Soil is the most important natural asset in any farming or grazing enterprise. For a farm business to be profitable in the long term the soil asset needs to be kept in good condition. That way it can cycle nutrients and water effectively and provide a good structure for plant roots and air to flow through the soil. A soil in good condition also maintains balanced chemical conditions for optimal plant growth. Finally a soil in good condition can help suppress plant diseases. When a soil is in good condition we say it is healthy. We believe it is critical for farmers to maintain their soil’s health.
Soil health is a broad term but it actually covers three key aspects of a soil’s condition:
- Physical – this includes the structure of a soil, its porosity and how stable the structure is.
- Chemical – all soils have a number of key chemical properties that influence how they function and how well plants grow in them. These properties include the soil’s acidity or alkalinity, how many salts are in the soil and the proportion of key exchangeable elements including Sodium, Calcium and Aluminium present.
- Biological – soils are living systems and without adequate biological activity they do not function. The key aspects of a soil’s biological fertility include root activity, soil microbes and organisms such as worms and finally soil organic matter. Soils need good levels of organic matter to function well.
All three aspects of a soil are important and they all influence each other. For example if a soil has good levels of organic matter then it will usually also cycle nutrients well. A healthy soil is one that is in good condition across all three areas. As well as health a soil also needs to have a good level of fertility to grow crops and pastures. This means having enough nutrients present to supply crops and pastures. Soil fertility is critical to a farm enterprise but fertility is dependant upon having a soil in good condition in the first place. Effective fertility management is very difficult without a well functioning or healthy soil.
In Central Queensland we face a number of challenges to maintaining soil health in our farming systems. Many farming practises can negatively affect soil health. Excessive use of tillage, agricultural machinery and high use of fertilisers and agricultural chemicals are some of the practises that have lead to poor soil health. Growing monocultures and poor grazing approaches are others. From sugar cane to horticulture to grazing many farmers have poor soil health due to past and current practises. This is having a big impact on the farm business in the short term and the long term as well as the wider environment.
The good news is that there are ways to improve your soil’s health and be more productive and profitable. There is plenty of science around how to manage soils for health. There are also plenty of innovative farmer techniques from all around Australia and the world that we can learn from to improve our soils. The CQSHS group aims to share these ideas.
Take some time to look around these soil health resources and learn more about how you can manage your most important farm asset more effectively.