In the second article on improving soil health and tillage, we continue our analysis of the results of our survey, completed by more than 300 farmers across the UK.
In the first article it was clear farmers who completed the ‘Improving Soil Health’ survey last autumn were taking the matter seriously.
Many checked their soil health regularly, albeit using fairly unsophisticated methods.
A significant sumber said over the past five years they had taken steps to reduce tillage and more than half planned to do more over the next five years.
There are a variety of reasons given for reductions in tillage, with ‘improving soil health’ being the main one.
Worryingly, when comparing those seeking benefits from reducing tillage, and given the problems and concerns they have over reduced tillage, the numbers suggest many are not seeing the benefits they expected.
Our survey shows reducing tillage does not always deliver the specific benefits farmers are seeking. For instance, nearly half of those looking to tackle grass-weeds did not believe their actions had delivered.
Roundup specialist Barrie Hunt believes time is frequently the issue.
He says: “In the same way it takes time to develop ploughing skills, you also need practice to become skilled at minimum cultivations.
It takes a while to get the equipment and techniques right and it has to fit in with your rotations.
You have to develop a better understanding of the effect these techniques are having on the soil environment and the weed ecology.
For more information on soil health, visit the tillage hub
“When people shift to minimal cultivation there is often an increase in grass-weeds, but a reduction in broad-leaved weeds.
Persistence and a more ‘holistic’ approach is required. It is all part of the issue of developing a more sophisticated approach to assessing soil health.
“Farmers need to be clearer about why they are making these changes in the first place.
“Increased clarity on objectives, combined with better measurement of soil health will enable people to see whether they are achieving their objectives and make changes to improve their practices.
“If all you want to do is reduce the amount of tillage – thus reducing the amount of work and environmental impact – this is relatively easy to measure.
But it may have unintended consequences, so the approach may need to be more multi-faceted.
“The background has changed considerably since min-till was first introduced to this country and environment is now top of many farmers’ agendas.”
Philip Wright is an independent consultant providing advice on soil structure, as well as running courses and lecturing part-time on the BASIS Soil and Water management course at Lincoln University.
He believes that over the next five to 10 years an increasing awareness of the importance of maintaining good soil structure will lead to a ‘win-win’ situation for soil health and farm profitability.
He says: “This starts with the prevention of damage – driven by technology improvements helping reduce soil pressures, thereby controlling the amount and degree of damage and porosity reduction.
Such improvements can have the double benefit of reducing pressures and also axle loads needed.
“Secondly, an awareness of the ‘optimum combination of roots and metal’ to improve damaged structure will lead to reduced depths of remedial tillage, sufficient to allow the restructuring capabilities of roots to do their job and give sustainable structure improvement.
“Where such actions can be combined with the benefits of growing roots through the soil at all times – such as by using autumn cover crops to provide a suitable foundation for rotational spring cropping – such strategies can lead to a sustainable approach for weed control, driven by broadly based rotations.
“Provided residue management is effective, these improvements should drive reduced cultivations, in terms of both the amount of tillage and the depth to where the soil is worked, with farmers being able to take the opportunity to directly drill crops when conditions allow.”
Martin Lines is a Cambridgeshire farmer and contractor based at Papley Grove Farm, Eltisley.
He says cultivation reductions have improved soil health and reduced costs.
Martin farms more than 540 hectares and his crops include spring barley, winter beans, oilseed rape, winter wheat and millet.
The changes began about 10 years ago when Martin was walking alongside the plough and noticed the prints in the furrow from the previous year’s ploughing.
He began to ask what they were doing to the land and decided to make changes to reduce their impact and compaction.
It was then he switched to the Kuhn Performer 5000 and started to adopt a more sophisticated approach, targeting field areas rather than just on a field-by-field basis.
He says: “We were concerned about costs. At the time grain prices were low and we needed to be cost-efficient, but the real wake-up call was the damage we were doing to soil.
As we concentrated more on soil health, we understood more and our journey has continued.”
When it comes to soil assessment, Martin is an advocate of the old-fashioned method, using a spade and his knowledge.
If he notices something wrong, he maps the soil and comes back to it to take a look and then decides the best way to deal with it.
“We have gradually reduced our depth cultivation on most fields,” he says.
“We have all our fields scanned on our home farm so we know the expected germination and the contents of soils.
Using yield maps, we can assess the most productive soils and anywhere we have issues.”
In most of the fields they farm they use direct drilling and even though they have taken on more land they have reduced their fuel consumption by 70,000 litres, doing so with some three weeks less cultivation.
Where in the past the trend was to bigger tractors, now they are reducing the horsepower of their vehicles.
Martin can only see more of the same in the future with less P and K, and the ability to maintain yields with fewer inputs.
How healthy is your soil? This dedicated Arable Farming series, supported by Kuhn and Round up, aims to highlight the importance of working from the ground up in order to achieve long-term sustainability.
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