Alternative farming inputs gain pace

Kate RastonCountryman

The growing number of farmers wanting to step outside the square when it comes to traditional farming inputs has triggered interest from the country's peak grains research and development body.

The GRDC has budgeted $650,000 for the Understanding Biological Farming Inputs project.

If the project goes ahead, it will use grower groups to trial the effectiveness of live and dead microbial solutions, humic acids, manures, earthworm casts and compost teas.

The project would need to meet a rigorous tender process, but potentially could run for three years from 2014.

This is welcome news for Bruce Rock farmers Chris Butler and his son Callan, who have already begun their own investment in alternative farming inputs.

"I've always been interested in finding out more about biological farming, but there hasn't been enough information on it," Chris said.

The Butler family crops roughly 2000 hectares of wheat, canola, lupins and barley, in conjunction with 1900 merino sheep.

"Instead of looking at the plant on top and adding synthetic fertilisers to fix deficiencies, I've always felt by getting the soil balanced we could do a better job," Chris said.

To do this, they've adopted the Australian Mineral Fertilisers Grow Safe farming system.

At the heart of it is the introduction of soil microbes in the form of a seed dressing and the application of alkaline mineral-rich fertilisers, rather than commonly used acid chemically processed fertilisers.

"We've used this system on 40 per cent of our wheat crop … we're seeing much deeper root systems going into the sub soil, which is really important as it helps the plant to cope with acidic soils, high aluminium levels and moisture stress," Chris said.

The crops grown on the Grow Safe system were more than 50cm deep, rather than the traditional crops of 20 to 30cm.

Wheatbelt NRM, with funding through the Australian Government's Caring for our Country program, has been working with the family on managing saline soils and understanding soil biology.

Wheatbelt NRM has also formed a partnership with AMF, to work more closely with farmers in helping them improve soil health.

Wheatbelt NRM program manager for sustainable agriculture Dr Guy Boggs said drought and frost were taking their toll on farming businesses.

"Acidification has become one of the biggest threats to WA agriculture and has been estimated to cost the sector between $300 and $400 million each year," he said.

Soil scientist Dr Fran Hoyle from the Department of Agriculture and Food WA said while it was fantastic that farmers were taking a closer look at how to improve soil health, changes wouldn't happen overnight, and farming practices like liming were still crucial.

"Liming is still necessary for soils below their target pH (pHCaCl 5.5 in the surface), as acidification cannot solely be addressed through improving soil biology or a change away from traditional fertilisers," he said.

To help Chris and Callan Butler improve the knowledge of soils on their farm, they've also sent samples to the UWA's School of Earth and the Environment to measure just how much life exists in the soil.

Keen to hear the answer will be AMF senior microbiologist Paul Storer.

He said the Grow Safe farming system incorporating beneficial soil biology and non-leaching, highly efficient nutritional bio-mineral fertilisers was the culmination of 15 years of research and development.

"Because farmers are having to deal with adverse conditions like drought and frost, they realise the need to improve soil health and soil nutrition, increase organic matter and organic carbon and strengthen the plant to better cope," he said.

For Bruce Rock farmer Chris Butler, the decision to expand the new system won't be made until harvest.

"We're hoping this system will provide an alternative to the traditional broadacre farming practices," he said.

_Example of Grow Safe on Bruce Rock paddock _ *

·Crop: * Magenta wheat sown on May 14 at 70kg/ha using a seed dressing containing soil microbes

·Fertiliser *: Urea replaced with 15kg/ha sulphate of ammonia and 10kg/ha sulphate of potash instead of muriate potash. An AMF NP bio-mineral fertiliser product was also used at 60kg/ha.

Ten weeks after sowing, 35kg/ha of calcium ammonium nitrate and sulphate ammonium was added using a super spreader.

·Spraying: *Knockdown using glyphosate and trifluralin during seeding for ryegrass control. Follow-up spray to control turnip and capeweed.

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