranged from 3.7-4.5 across the farm. Prior to the use of the “SoilKee Renovator” landslips and washouts regularly occurred across the property. Since the implementation of the “SoilKee Renovator”, no landslips or washouts have occurred on the property. The soil structure on the farm was improved by sowing deep rooted pasture species such as legumes, improving the structure of the soil which greatly reduced the risk of landslips and washouts.

Indicators of ecological health such as reptiles and frogs were not regularly observed on the farm prior to adoption of some regenerative management techniques, especially soil health, high soil carbon content, cover and hydration. In recent years frog numbers have increased significantly and they are now observed regularly. The dominant snake species on the property used to be the Eastern Brown (Pseudonaja textilis), since the increase in frog numbers Eastern Brown snakes are rarely sighted on the property instead Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) have become common. Frogs are the preferred food of Tiger snakes. The increase in frog numbers on the property directly coincided with the ceasing of chemical inputs.

Birds such as Ibis’s were commonly observed in the paddocks eating slugs and cockchafers, since adopting regenerative management techniques Ibis’s are rarely if ever seen on the farm. During a short walk on the property in November 2019 a Soils For Life ecologist observed 22 different species of birds. These species included birds from most of the trophic levels including raptors suggesting that the health of the landscape is in excellent condition.

Production

From 1985 till 2008 Niels operated the property as a dairy farm with a herd size of around 150, in 2008 Olsens stopped dairying and started a breeder operation and selling steers for slaughter. Initially they kept the same herd of dairy cattle and used them as a breeder herd due to the cost of replacing their herd entirely. In 2018 they replaced the herd of dairy cattle with a herd of angus crosses.  Niels and Marja have utilised rotational grazing on the property from 2003 onwards, prior to 2015 the total yearly grazing time per paddock was eight weeks. This has increased the grazing time since 2015 to 12 weeks of the year due to increases in pasture production gained from sowing multi-species utilising the SoilKee Renovator. Niels has altered his production system from an animal-first perspective to soil first. Olsen’s focus is on improving the health of their soil through methods such as multi species cropping to encourage root growth and nitrogen and carbon intake from the air. Olsens consider fungal activity to be vitally important in improving soil health. They ensure that the soil is never deep ripped which can damage and stop fungal activity from occurring.

Prior to 2012 Niels had a concept in his mind which he thought could be the ideal method of farming for his property. However, he did not have the tools to trial the concept. His idea was that by utilising a machine which lightly disturbed the soil and planted crops concurrently, and twice a year, he could grow enough pasture biomass to feed his cattle year-round without having to cut and store fodder to be fed in the feed gaps of each season. In 2012 this idea came to fruition, Niels had built and designed a machine which he named the “SoilKee Renovator”. The machine consisted of angular blades which “broke” the earth rather than “cutting” it at minimal depth. The machine is utilised after grazing with 15-20% of biomass left from the grazing mulched straight into the soil speeding up the process. Essentially Niels had designed a machine which converted his pasture biomass directly into mulch after grazing. This completely reduced the need for any fertiliser application on the property. 

Since 2012 Niels has not had to supplementary feed his livestock. The method of multi species pasture and cropping combined with the accelerated mulching enabled by the SoilKee Renovator, has significantly improved the health of the soil and the amount of pasture biomass produced each year. Niels has been able to grow 20 tonnes of dry biomass per hectare per year on some of his best paddocks, the less fertile areas of the property achieve 15 tonnes per hectare per year. The pasture growing season is now 9 months of the year. Undesirable pasture species such as kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) which used to be present across the property has been out-competed by desirable species planted sowed with the SoilKee machine.  

The Family

The Olsen Farm is an unusual farm in the sense that all three of Niels and Marja’s adult sons still work on the farm and in the family business. A lot of the production of the SoilKee machine is done on farm by the eldest son Shane, who is interested in manufacturing and design improvement. The middle son Jamie manages the farm with his father Niels and does contracting work driving the SoilKee Renovator on other properties. The youngest son Shaun helps in all aspects of the farm and family business. Marja manages the administration side of the farm and the business whilst Niels oversees operations. The sons are happy that they get to keep working on the family farm, Niels and Marja are pleased that their sons continue to play an active role in their lives.

