Website provides crop soil health check

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The University of Western Australia's Professor
Daniel Murphy has been instrumental in establishing
the website for the National Soil Quality Monitoring
Program

PHOTOS: Cox Inall Communications

Grain growers across the state are increasingly logging into Australia’s world-leading soil quality monitoring program through the Soil Quality Website (www.soilquality.org.au).

The website, which allows growers to check the health of their cropping ‘engine’, has had 250,000 page views since its launch in 2007.

GRDC Soil Biology Initiative II researchers across Australia are also using this database to analyse the impact of cropping practices on soil microbial activity, which affects vital functions such as nutrient availability and disease suppression.

The soil quality website allows growers to benchmark a paddock’s biological, chemical and physical traits against those from other local farms and the opinions of a panel of local experts.

It helps to identify production constraints and suggests tactics for optimising production based on water use efficiency.

The University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Professor Daniel Murphy has been instrumental in the website’s development through the National Soil Quality Monitoring Program.

He says it now incorporates soil test and climatic data from 2000 sites in the WA wheatbelt – from Mingenew to Esperance – and provides regionally specific indicators of soil quality traits for a range of soil types.

“Growers input paddock soil sample values, which are compared with data on the system to produce a ‘traffic light’ analysis,” he says.

“Indicators of concern in each catchment and region are pointed out in red for a high risk of production impact, amber for a moderate risk and green for a low risk.”

Professor Murphy says the website’s popularity is growing as WA growers strive to better understand soil properties that will boost production, profits and longer-term soil resilience. This is mainly the soil’s ability to suppress soil-borne pests and diseases and optimise nutrient use.

He says data from some of the National Soil Quality Monitoring Program sites in WA is now being linked to information about historical farm management practices.

Liebe Group executive officer Chris O'Callaghan (left)
and Buntine grower and Liebe Group co-founder Stuart
McAlpine are committed to analysing the long-term
benefits of soil biological improvements in their
local area.

“This will enable a more in-depth assessment of the implications of farming practices on changes in soil biology and health,” he says.

“UWA researchers are also using this information as part of their efforts to develop microbial ‘fingerprints’ for key genomes present in common soil types and land use combinations.

“Tests for these genomes will eventually help growers identify and effectively ‘farm’ the microbes that promote soil quality, suppress disease and enhance crop yields.”

Buntine grain grower Stuart McAlpine has been focusing on improving the microbes and biological make-up of the soils on his 5000-hectare cropping property for the past seven years.

He says he is reaping the rewards of fewer fertiliser inputs and greater resilience against pests and diseases.

Organic carbon levels in the top 30 centimetres of his soil have increased and the soils are much softer, even in the summer.

“Grain quality is more consistent, fungicide and insecticides are rarely needed and phosphorus and nitrogen efficiency has improved considerably,” Mr McAlpine says.

“Crops are ripening slower and holding on longer in drier seasons.”

Mr McAlpine’s farm also houses a Liebe Group long-term trial site that has assessed soil biological changes during the past decade.

This is part of a member push to better manage local soils, understand constraints, increase water use efficiency, optimise fertiliser inputs and assess the long-term implications of farming practices such as tillage, fungicide and herbicide use.

More information:

Professor Daniel Murphy,
08 6488 7083,

daniel.murphy@uwa.edu.au;

Stuart McAlpine,
0427 642 082,
stuartmcalpine@bigpond.com;

Soil Biology Initiative,
www.grdc.com.au/soilbiology, www.soilquality.org.au/factsheets


See January–February 2012 Ground Cover Supplement ‘Soil Biology Initiative’ for more information: www.grdc.com.au/GCS96

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GRDC Project Code UWA00138

Region National, West