Organisms at the edge of life

Viruses are by far the most abundant biological entities on Earth and they outnumber all the others put together. But are they a form of life or an organic structure?

Viruses contain genetic material, reproduce and evolve. However, they do not posses a true cellular structure, which is often regarded as the basic unit of life, or have their own metabolism. For this reason they are referred to as “organisms at the edge of life” and opinion is still divided on whether they are a life form, or organic structures that interact with living organisms.

Viruses are tiny, about 100 times smaller than bacterial cells. Although their pathogenic qualities were known they eluded discovery as the causative agent until relatively recently in our scientific history. Most viruses cannot be seen with an optical microscope and their structure was not described until the invention of electron microscopy in 1931.

Outside a host organism viruses exist as particles called virions. They consist of genetic material, DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protective protein coat. Some viruses also have a lipid envelope.

A virus relies on a host to replicate, they require the metabolism of the host cell to assemble copies of themselves. They infect all types of cellular life including animals, plants, bacteria and fungi. Some can only infect a limited range of hosts and can be species specific while others have a broad range. For example, smallpox can only infect humans while the rabies virus can infect a variety of mammals.

Transmission of viruses can be vertical, from mother to offspring, or horizontal, from host to host. Horizontal transmission can occur via a number of pathways; transmission of body fluids such as blood or saliva, spread by coughing and sneezing, entering the body in food or water by the faecal–oral route and a range of vectors such as mosquitoes, or aphids that transfer sap from plant to plant.

Most viruses elicit an immune response in host organisms, eliminating the virus and providing immunity to future infections. Some viruses elude this immune response by constantly changing the structure of their surface proteins. Viruses are difficult to treat because they use the hosts’ metabolic pathways to reproduce, drugs that interfere with viral replication can also cause toxic effects to the host. Vaccination has proven to be the most effective medical intervention, providing immunity to infection.

However, most viruses are fragile when outside a host organism. The simple act of washing your hands with soap is one of the most effective ways of preventing infection and spread. By surrounding the viruses on your skin with soap, a surfactant, the lipid envelopes enclosing the virus are ruptured, spilling essential proteins and rendering the virus useless.

Building capacity in rural women

In rural communities, many women have limited training opportunities. But Mudgee’s Women in Ag group aims to ameliorate that by allowing participating Watershed Landcare members to explore topics of interest and build capacity through mentoring, peer support, sharing of knowledge and skills and expert speakers.

In recognition of the shortage of professional development available to women working in agriculture or ag related industries, Watershed Landcare received funding from the Central West LLS to run a personal development program for rural women in 2015.

The program delivered targeted training, mentoring and built support networks to strengthen resilience, provide leadership opportunities and access to training and support services that enhanced confidence and skills through delivery of training workshops, webinars, and a regional forum.

“The feedback from the program was overwhelmingly positive. The women involved learned a lot and had so much fun we decided to keep it going.” said Agness Knapik, Watershed Landcare Coordinator.

“The aim of the Women in Agriculture group is to champion rural women by providing support, mentoring and professional development through vibrant and interactive conversation, and exposure to new ideas, approaches and innovation.” she continued.

The group is now in it’s fifth year and in that time has covered diverse topics such as social media, leadership and team dynamics, handling stress and building resilience, personal goal setting, conflict resolution, accounting, book keeping and financial training, fermentation, gardening and has conducted a number of field trips to visit local farms and businesses.

The women involved have diverse backgrounds, from grazing and horticulture to running their own food manufacturing plants and natural resource management.

The Women in Ag group meets once a month for a cuppa and a chat and to explore a topic of interest and provides an opportunity to ask questions and share experiences and skills. Specialist speakers are also engaged to run workshops on different topics.

The Women in Ag group meets on the last Thursday of the month from 9:30-11:30am. Last month the group visited a local garden to learn about the design principles utilised when the garden was established and the strategies utilised to survive the recent drought.

Want to get involved? Contact Watershed Landcare Co-ordinator, Agness Knapik, on 0435 055 493 or email: info@watershedlandcare.com.au.

The Women in Ag group is supported by Watershed Landcare and is a part of the NSW Landcare Program, supported through the partnership of Local Land Services and Landcare NSW.

Knowledge and Skill: Last month the Women in Ag group visited a local garden to learn about design principles and drought strategies.

So why is soil pH important?

If you have ever had a soil test done you will have noticed one of the first parameters to be listed in the results is pH. But what is soil pH and why is it important?

