Biological boost for soils

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Jenne BrammerCountryman
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For Dandaragan’s Kingsley and Christine Smith, finding plenty of earthworms in their soils has reinforced their faith in biological farming.

Mr and Mrs Smith are now in the second of a three-year program by agronomist Maarten Stapper to transition from conventional to biological farming without being financially disadvantaged. Last week they took to their pasture and cropping paddocks with a shovel. Every dig, done at random, found worms, indicating the Smiths’ soil had returned to a healthier state.

Mr and Mrs Smith have been farming for all their adult lives, but took a five-year break from 2008 following the tragic loss of their youngest son four years earlier.

They returned to farming in 2014, and this year entered into a conventional share cropping arrangement to reduce the work load. The Smiths have retained a small amount of arable land for biological cropping and still manage their pasture paddocks, running around 2800 breeding Merinos and 700 hoggets.

Mrs Smith, who has been the driving force behind the family’s move biological farming, said she wanted to take a healthier approach to food production following a recent battle with breast cancer.

As part of her recovery from chemotherapy she became involved in NeurOptimal neurofeedback and later did certification to deliver this to the public.

Neurofeedback involves a holistic approach to the health of the central nervous system.

She wanted to extend this approach to the family’s farming techniques via non-linear farming where different systems interact and complement each other. For this reason, including stock is a must in their biological farming system.

In 2015 they planted a 50ha Mace wheat crop using biological farming techniques.

For comparison purposes, the Smiths planted another 50ha wheat crop using conventional techniques directly adjacent.

The biological method still uses chemical as a knockdown and, if necessary, a post emergent, however TM, a plant extract that stimulates microbial activity in the soil, was added. In the second year, 20 per cent less Roundup would be applied.

Wheat seed was inoculated with NutriSoil and 20 per cent less fertiliser was used down the tube on the biological paddock compared to the conventional.

“We did post emergent spraying including TM and applied foliate spray of NutriSoil at the five leaf stage followed by another application of NutriSoil mixed with a microbial-friendly nitrogen from HiTech,” Mrs Smith said.

There was no need for insecticide or fungicide on the biological paddock, however on the conventional crop insecticide was used in the post emergent spray, and there was a split application of urea.

“At harvest, the grain from the biological paddock weighed heavier than expected. The yields were identical to that of the conventionally grown wheat, but because inputs on the biological crop were lower the net profit was higher,” Mrs Smith said.

This year the Smiths planted a 51ha Yallara oats crop and a nine hectare oaten hay crop biologically. Because soil health had improved (as a result of last year’s applications on pasture paddocks), they were able to reduce Roundup by 20 per cent.

They included fulvic acid along with TM. They used only 30kg of AgFlow per hectare, in keeping with the transition plan to reduce fertiliser each year. Seed dressing with NutriSoil was an important step in the process.

To help the soil in both paddocks they bought in some compost and created some of their own following a bulk delivery of rabbit manure,ultimately spreading some 300 cubic metres across the 60ha.

“Because we applied the compost to the paddock this year (which increased the cost of the operation) the theory is we do not need to apply anything else to the paddock for another two years, provided we do not bear the paddock in the summer,” she said.

The Smiths have also found the biological approach to deliver promising results on their pastures

All pasture paddocks have now been sprayed with NutriSoil or a worm casting liquid mix, and the Smiths are using an innovative way to spread it further afield.

“We add Nutrisoil to the watering system for sheep during the summer. This acts as a probiotic within the sheep and ultimately ends up being spread across the paddock,” she said.

“Last year was a terribly dry season but the paddock where we spread the organic fertilisers germinated some really good clover. A nearby paddock with identical history, where we had not by that stage applied the NutriSoil, meanwhile mostly germinated barley grass, rye grass and capeweed,” she said.

“Kingsley was initially sceptical about these techniques but seeing the benefits on the pasture paddocks was the point at which he became convinced. After finding worms in the soil more recently, he is even more confident about the merits of this approach to farming,” Mrs Smith said.

The success of this post modern farming system was highlighted to 90 interested farmers at a recent field day held at David and Joan Cook’s organic beef property at Dandaragan, arranged by Soil Restoration Farming in partnership with the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council and EverGreen.

Mrs Smith said she ultimately aims to market their grain as biologically produced and receive a premium from health conscious buyers, however her main motivation remains the desire to create a more nutritional product in a healthier work environment, while nurturing soil health for a sustainable farming future.

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