The Australian Federal Government recently announced grant awards as part of its $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy. These grants were set up to help Australian businesses build or scale their capabilities towards a supply chain vulnerability for agricultural production chemicals.  Phase 1 awards were announced earlier this month and were aimed at offering 27 projects a share of $33 Million Dollars, in which one of the recipients was Bio-Fertiliser company Converte.

Converte products were designed some 20 years ago in WA for local farmers.  The grant recognised the role of Converte’s products in relation to fertiliser efficiency of applied and in ground Phosphorus.  The grant application included submitting extensive research with independent scientists behind the increases in enzymes associated with the availability and cycling of NPK nutrients.  Additional data was obtained from Converte customers who have been able to gradually pair back chemical fertiliser inputs without impacting yield all while improving soil biological health and function.

Integrating bio-agri products into the farm inputs program brings a wide range of benefits and improving the efficiency of applied chemical inputs is now a critical driver for building supply chain resilience.  This factor alone is supporting a local industry for biological products that is growing rapidly to meet demand.  Converte have spent more than a decade building a solid scientific basis for their product offering and can provide its customers with solid independent data backing the product claims. 

Nutrient availability is a complex biological process rather than a simple chemical one.  The key to unlocking in soil minerals is feeding the soil biology and Converte’s Plantfood has consistently shown a 50-120% increase in soil biology on single applications of only 250ml to the hectare.  Soil biology supports the farm operation on three important levels:  

1. Increasing nutrient availability and cycling. 

2. Improving soil structure and function; and 

3. Supporting plant health and resilience.  

Once soil biological activity is supported the farmer is saving money based on higher nutrient efficiencies and building soils that will function better and retain more moisture.   With this foundation the plants access more essential nutrients and are both healthier and more resilient to abiotic and biotic stresses.  

As part of the transition to low carbon farming this approach helps to manage the impacts of a variable climate and the associated stresses and also drives down the carbon cost of agriculture.   Converte’s Managing Director John Ridley is confident that “30% of the carbon cost of inputs can be eliminated in 3 years”, which is a major step forward in the transition towards net zero.

The Corbet Family Farm – Case Study 

Farmer Andrew Corbet has been using Converte products now for more than 5 years in a broadacre cropping operation on 3000 acres.  He has over this time gradually reduced his fertiliser inputs and seen significant improvements in soil structure, soil moisture retention, plant health and resilience.  The extra plant health and resilience is expressed in many ways, but the most common observations are improved frost protection and minimal or no impact from rust infestations in wheat.  This extra resilience means yields are sustained and the biological inputs pay for themselves several times over. 

The extra moisture is easily measured against control areas and typical readings are 10-20% greater soil moisture.   This is attributed to the extra bacterial and fungal growth in the soil, and more worms that help to open up the soil pore spaces and allow for greater moisture absorption.  As a consequence, the crop is better protected through dry periods and the growing cycle can be extended by an extra week or two.

In October 2021 Andrew sent through these pictures of his wheat and barley crops.  

Sunlamb Grazing Wheat – Treated with Converte Bio-Restore Liquid Carbon  

Spartacus Barley – Treated with Converte Plantfood, MAP reduced to 60Kg and No Urea

Combining biological and conventional inputs has been a success story for this farming operation.   Andrew says “ the biological inputs are easy to handle and can be mixed with other inputs to save on time and money.  I enjoy farming more now that I can see the health benefits flowing through from the soil into plants and stock.  With the high costs and shortages of conventional fertilizer I will continue to integrate more biological inputs into my cropping program”.

So, what is soil carbon, and why is it so important?

Through photosynthesis carbon is removed from the atmosphere by plants, which convert carbon dioxide into plant material.  What the plant doesn’t need for growth is exuded via the roots to feed soil microorganisms.  Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter which helps soils to harness and transfer nutrients and retain moisture.  Some soil carbon within soil aggregates is more stable whereas more “active” soil carbon resides in topsoil and is in continual flux between its microbial hosts and the atmosphere.

Fungi, particularly mycorrhizal fungi play an important role in the exchange of carbon between plants and soil.  Fungi take up organic nitrogen on behalf of the plant, out-competing bacteria that decompose organic matter and release carbon.  Having the right abundance and balance of soil microorganisms or soil biology is therefore an important catalyst for improved carbon sequestration or storage. 

Farming practises have a significant bearing on the soil biological community and the ability of soils to sequester carbon.  Examples include, minimum and conservation tillage, reduced chemical applications, cover crops, crop and stock rotations, avoided over grazing, enhanced biodiversity, use of biological farming inputs and integrated cropping. 

All of these practises will directly impact the length of time carbon is stored away from the atmosphere.  This is important as carbon is central to resilient farming systems, for drought and future proofing our farming operations and understanding the natural capital value of our farmland.  

In the years ahead managing carbon will be good for business, a point of differentiation with customers and financiers and a direct addition to the farms bottom-line through direct carbon schemes, natural capital / biodiversity credits and sustained yields from more resilient farms less vulnerable to extreme weather events, biotic and abiotic stresses.  

Converte’s Managing Director believes that the priority around soil carbon is firstly about climate adaption and resilience and from this the other benefits will flow. 

The idea of regenerative agriculture can seem too big, confusing and it’s just hard to know where you start on this journey.

