A two-year intensive drought resilient soils demonstration program is under way on the Eyre Peninsula.
Across 16 demonstration sites, including at Poochera, Streaky Bay, Arno Bay, and Mount Damper, the program will trial 'scaling out' farming practices on a commercial scale, aimed at enhancing productivity, increasing yields, and boosting drought resilience.
The project is funded by the federal government's Future Drought Fund's Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes grant program ($995,000) and the GRDC ($100,000), with support from the SA Drought Resilience and Adoption Hub.
Led by Agricultural Innovation & Research Eyre Peninsula (AIR EP) and delivered by a team of grower groups and agronomists, the research will encompass more than three million hectares of sandy soils on the EP, Upper Yorke Peninsula, Mallee, and the South East.
AIR EP executive officer Naomi Scholz says not only will the outcomes benefit farmers, but it is predicted there will be significant broader community flow-on effects, in the form of economic and environmental benefits.
"This would in-turn represent a return in investment, which would build not only the drought resilience of farmers but improve the financial security of businesses and communities that support farming activities across the landscape," she said.
"This project will also benefit communities by reducing soil loss, as well as less community health impacts from dust storms."
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On the demonstration sites, 'scaled out' management options will be used, including on-row seeding, paired row seeding, banding of soil wetters, deep ripping, and spading.
Furthermore, the trial sites will focus on practical solutions when farmers implement these practices at commercial scales, which have not been addressed in small plot experiments.
One of the trial sites is hosted by Ben Ranford, who crops 3000 hectares between Cleve and Arno Bay, of which 600ha is water repellent sands.
"Non wetting sand presents a number of challenges to grain production, from achieving even germination of crops, weed control and avoiding erosion," he said.
"Over decades we have used various tillage approaches including prickle chains, disc chains, points and press wheels, and disc seeding, with the outcome largely determined by timing and seasonal conditions. Most of these methods only address establishing a single crop, not changing the soil going forward.
"More recently, farmers have used more radical methods to improve the productivity of water repellent sand. Spading, delving and deep ripping with inclusion plates can redistribute sand and the clay which lies beneath it. There are many variables and possible outcomes depending on the situation. These treatments are creating dramatic changes to soil texture, structure, and nutrient availability.
This project...will give more farmers the confidence to tackle the challenges of water repellent sand.- BEN RANFORD
"Farmers have the capacity and incentive to undertake the work to improve their sandy soils, but we are not always good at monitoring and measuring the results. We know if something is better or worse, without the analysis which would help refine the approach.
"This project is a great opportunity to increase understanding, which will give more farmers the confidence to tackle the challenges of water repellent sand."
The issues that arise when scaling up sandy soil amelioration practices include exposure of topsoil to erosion; trafficability and management of paddocks post-amelioration; crop establishment in ameliorated paddocks; crop selection and stubble management pre and post-amelioration; and crop inputs to extract the best response from amelioration treatments.
Ms Scholz said the physical properties and underlying constraints of sandy soils across the landscape were highly variable.
"Therefore, to effectively increase the productivity of these soils at a landscape and regional scale, farmers need to be able to effectively diagnose the key soil constraints within a paddock, and then select the appropriate suite of management actions to address the limitations where cost-effective returns are most likely," she said.
"Investing in the productive capacity of sandy soil will reduce the impact of drought on the quality of natural capital and reduce the incidence of dust storms which reduce air quality for communities across south-eastern Australia. This project represents an excellent investment as it will lead to enhanced drought resilience across a low-medium rainfall region highly exposed to drought risk and declining rainfall."
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