Digging deeper workshop - Katherine Research Station

On Thursday 17 October, Katherine Research Station hosted the final session of a five-month soil extension program, Digging Deeper. The Digging Deeper program incorporated five interactive workshops with the participation of seven primary producers from the Katherine area including horticultural producers and pastoral producers. Jacob Betros (Regional Landcare facilitator, Territory Natural Resource Management) secured funding through the Northern Territory Community Benefit Fund, and the National Landcare Program: Smart Farms Small Grants scheme.

All participants of the program came together to learn more about the soils on their farms and how to manage them for increased soil health and productivity. This unique program focused on the biological fraction of the soil, the soil microbes and soil organisms, which play a significant role in soil moisture holding capacity, soil fertility, soil structure, plant growth and carbon storage.

Producers were fascinated when programme facilitator David Hardwick demonstrated the Berlese funnel method to extract tiny soil-dwelling creatures like nematodes, mites and springtails. David from Soil Land Food is a widely regarded ecological and regenerative agriculture guru. Program attendees found this to be a once in a lifetime experience, to directly observe the microscopic organisms extracted from the soil samples they had brought from their properties.

To start the five-month program, David and Jacob used models and props to simplify the complex soil interactions of nutrients, soil biology and soil food webs, which gave each program participant an understanding of the processes happening in their soils. Participants put this new knowledge of soil health processes to practical use through hands-on field assessments of soils to link what is occurring below the surface to visible productivity above the soil surface. Each participant received a copy of the Rapid Assessment of Soil Health (RASH) manual. The RASH manual allowed participants to assess soil texture, ground cover, water infiltration, soil aggregate testing, soil organism diversity, as well as soil pH and salinity in their soil samples.

Mid program, each producer received a comprehensive soil test report of their sample, including a commentated interpretation of the soil analysis. It gave the project participants a greater understanding of the soil report and allowed them to assess their soil health. The soil test report identified soil constraints such as low organic matter, pH, soil salinity and compaction. Furthermore, participants were educated in setting benchmarks for their soils and taking effective action to address issues by using a range of fertility input options like bio-fertilisers, fertilisers, and soil amendments. Before commencing this program all the producers were requested to raise one soil related issue in their farmland, and the facilitator addressed all those soil issues during this session and farmers were encouraged share their experience with each other.

David indicated that the soils knowledge gained from the training is transferrable to any farm location or situation. To challenge the participants, he designed a case study activity to diagnose soil problems and formulate a specific soil action plan for a corn farm on a heavy clay soil in Gatton, Southeast Queensland where climate and soil type are dissimilar to the Northern Territory. The participants have correctly identified the major soil issues besetting the farm namely compaction, average soil organic matter level, and imbalance of its calcium/magnesium (Ca/Mg) ratio. They were also able to formulate specific remedial measures like ripping the soil to overcome compaction, perennial pasture cover cropping between the cropping cycles to build soil organic matter, and adding gypsum to get a balanced Ca/Mg ratio.

The day concluded with David awarding a “Soil Artisan” plaque and certificate to participants who attended the program from start to finish. We look to the future with bright hope that these producers will make smart soil health and fertility decisions on their properties and exchange these ideas with their neighbours; leading to a more resilient and thriving rural Australia.

Key messages from Digging Deeper

  • Match farm business with the soil type on the property.
  • Address negative soil issues to improve productivity.
  • Maintain a greater level of ground cover to maximize biodiversity in the paddock.
  • Extend the carbon growing season and improve soil organic carbon levels.
  • Reduce soil disturbance and enhance plant disturbance (by using livestock or machinery) in a managed process.
  • Biologically manage soil nutrients.
  • Actively monitor soil health and fertility.

Last updated: 12 December 2019

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