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By  David Spadaro 5 February 2024 3 min read

Key points

  • We are researching new ways of managing crop residues to help solve global challenges such as food security and climate change.
  • Investigating microbial communities can lead to new strategies for improving soil fertility and crop production and reducing stubble-borne disease.
  • We can set up farming systems to withstand the impacts of a changing climate, as well as meet the needs of a growing population.

Are you much of a gardener? If you are, you’ve probably seen how compost, dead plants and mulch break down over time. As they sit in the sun, they eventually turn into nutrient rich soil.

Katia Taylor is doing a similar thing, but on a larger scale. 

Katia is an agricultural microbiologist. She’s researching how to better manage stubble, also known as crop residue. Crop residue is the part of the plant left behind in the field after harvest.  

Like in our backyards, agricultural soils are home to teeming communities of microbes, called microbiomes. These break down crop residues.  

A scientist in a field
Katia hopes her work can help reduce carbon being released into the atmosphere.

Katia aims to gain a deeper understanding of the role of microbes in breaking down crop residues. She is investigating how this process can help reduce diseases that are carried over to the next generation of crops. Her work could also help improve the fertility of agricultural soils. In the process, she hopes to reduce carbon being released into the atmosphere. Carbon contributes to climate change and declines in soil health. 

Katia is one of five researchers selected into the AgriFutures evokeAG 2024 Future Young Leader program. In the program, she’ll be mentored by industry professionals to develop her leadership skills within the agricultural sector. She’ll also deliver her research at the major agrifood event, evokeAG in Perth this month.  

Strategies for enhancing soil fertility

"Burning can help solve the problem of disease carry-over from residues to the next season’s crop. However, disease can easily return from neighbouring paddocks, and burning crop residues releases carbon into the atmosphere," Katia said.

An electron micrograph of a microbiome on wheat stubble showing different types of fungi. ©  Gupta Vadakattu

It also means we miss the chance to put all that carbon back into the soil where it can improve structure and fertility. It’s estimated that agricultural soils globally have lost 50-60 per cent of their soil carbon. 

“That’s really concerning both in light of climate change and the future of food production."

A big challenge is to get more from less.

“Agricultural lands are under pressure from both a hungry, growing population and the expansion of urban areas. We need to improve the fertility of this key natural resource,” Katia said.

Here's a great tip for home gardeners. If you’re trying to improve soil fertility in your garden, make sure to include some nutrient-rich organic matter, such as compost, into your soil. Mix the compost into the soil first, then add a layer of wood chips or dried grass on top.

“This helps make a moist environment for soil microbes to flourish which enhances the health of the soil,” she said.

Not all microbes are gross
Katia researches new ways of managing crop residues to help solve global challenges.

Microbes are really a mixed bag.

“Some can cause disease, but there are also lots of beneficial microbes out there that do really fantastic things for us,” Katia said. 

Some microbes break down contaminants in the environment, help humans digest food and prevent disease in cattle without the use of chemicals. Others can increase the nutrients in soil.

Soils are exciting places, buzzing with activity. They’re loaded with microbes that communicate with each other to carry out complex, important jobs we all benefit from. 

“When they die, the resulting "necromass" locks away nutrients and carbon in the soil, increasing soil fertility that plants can later use,” Katia said.

Recent advances in technology are enabling us to investigate microbiomes in far greater detail.

“We can learn what types of microbes are there, what they’re doing and how they fit into our farming systems,” she said.

“We’re also looking at ways to modify soil microbiomes to boost their disease resistance or other specific purpose.”

Armed with this knowledge, we can make more informed management decisions and get microbes working for us, rather than against us.

Improving soil health for farmers

Katia wants to help set up our farming systems to withstand the impacts of a changing climate, as well as meet the needs of a growing population.

“My focus for now is to finish my current research and hopefully find novel ways to improve soil health for farmers,” she said.

“I want to ensure that future generations of Australian growers will have healthy, fertile soils to grow crops in.”

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