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Sam and Kirsty White operate Bald Blair Pastoral Co, an Angus cattle seedstock herd backed by their own commercial Angus cattle herd.
The operation consists of four properties in the Northern Tablelands of NSW including their home block, Bald Blair, 10km east of Guyra.
Mr White is a seasoned soil tester and has been testing every year for almost 30 years on Bald Blair and more recently purchased Kolora property.
"I started soil testing primarily to find out what nutrient deficiencies existed in our soils so I could manage them accordingly with fertiliser," he said.
Soil testing has allowed Mr White to boost his carrying capacity by approximately 25 per cent because he has managed to avoid the degradation of pastures caused by overstocking.
Mr White started working with agronomist, Milton Curkpatrick from Precision Pastures in 2016, making the most of his specialist skillset.
"We conduct grid sampling every 200m2 across the property, usually in spring, to devise management plans (fertiliser, gypsum and lime) for the coming 1-3 years," he said.
"We then use variable rate technology to apply exactly what we need in different areas.
"Precision Pastures have helped me interpret our soil test results and I can say to them - these are my production goals, they interpret those needs and identify what nutrients and soil amendments we need address to achieve them.
"We test every three years to see how things have changed in relation to our strategy. For example, during the drought, we didn't use as many nutrients as we thought (due to low livestock numbers), so we didn't need to apply as much fertiliser.
"Soil testing allows you to get the best bang for your buck, so you're not wasting money and only spending money on fertiliser, lime or gypsum where the nutrients are needed."
What Mr White found most surprising from conducting soil tests is the variation of soil nutrients across the whole property.
"I was surprised at the level of variation in soil nutrients across paddocks, what one paddock required in fertiliser was completely different to the paddock right beside it," he said.
"Visually you might see subtle differences in your pastures but the data from the soil tests gives you solid evidence to base your soil management strategy on."
It's the longer term benefits where Mr White has really seen the value in soil testing by maintaining a healthy carrying capacity and optimising production.
"We operate a rotational grazing system so we're constantly moving stock. Plant health is therefore extremely important, and what we find is the plant health under this system is very healthy," he said.
"By applying the correct nutrients, the resilience and health in pasture species means they recover quickly after grazing periods and we also came out of the drought in much better shape.
"With higher management, we're able to put more stock on and get a better return on investment from our property asset.
"Soil testing is like a prescription - it's a measure of where you're at, you know which nutrients the livestock are taking out of the soil and you can replace them accordingly.
For example, we want to put this amount of stock in one paddock so we need to make sure there is enough plant growth to manage the stock levels that we want."
Importantly, Mr White believes soil testing has helped him control the cost of production.
"The cost of inputs continues to rise and our commodity prices - while very buoyant right now - are not always rising at the same rate as the costs of production," he said.
"Ultimately we're trying to get productive efficiency gains and optimise the production of our properties.
"Soil testing allows you optimise your assets. A single big improvement like a 10pc improvement in pasture utilisation has a multiplying effect on the level of profitability, on your bottom line.
"Pasture utilisation is one of the things you can control that will make a big difference to your livestock enterprise."
Visit the new soil hub: mla.com.au/healthy-soils:
- Tips and tools to help undertake on-farm soil testing
- All-new factsheets on soil testing and management
- Enhanced version of the phosphorus tool and manual
Digging deeper on soils, a Q&A with MLA's Michael Crowley
Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) recently launched its healthy soils hub, a go-to for producers looking to further their skills and knowledge in soil management to improve feedbase performance.
Here we talk to Michael Crowley, MLA's General Manager - Research, Development and Adoption, about the importance of soil testing.
Why the focus on soils?
Healthy soils are essential for pasture and crop growth. Here in Australia, our soils are highly varied and many are low in organic matter and nutrients, making it especially important to actively manage soil fertility and conditions.
Testing soils can help producers identify conditions limiting production and enables them to make targeted, data-based decisions to manage their soil resource. Information from soil analysis helps predict the size of the response to applied nutrients and match nutrient inputs to plant requirements for optimum growth. Improving soil health improves feedbase productivity and resilience to combat challenges in seasonal and climatic variability.
Despite the benefits, soil testing is underutilised in the red meat industry, so we've decided to bring it into sharper focus.
What are the benefits of soil testing?
Producers involved in MLA programs consistently comment that the information obtained through soil testing gives them more confidence when they're making decisions about fertiliser, ameliorants and soil management strategies. These decisions lead to many benefits:
- improvements in feedbase performance
- more consistency in production across the farm
- the ability to increase stocking rates
- optimising fertiliser application.
What information is available to producers interested in soil testing?
MLA's healthy soils hub has been developed as a product of feedbase and adoption research by MLA and industry partners. The hub is a central source of information on soil testing, analysis, visual assessment and trials.
New resources have been produced to walk producers through each step in the soil testing process, offering digestible information to adjust practices one step at a time in alignment with whole-of-farm planning for high yielding, high quality pastures. This information is available to producers as How do I factsheets and as online training modules.
Also featured on the hub are guides for the visual assessment of soil issues, the enhanced soil phosphorus five easy steps tool and a series of case studies profiling producers who are seeing the benefits of soil testing in their businesses.
Many of MLA's adoption programs also bring producers together to discuss soil testing, analysis and soil management strategies.
Where do I start with soil testing?
Soil testing is a relatively straight-forward and low-cost process. It can be done across the whole farm or select paddocks and can be especially valuable to provide information about areas that are underperforming or that are due to be resown, renovated or treated.
Soil sampling involves taking a number of cores from the selected area of a consistent size and at a consistent depth, representative of soil conditions and different soil types. Samples should be taken when there is soil moisture, at the same time of year, each year, to reduce variability in soil conditions and allow results to be compared from one test to the next. Samples should be sent to an accredited testing laboratory. These processes are outlined in more detail on the hub.
Soil test results provide information on soil nutrient levels and soil conditions such as acidity, salinity and structure. Tests can identify any conditions limiting production and can be used to determine required steps or products to address deficiencies. Work with your agronomist to develop a plan that's suitable for your soil types, rainfall, pasture species and stocking rates.
What can we expect to see next?
The soil hub is the first of four feedbase hubs, developed to provide producers with practical resources to improve productivity throughout the season. The persistent pastures and legumes hubs will be released in April. Subscribe free to MLA's Friday Feedback e-newsletter to get the latest on these hubs and other news.
Visit the soil hub at mla.com.au/healthy-soils