Border farmers in cropping trial

The Cool Soil Initiative has allowed Rutherglen farmer Andrew Russell to be proactive about soil carbon and adjust on-farm practices as necessary.

Farmers in north-east Victoria and southern NSW are helping future-proof the grains industry through a paddock-to-product partnership that aims to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions on-farm.

The Cool Soil Initiative — a partnership between Mars PetCare, Manildra, Allied Pinnacle, Charles Sturt University, Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre and Kellogg’s Australia — is a program which aims to help farmers implement new and innovative practices to improve soil health while delivering value in improved sustainability, productivity and profitability.

Initially piloted by Mars in 2017, insights from the program are already showing that changes to growing practices are leading to more consistent and sustainable productivity, improved soil health and cost efficiencies for farmers.

Carbon is often positioned as a negative — yet carbon in the soil means it is healthy and supports production of quality crops.

The soil acts as a ‘carbon sink’ and its health is something absolutely necessary in helping reduce carbon emissions along the supply chain and make positive change for farmers.

The program provides a baseline measurement of both the level of carbon already stored in farmers’ soils and on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting implementation of practices for improvement.

Cool Soil Initiative project leader and soil scientist Cassandra Schefe has worked alongside farmers since the launch of the program, providing soil testing and supporting on-ground practice change.

Cool Soil Initiative project leader and soil scientist Dr Cassandra Schefe.

“What farmers love about this project is that they have a key voice,” Dr Schefe said.

“The commercial companies are not telling farmers what they need to do, but rather asking how they can best support them.

“This is further supported by engaging with the local farming groups within each region, such as Riverine Plains, FarmLink, Central West Farming Systems and the Irrigated Research & Extension Committee, who then provide that key local connection and relationship.

“A big part of the program is recognising the good things farmers are already doing, not just identifying the things they need to change.”

The program also supports farmers to investigate innovative cropping practices to improve soil health.

“The practices we work on are things that we know are going to improve the whole system,” Dr Schefe said.

“For example, retention of stubble and how we can best manage high residue loads, which can be challenging, particularly after the last few years.

“Another example is how we can incorporate more legumes into our farming system. Legumes are the best way to capture atmospheric nitrogen and bring it into the soil, which means the next plant can use as well.

“Other things that we work on are things like improving soil pH. Most of our farming systems have acidic soils, which can have a big impact on how well our plants can grow.

“If we can support the best practices for farmers to increase the pH in their soil, that means that their plants grow better, their roots grow better, they grow deeper through the soil, they can access more water and nutrients, they can get better yields and improve soil carbon at the same time.

“By default, this reduces emissions.”

Since the project has been under way, farmers are already noticing a number of positives.

“We are seeing increased soil acidity management and we are demonstrating that our soils have a much greater capacity to hold carbon for the benefit of good farming systems than we actually thought,” Dr Schefe said.

“We are not saying we are just a greenhouse gas emission project.

“We are actually supporting really good farming practices, which will allow farmers to continue farming for the next 100 years, which by default give us the best chance of improving carbon in the soil and reduce emissions.

“Soil carbon increases and greenhouse gas emission reductions are products of good farming systems.”

Liliput Ag managing director Andrew Russell said he jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the Cool Soil Initiative.

“This is the only program that I know of which has the commercial support which really is going to give continuity and assurance,” Mr Russell said.

“Everything starts in the soil, so healthy soil really leads to profitability.

“The Cool Soil Initiative has a lot of benefits, the major one being that we are measuring the organic carbon in our soil and focusing on it. There’s a level of awareness.

“While the majority of farmers probably already had a good awareness, they aren’t always necessarily doing anything about it, especially people like ourselves who have paddocks that are in a continuous cropping rotation.

“We can’t change something if we don’t measure it.”

The cool soil program provides a baseline measurement of both the level of carbon already stored in farmers’ soils and on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting implementation of practices for improvement.