Can Australian Farms be Better Prepared for Droughts?

Strategies for drought preparedness have until recently focused mainly on water conservation, feed reserves and de-stocking. However, up until now no one has thought that the answer to droughts may lie in the soils.

For the last seven years, Australian Soil Management (ASM) has been conducting research and working with farmers in Southern NSW to improve their soils. This has revealed some interesting and industry changing results. The single most important fact to emerge is that farms need more organic matter in at least the top 30 cm of soil. According to Dr Greg Bender, CEO of ASM, “there is plenty of room for a 2% increase”. This would store more than 150,000 litres of water per hectare by improving soil structure to allow more of the rain that falls in the good times to be soaked up and stored where it belongs, not run off down the creek or evaporate in puddles and dams. And roots will grow deeper into the soil to escape the effects of the drought rather than dry out and die in the top 10 cm of the soil. “More organic matter will turn soils into sponges for water”.

ASM is about to undertake new on farm research to lift soil organic matter for better productivity and profit margins. This project is supported by NSW EPA as part of Waste Less, Recycle More, funded from the waste levy. The purpose of the grant is to analyse the concept that additional farm investment in compost-based soil amendments and practice change over 3-5 years will restore soil quality and productivity to a level where less inputs and management time will be required. It is hoped that this change will lead to a lower cost and more resilient farming system supported by an increase in the performance of soil as a core farm business asset. This work will be based on the outstanding success of previous ASM NSW EPA grants which highlight the correlation between increased soil organic matter and increased farm productivity and profitability in the almond, grape and grazing industries (see our news).

This new grant will be used to improve soil quality from a recycled organics (compost) based management strategy on five farms in Southern NSW, in particular the Riverina region. The five farms will be representative of key grazing and cropping systems. At least one of the trials will look at the commonly held view that the Riverina doesn’t receive enough rain to be able to include cover crops into their farming programs. One of the successful outcomes that we will be looking to demonstrate is - that it is not the amount of rain that you get but rather it is the farm’s ability to efficiently store and use the rain. The old adage that the “answer lies in the soils” may be more true today than it was 100 years ago.