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'Breaking new ground with biological farming'

A GROUP of 22 farmers in the Lismore area are involved in a trial designed to utilise biological farming practises and compare the results to those obtained with conventional techniques. The Lismore Land Protection Group sourced the funding for this program from the National Landcare Program.

Biological farming combines both conventional and natural farming, working with natural systems and methods to build optimum soil, plant and animal health, while maintaining production levels and quality.
 There are many aspects to this farming method including balancing soil minerals, adding soil conditioners to build soil structure, biology and nutrient availability, adding humate granules to conventional fertiliser to improve efficiency and root growth, applying nutritional and biological seed dressing to optimise germination, liquid injection of nutrition and biology, applying foliar nutrition (not just nitrogen) with biology to build yield and quality potential while reducing pest and disease risk and applying specific fungi to plant residues to build soil carbon and available nutrients.
Dr Maarten Stapper formerly of the CSIRO, said during a talk given at the DPI Sustainable Farming Systems Forum in Bendigo, that improved biological activity can alleviate common soil problems such as acidity, salinity, compaction, water logging, wind and water erosion, and improve water holding capacity and water retention. "These are improvements beyond standard organic and biodynamic farming as soils are actively demineralized and supplied with soil microbes and other biological inputs required for attaining and maintaining an energetic balance," he said.
The Lismore Land Protection Group and the Lismore Biological farming group are working in conjunction with a South Australian company LawrieCo, that is developing biological farming programs by offering specialist advice, inputs and on-farm consultation. The company works closely with farmers to enhance soil and crop output and reduce chemical usage.
The department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (under the National Landcare Program) supported the application by the Lismore Land Protection Group to implement a Broadacre and Pasture comparison using LawrieCo biological farming inputs. The aim is to measure and compare over three years, the differences between conventional and biological farming systems. The project will run through to completion in 2010 to properly measure any variables in the performance level of farms using biological practices.
One of the key outcomes being sought from this federally supported farming trial is to categorically measure any immediate and sustainable benefits biological farming systems may provide as a future, beneficial farming practice in Australia.
All sites, including suitable control sites, will be tested for biological activity, nutrient and carbon levels and for compaction. Crops and pasture will be tested and surveyed for sugar level, growth rate, vigour, colour and diseases or disease resistance. All the information including treatments for pesticide use, fertilizer application, humates and foliar treatments will be recorded for detailed analysis. Harvest crops, such as wheat, barley, oats and canola will be measured for yield, screenings and quality.
Stephen Guy, the Landcare co-ordinator from the Lismore Land Protection Group said that after making an application 12 months ago, funding was received in July. “The project will run for at least three years regardless of the funding. We need to get the DPI on board and get their support for scientific evaluation of the methods and results. We already have interest from many local and also from Land Care Groups in Gippsland and DPI’s equivalent in Tasmania. The Upper Barwon and Southern Otway Landcare groups have also expressed interest in the program and are keen to see the results. “Many farmers will do this anyway, but this project provides a step by step guide. Most farmers understand the conventional systems, but they have a hit and miss approach with the newer systems,” he said.
Trevor Cook, a representative of LawrieCo, who also farms in the Lismore area, is enthusiastic about the response. “LawrieCo promotes a clean, green image with more sustainable production and less chemical use. It’s about managing systems better. “For instance, we see a loss of nutrients through burning and with climate change, burning is just not on. Carbon retention keeps nutrients in the soil. A stubble digestion program will result in mineral balance with soil microbial balance. “Also, by using biological blend fertilizer on soil, we can try to balance fungi and bacteria in the soil while using a minimum of chemicals and urea. Treating the soil with microbial inoculants results in a lower upfront rate of fertiliser used. Looking at the inputs and outputs is part of this study – to see if these methods improve production while still getting a similar bottom line.”
Mr Cook said that Australia wide, LawrieCo is currently involved with two million hectares at various stages.
Brian Wilson, who farms ‘Briandra” at Lismore has been interested and doing some work with biological farming for the past six years. Brian visited LawrieCo at the Wimmera field days in 2001 and suggested they sponsor Southern farming Systems to demonstrate their biological methods. This didn’t happen so Brian started experimenting with their stubble digestion program in 2003. We don’t think current practises are sustainable - we must put organic matter back into the soil. “Since we altered changed to a full biological program on small areas, our soil has changed colour and the soil structure has changed. We found that after the dry spring, the soil was still friable and loamy while soil not treated this way was quite hard. Brian said that “he thinks the yields will be greater from this system” and “in another experimental paddock, in three years of full biological program, the mineral balance has changed and will be more ideal but we need more results to make it credible.”
Rohan Turner another of the farmers involved from ’Craigielea’ said “We are just about fully involved with these methods now. We've had some disappointments - it's not all plain sailing. There has been a problem with blocking boom sprays. Using neat molasses is generally a lot of messing around. You come in at night black, just covered with molasses, but you learn by your mistakes and learn pretty quick,” he said. “We still use some chemicals. The theory is that biologically healthy plants have stronger immune systems and we have been able to cut the use of fungicide to 20 per cent of the old way.”
“I was just not happy with the chemical approach to farming. We are probably not getting quite as much volume but it is still profitable and we are making a living. “I’m really happy with this approach. “Many farmers that I know have been procrastinating about this for years but that’s not getting you anywhere. I am taking this path and so far, I'm satisfied. “You have a gut feel that it is right after you've done it for a bit,” he said.
LawrieCo, and the farmers working with them, agree that there must be a very strong emphasis on determining whether ‘healthier’ plants are grown as a result of using biological systems. They expect significant differences in performance especially during periods of lower than average rainfall.
Many are realizing that they have a ‘phosphorus bank’ in their soil that can be used when applying biological farming systems and they see a way of coping with the skyrocketing prices of many conventional fertilisers.
The Lismore Land Protection Group with the support of the Department of Primary Industries will be aiming to ensure rigorous observation of all testing and input protocols are observed and all data is collected and analysed to ensure credible results are achieved.
SOME Lismore farmers are leading the way with biological farming systems. Seen here after meeting in Lismore are (L to R) LawrieCo’s Trevor Cook, Rohan Turner from ‘Craigielea’, Landcare Co-ordinator Stephen Guy, Brian Wilson from ‘Briandra’ and Landcare Co-ordinator, Karen O’Keefe
By MONA TIMMS published in 2008