Australians are also some of the highest per capita consumers of water and yet Australia is the driest inhabited continent with variable rainfalls.
Variable rainfalls can have damaging results on the landscape and, as a result, valuable water is lost for use by vegetation or stock

The CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology 2012 State of the Climate report highlights a trend for “increased spring and summer monsoonal rainfall across Australia’s north; higher than normal rainfall across the centre, and decreased late autumn and winter rainfall across the south.” It also notes that despite higher than average rainfall totals across 2010 and 2011, southwest Western Australia received lower rainfalls and has experienced long-term reductions in rainfall during the winter half of the year.

With rainfall patterns changing, how each drop received is conserved and used is critical.

As discussed in earlier posts the structure of soil is imperative to maximise efficient infiltration and capture of water. This is important not only to sustain vegetation during periods of low rainfall and extreme heat like we’re currently experiencing, but also to better absorb water during high rainfall events. (Remember the “inland sea” floods last year? What difference could properly structured soils founded on optimum organic carbon levels have made?)

Conserving water where it falls

The greatest potential for improvements in conserving water and using it intelligently can be found in increasing infiltration and reducing the current high evaporation rates.

On average, 86% of rainfall initially falls on Australian soils, but around 50% – 25 times the quantity held in all dams – is currently being lost to evaporation.

Consider, that of a typical 100 drops of rainfall that currently fall on the Australian landscape, approximately 12 of these flow into streams and rivers, with only 2 ending up being stored in dams for agricultural, industrial, urban and domestic use. 86 drops fall onto soil, and, on average, 6 of these go into groundwater and 30 into vegetation. The remaining 50 drops are lost to evaporation [2].

By applying regenerative landscape management practices, our case study farmers have shown that rainfall infiltration can be improved. As a result, any rainfall received is better initially captured and then retained for longer, providing sustained supply to plants and livestock. These regenerative practices have also been demonstrated to help reduce erosion and increase available productive land.

Our case studies show that by managing landscapes to improve the soil and maximise rainfall infiltration and retention, production can be maintained – or even increased – despite variable rainfall.

Next week we’ll look at a couple of these stories in detail, and see the techniques they have applied to achieve these results.

The Soils for Life Team

1. Chatres, C. and Varma, S., 2011, Out of Water: from abundance to scarcity and how to solve the world’s water problems, Pearson Education, p8

2. Foran, B. 2007, ‘Who uses all the water?’, presentation at Water, population and Australia’s urban future: 2007 Fenner Conference On The Environment.


case study farms have demonstrated how to build healthy soils and the production outcomes that can subsequently be achieved.

By building good levels of soil organic carbon and supporting soil biology, nutrients are much more easily and effectively transferred through plants and into the food and fibre on which we depend.

Giving back through compost and green manure crops

Although these natural cycles are inherently regenerative, by harvesting our food and fibre and moving our stock we are breaking the cycle. We must consciously give back to the soil to ensure nutrients and minerals do not become depleted.

Bill and Rhonda Daly of Milgadara on the NSW South West Slopes, and Cam and Roxane McKellar of Inveraray Downs in the NSW North West Plains are responding to any loss of nutrients from harvested products, by the regular application of organic compost. This allows for recycling of off-farm nutrients by re-introducing composted materials back on to the property.

The Dalys have restored their soil structure, chemistry and biology through applying specially formulated humus compost. As a result, they have increased soil organic carbon (SOC) levels, improved cation exchange capacity (CEC), their pastures are more diverse and prolific and their crops are producing greater yields. The Dalys have also experienced an improvement in the quality of the wool their sheep are producing and lambing percentages have increased. This could potentially be linked to the improved nutrition in their pastures.

The Dalys are delighted by the outcomes they have achieved through the application of humus compost and are so enamoured with the product they have developed that they seek to share it with others through their business YLAD Living Soils.