Soil Health and Soil Carbon Sequestration

Commencing in 2016 detailed soil tests were undertaken on Hallora to meet the reporting requirements of the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund carbon abatement reporting requirements. Results for the 2017 reporting period showed Hallora measured 12.2 t/CO2e/ha and in 2018 this had increased to 13.7 tCO2e/ha. In early 2019 the Soilkee Farm became the first farm in the world (as far as we can ascertain) to be awarded carbon credits for sequestering carbon with their soil.

Increased carbon in the soil has correlated with increases in organic matter, water infiltration and holding capacity. Moisture and organic material were previously measured to reach a depth of 50cm in the soil, currently on some parts of the farm that depth has increased to 650cm. The pH of the soil has also improved from 3.7-4.5 prior to 2003 to currently measure at 5.5-7.9.

Nitrogen nodules on the roots of peas planted in the pasture are numerous and large in size and commonly observed. Worm castings are evident across the property and the soil structure has altered to feel spongey under foot. During autumn the fruit of fungi in the form of mushrooms and toadstools are visible across the paddocks indicating a healthy fungal biota existing beneath the soil.

Conclusion

Over 34 years of management the Olsens have continued learning about their landscape and the importance of the soil underneath it. Niels and family have altered their management practices to focus on building soil health and resilience across the farm to ensure long term viability. The most significant innovation that Niels has implemented on the farm is the use of the SoilKee Renovator, which has improved the health of their soil in conjunction with growing significantly more pasture biomass across the property. Other innovations include monitoring soil, introducing multi-species pasture and switching from dairy to beef.

The improvements the Olsen family have made to the property are an outstanding example of land holders implementing and practicing innovative regenerative management techniques particularly focused on nurturing soil health. The Olsen’s have achieved:

  • Soil microbiology enhancements
  • Soil hydration improvements
  • Improvements in carrying capacity of land
  • No low season feed inputs
  • Air penetration of soils
  • Biodiversity
  • Family wellbeing
  • Carbon sequestration in the soils
  • Australian Carbon Credit Units which can be traded.

Narrative summary

The Olsen’s started viewing and managing their property as a system and as a result the ecology of the farm has improved dramatically, so too have the social benefits as the family that works together, stays together.


Ecological summary

The ecology of the Olsen Family Farm speaks for itself, the soil is thriving, full of worms and root systems packed with nitrogen nodules and soil carbon levels are excellent and still rising. Above the ground a diverse range of birds and frogs are now regularly seen in the grassy paddocks.


Economic summary

Despite the publicity about the Olsen Family Farm being the first in Australia to acquire ACCU’s under the federal governments Emissions Reduction Fund, the fact remains an integrated approach to regenerative agriculture pays off. Increasing natural capital and the resultant ecosystem service benefits provides greater productivity and landscape resilience, the ACCU’s are the cream on top!


Social summary

The entire family works together on managing the property and their associated business ventures. Being able to work on the family farm into adulthood provides each of the three sons a great deal of job satisfaction. Needless to say Niels and Marja are pleased to have all three of their sons around.

Are you our next case study? If you have a story of change to tell about your regenerative landscape practices, we’d love to hear from you! Find out more here.

Loving the smell of healthy soil!

by Kirsty Yeates

Bill and Rhonda Daly (Milgadara), Dr Shane Powell (University of Tasmania) and Kirsty Yeates (Soils For Life) (front, L-R) join these farmers to talk about their needs in designing a tool to monitor soil biology.

The Soil CRC is all about giving farmers the knowledge and tools they need to make decisions on complex soil management issues. Soils For Life is proud to be a partner in what is Australia’s largest collaborative soil research initiative. The recent eNose Workshop in Young, NSW with the University of Tasmania was certainly an example of the focus on farmers!

There aren’t too many on-farm ways to assess and monitor the health of soil microbial communities. We all recognise that delicious, earthy smell of healthy soil or recoil when we smell a soil that we just know isn’t right. Using these aromas, researchers from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) are leading a Soil CRC project to develop an electronic nose (the ‘eNose’) to help monitor and diagnose soil health.

Dr. Rob Hardy in the lab building an eNose prototype.