After more than 10 years investigating this topic and a recently completed PhD on our products, Converte are well placed to assist farmers on the first steps towards a regenerative future.  Converte have taken a deep dive into soil biological data looking at the changes in DNA in the soil in response to their biological inputs, including seed, soil and foliar Bio-Agri inputs.  The results have been impressive, and the change is rapid and measurable. 

Firstly, it’s important to understand that soil biology is there no matter what your soil type or condition.  As a farmer you have the power to feed and nurture the soil biology.  Too much chemical inputs and the biology will reduce in numbers and diversity.   We use the power of biology to drive the performance of chemistry. 

The biology plays a crucial role in the structure of soils.  This will influence the ability of the soil to hold moisture, cycle nutrients and cope with extreme weather stresses such as wind erosion and heavy rainfall.  In a healthy soil with optimal soil biology the communication lines between soil and plant are fully operational.  Soil nutrients are transferred to the plant and in exchange plant sugars are sent to the roots zone feeding the soil biology. 

Once the soil-plant relationship is optimised the plant has access to nutrients and enzymes that build strong healthy plants.   The strength of the plant can be measured physically in terms of stem and leaf size, colour, brix for nutrients in the sap, and susceptibility to stresses such as insect pests, heat and frost stress.  Following this regenerative path, it is possible to see visual changes in plant health in one season and the results build year on year.  Species diversity adds further protection as monoculture planting systems by their very nature are more vulnerable than multi species planting.  It is also known that different plant exudates, (sugars feeding the soil biology) feed different groups of bacteria and fungi, so diversity above ground, supports bio-diversity below ground.  

As the soil function improves so does the efficiency of applied inputs.  At the same time loss of applied nutrients to evaporation or run-off is also reduced.  So, it is possible to gradually reduce fertiliser and chemical inputs. For example, a farmer used to applying 90Kg / ha MAP can gradually come down to 60Kg.  Rapid changes are not recommended in any farming system so 10% reductions in fertiliser and chemicals per year are a guide, whilst adding to your program biological inputs like Converte Plantfood that promote soil health and function.  

This is where Converte can help and their bio-agri products are backed by consistent data and independent science.  Our regenerative product line includes 

Seed Primer – nutrient rich seed primer, for enhanced germination, early vigor and root development;

Plantfood – for soil health, biological function and feeding plants via the soil, building plant health and resilience;

Foliar for direct leaf application of nutrient rich inputs

Bio-Restore Liquid Carbon – for restoring compacted soils, former mine sites and for inclusion in soil carbon projects

In terms of future farming security, practices and inputs that promote a healthier soil biology will support more resilient farming systems.  The farmers that take this advice on board will be better equipped to improve their land for long-term sustainable food production. 

Fertilizer costs are at 12 year high and supply shortages are impacting farmers across the country.  Now is the time to take advantage of soil testing to ensure that soils are optimally balanced to maximise nutrient availability and cycling.  A good soil chemistry test is really worth its weight in gold and can guide soil and fertiliser management for the year ahead.

Soil balancing is necessary to improve soil performance and efficiency and regular soil testing is recommended. Converte use a random sampling methodology sourcing 12-16 points in a paddock area of 5-10 ha, to a depth of 20cm and mixing the soil to provide a composite sample.  Provided you pick a representative area of the paddock this technique works well.

Converte send soil samples to independent laboratories for a range of chemical parameters under an Albrecht / Reams soil balancing test. The focus is primarily on addressing key imbalances that could potentially impact nutrient/fertiliser efficiency.

Our first focus on a soil test is the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) and Calcium: Magnesium balance.  This has a huge bearing on soil health, ability to hold water and to transfer nutrients to the plant.  The CEC is a measure of the soils ability to hold and transfer nutrients and in a well-balanced soil this will be around 12.

In a balanced soil the Calcium percentage should be 60-70% and Magnesium 10-20%.  Too much calcium and your soil will become too loose and lose moisture. High rates of magnesium cause the soil to become too tight and won’t allow moisture to penetrate.  If the balance is right the pH will be around 6 to 6.5.  Improving the Ca: Mg balance requires careful consideration with your agronomist, liming at high rates can choke the soil and sandy soils may need a dolomite limestone to add additional magnesium.  Take care with this decision as it is critical to your soil’s potential for optimal performance.

Second on the soil test for us is Phosphorus (P) and we like to know the plant available P and the total P.  We often encounter farms with several years of in ground phosphorus and this can be gradually released by improving soil balance and biological function.  This will affect how much P you apply in the form of super phosphate or softer rock phosphate and can lead to considerable savings.

Thirdly we look at the trace elements and in particular Boron, Zinc, Copper and Manganese.  Traces play important roles in plant health and function with deficiencies impacting both quality of crops and total yield.

Finally, the Soil organic matter is the engine room of the soil that keeps the system functioning with nutrients flowing.   Ideally, we want soils with 3-4% organic matter or more, but if we are managing soils with 2% or less, then adding some additional organic matter (if economical) is well worth considering.

Once balanced, soil has an active biological component and soil biology can access far more nutrients than any farmer could ever add.  Soil contains an extensive army of microbiology ready to provide nature’s free services, including water and nutrient management. To get the most from soil biology, it requires protecting with appropriate cover and feeding.  No till farming with year-round cover cropping is one means of protecting soil biology and building soil carbon.  However, any farming system needs to be balanced with appropriate fertiliser and chemical input.  High chemical inputs will result in sub optimum soil biology.   In the end it’s all about balance.  

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