Partnering with biology brings results

Shift from conventional crops to partnering with biology

SOIL HEALTH: Matt McKinley, NSW, and Nick Kelly, WA, shared their experiences of boosting soil health with SA producers this month.

SOIL HEALTH: Matt McKinley, NSW, and Nick Kelly, WA, shared their experiences of boosting soil health with SA producers this month.


A management shift has helped Nick Kelly drastically reduced his fertiliser costs to $3/ha.


Maintaining a positive relationship between cropping methods and soil health can be difficult, but two interstate broadacre farmers showed SA producers how to partner with biology to produce better cropping outcomes at the SA No-Till Farmers Association conference earlier this month. 

Nick Kelly, Hollands Track Farm, WA, farms 2000 hectares in the high-rainfall country of Newdegate, and has been working to shift from conventional cropping to biological farming. 

In 2014, Mr Kelly gave up the use of phosphate to take soil health to the next level. 

“We were doing a whole lot of good things from a regenerative farming point of view, implementing cover crops (but) it was like we had a handbrake on because the synthetic fertiliser played a big part in destroying biology at the same time as destroying mycorrhiza funghi,” he said. 

Since then, Mr Kelly has used compost extract with biological food sources, which drastically reduced his fertiliser costs to $3/ha. 

The mix of fish hydrolysate, kelp, humates and fulvic acid used to be liquid injected at sowing at 70 tonnes/ha to 80t/ha, but now the soils are very biologically active, Mr Kelly will use the fertiliser as a foliar at 50-80t/ha.

But, Mr Kelly said a transition to biological farming should not be rushed. 

“Going cold turkey is not something I’d recommend,” he said. 

When it comes to the transition of sowing cover crops, Mr Kelly suggested starting with a small area and making a gradual transition to farm-wide covers that suited the farm. 

“It’s a case of a lot of experimentation and pushing boundaries,” he said. 

Mr Kelly’s cover crop this year is a multi-species mix of barley, oats, wheat, cereal rye, lupins, field peas, vetch and linseed with the wide range of plants to bring diversity to the biology. 

“Mixed species crops cycle nutrients from different depths in the soil to feed the biology,” he said. 

Also with a focus on cover crops, medium-sized cropping farmer Matt McKinley, based in the Riverina region at Coolamon, NSW, wanted to do something about his frustration at the farm’s reliance on chemicals.

Mr McKinley realised he needed to learn the carbon cycle, which showed his soil needed more carbon, not nitrogen, and he needed to change his reliance on winter grain crops for income.

“We were killing the carbon cycle for six months of the year,” he said. 

In 2015, Mr McKinley shifted from monocultures of wheat and canola crops to sowing multi-species cover crops at all times of the year. 

The shift has seen him sow 12 different cash crops and 26 different species of plants in total, sowing warm season multi species cover crops, intercrops, companion crops, summer cash crops, and multi-species forage crops.


ANOTHER practice WA farmer Nick Kelly and NSW farmer Matt McKinley have in common is the return of livestock to their properties after a 20-year break to boost soil biology. 

“We got rid of livestock 20 years ago and there was a void in the biology when they left,” Mr Kelly said. 

Mr Kelly got talking to a friend with cattle who was looking for land and capital, and that friend now manages 113 Droughtmasters under a holistic grazing system, where the cows are moved every second day. 

Twenty years ago, Mr McKinley joined the family farm, and saw it change from a traditional mixed farming enterprise of mainly Merinos and cereals to purely cropping. 

To increase carbon in the soil and utilise excess feed grown from a new abundance of multi-species crops, the farm introduced cattle in 2016.

“The animal ruminant impact has a positive effect on the carbon flow,” he said.

On a farm that has no fences, Mr McKinley is able to utilise an intensive cattle grazing system.

In a 290-hectare paddock, 5ha cells are made with a single strand hot wire.

The cattle are rotated to new cells every 48 hours, creating a 120-day grazing program. 

“Intensive cattle grazing mean less compaction rate on the soil,” he said. 

But Mr McKinley warned that under intensive grazing, cattle could damage the soil if there was not enough plant biomass. He says a cow’s feet should never touch the soil.


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