There are some real challenges to building a tool to monitor soil biology. Dr Rob Hardy (UTAS) is exploring ways to build a suitable sensor array from low cost, off-the shelf components. To make sure the technology is useful, useable and provides the information that farmers are looking for, Dr Shane Powell (UTAS) teamed up with Kirsty Yeates from Soils for Life and we headed out to Young to find out what farmers think.

Bill and Rhonda Daly, from Milgadara, are well known at Soils For Life for their long-term focus on building healthy living soils as well as sharing their knowledge. You can read about their story here. It was a great place to start and they were only too happy to host us, along with a group of farmers from around the region for the day.

A tour of YLAD’s compost facility demonstrated how to quickly build a healthy, humus-rich compost. Getting the temperature right, as well as the soil moisture, the right microbes and ratio of carbon to nitrogen inputs were all critical to high quality compost.

Bill and Rhonda show us around YLAD’s compost facility.
Great compost takes precision. Here’s Bill Daly monitoring the conditions in this newly
forming compost pile.

It’s been a long dry period but with a quick, intense storm the night before we moved out to the paddock to see mushrooms popping up through the soil. It was perfect to dig into the soil and see what we could smell. 

Even after a tough season, a short sharp storm the night before had fully soaked in and we easily dug into the soil. 

As a microbial ecologist, Shane Powell, knows only too well how complicated living soil can be. She shared insights into the many roles that the microbial communities have: nutrient cycling, decomposition, causing disease, suppressing disease, building soil structure and even promoting plant growth.

Dr Shane Powell shares insights on soil biology and leads the workshop to find out what farmers need in an ‘eNose’ tool.
An early assembly of the ‘eNose’ using off the shelf components.

From here, we moved into a pretty lively discussion. Everyone shared what problems they were trying to solve and talked about the type of things they were prepared to do to find out more about their soil biology. A lot of ideas were generated about how the device could be used and what it could add to the information farmers currently use to help manage their soils.

For everyone that came along to talk about soil biology and share their ideas, we say thank you! This is what the best, collaborative science is all about. Space to focus and think about what farmers really need, as well as support from the science community to develop much needed new technologies and understanding.

There’s a lot to do but keep your eye out and we’ll let you know how the project goes.

A note from the CEO

It is wonderful to see some rain at least in eastern Australia. So I would hope we are all doing what we can to re-hydrate parched landscapes making the best use possible of those techniques to “slow the flow”! The highlight of the month has been a very well patronised Maia Grazing field day, “Grazing in Extremes” near Ebor NSW where the emphasis was on information and best-practice sustainable grazing techniques and management promoting the creation and nurturing of productive healthy soils and pasture. There was an impressive list of speakers including Dr Christine Jones, Jim Gerrish and Bart Davidson to name a few.

Chairman Soils For Life welcomes over 350 people to Wilmot Cattle Co. for the Maia Grazing field day.

The field day featured world-class speakers on soil health, wise grazing practice and what natural capital is all about and why it is so topical now, together with a very touching account of Alex and Nic Anderson’s journey down the path to adoption of regenerative practice in harsh climatic and seasonal extremes.

Well over 350 people listen to Bart Davidson’s address on the importance of farm planning.
CEO Rod Chisholm fields enquiries from farmers looking to get tips on making a start with regenerative practices.
Attendees gaining insight into soil health and and wiser grazing practices.

We took dozens of enquiries on the day and gave away numerous copies of case studies and pamphlets.

If you would like to find out more, check-out our website and social media feeds and perhaps consider being the subject of a case study if you have a good regenerative farming practice story to tell.  On another note, I am leaving soon for family reasons and returning to Brisbane. It has been a great year and I encourage everyone to learn as much as you can about regenerative farming practice and implement against a well-considered plan!

What is a Weed?

by Greg Hosking & Richard Thackway

Weeds are one of the major problems affecting Australia’s natural ecosystems and agricultural vegetation. Weeds have major impacts on the health, safety, amenity, economic well-being and quality of life of Australians (McNaught et al. 2006). However, deciding what is and isn’t a weed is complicated but important. Statements such as “all plants are good” or “all non-native plants are weeds” are inflexible statements and do not encourage viewing the environment in question as a system made up of numerous functioning parts.

