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Transforming sandy soils through research

Wind erosion on paddock

Murdoch University researchers are working on several projects which aim to improve Australian soils, bringing benefits to farmers across the nation.

The projects have all been initiated by the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils (Soil CRC), of which Murdoch is a founding member. It is the only Western Australian university to be involved in the work of the CRC.

One of the studies, led by Murdoch’s Professor Richard Bell, will investigate how the addition of organic and clay amendments can improve the productivity of sandy soils found in Western Australia and South Australia.

Sandy soils are difficult to manage in farming because they contain very little clay to help them hold onto water or nutrients, resulting in poor yields unless a lot of effort goes into their management.

Working with these soils to make them more productive can be expensive for land owners, and so Professor Bell along with Murdoch chemists Associate Professor David Henry and Dr Damian Laird are investigating whether the addition of a clay mineral known as hydrotalcite alongside organic matter will be more cost effective.

“Adding organic matter to sandy soils can be problematic because they can get broken down very quickly, while clay materials are quite stable in soils. Our research is about trying to optimise the level of clay or organic matter so they bind together in aggregates, and can provide crops with the water and nutrients they need,” Professor Bell said.

“Hydrotalcite is a compound that can be manufactured easily and contains unique properties that will help it to hold onto essential nutrients like nitrate, phosphate and sulphate. We think it will be a game changer for farmers that work with sandy soils.”

Project partners at Federation University and Primary Industries and Regions in SA will help the team to map the different kinds of sandy soils in WA and SA.

Field trials on horizon

In the third year of the project, Professor Bell and his team are planning to conduct field tests with a group of farmers from Badgingarra in the northern Wheatbelt, who are members of the West Midlands Group.

Other partners in the project include the Australian Organics and the Recycling Association, and its local member, C-Wise, a major compost producer.

Professor Bell is also working on a Soil CRC project that will investigate the damage done by herbicide residues in soils, an issue which is thought to be particularly significant in sandy soils.

His Murdoch University colleague Professor John Howieson is involved in a different project investigating the use of perennial legumes to improve sandy soils.

More details on these and other Soil CRC projects are available on their website.

Posted on:

17 Jul 2019

Topics:

Research, Science

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