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Transient salinity and subsoil constraints to dryland farming in Australian sodic soils: an overview

Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 42(3) 351 - 361
Published: 23 April 2002


More than 60% of the 20 million ha of cropping soils in Australia are sodic and farming practices on these soils are mainly performed under dryland conditions. More than 80% of sodic soils in Australia have dense clay subsoils with high sodicity and alkaline pH (>8.5). The actual yield of grains in sodic soils is often less than half of the potential yield expected on the basis of climate, because of subsoil limitations such as salinity, sodicity, alkalinity, nutrient deficiencies and toxicities due to boron, carbonate and aluminate. Sodic subsoils also have very low organic matter and biological activity.

Poor water transmission properties of sodic subsoils, low rainfall in dryland areas, transpiration by vegetation and high evaporation during summer have caused accumulation of salts in the root zone layers. This transient salinity, not influenced by groundwater, is extensive in many sodic soil landscapes in Australia where the watertable is deep. ‘Dryland salinity’ is currently given wide attention in the public debate and in government policies, but only focusing on salinity induced by shallow watertables. While 16% of the dryland cropping area is likely to be affected by watertable-induced salinity, 67% of the area has a potential for transient salinity not associated with groundwater and other subsoil constraints and costing the Australian farming economy in the vicinity of A$1330 million per year. A different strategy for different types of dryland salinity is essential for the sustainable management and improved productivity of dryland farming.

This paper discusses the sodic subsoil constraints, different types of salinity in the dryland regions, the issues related to the management of sodic subsoils and the future priorities needed in addressing these problems. It also emphasises that transient salinity in the root zone of dryland agricultural soils is an important issue with potential for worse problems than watertable-induced seepage salinity.

© CSIRO 2002

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