New Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils – Closing the Gap between Soil Science and Farm Management

15 March 2017 Geoff Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Landcare Research Programme

Background

Soils are complex and Australian soils differ from those of North America or Europe where significant scientific study on soil regeneration is taking place. Australian soils are generally older and have been exposed to constant weathering.  Unlike northern hemisphere soils, which have been farmed for centuries, Australian soils have only been cultivated since British settlement and, thus, have been exposed to influences widely different from those under which they were formed. In parts of Australia, agricultural soils have suffered degradation because of unwittingly inappropriate land practices. This, combined with the ever-growing global population requires farmers and land managers to seek alternative practices that halt degradation, restore fertility and promote improvements to enable greater and sustainable food production.

Comment

The recent announcement of Australian Government funding for the creation of a Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils (CRC-HPC) will be applauded by researchers, land managers and farmers as well as other stakeholders. By understanding why soils are unhealthy and less productive, researchers will be able to recognise and eventually develop and implement innovations that will lead to improved soils and enhanced food production. The intent of the CRC-HPS is to fund research programmes over ten years, which will build upon the existing considerable body of knowledge relating to Australian soils. This will aim to provide land managers and farmers with information that will enhance their decision-making in relation to soil management.

Consorting with a number of leading soil proponents and healthy soil advocates, Soils for Life, is an Australian not for profit organisation, founded and chaired by Australia’s former Governor General, Major General The Honourable Michael Jeffery, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd). Consistent with its principal purpose of providing information and education  regenerative landscape management, as demonstrated by innovative farmers, Soils for Life will contribute to the CRC-HPC to enhance this  knowledge that seeks  to restore landscape health and produce quality and nutrient-dense food and fibre.

Through the CRC-HPS, Soils for Life will direct attention towards expanding and building upon the organisation’s existing Innovations for Regenerative Landscape Management Project. This programme investigates and reports upon ‘case study farms’, currently working towards several outcomes: restoring landscape function and delivering sustainable production; improving the natural resource base; healthy nutrient cycling; increasing biodiversity and enhancing resilience. Correspondingly, attention will be directed towards a focus on enhancing the quality and increasing the value of food, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. By increasing the densities of nutrients, micro-nutrients and important trace elements, foods will be grown that are healthier, but contain fewer calories, meaning farmers can increase the value and quality of the crops they produce without necessarily increasing the amount of land under management.

Key to farmers adopting the research outcomes to improving soil health will be the transfer and take up of information by all elements of the farming community. In order for that to occur, as indicated to by the CRC-HPS lead agency, the University of Newcastle, collaborative efforts will need to be undertaken by government, industry, business and researchers to develop and implement effective communication strategies.

An aspect of significant CRC-HPS focus will be in relation to ‘precision agriculture’ which is the term describing the use of technology to allow farmers and land managers to improve their soil health and productivity. As explained in a recent Feature Interview, precision agriculture uses and incorporates a range of existing and emerging technologies, including satellites and aerial drones to produce infrared images that, among other outcomes,  and other information constantly measures soil moisture levels which are fed to a computer that manages complex farm irrigation systems. Sensor design to enable infrared analysis of soil will include the miniaturisation of analytical instruments through a technology known as microelectromechanical systems (or MEMS). These systems will link to new satellites that collect visual data of the Earth’s surface at greater time frequency and at higher resolution, providing very high-quality images which aid crop assessment and pasture management. The satellites are also capable of taking images across different spectral bands, such as near-infrared and short-wave infrared to detect moisture, temperature and crop stress.

A notable outcome from the funding provided through the CRC-HPS will be further development and advancements in the technology.

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