Episode 4: Mallee Farming AgVic Series | Soil testing for profitability with Dr Rick Llewellyn
Dr Rick Llewellyn from CSIRO joins Drew Radford to explain the economic value of soil testing for growers to increase profit margins and fill in the gaps when it comes to soil health and decision making. In this episode, Dr Llewellyn outlines GRDC’s project, ‘Soil and plant testing for profitable fertiliser use,’ the value of soil testing programs, why testing is used the way it is and how farmers can profit from getting soil testing done.
INTRO - Welcome to this podcast, brought to you by Mallee Sustainable Farming and Agriculture Victoria from the MSF Research Update at Lake Cullulleraine in February 2020.
- DREW RADFORD - If you want to work out the economic value of soil testing, then maybe having a scientist involved to impartially assess it, would be a good place to start. That's the role of Dr. Rick Llewellyn from the CSIRO who's working on a large GRDC project, entitled soil and plant testing for profitable fertilizer use. Dr. Llewellyn joined me in the MSF podcast studio to discuss what they're finding out about producers soil testing programs and often, how little is being invested in them.
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, what we're doing is looking at the economic value of soil testing to farmers. So, we know there is a potential decline or at least plateauing in the use of soil testing and that's what concerned GRDC and that's why they've invested in this project. Our role is to really look at the value of soil testing to farmers and why it's being used the way it is and at the level it is and whether there are opportunities for farmers to profit from more soil testing.
- DREW RADFORD - In your presentation, what would be three points that you'd like people to go away with?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, I think the key point is looking at the current use of testing and just understanding how people are using soil testing and there is some interesting figures there in terms of the intensity of testing and also the fact that you've still got, you know, 30 or 40% of growers not doing any soil testing in any year. So that's the key point and just looking at opportunities and this message goes out to advisors as well as farmers, can they gain more from introducing some soil testing and then those people who are using soil testing, what more can they do to get more value out of that?
- DREW RADFORD - What do you think the barriers are to soil testing? I know it's early days for you, but what do you think the barriers are to not testing?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, what we've done is start with speaking through Ag Communicators and with CSIRO as well, speaking to a hundred advisors and around a hundred advisors and similar number of growers, and it's quite clear that the cost is perceived to be a major barrier. So that's the stated barrier to soil testing and that doesn't always come up, but it does when you consider the sampling cost and that's what we've done, the time involved with sampling. So when you do ask growers, that's the big hurdle to more soil testing and beyond that, I mean the lab costs and other things like that don't often come up as a major barrier or the timeliness, but there's that cost of sampling, so that is a big issue. But when you think about it, it's all about value, so you also have to think about what the upside is. Are farmers getting enough value from the results they're getting to account for that cost.
- DREW RADFORD - You divided that up there into two different areas, you said the actual time was the real cost, as opposed to the financial cost of paying someone to test it, so is it just time poor?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, it's the time of year, often sampling is done in February. It's a difficult job, if you're sampling for deep nitrogen down to a meter and coring and often it does involve agronomist as well. And the interesting thing is when you ask agronomists and we did ask, you know, well over 70 agronomists, what the barriers are and it's the same barrier. It's the time and sampling costs or time involved at that time of year and it's a tough time of year to be out there sampling, so that is a big barrier.
- DREW RADFORD - What are the average costs then you're looking at?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, it really does come down to time and valuing time properly, so it's not easy to put a dollar value on that. But what you do find is that the vast majority of people who are doing soil testing aren't spending more than say $2,000 per farm. So often it's coming down to only a dollar per hectare that's being spent across the farm on soil testing. So, it's not a big amount when you think of the fertilizer budget on a typical farm. So that's why we really have to look at what the value is from the soil testing information and to do that properly you have to think of all the other sources of information that farmers are using to make fertilizer decisions. Observations from last year, strip trials, yields, mapping, whole range of different sources that people are using and how soil testing fits into that.