Soil pH represents the degree of acidity or alkalinity and is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in the soil solution. Soil pH ranges between about 3 (very acidic) to 10 (very alkaline). In our region soils typically have a pH range of 4.5-7, but can be as high as 8 or 9 in areas with limestone outcrops.

The pH of a substrate, like soil, affects the behaviour of the chemicals contained within it; influencing the form of these substances and the reactions and chemical processes they undergo. The acidity of soil impacts on the availability of elements and compounds, both beneficial and detrimental, to plants.

Compounds from the soil enter plants via their root system and must be present in a soluble form in order to be taken up with water. Different plant species are adapted to soils of different pH ranges and some have adapted to cope with extremes, but in general the optimum is between pH 5.5 and 8. In this range essential nutrients needed for plant growth are available in abundance in their soluble form and harmful substances are not present at toxic levels.

Deficiencies in essential nutrients are a limiting factor for plant metabolism and result in slow growth rates and poor yields. For example, zinc, which is required in a large number of plant enzymes and plays a crucial role in DNA transcription, and copper, which is necessary for photosynthesis, are present in their soluble forms at soil pH 4.5-8. Soil pH between 5.5 and 8 provides the most favourable conditions for maintaining essential macro and micro-nutrients in their plant-available forms.

Conversely, aluminium is insoluble in this range. This is good news because aluminium, which is present in all soils, is extremely toxic to plants in its soluble form. Aluminium severely limits root growth by inhibiting a number of physiological pathways, and plants experiencing toxicity can exhibit moisture stress even when the soil is relatively moist.

Whether it’s in your garden, crop or pasture, if you are examining the factors that are constraining plant growth, checking the pH of your soil might be a good place to start.

Growing interest in restoring the natural cycling of water

Australia is the driest continent on earth and the management of our water assets is often the limiting factor to the productivity and viability of our farmland.

Capertee Valley Landcare are celebrating a year of water in the valley with a series of activities and events focusing on re-hydrating the landscape. They will be hosting a 4-day workshop on Restoring Natural Landscape Function in Glen Alice in March.

Growing interest in restoring the natural cycling of water and improving resilience have led a number of landholders in the valley to explore the technique of Natural Sequence Farming. The hands-on training course will be delivered by Stuart Andrews, Tarwyn Park Training, and will focus on on redesigning your farm through Natural Sequence Farming techniques and principles to maximise productivity, enhance landscape function and minimise farm costs.

Natural Sequence Farming is an agricultural practice developed by Peter Andrews which aims to re-establish the natural function, fertility and resilience of agricultural landscapes. One of its primary aims, and main benefits, is a landscape that harvests more water, holds more water, and uses available water more effectively, resulting in increased primary production.

Stuart Andrews will present the 4 day hands-on workshop on restoring landscape function.

Rather than allowing water to flow straight downhill, Natural Sequence Farming utilises plants and gravity to slow down the flow of water, move the water through the landscape and give soils, the largest water sinks on our farms, time to recharge.

Although simple in principle, the technique relies on knowledge and skills to read the unique Australian landscape. Each of the four days during the course will focus on a key step in restoring natural functions; day 1 – slow the flow, day 2 – let all plants grow, day 3 – careful where the animals go, day 4 – to filter the flow is a must know.

Participants will learn how to read the landscape; rehydrate the landscape; fully utilise your farm’s natural resources; locate, design and build natural landscape structures; redesign your property; begin improving landscape function; and lower farm costs and boost profits.

The 4 day course will run from Monday, 23 March to Thursday, 26 March at a cost of $2,450 (inc. GST) per person.

For more information or to book visit: www.tarwynparktraining.com.au. For enquiries email: info@tarwynparktraining.com.au.

Local landholder to trial multi-species crop to improve livestock performance through winter

In our climate, the cold temperatures experienced over the winter months are the principal factor affecting pasture growth and can result in a winter feed gap. What if you could supplement livestock nutrition by providing additional fodder while improving soil structure and nutrient cycling and build soil carbon at the same time?

In collaboration with farmer, Colin Seis, Watershed Landcare have launched a project to demonstrate and research the benefits of multispecies forage crops for increased animal performance and soil health. As part of their community focused Australian Good Meat initiative, Meat & Lifestock Australia (MLA) in partnership with Landcare Australia have funded the trial site through the MLA Landcare Excellence in Sustainable Farming Grants.

The project will build on growing evidence from the USA and Australia which has shown that multispecies crops and pasture diversity will increase soil carbon, nutrient cycling, and improve soil biology and farm ecosystems.

