Thursday, January 17, 2019

Biological farming practices benefit all farming systems

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Crops

The benefit of biological practices to arable farming systems was the hot topic at this year’s QLF Agronomy soil event, held in the run-up to Christmas.

All farmers can look to implement biological farming practices to help improve productivity on-farm – no matter what crop establishment techniques are being used, says Joel Williams, a soil expert at Integrated Soils, who spoke at the event.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a big, small, conventional or organic grower, there are always things that can be done to transition towards a more agro-ecological way of farming which will increase soil health,” he adds.

Principles include adding diversity, feeding soil biology, managing soil carbon, minimising soil disturbance, remineralisation, reducing synthetic inputs, integrating nutrient management, implementing foliar management, integrating livestock and taking a whole-farm approach.

Simple steps

“Of these principles, adding diversity and feeding the soil biology are two of the simplest steps that growers can take to help increase ecology and soil health,” explains Mr Williams.

“Adding diversity can be achieved by switching from a monoculture system, where only one plant type is grown, to a polyculture system, where multiple plant species are present, such as cover or companion crops, herbal leys, pollinator field margins or agroforestry. “

Growing a diverse number of plant species with varying rooting depths or different growth stages means less competition and making more unlocked nutrients available to the plants – reducing the need for synthetic inputs.

“Because fewer synthetic inputs, such as nitrogen fertilisers, are needed, input costs are cut and the risk of leaching is also reduced, which has an important environmental benefit,” adds Mr Williams.

Better soil

Growers are often worried that ground will be taken out of production in this scenario. But Mr Williams says this does not have to be the case. Companion cropping allows a cash crop and a legume to grow simultaneously, he says.

Similarly, increasing diversity does not just mean increasing plant species.

“Grazing livestock on arable land, whether on stubbles, cover crops or rotational leys can help increase soil organic matter and improve soil structure, via plant-animal grazing interactions and good management of animal, shoot and root residues into the soil.”

Increasing plant diversity also helps to feed the soil biology because the different plant species release different root exudates into the soil, which feed the soil microbes. This means more nutrients are made available to plants as there is a more varied amount of microbes present.

“Although the core focus of biological farming is to stimulate this process through natural means, such as adding diversity, it can also be helped artificially,” says Mr Williams.

“Including carbon-based inputs like molasses-based liquid fertilisers, fish emulsions, seaweed and kelp extracts, humic acid, compost and manures, will all help to feed the soil biology in different ways.”

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