Grains Research and Development

Soil Biology Initiative

Soil Biology Initiative II logo

Research initiative set to unlock soil’s secrets and open the door to cropping productivity gains

Scientists and researchers across Australia have embarked on a major grains industry research effort to explore the biological make-up of the nation’s soils and their hidden potential to increase profitability and sustainability of grain production.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Soil Biology initiative II research, development and extension program is expected to lead to enhanced productivity growth in the cropping sector.

Entitled ‘Harnessing the Biological Potential of Our Soils’, the five-year initiative involves around 90 researchers working on 15 projects with more than 500 crop sampling sites.

The program aims to equip grain growers with tools and resources for better management of nutrient input, suppression of soil borne diseases without chemicals or minimum chemical input, and improved information on what makes a “quality” soil.

GRDC Managing Director, John Harvey, says the program is a significant undertaking destined to generate much-needed gains for the grains industry.

“Productivity within the grains sector has been limited for the past 10 years so we need to explore all avenues for lifting growth,” Mr Harvey said.

“The soil biological resource under our feet is seen as something of the ‘last frontier’ for the grains industry.

“We don’t fully understand the biological composition of our soils and how they function and contribute to grain production, so there is enormous scope for developing some new thinking about how we should treat and manage our soils and the practices we can put in place to drive productivity and profitability.

“This is a very exciting time for soil biology RD&E and I’m pleased and proud that GRDC is at the forefront of this pioneering work,” Mr Harvey said.

John Harvey and Pauline Mele

GRDC Managing Director John Harvey and principal research scientist and GRDC Soil Biology Initiative co-ordinator, Associate Professor Pauline Mele, say the program is of national and international importance. 

Mr Harvey said GRDC was investing in three theme areas:

  • Monitoring soil quality for better decision making;
  • Management systems for enhanced nutrient availability; and
  • Suppressive soils – traits and transferability.

The initiative, which is due to be completed in 2014, builds on the knowledge generated from the previous GRDC-funded Soil Biology I program that ran from 2002 to 2006 and set the foundations for this next generation of research.

Principal research scientist and GRDC Soil Biology initiative co-ordinator, Associate Professor Pauline Mele, said the current program was of national and international importance.

“The research we are undertaking will provide the global scientific community and the grains industry with ground-breaking insights and understanding,” A/Prof Mele said.

“Our soils are the engine room of grain production systems so it is essential that we have a greater appreciation of what soil biota they contain and how they provide functions that we can harness to improve crop yields.”

A/Prof Mele said management options in grain production systems, such as the extent of cultivation, fertiliser and herbicide inputs, crop history and residue quality and quantity could modify the physical and chemical conditions of soil and hence influence the performance of the soil biology.

“Therefore, maintaining and fine-tuning the soil engine is vital in grain production. By not doing so, we are reducing the capacity of soils to turnover plant nutrients, to maintain good structure and to protect plants from disease.”

A/Prof Mele said soil biology was largely hidden – in fact, most of the organisms were not visible to the naked eye. For example, of the estimated one quintillion microbes on earth, the vast majority are still unknown.

“The arrival and rapid development of new technologies, however, now means we are finally in a position to delve deep into the soil biological communities and see not only who is there but what they are doing, not only as individual species but as highly interactive communities.

“We can also give a regional context to this as well as we know that communities vary with soil type, climate and crop management regimes,” A/Prof Mele said.

Outcomes expected to be delivered to the grains industry from this research initiative include:

  • Improved regional knowledge and awareness of soil biological quality as it relates to grain production and profitability
  • Improved understanding of the mechanistic role of soil biological communities in crop nutrient availability, suppressive soils and general soil health
  • Provision of agronomic management solutions to enhance desirable biological processes (and/or suppress undesirable processes)
  • Building of research capacity in soil biology RD&E through national and international promotion of this initiative and through improved integration of science disciplines
  • Communication of results in various forums including the development of web-based tools

More information about the soil biology research initiative is available via

A special supplement on the initiative will appear in the January-February edition of GRDC’s Ground Cover magazine.


Editor’s notes:

• Further information about the research is available from Associate Professor Pauline Mele on 0409 543935

• GRDC project codes: UWA00138, DAV00102, DAS000111, UWA00142, UWA00139, DAV00106, CSP00138, UA00119, DAQ00164, CSP00135, DAV00105 

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