It all starts with the soil
Soil health is the key to your farm's profit and production. It underpins the fertility and crop production of a farming enterprise, providing the cotton plant with water, oxygen, nutrients and support.
An understanding how modern farming practices impact on the physical and chemical properties of the soil is critical in making optimal soil management decisions.
What do you need to know?
The key components to soil heath are:
Soil organic matter and soil carbon
Soil organic matter is composed of dead and decomposing plant material, soil biota (fungi, bacteria worms etc) and animal waste. There are four fractions of soil organic carbon: crop residue and particulate matter, microbial biomass, humus, and charcoal.
Carbon plays an important role in all three aspects of soil fertility:
- biological function: supplying nutrients and energy for plant and microbial activity.
- physical function: stabilising soil structure, improving soil aggregation and water movement.
- chemical function: increasing cation exchange capacity, buffering pH and reducing the effect of salinity and sodicity.
Subsoil constraints are soil properties which limit or restrict the cotton plant meeting its requirements.
An ideal soil for cotton production has good infiltration and internal drainage, high plant available water capacity (PAWC), good soil structure for root growth and development, optimum pH, low salinity, balanced nutrient availability, low sodicity and adequate soil mycorrhiza and other soil biota.
Problems associated with subsoil constraints include compaction, soil dispersion, high or low pH, waterlogging and erosion. These problems can result in poor seeding emergence, poor plant growth, loss of bolls and poor boll set, reduced yields, erosion, increased land management costs and other management issues.
Subsoil constraints can result in poor seedling emergence, poor plant growth, reduced boll set, reduced yields, erosion, increased land management costs and other management issues.
Sodic soils contain too much sodium associated with negatively charged clay particles. Large quantities of sodium in soil reduces the strength of bonds holding clay particles together in aggregates. The sodium also attracts large numbers of water molecules helping force the clay particles apart in what is known as dispersion, which causes the soil structure to collapse.
Many of the soils used for cotton production in Australia, are sodic or strongly sodic below a depth of 0.5m. This affects root growth and uptake of water and nutrients. Groundwater used for irrigation can cause sodicity problems particularly when the water contains high sodium levels relative to calcium.
Saline soils contain excess salts in the soil solution (the liquid in soils held between the soil aggregates). When the concentration of salts in the soil solution exceeds that found in the plant roots, water flows from the roots back into the soil, so that the plant is unable to obtain sufficient water even though the soil is moist.
Compaction restricts root growth, reducing the availability of nutrients and water to the cotton plant. Soil compaction can also increase denitrification, further reducing the availability of nitrogen. Some compaction is an inevitable consequence of using heavy machinery on soils, but impacts can be minimised by implementing good management practices, minimum tillage, and guidance systems.
Waterlogging, particularly following surface irrigation, can impact significantly on cotton production, causing problems such as denitrification, boll shed and reduced boll set.
Soil pH is a measure of the acidity, neutrality, or alkalinity of the soil solution. pH directly influences the availability of soil nutrients to the cotton plant. Most cracking clay soils are alkaline (pH 8.0 to 8.5) which affects the availability of many micronutrients.
Soil mycorrhiza (also referred to as AM) are beneficial soil-borne fungi that attach themselves to the growing roots of crops. They allow roots to scavenge more effectively for nutrients, particularly nutrients which are immobile in the soil and have poor solubility such as phosphorous and zinc. Low AM levels are associated with long fallow disorder when cotton crops perform poorly following long fallow dryland cotton systems or non mycorrhizal crops such as canola.
So, what should you do on your farm?
- Conduct soil sampling to determine your soil’s physical and chemical properties.
- Prevent or minimise erosion in susceptible areas and establish a monitoring plan to track progress.
- Monitor soils for structural issues like compaction, hard setting, salinity and sodicity to minimise potential problems.
- Use soil tests and field history information to determine nutrient input requirements.
- Use the most appropriate and efficient nutrient application methods and timing.
For more information visit the myBMP Soil Health module.
Where should you go for more information?
- Australian Cotton Production Manual
- CottonInfo paper for the 17th Australian Cotton Conference: Nitrogen fertiliser use efficiency across the regions
- CottonInfo case study: Improving soil health using compost manure
- CRDC Spotlight magazine article (Spring 2014 edition): Improving nitrogen use efficiency in cotton
- Nutrient sampling guidelines for cotton
- Australian Soil Fertility Manual (CSIRO)
- NSW DPI AgFact: Improving soil structure with gypsum and lime
- NutriLOGIC: NutriLOGIC helps interpret soil and leaf analyses for all major nutrients, and indicates when fertiliser application maybe warranted for individual fields. Growers need only enter the sampling dates, and the chemical analyses from their laboratory report.