Local farmers take inspiration from abroad to improve soil health

Two recent soil events in Ayr attracted more than thirty Burdekin cane farmers, who learnt how increasing plant biodiversity can improve soil health and could help reduce yield decline.

NQ Dry Tropics brought in Nuffield scholar Simon Mattsson as keynote speaker for both events. He recently toured the USA, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand, Peru, and Chile to study soil health, focusing on how microbes help to  sustain productive soils.

NQ Dry Tropics Project Officer Diana O’Donnell said the soil health events were part of the Sustainable Soils for the Burdekin project, which is supported by NQ Dry Tropics through funding from of the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

“This project supports landholders to better  understand soil health and management, as well as share knowledge and undertake on-ground activities,” she said.

“I am delighted that we were able to bring Simon to Ayr to give local farmers an opportunity to share what he has learned on his travels”, Diana said.

Simon said, “Farming isn’t rocket science, it’s more complicated than that; but the success of sustainable farming will depend on how well we utilise the things nature gives us: sunlight, water, and carbon and nitrogen from the air.”

“I like to focus on soil biology and the balances of fungi and bacteria. My desire is to investigate soil health and the fundamentals that sustain good practices that will provide the basis of a sustainable production system into the future,” he said.

Simon manages his family’s 160 ha farm at Marian, 30km west of Mackay, producing sugarcane, soybeans and chickpeas in rotation. As a result of what he learnt when traveling to overseas farms, he is trialing multi-species fallows and intercropping up to 12 species with sugarcane, to increase biodiversity in his cropping system.

This involves planting additional rows of plants either side of his sugarcane.  For an additional cash crop Simon has followed his legume fallow crop with Sunflowers planted one week after his cane. The sunflowers grow quickly and help shade out weeds in the early cane.  After the sunflowers are harvested, the cane is allowed to grow on.  Simon’s partially-irrigated system is expected to suffer some yield loss in cane in these early years, but this will be compensated by the cash  from the sale of the sunflowers.

“I expect that as soil health improves, increasing water holding capacity and nutrient availability, combined with reduced compaction that allows deeper cane rooting depth, will reverse these yield reductions. This occurs in many overseas multi-species cropping systems,” said Simon.

Home Hill cane farmer Joe Linton said his conversation with Simon was very interesting and his suggestions have given me the opportunity to look deeper at my cropping systems.  “As farmers, we utilise the soil to earn our living but very few of us have a good understanding of the soil”, he said.

*Our beautiful sunflower photo taken by Summer Mulvey and reproduced with permission.