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For sheep and cattle producer, Don McNab, soil testing has enabled him to refine his fertiliser strategy and save costs while maintaining pasture productivity.
Fertiliser savings represent around eight per cent of his business turnover - "a substantial saving" according to Mr McNab.
Together with his wife Amanda, and their three children, Mr McNab took over the family business, Glencoe, three years ago in Thomson Brook in south-west Western Australia.
On their 194 hectare property, of which 130ha is grazable, they run 90 Angus cattle and 230 Merino ewes plus followers.
They aim to maintain a self-sufficient feedbase, made up of annual ryegrass and clover-based pastures which they cut for hay in spring.
Their combined soil, pasture and grazing management has enabled them to maintain a relatively high stocking rate for the region and their soil type (sandy loams with some lighter quartz soil).
Mr McNab's father first participated in a Catchment Council-supported whole farm nutrient mapping program in 2014 and now he is using follow up testing to keep track of soil pH and nutrient levels since.
"We first participated in the soil program because we saw it as a good opportunity to understand the requirements we needed to achieve optimal pasture production," Mr McNab said.
"We tested sporadically in the past but have tested the whole farm twice since 2014 and anticipate we will test the whole farm again after the 2021 growing season.
"We have tested three paddocks over this summer to give us an indication of how we are travelling to and see the results from liming since the last round of testing.
"We are aiming to get a representative sample from each paddock, taking a 0-10cm topsoil sample.
"The contractor that completes the sampling uses GPS coordinates to collect samples along the same transects each time to ensure some consistency in the method."
Mr McNab also uses plant tissue testing to check macro nutrient levels in hay paddocks.
"We can use this information to back up our decisions, it verifies that the nutrients are there," he said.
Initial soil testing revealed high levels of nutrients such as phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and sulphur (S) present in the soils on the McNab's property - almost three times the amount required for optimal plant production.
With agronomic advice based on these results and the help of a fertility index that outlined the nutrient requirements for his production system, Mr McNab felt confident to cut down on the use of fertilisers.
"The most beneficial part of the program was the agronomic advice which gave me the confidence to cut out P application and focus more on getting the soil pH corrected to allow optimal use of the nutrients already present," he said.
"With the application of lime, soil pH levels have shifted from around 4.5-4.6 to 5.2-5.4.
"Cutting back on fertilisers and seeing no loss in production - that really validated the information we were getting.
"In the past we had been applying P at a rate of 18kg/ha/yr based on a stocking rate calculation of approximately 18 DSE/ha. We also applied extra K and N to hay paddocks.
"We were essentially throwing out about $9,000 of fertiliser that we didn't need. That equates to around 7-8pc of our turnover which is a pretty good saving," he said.
Mr McNab intends to continue soil testing into the future.
"We have realised that we can make significant savings on inputs by paying closer attention to what is available in our soils and the return on soil testing is quite good," he said.
"Instead of just applying a blanket approach to the whole farm we have been more targeted in the application of nutrients.
"It's definitely going to be a benefit to continue.
"We will probably keep doing what we've been doing - we'll test select paddocks I've got questions about or we've applied amelioration to each year and we'll test the whole farm every two to three years."
Visit the new soil hub: mla.com.au/healthy-soils:
- Tips and tools to help undertake on-farm soil testing
- All-new factsheets on soil testing and management
- Enhanced version of the phosphorus tool and manual
Digging deeper on soils, a Q&A with MLA's Michael Crowley
Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) recently launched its healthy soils hub, a go-to for producers looking to further their skills and knowledge in soil management to improve feedbase performance.
Here we talk to Michael Crowley, MLA's General Manager - Research, Development and Adoption, about the importance of soil testing.
Why the focus on soils?
Healthy soils are essential for pasture and crop growth. Here in Australia, our soils are highly varied and many are low in organic matter and nutrients, making it especially important to actively manage soil fertility and conditions.
Testing soils can help producers identify conditions limiting production and enables them to make targeted, data-based decisions to manage their soil resource. Information from soil analysis helps predict the size of the response to applied nutrients and match nutrient inputs to plant requirements for optimum growth. Improving soil health improves feedbase productivity and resilience to combat challenges in seasonal and climatic variability.
Despite the benefits, soil testing is underutilised in the red meat industry, so we've decided to bring it into sharper focus.
What are the benefits of soil testing?
Producers involved in MLA programs consistently comment that the information obtained through soil testing gives them more confidence when they're making decisions about fertiliser, ameliorants and soil management strategies. These decisions lead to many benefits:
- improvements in feedbase performance
- more consistency in production across the farm
- the ability to increase stocking rates
- optimising fertiliser application.
What information is available to producers interested in soil testing?
MLA's healthy soils hub has been developed as a product of feedbase and adoption research by MLA and industry partners. The hub is a central source of information on soil testing, analysis, visual assessment and trials.
New resources have been produced to walk producers through each step in the soil testing process, offering digestible information to adjust practices one step at a time in alignment with whole-of-farm planning for high yielding, high quality pastures. This information is available to producers as How do I factsheets and as online training modules.
Also featured on the hub are guides for the visual assessment of soil issues, the enhanced soil phosphorus five easy steps tool and a series of case studies profiling producers who are seeing the benefits of soil testing in their businesses.
Many of MLA's adoption programs also bring producers together to discuss soil testing, analysis and soil management strategies.
Where do I start with soil testing?
Soil testing is a relatively straight-forward and low-cost process. It can be done across the whole farm or select paddocks and can be especially valuable to provide information about areas that are underperforming or that are due to be resown, renovated or treated.
Soil sampling involves taking a number of cores from the selected area of a consistent size and at a consistent depth, representative of soil conditions and different soil types. Samples should be taken when there is soil moisture, at the same time of year, each year, to reduce variability in soil conditions and allow results to be compared from one test to the next. Samples should be sent to an accredited testing laboratory. These processes are outlined in more detail on the hub.
Soil test results provide information on soil nutrient levels and soil conditions such as acidity, salinity and structure. Tests can identify any conditions limiting production and can be used to determine required steps or products to address deficiencies. Work with your agronomist to develop a plan that's suitable for your soil types, rainfall, pasture species and stocking rates.
What can we expect to see next?
The soil hub is the first of four feedbase hubs, developed to provide producers with practical resources to improve productivity throughout the season. The persistent pastures and legumes hubs will be released in April. Subscribe free to MLA's Friday Feedback e-newsletter to get the latest on these hubs and other news.
Visit the soil hub at mla.com.au/healthy-soils