With escalating fertiliser costs and broken supply chains, farmers are looking for ways to reduce their fertiliser costs.

There’s a lot of talk about using legumes, organic and biological alternatives, variable rate applications, and new products like the ones activating ‘soil microbiomes’ to improve the amount of fertiliser getting to crops.

We don’t tend to discuss the option of reducing our reliance on fertilisers by repairing the eco-systems in our soil.

Although we avoid practices causing soil degradation, virtually all of our agricultural soils are rundown because our ecosystems aren’t in good working order.[1] Consequently, like any production system with poorly maintained parts, processes break down, and our operating costs increase. Instead of relying on our soils’ natural nutrient recycling system, we use fertilisers to feed our crops. Almost everybody does it, whether we apply chemical or organic inputs.[2]

The ecosystems in our soils haven’t worked well for so long that we’ve largely forgotten about the free services they can naturally provide.[3]

Soils with functioning ecosystems contain biodiverse communities of soil organisms. These invertebrates and microbes maintain the soil infrastructure and operate the nutrient recycling facilities. They decompose organic waste materials, convert the nutrients into simple forms that plants can absorb, and release the nutrients locked up in the sand, silt and clay particles, supplying them to plants for reuse. [4] [5]

As research shows, it’s not that nutrients are lacking in our soil. What’s lacking is the soil organisms to make these nutrients available. [6] Healthy soils are essentially soils with functioning soil ecosystems.[7]

If you’re thinking, that’s all well and good in theory, but is it possible as commercial production systems aren’t as ecologically well designed as natural ecosystems? The answer is yes. There are farmers already doing it!

While we tend to disregard the indigenous farmers using time-honoured practices to maintain self-fertilising systems, it’s difficult to ignore large-scale commercial producers reducing their fertiliser costs without sacrificing profits.

In Australia, Colin Seis in the central tablelands produces an annual grain crop, sheep meat and wool, native grass seed and carbon credits using pasture cropping. He has “virtually eliminated fertilisers”, yet his soil tests show increases in major and micro nutrient availability, except for aluminium, iron and sodium, which have decreased.[8] [personal communication, 5/22] Bruce and Roz Maynard, haven’t used fertilisers in their no kill cropping system for over twenty-six years. While their grain yields are lower than neighbours using conventional cropping practices, they get premium prices because of the nutritional content, and their production costs are lower. Their overall food production is also higher because of the integration of livestock.[9] [personal communication, 5/22]

In the United States, Dave Brandt “has learned that he can go to using almost no commercial fertilisers …. and still produce a great crop of corn and beans.” [10] Gabe Brown has stopped using fertilisers. Yet his yields are higher than the “county average”.[11]

Looking at the science validating why their practices worked was a turning point for how we managed our farm. Like almost everyone else, we had concentrated on using regenerative practices to tackle the issues identified in our soil tests, like nutrient availability, pH, organic matter, soil carbon, etc. In contrast, these farmers focus on improving the functionality of their soil ecosystems by giving their soil organisms a better food supply!

Instead of relying on external inputs, they use regenerative practices to mimic the dynamics of natural ecosystems in their region. By supplying diverse and generous amounts of the essential ingredients – root exudates, decaying roots, plant tissues, and other organic waste materials, they can rely on their soil organisms to supply nutrients to their crops and pastures.[5]

The ecosystems in our soils have broken down because we have designed our farms to maximise plant growth for human and livestock consumption. “Our soil organisms have had a lousy catering service: the menu has been limited, portions small, and the service unreliable!” [12]

Anyone can apply these principles to develop techniques suitable for their growing conditions and the food they grow. By way of example, research demonstrates that across sub-Saharan Africa, growing maize under open canopied legume trees increases yields.[13]

On our farm in the dry–wet tropics, trees are grown in the paddocks and used with living mulch in the banana plantations to enhance the supply of root tissues, root exudates and organic materials. Like other farmers in tropical regions, we take advantage of the extra vegetation layers to grow legumes as ‘fertilisers trees’ and supply forage and fodder for cattle during dry times.

