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Digging up soil secrets to grow more food producing land

Soil scientists are unearthing secrets from deep below southern Queensland’s broadacre farming belt that have the potential to revolutionize soil management for Australian and international cropping enterprises.

“Economics of ameliorating hostile sub-soils in the northern region: Project B – Soil constraint management and amelioration for the northern region”, is a four-year study made possible by a five million dollars investment from the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

The project will uncover greater insight into soil types, varieties and dispersal to produce soil maps that show not only topsoil but subsoil a metre below the surface.

The Centre for Sustainable Agricultural Systems, Deputy Director Professor John Bennett knows a better understanding of total soil profile can completely change paddock management and profitability. 

“It’s a misconception if the soil looks the same on the surface it is the same all the way down, soil constraints vary in four dimensions including depth which is the hard one because we can’t see subsoil”
John Bennett
Professor (Soil Science and Agrimetrics)
At the time of writing, 22,000 core samples have been collected and analysed from 60 different locations.

Professor Bennett believes it's widely accepted that water is the most important factor for all farmers.

“But we need to start thinking about soil as the greatest natural asset. It stores the water, and performs many other functions like nutrition and anchoring the plant,” Professor Bennet said. 

“To have the data about water holding capacity and nutrition of those specific soil types to a depth previously unknown cuts down even further any guesswork in management decisions”
Mr Stuart Thorn

The data discovered in the samples will be put into a specialised mapping program to give farmers a complete picture of their soil. It will also be used to improve soil quality and make it possible for farmers to conduct targeted soil remedies.

“It will be a significant step when we generate the maps that can be fed directly into your tillage equipment so your application of additives can change the rate of dispersal to what’s actually required as you're moving along,” Professor Bennett said.  

He predicts the knowledge being collected in this project will also be able to vastly improve plant selection, to a point where different varieties are planted within one field to get optimum yield.

As UniSQ scientists are unearthing more knowledge about the soil profile a metre below the surface, growers can remove the guesswork from management decisions. 

Once completed this research will make it possible for farmers to use 20 to 30 samples to improve their soil, select the best varieties, develop previously unviable land and confidently make business decisions about how they should invest their soil to get the highest possible yield.

Understanding your soil

Prime cropping land is expensive, so agronomists like Stuart Thorn, are most excited about knowing with certainty how to get the best performance out of the soil previously thought unsuitable.

“A lot of clients are developing their more marginal country with poorer soil or parts that are too undulating; we want to know how to deal with these trickier soil types to get results,” he said.

By investing in this data to change land management practices so they are tailored and better suited to the land will require a change in management culture to achieve maximum impact.

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