Soil health

We are working to improve sustainability in 9 key areas. The fourth of these is soil health: Making soil health the driver of sustainable cotton productivity and yield improvements.

Why this is a priority?

Soils are a national asset. Healthy soil is the starting point for productive agriculture and the foundation of all terrestrial life. Soil health underpins the productivity of a farming business, providing all plants including cotton with support and access to water, oxygen and nutrients.

For cotton growers, improved soil health means improved resource efficiency: better nutrient cycling; better water infiltration, holding and cycling; and better disease suppression. All of this can increase productivity and reduce inputs.

For Australia, soils are estimated to provide value equivalent to about $930 billion per year to the economy through ecosystem and production services like agricultural productivity, storing carbon, water quality and environmental health.

What is our ultimate goal?

Our goal is to deliver sustained cotton quality and productivity growth by improving soil health.

What’s the context?

Soil is the most complex material on the planet and has varying capabilities across the landscape. As a result, soil management practices must be flexible and tailored to support productivity and reduce soil degradation in different landscapes.

In Australia, where soils are ancient and relatively infertile, traditional European practices used for almost a century of repeatedly ploughing fields to combat weeds often made soil health deteriorate. Common practices used in recent decades such as minimal tillage, controlled traffic farming, rotational crops, cover crops and optimising fertiliser application are being used to address this decline.

Understanding how farming practices impact soil properties is critical for farmers to make the best soil management decisions.

What is soil health?

Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system. Soil health can vary across different geological conditions, ecosystems and land uses. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that support other important services, such as: helping to recycle essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure which can help water and nutrient holding capacity and ultimately increase plant production, control plant disease, insects and weed pests1.

For growers then, optimising soil health is about using farming practices that provide the best conditions for soil in their landscape to function as a living system with a diverse community of soil biota.

This means using farming practices that provide soil organisms with shelter and food:

Shelter:

  • Maximise ground cover
  • Minimise disturbance
    • Physical – including tillage and compaction
    • Chemical – including over-use of fertilisers and pesticides.

 

Food:

  • Maximise living roots
  • Maximise biodiversity
    • Below ground – including worms, microbes and other biota
    • Above ground – including cover crops, native vegetation, and grazing animals.

What is our draft target?

Soil health’s complexity makes it difficult to measure at industry scale, and very difficult to boil down to a small number of indicators. In addition, there is no standardised approach to soil monitoring and evaluation at a national level. The National Soil Strategy was released in May 2021 to deliver nationally consistent key performance indicators and methods to measure and report soil conditions, and provide the framework for collaborative and cooperative actions.

The cotton industry will support this Strategy and work with others to adopt a nationally consistent approach to measuring soil health. Indicators and targets that focus grower and industry attention on the areas that most impact soil health can then be developed.


Sustainability: managing what matters

The PLANET. PEOPLE. PADDOCK. sustainability framework is focused on the topics most important to the industry and its stakeholders. Through a process involving a technical review, industry input and external stakeholder consultations nine topics have been identified across our environmental (PLANET), social (PEOPLE) and economic (PADDOCK) impacts.

The industry is working to set targets for these nine topics. In achieving these sustainability targets, the industry aims to run profitable and efficient businesses while creating environmental, economic and social value.

This blog is part of a year long program from CottonInfo, with the themes aligned with the 2021 CottonInfo cotton calendar and the cotton industry’s PLANET. PEOPLE. PADDOCK sustainability framework.