Sustaining our soils in 2015

Soil is essential to most farming enterprises. And as the quality and suitability of the soil significantly affects the quality of what’s grown in it, farmers must find cost-effective, sustainable ways to improve soil quality, replenish depleted soils, rebalance acidic soils, and prevent erosion and loss of topsoil.

Dryland salinity-induced sheet erosion at the base of a mesa landscape near Charters Towers, Northern Queensland.
Willem van Aken, CSIRO

The majority of Australian farms grow crops – if only as fodder. Whatever the crop, it will  be affected by the quality of the soil in which it is grown.

Key challenges for Australian agriculture include:

  • lack of available arable land (much of our best, most fertile farmland and richest soils have been lost to development),
  • erosion and loss of topsoil thanks to land clearing, overgrazing and animal pests,
  • soils depleted of carbon,
  • acidic soils,
  • soils polluted by chemicals,
  • sandy soils that repel water.

Soil degradation and erosion, acidification, clearing of vegetation and loss of soil carbon all impact sustainability and future productivity. Monitoring and improving soil quality and replenishing carbon stocks, preventing erosion, and working to counter acidification are critical to maintaining healthy, fertile lands.

Improving the soil may mean:

  • planting native vegetation (including trees) as windbreaks and groundcover, to reduce erosion and loss of topsoil – in the process increasing biodiversity and boosting carbon stocks;
  • adopting better livestock rotation systems to avoid overgrazing
  • managing crop rotation so as to minimise depletion of soils;
  • controlling burrow-digging, soil-eroding animal pests such as rabbits and wombats,
  • employing sensor technology that enables accurate monitoring of soil characteristics,
  • reducing the use of harmful chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,
  • employing farming practises that replenish soils rather than degrade them, reduce salinity and replenish carbon and soil nutrients.

Improving data and information

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) is investing in improving soil and land management through research, development and extension (RD&E), on-ground activities, and better data collection.

The Stocktake of Australia’s investment in soils research, development and extension – a snapshot for 2010–11 found that Australia spent around $124 million on soil RD&E over that period, with rural research and development corporations contributing $24 million.

The government’s National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy, based on the Stocktake, is intended to make soil RD&E more collaborative and better targeted. It provides information and tools to help farmers better manage their soils.

DAFF’s Soil Carbon Research Program investigates soil carbon and its sequestration in Australia; Filling the Research Gap and Action on the Ground programs support research into and implementation of, abatement technologies and management practices to improve soil carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the land while supporting sustainable agricultural practices.

The Department also sponsors several soil RD&E conferences and symposiums including the:

DAFF’s Sustainable Resource Management Division (SRM) contributes to The Australian Collaborative Land Evaluation Program (ACLEP), an initiative jointly funded by the government and CSIRO to “improve the collection, management and dissemination of nationally consistent data and information on soil and land resources”.

The federal government’s Stocktake of Australia also examined currently-available information about soils in Australia. Appendix 5 of the stocktake, the National soil information base, includes a soils mapping overview, soil profile data and a soils archive.

Improving soils management

The Department of Agriculture supports several projects aimed at improving agricultural land management practices and encouraging innovation in soil management in areas such as reducing soil loss through wind and water erosion, improving groundcover, reducing the risks of soil acidification; and improving farm productivity and profitability.

CSIRO projects underway include an Australian soil biodiversity inventory BASE); the SoilMapp app for iPad; the RemScan real-time measurement of soil contamination; the firstcomprehensive Australia-wide inventory of soil biodiversity; and studies of soil repellency, interactions between plants and soil, and solutions for the management of complex contaminants in soil and groundwater.

Monitoring soil condition

Prepared by CSIRO with state and territory agencies, the National Soil Condition Monitoring for Soil pH and soil carbon: Objectives, Design, Protocols, Governance and Reporting outlines a 20-year project monitoring long-term changes in soil pH and soil carbon through time. The collaborative Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia includes a comprehensive nationwide database of soil attributes and conditions.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Water Account Australia (WAA) for 2011-2012 aggregated a broad range of information on water use from standing stocks such as rivers, groundwater and dams, but failed to include measurements of soil water as recommended in international water accounting standards.

The United Nations’ System of Environmental-Economic Accounts – Water (SEEA-W) defines soil water as “water suspended in the uppermost belt of soil, or in the zone of aeration near the ground surface, that can be discharged into the atmosphere by evapotranspiration”.

Soil water is a significant water resource, accounting for more than 325,000 GL in 2011-12, Its use impacts standing water supplies, reducing run-off into dams and rivers, percolation into groundwater resources, and biodiversity for native species. Soil water estimates will be included in the ABS’s 2012-13 WAA, due for release in late 2014.

Soil water is described in both the SEEA-W and SEEA 2012. The ABS’s method prefers the SEEA 2012 framework for measuring soil water abstraction, which excludes evaporation and water retained in the soil.

Soils, grazing and vegetation

Through SRM and ABARES, the Department of Agriculture is working with state/territory agencies and CSIRO to develop national monitoring of groundcover in the rangelands in the grazing industry and ascertain whether changing land-management practices help improve soil condition.

CSIRO projects underway include examining the efficacy of planting native legumes for their non-nitrogenous, break-crop effects and as livestock fodder; redeploying revegetated saltland as grazing land; and investigating the role nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria on plant roots may play in improving soil and plant productivity.

Further information

Australian Government Department of Environment’s soil policy (on soil degradation and erosion, acidification, clearing of vegetation and loss of soil carbon)
Stocktake of Australia’s investment in soils research, development and extension – a snapshot for 2010–11
National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy
The Australian Collaborative Land Evaluation Program (ACLEP)
Biomes of Australian Soil Environments (BASE): Australian soil biodiversity inventory (CSIRO)
CSIRO National Soil Archive

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