The project will be carried out at ‘Winona’, 20 km north of Gulgong NSW. ‘Winona’ consists of 840 ha of restored native pasture which runs 4000 merino sheep for wool, merino lamb, and mutton production.

Colin Seis will establish a trail site to demonstrate the benefits of multispecies forage crops for increased animal performance and soil health.

The project will zero till a multispecies mix forage crop into a dormant native grassland. A mix of up to 10 species in a multispecies crop with its diverse mix of plant roots and flowering plants aims to build soil carbon and biology which cycles nutrients. An adjacent area (paddock division) will be sown to a single species fodder crop as a comparison. The project and control paddocks will be used to fatten and finish merino lambs, with weight increases in the sheep periodically monitored over the course of the trial. Changes in soil carbon, soil structure and chemistry and grassland species will be monitored pre-sowing and post-grazing.

Multispecies pasture cropping has multiple benefits for livestock producers. It provides a viable farm adaptation to reduced and changing rainfall events; by sowing an opportunity crop to provide high quality livestock feed while reducing financial risk.

Besides increasing livestock performance, and so farm profitability and sustainability, multispecies pasture crops have long-term benefits for soil nutrient cycling, biology, pasture productivity and increase soil carbon sequestration which can offset livestock emissions.

Additionally, pasture management over the entire property can be improved during the winter feed gap. By establishing a multi-species autumn crop and providing additional fodder through winter, pasture rest times can be maintained and overgrazing prevented on adjacent paddocks; improving future growth rates of pastures, reducing bare ground, and reducing weed invasion whilst maintaining stock health.

The project will gather data of lamb performance (weight gain), crop biomass, pasture species composition, and soil chemistry and structure, providing objective data evidence of this practice.

The trial will continue until 2024 by sowing a diverse multi-species forage crop on the same area and monitoring the changes in soil carbon and nutrient cycling over a longer time frame.

Landholder incentives to enhance Box Gum Grassy Woodlands

Box Gum Grassy Woodlands were once widespread along the western slopes and tablelands of the Great Dividing Range. Today less than 4% of this ecological community remains.

This endangered ecological community is closely associated with fertile clay loam soils of moderate depth on flat to undulating terrain. Within the Watershed Landcare region they occur mainly in areas with a 550 mm to 800 mm annual rainfall and an elevation below about 700 m above sea level.

Box Gum Grassy Woodlands are dominated by the eucalypts White Box, Yellow Box and/or Blakely’s Red Gum and are characterised by their understory; a sparse shrub layer and a diverse mix of native grasses and herbs.

Trees provide many valuable ecosystem services to productive systems, such as improved soil structure and fertility, shade and shelter for livestock and reduced soil moisture loss. They also serve as wildlife corridors, providing stepping stones for animals between foraging and nesting sites and water sources. This will become increasingly important as the habitat ranges of our native fauna shift as the climate continues to change.

Watershed Landcare have incentive funding available for landholders to conduct on-ground works to increase the extent or quality of Box Gum Grassy Woodland on the land they manage. As part of the Patches and Paths project, $7000 in funding is available each year until 2022.

Project funding can be utilised to contribute to materials and/or labour. Eligible activities include:

  • fencing around mature, isolated paddock trees and remnant native vegetation clusters
  • fencing to enable changed grazing management intended to allow natural regeneration of woodland vegetation species
  • in-fill planting, especially to increase diversity of understory species
  • revegetation activities to improve landscape connectivity
  • any other activities that protect or enhance White Box, Yellow Box, Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Box Woodland and Derived Grassland, especially novel and innovative approaches

Applications for staged projects will be supported. For example you can apply for a 3 year project to conduct fencing in year 1, site preparation in year 2 and in-fill planting in year 3.

Expressions of Interest (EOI) for the Patches and Paths project are now open to landholders in the Watershed Landcare region. More information about the project is available on our website: http://watershedlandcare.com.au/projects/patches-paths/

Not sure if you have White Box, Yellow Box and/or Blakely’s Red Gum on your place? Give us a call, Watershed Landcare’s resident botanist is happy to help.

If you don’t have Box Gum Grassy Woodland tree species on your place but there are remnants on the roadside corridor or a neighbouring property you may still be eligible to conduct revegetation activities to improve landscape connectivity.

If you would like to discuss your individual situation or project idea contact our coordinator, Agness Knapik: info@watershedlandcare.com.au or 0435 055 493.