The Cambridge Dictionary definition of a “weed” is any plant that is considered to be undesirable in a particular location (Dictionary 2016). It is a rather loose definition; it is open for personal interpretation. For example, the blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.) was brought to Australia from Britain in the 1840’s, it was introduced for its fruit and suitability for growing into hedges (DPIE 2020). Shortly after introduction, the plant spread widely throughout the south-east of Australia choking up waterways and pastures and by the 1880’s many people considered it to be a weed (DPEI 2020). However, some people look for the positive effects that weeds can provide in an environment. In landscapes that have been highly modified for agricultural production Blackberry bushes provide habitat for smaller bird species such as the superb fairywren (Malurus cyaneus) (Nias 1984). Whilst providing habitat for a few species of birds is important, the value of this service must be considered alongside the negative impacts weeds can have on the environment.

Some plants are labelled as “weedy” because of their ability to outcompete other plants, invade and colonise disturbed land and create monocultures. Monocultures caused by invasive species can have detrimental effects on local wildlife, reducing their habitat and food supplies (Ferdinands et al. 1984). A characteristic of many weeds is their ability to more successfully occupy some locations where native plants once thrived, thus pushing native plants to the fringes. For some species this results in localised extinction and in extreme cases can result in total species extinction (Groves & Willis 1999). In some agricultural landscapes some weed incursions have proven so extreme that agricultural production is forced to stop completely. The prickly pear invasion of the 1930s in central Queensland is a case in point.

Currently in Australia some plants are considered to be noxious weeds and various state governments legally require that landholders must undertake methods to control noxious weeds, failure to do so can result in fines. African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) and serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) are two examples of plants which must be controlled within the state of New South Wales (NSW DPI 2019). African lovegrass and serrated tussock are known for their ability to outcompete other grass species, native and non-natives alike, they are both largely unpalatable with little nutritional value for livestock or native animals (NSW DPI 2019). Strong cases have been made for actively controlling and removing African lovegrass (Curhes et al. 2009) and serrated tussock (Sinden et al. 2004).

African Lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula)
Close up of Tussock grass (Eragrostis curvula) in messy formation on dry ground

There are, however, those who advocate for the value of weeds: permaculturists use the term “naturalised” rather than “invasive” species. This term change within the permaculture movement stems from the consideration that all plants can be useful and provide a function to the environment (Holmgren 2011). Their argument is that naturalised species fill an important function/s which was previously lacking from the environment. An example of a weed which provides an ecological function is galvanised burr (Sclerolaena birchii). It is native to the rangelands of Australia and appears typically after periods of drought and is found in areas that have been highly disturbed e.g. overgrazed by livestock. Galvanised burr acts as a scab, covering bare ground and aiding soil health in repairing after periods of high stress (Auld 1981). As such, invasive plants like galvanised burr can be used an indicator of land condition.

Galvanised burr (Sclerolaena birchii) provides ecological function

Within the regenerative agriculture movement there is no uniform idea or opinion of weeds. Some land managers subscribe to the theory that every plant has a function and should be promoted whilst others recognise the damage particular plant species can cause. Some regenerative land managers in grazing landscapes have shown that their understanding of the vulnerabilities of weed ecology and biology can be used to control and remove weeds. For example, promoting the succession of pasture species through paddock rotations involving intensive short grazing periods combined with long recovery times without any grazing can result in weeds being outcompeted by desired pasture species.   

The term “weed” means many different things to many different people. When assessing if a plant is a “weed” it is worth considering that some plants that are considered weeds can provide valuable ecological functions at different times and in certain circumstances. Conversely, plant species which dominate an ecosystem and cause extinction of other species through the creation of monocultures should not be encouraged, either inadvertently or deliberately. Use of the term “weed” should be used advisedly and should involve consideration of the likely positive and negative effects that a plant species has on the landscape.

References:

Auld, B.A. (1981). Aspects of the population ecology of Galvanised Burr (Sclerolaena birchii). The Rangeland Journal, 3(2), pp.142-148.

Curhes, S. Leigh, C. and Walton, C. (2009). Weed risk assessment: African lovegrass Eragrostis curvula.

Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. (2020). Blackberry. [online] Available at: https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/pest-animals-and-weeds/weeds/widespread-weeds/exotic-vines/blackberry [Accessed 7 March 2020].

