Research aims to unlock secrets of difficult soils

Ironstone gravel soil
New research will improve knowledge about the properties of ‘ironstone gravel’ soils.

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.

“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’,” Professor Murphy 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.”

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.

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.

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