Macalister farmers get smart about fertilisers

More efficient and effective use of fertilisers by farmers in the Macalister Irrigation Area should see a reduction in the amount of nutrients entering the Gippsland Lakes.

The Macalister Irrigation Area Fert$mart project was run by West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA), in partnership with Gipps Dairy.

“Reducing the amount of nutrient run-off from agricultural land is a fundamental part of improving the health of our waterways,” said WGCMA Chief Executive Office, Martin Fuller.

“Programs like Fert$mart benefit landholders and the environment. Building the skills and knowledge of dairy farmers means they can make more informed decisions about their fertiliser use, which helps their bottom line. Strong nutrient management planning reduces the nutrient loss from farms, and that is good for waterways and ultimately the Gippsland Lakes.”

Twenty-six farms took part in the project, which involved farm visits, soil sampling, dairy effluent sampling and a series of workshops.

“The initial contact with farmers came through GippsDairy,” said WGCMA Land Team Leader, Shayne Haywood.

“A local agronomist then visited each farmer individually to talk about the way they managed fertiliser and effluent. Soil and effluent samples were also collected, which were sent away to be interpreted.

“Based on the results of the tests, nutrient management plans were drawn up for each farm.”

Mr Haywood said the testing provided nutrient balances which were used to make decisions about fertiliser application and soil nutrient needs.

In every instance, the Fert$mart plans recommended reducing the total amount of nutrients.

“For example, on some farms, feed that is being used on farm has as much or more nutrients in them as purchased fertilisers. Fert$mart considers all the inputs on farm and gives a more accurate picture of the amount of fertiliser needed,” explained Mr Haywood.

“We calculated that if the Fert$mart recommendations were implemented across all twenty-six farms, the reduction in phosphorus use is the equivalent to sixteen B-double loads.

“This really highlighted how providing farmers with opportunities to change their fertiliser use can lead to major savings. Improving the efficiency of pasture production and use goes hand-in-hand with efficient nutrient use and profitability.”

Program data showed that farmers who implemented their Fert$mart Plan could save an average of twenty-three per cent a year on purchased fertiliser, with one farmer potentially saving over $140,000.

The other key area identified for improvement was the use of dairy effluent.

“Effluent is an essential part of a nutrient system on a dairy farm,” said Mr Haywood.

“However, there are EPA requirements and using irrigation reuse lagoons as effluent storage ponds is not best practice. It’s important that effluent doesn’t enter these lagoons. Instead it should be mixed with the reuse water when it is applied to the pastures.”

The Fert$mart Nutrient Management Plans established under this program will help farmers reduce their fertiliser costs and have well managed dairy effluent systems while maintaining pasture production.

And the benefits don’t end there. “The Gippsland Lakes catchment will ultimately benefit from a reduced nutrient load,” said Mr Haywood.

“This will reduce the impact on its important aquatic and semi-aquatic plant and animal populations. This really is a win/win project.”

This Fert$mart program was supported by West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

dairy farm
Photo courtesy Craig Moodie.