Improved plant nutrition is also linked to higher test weights in crop production. As a result of improved soil structure, nutrient cycling and water holding capacity, it is possible to achieve the same yield with lower applied nitrogen. Improved translocation and allocation of other nutrients to the grain, as well as improved water and carbohydrate transfer occur when plants are less moisture stressed – conditions generated by healthy soils.

On Inveraray Downs on the Liverpool Plains, the McKellars are regenerating what used to be some of Australia’s best soils, which had become degraded through cultivation and use of inorganic fertilisers and biocides. The McKellars have re-designed ecological cropping practices by altering crop rotation, applying compost and introducing stock into production – all of which are contributing to restoring essential biological processes, nutrient cycling and healthy soils. As a result, they now produce better quality and more healthy and nutritious food – more sustainably and with lower input costs.

Cam and Roxane are capturing increased nutrients such as nitrogen from plant growth through incorporating green manure legume crops, and through the retention of crop stubble. Consequently, greater soil microbial population response is promoted, which in turn feeds improved cycling of the other nutrients needed for plant growth. Under the previous conventional management system, this would have been lost to burning and oxidation.

By moving from synthetic to compost-based minerals for nutrient replacement, the McKellars are now also adding trace elements, organic matter and biological by-products of the compost process that contribute to soil fertility over and above simple nutrient replacement.

Hopefully the examples over the last few weeks have demonstrated the range of activities that can be taken to improve soil health. You don’t have to do them all or all at once, but the important message for all our farmers and land managers is just to start. Any step towards improving your soil health is a step in the right direction.

Leave a comment or contact us if you need any more support in getting you started.

Wishing you healthy soils over the holiday season, in 2013 and beyond. Tune in early next year as we start to explore the importance of water management and what we can do to use it more effectively.

The Soils for Life Team


case studies have demonstrated that by supporting the biological activity in their soil, they can increase the nutrient availability, health and productivity of their soils. This process is becoming more widely understood, as new technologies provide access to much more detailed information about the biology of the soil and how to adjust it to improve productivity and profit (see the recent ABC Landline episode on Soil Secrets).

Our case study participants used techniques such as the application of organic composts, worm juice and biological amendments to enhance the biological activity and productivity of their soils. (It is important that appropriate amendments are tailored to individual soils.) They also used stock management practices to control grazing pressures and distribute nutrients, the direct-drilling of seed and reduction or cessation of chemical inputs.

From sand to soil…

By focusing on restoring the natural biology of their soils, farmers in WA and SA have been able to regenerate nutrient-poor sands back into productive and resilient soils.

In the WA Central Wheatbelt, Ian and Dianne Haggerty of the Prospect Pastoral Company coat seeds with beneficial micro-organisms before sowing and apply biological fertilisers, including high grade worm liquid and compost extract, at the cost of $30 a hectare. By limiting soil disturbance through direct-drilling or no-till cropping, they also limit disturbance to micro-organisms and fungi. As a result, they are producing consistent crops and premium fat lambs on very limited rainfall (as little as 100mm in the growing season!).

Soil under the Haggerty’s crop is clearly improved with organic matter after just two crops, compared with the spadeful of sand taken from the edge of the property.

Similarly, David Clayfield of Clover Estate in SA adopted a soil biology building program. This incorporated an annual application of compost extracts (at 50 litres a hectare), as well as bio-fertilisers to help address plant nutrient imbalances, cycling and availability limitations in his sandy soils. As a result he can now grow pastures to help rear calves for export as dairy heifers with a 33% production increase, using 25% less irrigation. And look at the changes he’s achieved in his soil!

After 15 years of organic treatments, David Clayfield’s sandy soils are darker with higher organic matter content and biological activity, enhancing nutrient transfer and water-holding capacity.

David’s soil improvement photos almost rival Colin Seis’ from last week’s post. Don’t forget to take a picture of your soil profile and share it with the Soils for Life Community.

The Soils for Life Team


last week’s post for why that’s important.

