2023 Nuffield Scholar Daniel Dempster discusses economic impact of soil conservation

Olivia FordCountryman
2023 Nuffield Scholar and Goomalling farmer Daniel Dempster with past agriculture minister Alannah MacTiernan.
Camera Icon2023 Nuffield Scholar and Goomalling farmer Daniel Dempster with past agriculture minister Alannah MacTiernan. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

For 2023 Nuffield Scholar Daniel Dempster, healthy, sustainable soil is integral to farming, but so is making smart financial decisions that don’t put growers at a loss.

At this year’s Nuffield Sponsor Luncheon, Goomalling grower Mr Dempster called in from South Australia to present his ongoing research and findings on the economic implications of soil conservation practices.

“I’m trying to assess the financial implications of implementing soil health principles, specifically total ground cover, minimum soil disturbance, increasing plant species diversity, growing plants as long as possible and livestock incorporation,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of sand and I like the idea of trying to increase organic matter in these sands, which I think will help improve our productivity.”

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Mr Dempster said growers needed financially viable solutions for soil health and having good soil didn’t matter if it came at a loss.

“At the end of the day your farm is a business, so it’s got to be profitable,” he said.

“(Building soil health) can’t cost you financially and you don’t want to be worse off in the short term.”

In his talk, Mr Dempster discussed two case studies from different parts of the world that had analysed the productivity of regenerative farming (practices that subscribed to soil health principles) as opposed to traditional farming.

One was ongoing research by the Land Family Business, an accounting and tax firm in the UK.

Mr Dempster said the study showed conventional farming performed on average better then regenerative farming over four years.

Two years had good harvests, one year was below average and the other was a very poor year.

“Overall, the average difference over the four years was that the conventional farmers were 100 pounds per hectare better off than the regenerative growers,” Mr Dempster said.

“In the good years, (conventional farmers) were 200 pounds per hectare better off and then in the below average year, they were 30 pounds per hectare better of.

“In the very poor year the conventional farmers were 30 pounds per hectare worse off.”

Mr Dempster also referred to the UK’s recent changes to its subsidy system which provides growers financial incentives for environmentally supportive practices such as not spraying insecticide.

He said the reward program would see regenerative growers earning extra when compared to traditional growers.

The second case study Mr Dempster brought up was a research by Dr Mark Leibig of the USDA in Mandan, North Dakota.

Two of the treatments in a long-term agro-ecosystem research trial compared conventional farming practices based on wheat, soy and corn grown in rotation with an alternative practice of growing cover crops between wheat, soy and corn.

Mr Dempster said a hail storm effected the crops six weeks prior to his arrival, but the conventional and alternative crops looked vastly different compared to each other.

“When i was there, there were two plots next to each other. One looked perfectly healthy, and the other looked moisture stressed and had serrated leaves, remnants from the hailstorm,” he said.

‘The moisture stressed plot was the prevailing practice and the plot that looked fine was the alternative practice.”

Mr Dempster said despite this, by the end of the year there was no difference in yield between the two plots.

There was also no difference in moisture status for either plots pre-planting or post-harvest.

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