'Real time' soil testing

INSTANT GRATIFICATION could be yours with new approaches to soil testing that are being considered for the grains industry in 2003-04.

'Real time' or 'near real time' testing of soil samples would allow growers to make vital management decisions close to the time of planting. For this reason, the GRDC is examining the potential for new R&D investments involving tractor- and implement-mounted soil probes, or totally new approaches that don't suffer from the time lags and delays of current laboratorybased procedures. These might, for example, enable growers to measure the soil nitrogen available at the time of sowing and to adjust starter N rates accordingly. The ability to map available soil water, or surface pH, could also assist crop selection and sowing decisions.

While there are risks involved in such research, the potential pay-offs are highespecially with many growers moving to precision agriculture farming methods, which allow them to target fertiliser or other treatments directly to high- and low-producing areas in paddocks. This area of R&D is considered by some to still be 'blue sky', but recent advances in sensing technology have brought practical application much closer. The GRDC is undertaking a review of recent advances in order to identify and rank research opportunities - these will then be addressed in the Corporation's investment plan for 2004-05.

GRDC has also called for research proposals in the western and southern regions into the impact of subsoil constraints and practical methods that growers can use to address these limitations. Subsoil barriers to the growth and efficient functioning of crop roots such as natural chemical toxicities, salinity, acidity and impermeable soil layers have a great affect on productivity and profits in many of the soils in Australia's southern and western grainbelts. As growers have learnt to combat 'surface' problems of weeds, pests and diseases, these subsoil barriers have become a major impediment to continued improvements in yield and returns.

Research into subsoil problems and how growers can avoid or overcome them has already commenced in the north. The GRDC will manage its whole investment in this topic as a single, national program to ensure that knowledge, skills, and results are shared across all cropping regions and R&D organisations.

These two soil-related research initiatives are among a group of targeted new investments envisaged for 2003-04. The GRDC expects to allocate $120 million for grains industry research in that year, including $25 million for new investments and the remainder committed to ongoing research. The Investment Plan can be seen at www.grdc.com.au