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It is important for consultants to stay up to date with current and relevant research regarding sustainable agriculture. We do research on a continuous basis in order to be able to give a better service to the milk producers involved in the Woodlands Dairy Sustainability Project (read the blog here). One of the ways we do this is by reading relevant articles, blogs, research and scientific articles on sustainable agriculture and dairy farming (e.g. soil fertility). We are able to give farmers better advice, as our understanding of sustainable agriculture concepts broadens and improves. An alternative way to stay up to date with relevant research is to attend conferences held by leaders in their field of expertise.

We were fortunate enough to be able to attend a 3 day conference on the 5th to the 7th of September 2016 that was presented by a world-renowned soil-fertility expert, Neal Kinsey. He is well known on an international level and practices as a soil fertility expert in the United States, with clients in over 70 countries. He is also the author of the book Hands on Agronomy. He has a broad base of knowledge on soil fertility and many years of experience as a soil fertility consultant. I learned many things from him.

We focus on helping farmers reduce their nutrient inputs by reducing chemical fertiliser use. This means there is less chance of excess nutrients ending up in the soil and later on in groundwater sources or rivers or even the ocean. This is one aspect of how we contribute to farm and environmental sustainability through the soil fertility part of the SWAN sustainable system (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The SWAN sustainable system form part of the Trace and Save system

I have also learned that there are enough soil micro-organisms in the soil equivalent to 2.5 cows per hectare of pasture. They include a balance of bacteria and fungi and other organism in order for the soil to be healthy. This means we should take care of them, and also feed them, in order to produce healthy grass for the cows. We also measure indicators of soil micro-organisms in order to advise farmers on opportunities to improve it.

Neal also mentioned that nutrients contribute to improving soil structure. We measure nutrients that influence structure, and by improving this, farmers can grow more grass. This means they do not have to buy in extra food that is far from their farm. This allows farmers to improve their carbon footprint and nutrient balance that forms part of the indicators we use to measure their atmosphere and nutrients part of the SWAN sustainable system.

Marno Fourie