Don’t expect to stop using fertilisers immediately. It will take time to get your soil ecosystem ‘tuned up and running’ as well as your equipment and machinery!

Using a diversity of plants, including ecological support species, speeds up the repairs. Do a trial first, and to maintain yields, gradually reduce the amount of fertiliser you apply. Soil scientist Christine Jones recommends reducing the amount of nitrogen applied by around 20% the first year, another 30% the next and then another 30% the year after.[14]

Using this eco-logical approach, we reduce our reliance on external inputs by giving our plants “silver service catering directly from our soil ecosystems, rather than via the intermittent and often inadequate inputs we supply. We benefit from three billion years of on-the-job training soil organisms have had in every soil type on the planet, including our own!”

Resources – Reduce your Fertiliser Costs

Here’s one resource to get you started  – How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically. You may also like to read this article – Compost and Biological Fertilisers – Are they Regenerative Practices?

Alternatively, get all the information you need to develop practical solutions for your farm

or garden with these resources published by Learning from Nature.

References – Reduce Fertiliser Costs

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil? Learning from Nature (https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/what-is-healthy-soil/)

[2] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically (https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/how-to-build-healthy-soil/)

[3] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil? Learning from Nature (https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/what-is-healthy-soil/)

[4] Elaine Ingham, 2016, Roots of your Profit, Oxford Real Farming Conference 2016 (https://youtu.be/x2H60ritjag)

[5] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Published by Learning from Nature (https://www.learningfromnature.com.au)

[6] Elaine Ingham, 2016, Roots of your Profit, Oxford Real Farming Conference 2016 (https://youtu.be/x2H60ritjag)

[7] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Healthy Soil? Learning from Nature (https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/what-is-healthy-soil/)

[8] Pasture cropping on Winona – A Soils For Life case study (https://soilsforlife.org.au/winona-pasture-cropping-the-way-to-health)

[9] The Lazy Farmers from Narromine (https://youtu.be/G2zMG371npM)

[10] Natural Resource Conservation Services, Ohio, Soil Health Profile, David Brandt (https://www.blogs.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/oh/soils/?cid=stelprdb1166409)

[11] Gabe Brown, 2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.

[12] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, published by Learning from Nature

[13] Sileshi G.W., Mafongoya P.L., Akinnifesi F.K., Phiri E., Chirwa P., Beedy T., Makumba W., Nyamadzawo G.,
Njoloma J., Wuta M., Nyamugafata P., and Jiri O. Agroforestry: Fertilizer Trees. In: Neal Van Alfen, editor-in-chief.
Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems, Vol. 1, San Diego: Elsevier; 2014. pp. 222-234.

[14] Christine Jones interviewed by Tracy Frisch, 2015, SOS: Save our Soils. Dr. Christine Jones Explains the Life-Giving Link Between Carbon and Healthy Topsoil, Acres 45, 3

Featured image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia


    2 replies to "How to Reduce your Fertiliser Costs"

    • Lorraine Potter

      Thanks for these wonderful resources. Glad to have found you!!

      I volunteer with the Inga Foundation and their integrated program is a game-changer for the humid tropics–organic, regenerative agroforestry with nitrogen-fixing Inga trees–alley cropping. It’s received the IFOAM Organic Award and was just named a finalist for the Keeling Curve Prize.

      Best wishes,

      • admin

        Hi Lorraine – it’s great that you find our resources helpful. We have featured the work of the Inga Foundation as a case study in the Eco-logical Farming and Eco-logical Gardening Handbook. Inga alley cropping is a great example of how we can increase food supplies to the soil organisms operating the nutrient recycling system in our soil. Did you get the chance to watch this video? Wendy sent Mike Hands an earlier edition of the Farming Handbook a few years back. He may still have it on his bookshelf!

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