Not too many farmers would sit down and write 10,000 words, but that is exactly what a Tropical North Queensland cane farmer has done.a
After travelling the world to research overseas agriculture, it has taken the Nuffield scholar and Mackay region farmer, Simon Mattsson, two years to publish his paper on soil biology.
He has spent a great deal of time applying what he learnt overseas to the improvement of his own soil, and has done so through innovative methods like growing sunflowers and legumes in rotation with his cane crops.
“Soil biology” is a phrase you would often hear from Mr Mattsson and his final report outlines his research around soil biology, although it became much more expansive than originally intended.
“As a farmer I soon came to realise that soil biology is just one of the three key elements that make up a soil,” he said.
“You have got the chemical or nutrition side of it, you have the structural side — how the soil is physically made up — and then you have got the biology … it is a case of working out how those elements fit together.
“If any one of those things is not up to scratch it really makes it hard for the biological part of the soil to function.”
Four key principles apply to everyone
Around soil biology, however, there are seven key principles which the Nuffield scholar believes are paramount and he said four could be applied by any kind of farming operation.
“The first four key ones are always maintaining organic cover on your soil, to reduce mechanical tillage in anyway possible [and] the third one is plant diversity,” Mr Mattsson said.
“You cannot have a healthy system without plant diversity and the more plant diversity, the better.
Key principles to improve soil health:
- Maintain organic cover on your soil.
- Reduce mechanical tillage in anyway possible.
- Increase plant diversity for healthier soil biology.
- Maintain a living root in the soil, as much of the year as possible.
- Balance nutrition
- Use less synthetics like superphosphate.
- Try to integrate animals.
“The fourth one would be maintaining a living root in the soil, as much of the year as possible.
“The sugar cane industry three of those but we can do a lot more.
“We could do a lot less tillage and we could certainly have something in our fallow ground almost all of the time, whether you grow a legume or whatever else… the one that we are not doing that is absolutely critical is that plant diversity.”
The other three key principles include balancing nutrition, less use of synthetics like superphosphate and also animal integration.
It is that last principle which Mr Mattsson is still working on himself.
“If we cast our mind back to the early turn of the 20th century before World War I, it was quite common that animals were on every farm and quite often many different kinds.
“Those animals were a key element to the fertility of the cropping system,” he said.
“How do I introduce animals back into sugar cane monoculture? I am still working on that one.”
Simon Mattsson is growing sunflowers primarily to boost soil health on his cane farm. (ABC Rural: David Sparkes)
Conviction in farming practices
Mr Mattsson said his convictions about his own farming practices had been strengthened through writing the report.
“Certainly what I have gained is an assurance of my convictions and what I’ve learnt overseas I have brought home and I have dabbled with it here,” he said.
“Over the last two years I have had those key principles reinforced by people who have applied them over the last two decades and been very successful … so I am sure those key principles are correct.
“What I need to find out know is how they [key principles] apply in our environment and that is what will take the time.”