- DREW RADFORD - That's an upfront cost, I imagine if you've got your soil testing right and you know what your property needs that could significantly reduce your input costs surely?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Potentially, quite often it points to opportunities for greater input use as well. But of course, in this Mallee environment you really have to balance that out against seasonal risk. But we know from CSIRO studies on the yield gaps around Australia, including this region, that one of the big factors explaining why there is a yield gap between the achieved yield and potential yield, nitrogen is the big factor in that. Inadequate nitrogen to allow crops to reach yield potential and in an environment like this one that involves risk management and keeping costs down and not over investing in risky environments. So, it's often a sensible decision, but it is a reason why farmers that don't always achieve yield potential, particularly in high yielding years.
- DREW RADFORD - There must be other costs though, as well after repeated extremely dry years, that must feed into erosion factors as well though, in terms of maintaining cover and making sure that you're in a position to be able to deal with those dry years.
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Yeah, I think that's right. So, what you often find is that farmers and their advisors have a good idea of the nutrients and how they might be tracking. So that often they say they're just using soil testing to track things are going okay as they expect. But when you have unusual events, like we've had this year with extreme dry conditions and some erosion in some areas, particularly on sandhills where there could have been bare soil and often on farms that haven't had a lot of bare soil lately, given the no till systems, then it is perhaps time for extra information to be gained. That's where soil testing can come in and just check, you know, what effect has this had this very dry season that we've had and possibly the erosion that's occurred. What does that mean for soil nutrition levels?
- DREW RADFORD - Now you said you were at the start of this particular process, what do you need to make this as successful as possible and as meaningful as possible to producers in this region?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - What's happening right across this project is hundreds of sites are going in on farms and our strip trial tests and that's where all the testing has been done. And we're looking at whether that soil test information would have led to more profitable nutrient decisions compared to what the farmer would have done otherwise, or the agronomists would have done otherwise. So that sort of information can really explain what soil testing can offer or where the farmers do indeed have a really good idea of what their nutrient requirements are and what the optimal fertilizer budget should be for a crop. But I guess the other thing is looking long-term, because what we know is, things like soil phosphorous tracking, soil phosphorus levels, above critical levels, over a longer period and similar with nitrogen too, making sure nitrogen levels, soil nitrogen levels are maintained at high levels over a longer term strategy as well. So, we're looking at those two aspects and what that might mean for profit.
- DREW RADFORD - You're a scientist. You don't have any skin in the game. You're not trying to sell soil testing, you're not trying to sell fertilizer, but obviously deep down, you see a need for people to really engage with this for better land maintenance.
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, what we've seen from over 10-15 years of research is in the Mallee environment where you've got multiple soil types in the one paddock. Just how important it is to manage to the soil type and to the current conditions and we've shown how profitable that can be, even when you take into account the risk factors which we do in our research. So there certainly is money to be made by targeting nutrients at the right soil type at the right time. The question then, is where else do farmers get their information? Does it have to be soil testing? What extra does that add? And how can you overcome some of these barriers such as sampling costs? So that extra information can be valuable. But you just need to understand the practicalities of managing these very large farms and the time critical nature of some of these times of the season.
- DREW RADFORD - In terms of soil sampling costs is a potential barrier is perception about ongoing costs or does that actually decline over time? You know, once you start to build a good profile and a good map of your property, does that start to decline or was it always going to be there?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, that's one of the things we're looking at because most soil testing is done with sort of less than 10 samples per paddock, okay, tested samples, but very often five or less. And in these Mallee environments you've got possibly three or four different types of zones in a paddock. So is it worth testing into those zones and getting a good understanding of the different zones in those paddocks that would involve more sampling intensity than what's generally being done now and that's one of the things we're really keen to look at, particularly in the Mallee environment.
- DREW RADFORD - From today, what would you really like producers to walk away thinking about?
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Well, I'd really like growers to look at some of the past results, just how important nutrition can be and what opportunities there are for more profitability and then really consider, you know, is their testing filling the gaps that they need to make that right decision. Maybe there are other sources of information that they have that, is there a greater role for soil testing? Because at the moment, I think it's fair to say it is underutilized by a lot of growers compared to others, so is there a chance to fill that gap with soil testing information?
- DREW RADFORD - Rick Llewellyn from CSRIO, thank you for joining me in the Mallee Sustainable Farming studio today.
- RICK LLEWELLYN - Thank you.