Three wet seasons have created major cause for concern for arable farmers, with the excessive rainfall experienced this winter causing a multitude of crop establishment issues.
Offering advice on short- and longer-term solutions to soil drainage management, Prof Dick Godwin of Harper Adams University told the Cereals Live climate change webinar that the first step is to ensure all blocked drains are flushed out.
“Next, if there are low areas in the field, maybe close to gateways where there has been surface compaction, make sure you can get that surplus water away from the field and into the ditch.”
In the next six-eight months, any areas of concern noted during the winter should be mole ploughed - an effective way of getting surface water into underlying drain systems, he said.
“If you have compacted soils, which are usually focused on headlands, gateways or tramlines, subsoil these areas after harvest.”
Longer term, growers should consider the installation of pipe and ditch drains, Prof Godwin said.
“It is critical to drain the problem, not the field. Focus on wet spots that need drainage to get rid of surplus water.”
If the whole field is the problem, the installation of a grid system may be necessary, he added.
"Controlled vehicle movement and lowering tyre pressure should be utilised in reducing surface compaction.
“Remember, with drainage systems, prevention is better than a cure.”
Independent soil expert, Prof Jenni Dungait highlighted the importance of healthy soils to ‘get on top of the rainfall we receive.’
Outlining what is needed for healthy soils, she said: “Earthworms are so important and really good indicators in some soils of how healthy it is.
“There is also the sometimes-forgotten middle lot - springtails and mites - which are doing a great job for fragmenting our desolates going back to the soil; and of course bacterial fungi and microbiology.”
To encourage such soil organisms, there needs to be careful control of air, water, temperature range and pH, she said.
“We also must not forget nutrients – in the soil these needs to be measured and you need to use fertilisers to feed that whole system.
“In return you get pollination and biological control and a system for water supply and purification. Imagine this free service you are getting from earth worms with water and nutrients moving down into the soil.”
This creates a recycling system for nutrients, which then become available to the crop, Prof Dungait said.
“If managed well, you can reduce inputs of those [nutrients], which will save you money and also reduce your carbon footprint.
“Building carbon is also a key component to improving soils and increasing productivity,” she added.
“Nutrient use efficiency, infiltration rates, porosity and aggregation are all increased if you increase soil carbon, which feeds your soil biology. Cashing in on carbon is also something that will become an opportunity in future.”
Prof Dungait advised growers to download the British Geological Society My Soil app to find out soil type based on location, as well at Scotland Rural College’s visual soil evaluation resource to score soil quality.
“Finally, infiltration tests will tell you how much water your soil can soak up, and a penetrometer is an easy way to tell if you have compaction.”