Biological Farming, Soil Health and Water Use

Background to the presentation by Dr Maarten Stapper at the Water Resources Management Forum organised by the Perth Natural Resource Management in Gingin, 27 September 2017.

Soil fertility is the capacity to receive, store and transmit energy to support plant growth. These processes require healthy soils – living, self-organising systems with physical, chemical and biological components all functioning and in balance.

Continuous use of acidic or salty synthetic fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides disrupts this delicate balance.  Organic Farming has recognised this, but needs to follow its leaders to active soil fertility management.

Carbon, in particular, is of critical importance and needs to be maximised through capture with solar energy through photosynthesis by green plants, and optimum storage and use in soil.

The water and mineral cycles greatly improve with more soil carbon and active soil biology. Higher water use efficiencies can be achieved from better infiltration, storage, retention and use of water for plant growth under Biological Farming.

Before we can hope to improve systems, however, we need to understand and accept (1) why they are the way they are, and then (2) how science and practice can help to actively manage soil biology to improve and maintain soil fertility, and achieve more sustainable, healthy and productive farming systems – even on our fragile Australian soils in a highly variable and changing climate.

The above is the introduction to a paper I wrote eleven years ago as a CSIRO scientist. It received, and is still receiving, many positive comments from producers who recognize the practical path to soil health guided by monitoring and observations described in the paper, and the learning by doing. Healthy soils, with its soil fertility, are the foundation for productive and profitable Farming Systems.

A healthy soil has improved fertility, producing healthy more nutrient dense crops, pastures, vegetables and fruits. These are more resistant to diseases and insects, requiring less synthetic fertilisers and chemicals, and less (irrigation) water for similar productivity. Plants become more drought, heat, waterlogging and frost tolerant as the healthy soil and deeper, denser root systems buffer plants against environmental conditions. Weed pressure reduces. The improved nutrient density of produce results in improved animal and human health.

Biological Farming is the third way, the middle way, to effectively create and maintain healthy soils. It takes the best practices and materials from the industrial and organic opposites. This enables farmers to make a gradual transition over several seasons from current industrial agriculture towards more sustainable biological farming systems. The change from current industrial high-input to Biological Farming is a continuous process of adjustments.

Starting Biological Farming is not an expense. Budgets remain the same, but in the first year, say, 20 percent goes from industrial to biological inputs. For example, in horticulture, start with some compost and apply a woody mulch in the tree row. Generally, in that first year, returns per dollar invested are at least equal, but with visible soil improvement as a bonus. This, with the knowledge gained from learning, encourages continuation. After some five years, fertilizer use may be halved and chemical use lowered by 80 percent under a profitable system.

Improving soil health, like improving our own health, takes time. Patience is required. Don’t keep changing, stick to the new inputs chosen and an ecosystem will slowly establish in and around your new farming practices. Some paddocks change faster than others. The transition is a step-by-step, gradual approach, as soils and ecosystems can’t be pushed to change in one season.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but be cautious about your judgement of a ‘mistake’. What are you looking for? Where are you looking? All the living organisms have to learn to live and work with each other and make their environment comfortable for plant growth. It is a self-organizing system with symbiotic relationships between plants and their support networks.

Every manager is different, every farm is different, every paddock (ecosystem) is different. Develop your own approach for your ecosystems which are governed by soil types in the landscape and past management. Join a local group to share your experiences and learn from each other.

Click here and read the soil fertility management paper referred to above. Topics described: cause of current problems, ecosystem, science, management (weeds, insects and diseases, variety choice, rhizosphere, inputs, trials, monitoring, tools), outcomes and the road to sustainability, including a list of references.

Videos of presentations at the 2015 National Biological Farming Conference in Lismore NSW as organized by local SoilCare Inc. Topics covered: horticulture (eg. Jamie Jurgens explains increasing tomato yields by 20% while extending irrigation interval from 7 to 10 days over 10 yrs), cover crops, compost, weed management, biocontrol of insect pests, reducing inputs, transitioning, mineral balance, soil tests and analysis, food quality, etc.

Join workshops and paddock walks on Biological Farming in Western Australia:

Soil Health Card, a technique for you to use in assessing the biological and physical properties of soil in different paddocks:

Soil Foodweb Institute – rehabilitate your soils and learn how you can manage and maintain a balanced and healthy soil.  Key benefits are the reduction of synthetic inputs, increase in soil biology, disease suppression and more efficient water usage.

Soil Quality Fact Sheets, fact sheets to provide a general background of a range of topics relating to healthy soils.

Farming Secrets reveals the steps to Biological Farming and helps you build healthy soils.

Regeneration of agriculture in the landscape starts with soil management; descriptions of this process on 17 properties across the country, every producer story is different.

Examples of successful Biological Farming of large-scale vegetables in practice. Starting with a reduction in use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, it can go all the way to organics:

The science of Agroecology and the Search for a Truly Sustainable Agriculture (1st ed.) by M.A. Altieri and C.I. Nicholls, Univ. of California, Berkeley, 291pp. (2nd ed. has download costs).

The science of deficit irrigation for increasing water productivity. E. Fereres and M.A. Soriano (2007), Journal of Experimental Botany, 58 (2) 147–159.

Soil moisture monitoring technology make it a cost-effective risk management tool.

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