Spreading the soil health word

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Koojan farmer Ian McGillivray is aiming to convert the worst paddocks on his property into productive grazing land, and to share the findings.

Mr McGillivray runs a 3800ha grain and Merino sheep property in a 450mm rainfall area, south of Moora, with wife Michelle and parents David and Mary.

He said he wanted to generate a grazing income from these otherwise unproductive paddocks, which featured non-wetting white and yellow sands.

He first became aware of the potential to improve these soils in 2011 after planting saltbush in paddocks where trees had been burnt down in previous years.

He noticed in patches near the burnt trees there was a vast improvement in the soil's health because of increased organic matter.

Mr McGillivray then experimented with pig manure from a neighbour's property, which he said had delivered fantastic results in terms of soil improvements.

To better structure his research, Mr McGillivray worked with the Moore Catchment Council, which funded more formal trials (via the Federal Government), starting last year.

In those trials, Mr McGillivray has been experimenting with various soil conditioners, including chicken manure, organic soil conditioner, clay and Agflow, on non-wetting sands.

He wanted to strategically use the conditioners in strips to maximise effect and reduce costs, and then plant tagasaste and saltbush as sheep feed.

He said there was a mixture of the various conditioners in different proportions, resulting in 47 different treatment combinations. The total area covers 4ha.

"We had some outstanding results, and some ordinary results," he said.

"Some of the better results emerged where the chicken manure was used in high quantities.

"This has given the plants a good initial boost, but because we are looking at the longer term, we need to see if the results still stand up in three years time."

Mr McGillivray has already grazed sheep on the saltbush planted last year.

To share his findings, he recently held a field day for more than 20 people.

Agvivo's Phil Barrett-Leonard was on hand to offer technical advice.

According to Moore Catchment Council natural resource management officer Rachel Walmsley, Mr McGillivray shared every aspect of the trial including costings of each treatment and his experience of the home-made machinery to spade the soil and plant and cut the tagasaste.

"Key takeaway messages included the need to deep rip twice at 350mm then 600mm. Spading non-wetting sand was also found to help with establishment," she said.

"Although adding clay was found to be good, this was not effective on its own and organic material was required."

Mr McGillivray said he also found improving poor soil with organic material significantly improved establishment and vitality of plants.

"It is also important to cut tagasaste regularly, and crash graze both saltbush and tagasaste to get the best results," he said.

In addition to converting the poor paddocks into added income earners, tagasaste and saltbush also provided a vitamin E boost to sheep.

Mr McGillivray said he favoured saltbush over tagasaste, because the former did not require cutting back, so was less labour intensive.

He plans to monitor the trial site for the next three years to determine which application is ultimately the most cost-effective and beneficial.

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