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Talking agronomy with Maddy Vaughan: Taking a look at soil health

The combines are on the homeward straight. Next year’s oilseed rape is going in and fields are turning from gold to brown as we complete another cropping year.

It is customary at this time of year to reflect on the season we have had and, looking back, it is fair to say it has been challenging.

 

This time last year it was raining. The rain continued through September until the start of October. This resulted in OSR being drilled in some difficult conditions. Coupled with the cold, wet winter and a late start to spring, the OSR struggled to find its form and yields have not been exciting for the most part, particularly on heavy, compacted ground.

 

The wet and late start to spring also saw spring crops going in late, only to be starved of moisture from then on as the drought kicked in. While the dry weather made for one of the easiest harvests in recent memory, it did affect those late-drilled spring crops and any wheat on lighter land also struggled to finish.

 

Influences beyond our control will always ultimately affect our yields and this year was no exception. However, a year of extreme weather has again highlighted that while we cannot control the weather, there are things we can do on farm which can help us moderate its effect.

 

One of these factors is to look at our soil health. It could be clearly seen this year that fields which received a programme of organic amendments, from farmyard manures to sewage sludge, over a period of time, were in better condition to endure the wet conditions over winter and had a better capacity to tolerate the drought conditions we encountered in the spring.


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Organic matter

 

While the application of organic matter will not revolutionise a field overnight and other factors, such as drainage and soil type, will affect success to varying degrees, it is still an approach which will generate changes. Even small changes can make our soils more resilient, healthier and tolerant to adverse conditions.

 

But how should we go about measuring soil health so we can evaluate our practices? Some growers are turning to visual soil assessment (VSA), an infield assessment method which can be carried out by the farmer. A VSA uses key visual physical indicators of soil quality, with scores recorded to produce a soil quality index figure.

 

The soil is scored by comparing key indicators with diagnostic photographs and tables showing an example of good, moderate and poor condition. Scoring parameters include soil texture and structure, soil porosity, soil colour, earthworm numbers and types, soil smell, rooting depth, and surface ponding.

 

While these are all measured subjectively, it is a useful exercise to carry out on selected fields once a year to identify alterations to the soil under different management schemes and therefore assess which practices are contributing to better soil health and which are detrimental.

 

Already on farms where we have been conducting these assessments, farming practices are being influenced by the test’s outcomes.

 

Ultimately, whether we choose to document the health of our soils over time or not, it is a fact many of our soils are highly depleted in organic matter, leading to soils being vulnerable to compaction, limiting water and nutrient uptake and heightening the risk of waterlogging over winter. If we can adopt practices which bring organic matter back into our fields we will be working towards a more resilient soil which, in time, will help our crops better cope with the adverse conditions we nowadays seem to be routinely exposed to.

 

 

Maddy Vaughan is an agronomist with Indigro. Having started her agronomy career in Norfolk, she is now based in Northamptonshire, advising clients growing cereals, oilseed rape, pulses, sugar beet and miscanthus.

 

She is BASIS and FACTS qualified and holds a Masters degree in crop production from the University of Warwick.

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