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Soil & groundcover

The Issues

Livestock production can impact upon plants and soil in a variety of ways – from over grazing and soil compaction to soil erosion and loss.

Some people also believe that livestock graze land that could be better used for other purposes and that widespread land clearing for livestock production occurs.

The Facts

  • Australia's cattle and sheep farmers recognise that without effective soil and groundcover management the long-term sustainability of their livelihood is at risk. The main threats to soil health include:
    • Soil loss - intense rainfall, sloping topography and dispersive surface soils can create a high risk of soil loss through water erosion on many land types. Wind erosion can also occur on lighter soils. Maintaining adequate groundcover, such as grass and shrubs, can reduce these losses.
    • Soil fertility – poor grazing management can result in a decline in soil fertility on many land types, leading to poor groundcover.
    • Dryland salinity – many soils in Australia have high inherent subsoil salt loads and replacement of native vegetation with pastures can increase deep drainage on many land types. This creates a relatively high potential risk of dryland salinity. Good management can reduce the incidence and extent of deep drainage to minimise the potential risk of dryland salinity.
    • Surface water quality – off-site movement of soil (as well as pesticides and salts) in run-off water can reduce the quality of surface water.
    • Soil compaction – poor pasture management and overgrazing, can cause soil compaction, reducing the soil's capacity to retain carbon and absorb water.
    • Soil carbon – soil can be a source and a sink of greenhouse gases. Emissions typically occur after tree clearing but some land management practices, such as pasture improvement, can increase soil carbon content.
    • Healthy soils are critical to drive higher pasture (or land used for grazing) productivity. Improving ground cover on soils (living and dead material) is one key way that Australian livestock producers are protecting and improving soils.
  • Australia’s grazing land underpins the production of some of the highest quality beef and lamb in the world. As caretakers of nearly half (47 per cent) of the continent, cattle and sheep farmers aim to continually improve their sustainable farming practices to ensure they continue to produce food sustainably in a changing environment for the world’s growing population.
  • Farmers recognise that healthy, diverse and productive ecosystems are vital to the viability of their livelihoods and their ability to continue providing high quality beef and lamb to Australian and international consumers.
  • Australian livestock are mainly reared on extensive rangelands and semi-arid areas. Because of geological, topographic and climatic factors, less than 8 per cent of Australia’s land is suitable for crop production and cattle and sheep farming is the most efficient use of this land for producing highly nutritious protein.
  • In areas that are suited to mixed farming, livestock grazing and grain crop production are complementary, maximising productivity and improving soil health.
  • Healthy soils are fundamental to the sustainability of Australian cattle and sheep farming. Good soils create environmental benefits through improved capture of water and nutrients.
  • Healthy soils and plants reduce water run-off, erosion and capture nutrients, such as phosphorus, that may be lost with soil sediments.  Healthy groundcover also stops nutrients, such as nitrates leaching through the soil which leads to soil acidification. Soils and associated roots of vigorously growing plants will also capture and hold water, reducing likelihood of deep drainage.
  • Deep drainage occurs when water leaks below the root zone of plants to groundwaters and springs, and represents a loss of water that may otherwise have been available for crop or pasture production. While deep drainage is a natural process that leads to the recharge of groundwaters and springs that may flow into creeks and rivers, excessive deep drainage can lead to dryland salinity problems.
  • Well managed soils can also store large volumes of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which can improve soil-water capacity, nutrient retention and pasture productivity as well as assist in mitigating Australia’s emissions.

The Research

  • Industry recognises that management of soil health and groundcover is essential to increase or maintain productivity of pastures and to reduce nutrient loss from grazing systems whilst groundcover is critical to reduce soil loss and consequent loss of nutrients and sediment into catchment systems.
  • The industry invests in a comprehensive range of research and development projects to ensure optimum soil health and groundcover in farming operations.
  • A comprehensive independent survey of the environmental practices of Australian cattle and sheep farmers in 2010 found that many farmers actively manage the groundcover on their properties, reducing the environmental impact of their grazing systems:
    • 81% of farmers manage the groundcover on their properties, including adjusting stock numbers to feed availability and resting grazing land, while 66% of farmers have a specific groundcover target
    • 86% of farmers rest areas of their property from grazing on a regular basis to improve soil health and biodiversity
    • 78% of respondents use soil testing to determine nutrient requirements