Help contribute to bushfire recovery science

The 2019-20 summer saw unprecedented bushfire activity in eastern Australia, making headline news around the globe. With the bushfire season not over, and fires still active in many areas, the full extent of the damage and cost to people, property, livestock and the natural environment may not be known for many months.

The sheer extent of the fires and the impacts on our community have left many of us feeling helpless. A recently launched citizen science project is providing an opportunity for people to make a positive contribution to post-bushfire efforts.

A group of researchers from the Centre of Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW are trying to understand how the environment recovers from this unprecedented fire season through the Environment Recovery Project: Australian Bushfires initiative. And they need your help to collect species recovery data to advance this important scientific goal.


Image credit: Casey Kirchhoff

“We will use people’s observations for future research into understanding how some areas recover better than others, and in different places, as well as understanding which animals and plants come back first,” Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said.

“The key aims of this initiative are to understand which plant species are resprouting and growing seedlings, to calculate when and how animals return to burnt areas, and to highlight which species are struggling to recover and might need our help.

“Understanding recovery from this unprecedented fire season is scientifically critical and the opportunity to harness the community’s resources through the Environment Recovery Project is a practical way of doing this.”

Many temperature records were broken this summer and Australia’s climate is going to continue to get hotter and drier, contributing to more frequent and more intense bushfires.

Observations from the Environment Recovery Project will build a picture of when, where and how Australia’s ecosystems recover from these fires, which will inform future research. Participation from the public means that many observations, from an extensive area can be collected, something that would be impossible with the resources available to scientists alone.

Providing it’s safe to do so, take a walk in areas of burnt bushland. But please be aware of current weather conditions and fire danger ratings. Never enter areas where there is active fire. Many bushfire impacted communities are still grieving, please be respectful of their privacy. Do not trespass private property. Always stay on designated walking trails and do not trample recovering biodiversity.

Image credit: Casey Kirchhoff

To contribute simply download the mobile app (available from: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/environment-recovery-project-australian-bushfires-2019-2020) and take some photos with your phone:

  • Plants (native and weeds): Seedling or resprout
  • Animals (natives and ferals): Alive or dead, tracks and scats
  • Fungi and Lichen
  • Landscapes: Photos that capture scorch height (how high the fires went) or the extent of leaves lost up to the canopy

Observations of common species are just as important as rare species.

Beware herbicide application in very dry conditions

The ongoing dry conditions experienced over much of the state are cause for concern amongst land managers and gardeners for several reasons. The primary, and most obvious, concern is for the provision of adequate water and forage for the health and productivity of livestock.

Another cause for concern may be the disruption in the annual spray programmes to reduce weed species.

When plants are moisture stressed translocation and respiration slow dramatically, restricting the movement of herbicides to their sites of action. Plants experiencing high temperature, low humidity and low soil moisture conditions tend to have a thicker cuticle (the protective cover of the leaf) with more waxy deposits on the surface. This reduces the absorption of foliar herbicides.

The timing and amount of rainfall not only determines the moisture status of the plant but also removes dust from the leaves and modifies the leaf cuticle. Recent rainfall will therefore improve herbicide uptake.

Soil moisture influences soil microbial activity which assists in the breakdown of herbicides in the soil. Dry soil conditions prevent the biological and chemical processes that degrade herbicides, making them more likely to persist and injure subsequent germinations of perennial pasture plants.

When weeds are growing under extreme moisture stress it may be best to wait to apply herbicide until conditions improve.

Maintaining adequate groundcover is very important at all times of the year. Good groundcover protects the soil from extreme climatic conditions, supports biological activity within the soil, and reduces weed seed germination and growth through competition.

Will your groundcover absorb a ‘gully raker’ when the drought breaks?

When prolonged dry conditions break it is often with heavy a downpour, especially if this occurs within the summer months. These ‘gully rakers’ can cause much damage to farm infrastructure if there is no groundcover to absorb the moisture or to slow the flow of water across the landscape. There would be many in the district who can remember when drought breaking rains have reduced farm dams to a stinking crust of animal manure and other organic matter.

Alternative methods of weed control might be looked for in prolonged dry periods. Annual plants can be slashed or mown before their flowers mature and perennials can be chipped, pulled up if numbers are small, or slashed several times. These methods are labour intensive and therefore more costly, however perennial pastures will be protected and persistent herbicide residue in the soil will not be an issue. An added benefit will be the mulch of slashed, chipped or mown weeds covering the soil, protecting it from extreme climatic conditions and providing soil organisms with a food source.

