Talking Agronomy with Chris Martin: Thinking about soils in 2017


Winter has finally arrived allowing sprayers to be put to bed for a well-earned rest following a very hectic period of work facilitated by the unusually open autumn. The vast majority of crops across the region are going into winter in good fettle, having pretty much received all planned herbicide and insecticide applications.


Looking back, what a difference a year makes, and while the North East yields did not suffer quite as badly as other parts of the UK, barns are nowhere near as full as they were with the record harvest from 12 months ago.


One of the wettest ends to a year ever recorded in 2015 was a major contributor to the lower yields. Crop roots were literally swimming in anaerobic conditions for months, so it is hardly surprising roots were poor in cold, wet damaged soils. Efficient, well maintained drainage systems and good soil structure really shone out last season, and were closely associated with the higher yielding crops.


The dry spring then led to slow uptake of fertiliser, and in the case of oilseed rape, pigeons just would not go away, so it was difficult to build optimum crop canopies. Diseases were also on fire, particularly yellow rust in wheat, and light leaf spot in oilseed rape, and varietal choice combined with well-timed fungicide programmes were key to maximising what potential there was.


Probably the biggest influence on yield came with the dull summer. Parts of the North East, which experienced a 20% increase in average solar radiation in summer 2015, reported a 10% decrease from the average this summer – that is a 30% swing in the wrong direction, so it is hardly surprising yields were down.


To add insult to injury with oilseed rape, just as the combines were about to start, much of the North East was hit by a weekend of gale force winds, and seed losses were significant in many cases. Despite all the doom and gloom, first wheats on good soils generally yielded well, as did spring barley, which batted well above its average across the region.


So what are the key lessons from last season? To me number one is effective drainage. If there is nowhere for water to go, it doesn’t matter how good your soil structure is. The next thing would be to focus on achieving and maintaining good soil structure; in particular, increasing organic matter levels to try and improve soil resilience which is really tested in a winter like last year. With this in mind as an industry, I firmly believe we should always be growing something on our soils and avoid bare land at all costs.


In addition to improving organic matter, cover crops can improve soil structure and help improve soil porosity, which is key for a healthy soil to encourage the right combination of microbes. We are all livestock farmers at the end of the day, and maintaining the right soil biology in well structured porous soils is key to sustain high-yielding crops. By the way we manage our soils, we are basically building a hotel for soil biology, and the better our soil structure is, the better quality of guest we encourage, and these high paying guests will perform a host of benefits from improving soil resilience and stability to capturing and re-cycling nutrients.


Every time we work soil, we weaken it, and the more we work it the weaker it becomes. Do we really need that extra pass? Is a question I think we all should be asking ourselves next year, as when it comes to soil resilience, less is generally more.


Time now to swap the welly boots for ski boots. Wishing all readers a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2017.

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