Hunt for healthy soils: Andrew Whitlock started to soil test when he took over the management of The Meadows four years ago.

Hunt for healthy soils: Andrew Whitlock started to soil test when he took over the management of The Meadows four years ago.

Productive soils part of management puzzle

Productive soils part of management puzzle

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MLA launches new soil resource hub.

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Andrew Whitlock knows that productive soils are a key part of the farm management puzzle.

Through his own on-farm experiences and his work with soil mapping company Precision Agriculture, he has seen the benefits of soil testing to provide data that can inform his management decisions.

"For me, this data is crucial, because different soil types are going to require different management strategies to maximise production potential," he said.

Mr Whitlock said that it was imperative that he first understood varying soil textures and nutrient profiles that could help inform his decisions.

"Soils vary within paddocks, which is why it's important to understand this variability and define a soil sampling program with respect to it," he said.

The Meadows routinely uses grid-based topsoil testing every 5-6 years, collecting core samples on a two-hectare basis, to understand the nutrient profile.

"The grid-based testing is to measure soil pH, phosphorous levels and cations (calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium), and provides an accurate spatial map of how the soils are performing across the property," he said.

Through these maps, Mr Whitlock knows the current nutrient status of his soils is up to scratch, and where acidity and sodicity improvements are necessary before production can be maximised.

Another aspect of understanding soils on The Meadows was a one-off investment of roughly $20/hectare using electro-magnetic induction to define the different soil textural zones on the farm.

"When targeting supplements like phosphorous and lime, it's important to know the soil textures to get the greatest benefit out of the investment," Mr Whitlock said.

Combining textures and nutrient profiles, Mr Whitlock has been able to build variable rate strategies for phosphorous, potassium, lime and gypsum, balancing the correct amount of nutrients to maximise production potential across the property.

Balanced soils have improved production in both his crops and pastures, improved weed control, and meant he's been able to consider pasture mixes that will be most effective on his country, such as short and long season clovers, to implement in the coming years.

Mr Whitlock said they also have targets to increase stocking rates and join more ewes through a combination of more productive pastures and smaller paddocks.

Besides understanding what the critical levels for his soils need to be, soil testing has also helped Andrew recognise deficiencies in his subsoils.

"There are areas of our farm where we found increasing soil acidity with depth, as deep as 30-40cm," he said.

Pastures grown on acidic soils will have reduced production, and some legume species may fail to persist. Plant root systems will also not pass through acidic soils, meaning the plant receives limited moisture and nutrients.

"As a result, we've increased the alkalinity beyond 6pH(cacl2) on the surface of those identified areas to let it filter down into the subsoils and correct those deficiencies," he said.

Besides traditional fertilisers to address soil deficiencies on the property, Mr Whitlock said they have also found benefits in utilising other, lesser-adopted supplements.

"We're looking at the impact of using manures and organic amendments on our lighter soils in the cropping phase of a rotation. The theory is slower release nutrition will have a beneficial effect on both soil health and plant growth, and because of the soil mapping we've been able to match application rates with soil types," he said.

The benefits of soil testing for Mr Whitlock haven't simply manifested under the ground - he's used the data to improve other areas of his business too.

"We're dividing paddocks up at the moment to improve our grazing efficiency and to split our lambing groups into smaller mobs for better lamb survival rates. The soil data we have is letting us do that in the most productive way possible, by fencing to soil and landscape," he said.

Visit the new soil hub: mla.com.au/healthy-soils:

  • Tips and tools to help undertake on-farm soil testing
  • All-new factsheets on soil testing and management
  • Enhanced version of the phosphorus tool and manual

Digging deeper on soils, a Q&A with MLA's Michael Crowley

Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) recently launched its healthy soils hub, a go-to for producers looking to further their skills and knowledge in soil management to improve feedbase performance.

Here we talk to Michael Crowley, MLA's General Manager - Research, Development and Adoption, about the importance of soil testing.

Why the focus on soils?

Healthy soils are essential for pasture and crop growth. Here in Australia, our soils are highly varied and many are low in organic matter and nutrients, making it especially important to actively manage soil fertility and conditions.

Testing soils can help producers identify conditions limiting production and enables them to make targeted, data-based decisions to manage their soil resource. Information from soil analysis helps predict the size of the response to applied nutrients and match nutrient inputs to plant requirements for optimum growth. Improving soil health improves feedbase productivity and resilience to combat challenges in seasonal and climatic variability.

Despite the benefits, soil testing is underutilised in the red meat industry, so we've decided to bring it into sharper focus.

What are the benefits of soil testing?

Producers involved in MLA programs consistently comment that the information obtained through soil testing gives them more confidence when they're making decisions about fertiliser, ameliorants and soil management strategies. These decisions lead to many benefits:

  • improvements in feedbase performance
  • more consistency in production across the farm
  • the ability to increase stocking rates
  • optimising fertiliser application.

What information is available to producers interested in soil testing?

MLA's healthy soils hub has been developed as a product of feedbase and adoption research by MLA and industry partners. The hub is a central source of information on soil testing, analysis, visual assessment and trials.

New resources have been produced to walk producers through each step in the soil testing process, offering digestible information to adjust practices one step at a time in alignment with whole-of-farm planning for high yielding, high quality pastures. This information is available to producers as How do I factsheets and as online training modules.

Also featured on the hub are guides for the visual assessment of soil issues, the enhanced soil phosphorus five easy steps tool and a series of case studies profiling producers who are seeing the benefits of soil testing in their businesses.

Many of MLA's adoption programs also bring producers together to discuss soil testing, analysis and soil management strategies.

Where do I start with soil testing?

Soil testing is a relatively straight-forward and low-cost process. It can be done across the whole farm or select paddocks and can be especially valuable to provide information about areas that are underperforming or that are due to be resown, renovated or treated.

Soil sampling involves taking a number of cores from the selected area of a consistent size and at a consistent depth, representative of soil conditions and different soil types. Samples should be taken when there is soil moisture, at the same time of year, each year, to reduce variability in soil conditions and allow results to be compared from one test to the next. Samples should be sent to an accredited testing laboratory. These processes are outlined in more detail on the hub.

Soil test results provide information on soil nutrient levels and soil conditions such as acidity, salinity and structure. Tests can identify any conditions limiting production and can be used to determine required steps or products to address deficiencies. Work with your agronomist to develop a plan that's suitable for your soil types, rainfall, pasture species and stocking rates.

What can we expect to see next?

The soil hub is the first of four feedbase hubs, developed to provide producers with practical resources to improve productivity throughout the season. The persistent pastures and legumes hubs will be released in April. Subscribe free to MLA's Friday Feedback e-newsletter to get the latest on these hubs and other news.

Visit the soil hub at mla.com.au/healthy-soils

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