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How do I Test Soil Health on My Farm?

01 April 2015

Monitoring soil health for nutrients maximises pasture production and takes five steps to do, Australia's southern farmers are being told.

Meat and Livestock Australia have spoken with New South Wales Local Land Services Central Tablelands Pasture Officer, Clare Edwards, who last year shared in Feedback magazine a step-by-step guide for producers on the process of soil testing.

Clare, who is based at Mudgee, NSW, encouraged producers to contact their Local Land Services, agronomist, agribusiness or soil test laboratories for advice and support, writes MLA.

“If you have no prior experience, it’s probably best not to go it alone. There are plenty of people and resources out there who can help you," she said.

Step 1 - Understand what you want to achieve

  • Soil tests are often the first point in property planning, used to assess land capability, help make landscape management decisions and as a diagnostic tool in the case of poor plant performance.
  • Determine how soil tests will fit in the overall pasture management plan.

Step 2 - Prioritise paddocks

  • It is not usually practical financially and physically to soil test each paddock annually.
  • Testing is critical prior to sowing new pasture. Priority should be also given to recently sown pastures and those that have productive and responsive pasture species.
  • Give priority to areas which have also been underperforming or where you suspect deficiencies.

Step 3 – Take samples correctly

  • Follow the requirements of the laboratory for sample size.
  • Normal soil testing takes samples from 0-10cm depth. Deeper soil tests are from between 10-20cm.
  • Ensure the samples are representative of the area.
  • Where you take them is critical and will affect the results. Seek advice from specialists on this.
  • Avoid gullies, stock camps and all high nutrient load areas, eg. ground around water troughs, gateways etc.

Step 4 – Set up monitoring sites

  • Select monitoring sites representative of the paddock and soil type.
  • Accurately identify the location, say by GPS or landmark so they can be re-tested periodically, optimally at the same time of year.
  • Mark the sites on property plans and in work diaries.
  • It may take several years to see trends but this is when the value of soil testing is maximised.

Step 5 – Interpreting results

  • This is the most crucial aspect of soil testing.
  • Use local advice, seek technical support and utilise tools to understand how your soil will respond to different fertilisers.
  • Put the results in context with other measurements of farm productivity to help make decisions.

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