Improved soil health, including increased soil carbon, can lead to a reduction of inputs and increased productivity, thereby creating better farm gate
Cutting edge work has been done in the last ten years and there is real potential to share this success through the NLP program and the NRM system.
Improving land management practices in the Wimmera

Increased knowledge of no-till and stubble retention practices has reduced soil disturbance and erosion in the Wimmera.  The annual Wimmera Cropland Management Transect reflects the large increase in no-till practices, and the Vic No-Till Farmers Association has a strong membership base in the Wimmera region.  Intensive consultation with community groups, agencies and partners through the development of the Wimmera Regional Catchment Strategy (RCS) highlighted there is now a common understanding that maintaining ground cover is the single most important thing a landholder can do to protect their soil from erosion.

Charles Sturt University undertook market research in the Wimmera in 2011, providing baseline NRM information on social trends as part of the development process for the RCS.  The sample of 496 rural landholders nominated the decline in soil health as the equal most important environmental issues affecting our region.

The ILMP project integrated saltbush landholder incentives, group-driven sustainable farming trials, native pasture trials and perennial pasture trials and awareness-raising activities to improve practices and landholder capacity and intent to reduce the risk of soil erosion on poorly performing paddocks in key local salinity-prone areas.

  • 13 landholder stewardship agreements for saltbush planting over 44ha.
  • 3 native pasture trial sites over 24ha demonstrating the viability of establishing native pasture to improve fragile, infertile and unproductive soils and incorporating native pasture grazing into land management practices.
  • 4 sustainable farming trials hosted by local Landcare groups with 76 farmers supported and demonstrating intent to improve at least 192ha of land. A site tour was conducted and landholders were surveyed about what practices they would modify and about the delivery of the project.
  • 3 perennial pastures trials over 42ha.
  • 36 participants attended a pasture improvement workshop on improved lucerne pasture management.
  • 5 landholders supported to conduct variable lime trials over 150ha in a partnership involving the Wimmera and Glenelg Hopkins NRM regions.

Wimmera CMA engaged CSIRO to evaluate the delivery mechanisms used for this and other projects against best practice information or principles.  The evaluation has found the group support which underpinned most components of the ILMP project met an important need within the community in facilitating landscape scale management.  The evaluation also identified an opportunity to more effectively apply a prioritisation metric to saltbush land stewardship incentives, and this program improvement will be implemented as a result of the project.

The Perennial Pasture Systems group used support through the project to increase membership to 80 local farm businesses with a total farming area of 75113ha, managing 509,135 DSEs.  The PPS group was recognised as the Wimmera Landcare Regional Group award winner and Victorian State Landcare Innovative Community Group Award runner up for 2013.

CMA Board membership has been strengthened by increased representation from the northern Wimmera plains in 2013.  This outcome has been helped by the Landcare relationships supported through the ILMP project.

The project was funded by CFoC, Landcare Support and DPI (now DEPI) in-kind and ran from July 2012 to June 2013.

Farming for sustainable soils

Soils in the North Central CMA region are some of the most productive and yet challenging country in Australia.  The gross value of agricultural production equates to approximately $1.5 billion per annum from some 2.8 million hectares. The limitations to plant growth, imposed by problems with soil structure, are manifested through poor water entry and root penetration of the uppermost subsoil horizons.  The condition is widespread, particularly across the northern plains and foothills of the catchment, limiting the performance of crops and pastures.  Poor soil structure also alters the hydrology and causes increased runoff and water erosion.  Measurements of actual soil loss are scant, but most contemporary assessments suggest loss rates ranging between one to seven tonnes per hectare per year.

The challenges associated with soil management and land protection seldom arise due to poor agricultural management.  For the most part they arise from the inherent properties of the soils bestowed by geology and geomorphology.   Generally, farmers and farming communities are poorly equipped with the knowledge, information and resources they require to explore sustainable management practices consistent with local conditions and enterprises.

In July 2013 the Australian Government confirmed support for a second (five-year) phase of the Farming for Sustainable Soils program. The Victorian Government (DEPI) also agreed to provide support through the Land Health Program. DEPI allocated resources (EFTs) equivalent to $150,000 per annum. The project focuses on dryland soils that are predominantly used for cropping and grazing. Seventy percent is inherently sodic and prone to dispersion, poor soil structure, and consequential wind and water erosion.  In this context, there are considerable opportunities to secure the future of agricultural production by further adopting sustainable farming practices to improve hydrological performance.

The program encourages responsibility amongst local groups to identify and adopt sustainable farming practices consistent with local conditions, local enterprises and experiences.  This process provides the opportunity to consolidate and share experiential local knowledge acquired by individuals over many years of farming.  Group members benefit from knowledge sharing and the discussion it generates with their neighbours and colleagues.

FSS unites local farmers in a purposeful program by tackling soil issues as a community.  Groups are supported by a local part-time facilitator who assists in the development of a blueprint for implementation over each successive growing season.

At the conclusion of phase one of the FSS program (June 2013), eight large FSS soils groups were active across the region.  Each group covered an area of at least 400 square kilometres forming a semi-contiguous community-based land management regime or group.  The area stretched across the middle and lower reaches of the four main river basins of north central Victoria.  A total of 651 farmers were actively involved as FSS members who were responsible for the management of about 260,000 hectares of land.  Collectively, the eight FSS groups organised and undertook more than 600 baseline soil assessments, 250 trials of sustainable practices, and 100 training and knowledge development activities.

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