Running an intensive soil extension program in 2020

Central Tablelands Local Land Services will be running an intensive soil extension program in 2020. The Diggine Deeper program aims to increase farmers’ understanding of soils and the processes driving productivity and to provide them with knowledge and tools to make decisions and implement change to address soil issues and improve soil condition.

This project is supported by Central Tablelands Local Land Services, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program and will cover: soils and how they function; soil nutrients on-farm; how different farm practices affect soil health and fertility; soil tests – how to read them with confidence and assess your soil health in the paddock; monitoring, identifying and mapping soil types across your property; identifying soil constraints such as low organic matter, pH, soil salinity and compaction; setting benchmarks for your soils and taking effective action to address issues; and biofertilisers, fertilisers, soil amendments and the range of fertility input options.

Participating businesses will also have the opportunity to have a comprehensive soil test performed and the results interpreted, obtain professional advice, education and mentoring and get to know other local farming businesses who are interested in improving soil health.

The program will be facilitated by Agricultural Ecologist, David Hardwick, assisted by Central Tablelands LLS staff and specialists.

The Digging Deeper intensive soil extension program is open to farmers within the Central Tablelands region who are running an enterprise, from any industry, on 10 hectares or more.

Numbers for the project are strictly limited to 12 farming businesses. To be eligible to participate each interested business is required to submit an Expression of Interest (EOI) and attend six soil health sessions in 2020 at a cost of $90. Tentative dates are: 10 February, 9 March, 6 April, 11 May, and 15 June with the final dates chosen by the group in February. Each session will involve a theoretical segment and a practical segment out in the paddock.

EOIs for the program are open and will close at midnight on Friday, 13 December 2019. To submit an EOI visit: www.surveymonkey.com/r/CTLLSDiggingDeeper. EOIs will be assessed on set criteria. If a high number of applications are received, applicants may be asked further questions to assist with evaluation. Successful applicants will be notified in early January 2020.

For more information contact Liz Davis, Central Tablelands Local Land Services Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitator on 0427 452 662 or by email: liz.davis@lls.nsw.gov.au.

Tiny ecosystem engineers

A single cow produces around 18 kg of manure each day. For a herd of 100 cows, that’s over 650 tonnes each year. That’s a lot of fertiliser!

Dung left on the soil surface releases nutrients and carbon to the atmosphere, through oxidation, or they are washed away and end up in waterways. Not only are beneficial nutrients lost but they become pollutants in the air and water. The amount of pasture available to grazing livestock is also reduced, as cattle will not eat grass growing near a cow pat.

Dung beetles can make a significant contribution to reducing these problems. By shredding and burying dung, they incorporate nutrients and carbon into the soil and stop losses to waterways and the atmosphere. Dung burial also means that more pasture is available for grazing and life cycles of internal parasites and flies are broken.

Dung beetle activity also has other benefits. The tunnels created by dung beetles improve the aeration, water permeability and water holding capacity of soils. Their activity also increases other biological activity (micro-organisms and earthworms), improves soil fertility and structure through mixing of clay sub-soils which results in stronger root growth and higher yields.

These benefits were recognised over half a century ago when the CSIRO launched its dung beetle project in 1968. The project aimed to introduce a range of dung beetle species into Australia, so that cattle dung would be shredded or buried within 48 hours in all of Australia’s climatic zones. Each dung beetle species is active for only a part of the year, so a range of species is required for activity over the full season.

Due to funding cuts the project was discontinued in 1984 with only around 50 of the proposed 150 species introduced by that stage. Of these, around 23 have established but do not cover the full extent of their predicted distribution ranges.

The Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers (DBEE) project is aiming to fill this gap. The five-year project, supported by MLA through funding from the Australian Government’s Rural Research & Development for Profit program, will fill seasonal and geographic gaps in the distribution of beetles across southern Australia as well as quantifying the benefits dung beetles provide for primary producers.

The DBEE project will conduct a nation-wide survey of dung beetles, import and breed three novel Mediterranean species and two endemic species and determining the economic value of dung beetles for sheep and beef producers as well as the understanding of the impact dung beetles have on the ecosystem.

For more information about the project visit their website: https://www.dungbeetles.com.au

Watershed Landcare would like to gauge interest for being involved in the project in our region. If you are interested in finding out more about dung beetles or doing a dung beetle survey on your property let us know: info@watershedlandcare.com.au.