Soil organic carbon (SOC) is the main constituent of soil organic matter (SOM). SOM is formed by the biological, chemical and physical decay of organic materials on the soil surface and below the ground. On average, SOM is composed of 50% carbon, 40% oxygen, 3% nitrogen and smaller amounts of other elements as micronutrients.

SOM varies in its stability. Some is labile, relatively quickly biodegradable, and other components are more stable (non-labile). The ratio of labile to non-labile depends on microbial conditions.

As in nature, we can transform arid soils into healthy soils and biosystems by accelerating pedogenesis processes..

The carbon sequestration potential under conventional farming practices should not be seen as the maximum possible or be the drivers of policy, when there is evidence that numerous innovators have been achieving greater bio-sequestration outcomes by some order of magnitude.

It is possible to biosequester up to 10 tonnes of stable carbon per hectare per annum back into our soils. This would regenerate their structure, hydrology, nutrient dynamics, bio-productivity and resilience.

How to increase soil carbon levels

The easiest way to increase your soil carbon levels is to incorporate more organic matter into and onto your soils, such as by maximising ground cover and mulching.

Generating SOM was a primary step for many of our case study farmers to improve their soil health, and this took a range of different forms…

Colin Seis of Winona near Gulgong in the NSW Central Highlands has developed and implemented a completely new cropping technique – ‘pasture cropping’ – which has led to dramatic increases in soil and soil minerals, including SOC. Pasture cropping involves direct-drilling crops into dormant native perennial grasses. Colin has also integrated time-controlled planned grazing, with sheep grazing prior to sowing, during growth before seed-set, and after harvesting. This technique promotes ongoing groundcover and minimal soil disturbance, supporting high biological functioning and constant formation of fertile soil.

Extensive soil testing on Winona, including paired-site analyses by the University of Sydney through the Communities in Landscape project, has shown that this technique has increased SOC by 203% in ten years. SOC has been measured up to depths of 500mm. In total, this equates to around 45 tonnes of SOC a hectare, or per hectare storage of around 170 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) over the ten years.

Importantly, 78% of the newly sequestered carbon on Winona is in the non-labile (humic) fraction of the soil. This is therefore much more stable and significantly less subject to degradation.

In a very different environment in the NSW North West, Graham and Cathy Finlayson of Bokhara Plains are restoring the soil structure to claypans in the rangelands. Through planned grazing practices, stock are being used to break up the surface of the claypan, which formerly comprised 50% of their land. (See the transition in the image above.)

High density stock levels trigger soil disturbance, exposing seed already present or carried in from manure, stock hooves and/or hide and enabling it to germinate. The stock density used by the Finlaysons also ensures nutrient deposit (from urine and manure) carried in from other areas of higher natural fertility.

By allowing water and seeds to penetrate and also leaving manure fertiliser deposits, the claypan and degraded areas of Bokhara Plains are becoming revegetated. Soil structure is continuing to improve and SOC levels are increasing from the greater plant biomass and root systems in soil.

By regenerating the soil and increasing groundcover, the Finlaysons have significantly increased productive land on their property and improved their sustainable carrying capacity. Through addressing the health of the soil, the Finlaysons are creating a viable business and are moving towards drought-proofing their property.

It’s amazing how fertile soils can be built, and the photos of the soil and pasture changes from Colin Seis and the Finlayson’s places are inspirational. What does your soil look like under the surface? What percentage of groundcover do you have on top?
What are you do to improve your soil carbon levels?

Click on ‘Comments’ below and let us know.

Get involved! Take a photo of your soil profile, including a ruler or measure – maybe from various parts of your property (or your back yard or veggie patch) – and post it on our Facebook page or send it to and we’ll share it for you. Let’s see how deep our topsoils go! (This will also serve a good record for your own regeneration journey!)

Until next week, when we look at the wonderful world of soil biology,
The Soils for Life Team


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,
(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, , p1

Soils for Life,


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 ( 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


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.