Cross-sector research to unlock soil secrets

Cross-sector research to unlock soil secrets

Agronomy
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Research aims to increase profitability of grain crops grown on 'ironstone gravel' soils.

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Daniel Murphy, head of UWAs School of Agriculture and Environment, is leading new research into ironstone gravel soils. Photo by GRDC.

Daniel Murphy, head of UWAs School of Agriculture and Environment, is leading new research into ironstone gravel soils. Photo by GRDC.

Expertise from industries outside agriculture, including mining, will be harnessed as part of new research that aims to increase the profitability of grain crops grown on problematic 'ironstone gravel' soils.

With Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) investment The University of Western Australia (UWA) is leading research that will improve knowledge about the properties of these soils (also known as 'gravel soils'), which should result in more informed management of the grain crops grown on them.

Project lead Daniel Murphy, Head of the UWA School of Agriculture and Environment and co-director of SoilsWest, said ironstone gravel soils were used for agricultural production across an estimated two million hectares of land in medium to high rainfall areas of WA and on Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

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"Although the geographical distribution of this overall soil type is reasonably well known, insufficient information exists about the extent of different types of gravel soils, including 'forest gravels', and their properties," he said.

"Defining their geographical distribution and properties is a critical first step in this research."

New research will improve knowledge about the properties of ironstone gravel' soils. Photo by GRDC.

New research will improve knowledge about the properties of ironstone gravel' soils. Photo by GRDC.

Professor Murphy said UWA researchers would use advances in the fields of chemistry and physics and leverage technology and knowledge from industries such as mining.

"We will work with other researchers with geological and mining skills to generate new understandings about the mineralogy and physical characteristics of these soils, especially their soil moisture holding capacity and high rates of phosphorus 'fixation'," he said.

"Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) researchers have previously confirmed, through GRDC-invested research, that crop plants grown on these soils have poor access to water and phosphorus."

We will work with other researchers with geological and mining skills to generate new understandings about the mineralogy and physical characteristics of these soils, especially their soil moisture holding capacity and high rates of phosphorus 'fixation'. - Project lead Daniel Murphy, Head of the UWA School of Agriculture and Environment and co-director of SoilsWest

Professor Murphy said the research would include mineralogical laboratory studies investigating the physical and chemical structure of ironstone gravel particles.

"The research will generate new foundational scientific knowledge, including about nutrient interactions, that will feed into future GRDC soils projects that deliver practical outcomes to grain growers," he said.

GRDC Manager Agronomy, Soils and Farming Systems - West, Rowan Maddern, said grain growers in parts of WA's Albany and Kwinana port zones in particular were affected by constrained profitability on ironstone gravel soils.

"However, the issue affects growers in a wider area of Australia's southern cropping regions," he said.

"Ironstone gravels are important cropping soils and a better understanding of their properties and how to manage the crops grown on them is urgently required."

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Dr Maddern said the research project would not only generate new understandings of the properties of the soils but synthesise current knowledge in a review of literature and grower and adviser experience to identify knowledge gaps.

"Current knowledge about the spatial extent of gravel soils in WA will be reassessed with the intent of identifying different gravel soil types that require different management," he said.

GRDC Project Code: UWA1906-008RTX

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