False messiahs of the soil

Oats planted into a deep-ripped paddock

Oats planted into a deep-ripped paddock keep the soil open

There are plenty of people out there at the moment promising farmers an organic/biodynamic/permaculture nirvana. “Use less fertiliser, restore soils, improve animal health and fertility,” they cry. That’s a very attractive set of propositions to a dairy farmer like me and I have been tinkering around the edges, listening, sifting and learning.

Although alternative farming practices have been around for centuries, they’ve never been commercialised and marketed to the mainstream in the way they are today. In my experience, with that marketing has come some very questionable “experts”. I guess it’s like any emerging school of thought – there will be a mix of true visionaries, snake oil salesmen, good practitioners and fools. The trick is to work out who’s who!

Yet it seems almost every proponent of these alternative farming movements does have something to offer. Composting, for example, is a great way to improve the biological health and structure of our soils and this seems to be a universal tenet of all the alternative farming philosophies. It also resonates with me as a gardener. If I could afford to, I would “garden” the entire 500 acres but the intensive treatment we give our veggie plots is not feasible on such a large scale. Whatever we do has to be manageable.

I was all set to do an 11 hectare composting trial this year until a set of logistical nightmares stopped me in my tracks. The plan was to deep rip the soil, add lime and then hay soaked with effluent on one half of the paddock, while using more conventional treatments on the other half. I am almost certain it would have been a great success, so will have another go next season.

I think it will work best on our most troublesome soils. Some parts of the farm have a layer of compacted soil or “hard pan” caused by an acidic reaction, which prevents water from penetrating deeply. This means that those paddocks get very wet soon after rain but dry out extremely quickly. I’m aiming to break down that layer to increase the plant available water capacity of the soil. Paddocks of this type that are due for renovation have been deep ripped, limed and planted to oats, which have long, quick-growing roots. In the last couple of seasons, I’ve found that deep-ripped paddocks planted to long-rooted plants like brassicas and oats have remained more permeable than those planted immediately to rye grass.

I’ll keep on learning more about alternative farming techniques (with ears and eyes open) and gradually trial them on farm.

2 thoughts on “False messiahs of the soil

  1. It is indeed very rewarding to see tired soils spring to life due to the fruits of your labour
    When we took over our second farm we had three paddocks that had been degraded by years and years of rotary hoeing as was common practice 30 years ago
    We planted a mix of lucerne, clover, brassicas and plantain which both fixed nitrogen and tapped into sub surface water and wow what a difference. pH has risen and organic matter building and the zoo of sub surface micro-organisms is multiplying day by day
    Good luck with your pasture trials Marian innovators like you are just what the dairy industry needs

    • Wow! Congratulations!

      I would love to follow your lead with lucerne but the only spots that have a suitably low level of aluminium are our gorgeous river flats that are already thriving. How did you go controlling the weeds in this mix?

      Thanks for sharing your success story! It’s very encouraging to hear what’s worked.

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