Dictionary, o. (2016). weed Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Dictionary.cambridge.org. Available at: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/weed [Accessed 7 March 2020].

Ferdinands, K., Beggs, K. and Whitehead, P. (2005). Biodiversity and invasive grass species: multiple-use or monoculture?. Wildlife Research32(5), pp.447-457.

Groves, R.H. and Willis, A.J. (1999). Environmental weeds and loss of native plant biodiversity: some Australian examples. Australian Journal of Environmental Management, 6(3), pp.164-171.

Holmgren, D. (2011). Weeds or wild nature: a permaculture perspective. Plant Protection Quarterly, 26(3), p.92.

McNaught, I., Thackway, R., Brown, L., and Parsons, M. (2006). A field manual for surveying and mapping nationally significant weeds. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.

Nias, R. C. (1984). Territory quality and group size in the superb fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus. Emu 84: 178-180.

NSW Department of Primary Industries. (2019). African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) [online]. Available at: https://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/3 [Accessed 7 March 2020].

NSW Department of Primary Industries. (2019). Serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) [online]. Available at: https://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/123 [Accessed 7 March 2020].

Sinden, J. Jones, R. Hester, S. Odom, D. Kalisch, C. James, R. Cacho, O. and Griffith, G. (2004). The economic impact of weeds in Australia. Technical Series, 8.

Managing Soils After Fires in Pasture Systems – Sheep Connect

Hear from Brian Hughes, Senior Consultant at Primary Industries and Regions South Australia, talk about the effects of fire on soils and farming systems and his experience of changes in the landscape and how they recover. Unsure about what might come back, Brian suggests pasture testing by wetting up a small region (up to 30cm in diameter) to see what might return.

Our Trees are Dying…

The effects of the drought keep on mounting and it would seem the most recently casualties have been many of our native trees. Many Landcare and community members have reported dead and dying trees, and most have observed it seems to have intensified in recent weeks.

Speaking today with Dr Mason Crane from Sustainable Farms, part of the Australian National University’s Conservation Landscape Ecology group, this dieback we are currently seeing is widespread. North of Sydney, down along the coast and reaching into the far south of the state also.

“Extensive tree dieback was seen during the Millennium Drought”, observed Dr Crane, “however what we are seeing now is possibly on a scale we have not previously observed.”

Weaker trees, due to existing stresses of isolation, stock pressure and shallow soils, are most vulnerable. Particular species like the shallow rooted Stringy Bark, the moisture favouring Blakelys Red Gum, or species on the edge of their range may be the first to go.

Trees become water stressed, and stressed trees tend to send more nitrates into their leaves. Insects are attracted to leaves with higher nitrate levels so concentrate their feeding, overwhelming the tree and compounding the stress it is under. Fertilisers and stock camps also increase the nitrates in tree leaves.

Trees will try and recover using their epicormic re-growth, however if conditions remain dry their reserves eventually become so depleted this is not possible.

The final blow will come after we do receive drought breaking rain. Many trees that have managed to hang on will have suffered extensive root dieback. If strong winds accompany the lifesaving rain, many trees will be blown over.

Saving our trees is not easy. Dr Crane explained “ground cover is the best help. Ground cover helps conserve moisture and regulate soil temperature”.

Trees that are fenced off will have mulch protecting them and greatly reduced stock pressure. Whilst it is not possible to do it for hundreds of trees, putting straw or some kind of mulch around particular trees of concern will help.

For the future, when revegetating is back on the agenda, prioritise protecting as many trees as possible. Paddocks containing lots of trees should be treated differently to others, for example; only used occasionally for off-shears. Where possible, fencing for new plantings can also incorporate some existing trees.

Our resilient landscape has its limits. We can no longer take trees in our landscape for granted.

For more information contact; Ruth Aveyard 0447 242 474 coordinator@upperlachlanlandcare.org.au

Illawong’s approach to regenerative practices, incorporating old paddock trees in new plantings.

TURNING “DISASTER” INTO DELIGHT AT ILLAWONG

Bryan Ward’s property, Illawong, comprises 160 hectares and carries up to 140 beef cattle at any one time. While this is a relatively small property, it is perhaps typical of thousands of farms producing beef in Australia. There’s a trend to smaller holdings, many operated by people with little farming background.

View The Illawong Case Study here