Increasingly the discussion around soil testing is not about whether to do it, but why you would not do it. As the Government looks towards the post-CAP era it has made it clear future subsidies will depend on farmers delivering for the public ‘good’. One measure of this will be healthy soils.
As yet, no-one has defined exactly what Defra means by ‘healthy’ but the principle of benchmarking to prove your soils are healthy, or that you are taking steps to improve your soils, seems irrefutable.
Benchmarking is at the heart of Hutchinsons’ Healthy Soils initiative according to healthy soils manager Jess Farrant.
She says: “Soil testing can provide a benchmark for farmers to develop a soil management strategy.
“It can help you to understand the limiting factors, some of which you can do nothing about. It aids in developing a strategy to change the things you can control and to unleash your soil’s full potential.
“Using our assessment you can understand exactly where you are. It may be there are no problems, but it is better to know precisely where you stand and act accordingly.
“For instance, one of our recent soil assessments showed an excellent soil structure, but also a variety of problems which the soil is prone to – including compaction.
By being mindful of these in the future, in terms of cultivations and rotations, pitfalls can be avoided.
“It’s not just a case of increasing focus from Government, but also the fact soil is a crucial, but finite resource.
Growers are benchmarking every other aspect of their business, so it’s strange more farmers aren’t benchmarking the health of their soil.
“Most will be taking soil samples, but that’s not enough to create a strategy and monitor soil health going forward.
Soil sampling on its own is helpful but it’s not enough to provide a proper assessment and allow a complete strategy to be developed.
“Our Healthy Soils assessment looks at the physical, biological and chemical aspects allowing us to measure and monitor soil health, maximise crop nutrition and reduce environmental impact.”
The plan resulting from the soil audit is tailored for each farm and takes into account the current cultivation strategy, crops and rotations as well as the grower’s needs and marketing strategy.
Hutchinsons recommends the Healthy Soils assessment is carried out between October and April, as it is important there is sufficient soil moisture at the time.
Having developed an ongoing strategy with a healthy soils specialist, Hutchinsons recommends an interim assessment annually to monitor progress over a three-year period.
There are obvious benefits to a strategy which improves the health of your soil including better yields and quality of crops. However, there are other benefits.
For instance, improved infiltration rates mean run-offs are reduced – chemistry stays in the soil, doing its job more efficiently rather than running off and potentially polluting waterways.
Identification of acid layers which prevent root penetration can be a limiting factor.
The assessment can provide analysis of fields or areas which are performing better or worse than others.
Hutchinsons is dedicating considerable resources to the healthy soils initiatives and now has 23 of its agronomy team trained to deliver the assessment programme, which is available now.
Growers can find out more at Cereals by coming to see Hutchinsons’ experts who can help with questions on soil.
Hutchinsons’ Healthy Soils assessment has three aspects:
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