Last autumn more than 300 farmers took part in our ‘Improving Soil Health’ survey, which revealed more than 80 per cent of farmers assess their soils.
The survey provided a good, representative sample of farms in terms of regional spread, soil types and crops grown.
The largest proportion of soil types represented were clay (39 per cent), medium loam (38 per cent), clay loam (36 per cent) and sandy clay loam (21 per cent).
More than three-quarters (79 per cent) of the sample grew winter wheat on their farms, followed by spring barley (58 per cent), winter barley (56 per cent) and winter oilseed rape (50 per cent).
The crops grown included spring and winter oats, potatoes, sugar beet, potatoes, peas and beans, maize and field vegetables.
With the increasing emphasis on the importance of soil health by agronomists and politicians, it is good to see farmers are taking the issue seriously, with more than 80 per cent of those questioned regularly assessing their soil health. However, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) are only using simple soil tests.
Equally most (61 per cent) have reduced the amount of tillage they do either ‘substantially’ or ‘somewhat’ in the past five years, while more than 50 per cent plan to do the same in the next five.
How much have you reduced tillage in the past five years?
|Substantially or Somewhat||Hardly or Not at All|
|Wales and West Midlands||66%||34%|
|East and East Anglia||67%||33%|
|Central and South East||76%||24%|
For Paul Downie, farm foreman with Overhall Farming, Cambridgeshire, the main driving force behind changes to their cultivation practice has been black-grass.
The company farms some 1,600 hectares of mainly heavy clay growing oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley, winter barley and oats.
He says: “We subsoil where necessary, then level using a Kelly Harrow and we direct drill. As everyone will know, blackgrass is a real problem in this area and it is the reason we went back into spring cropping – particularly on the fields where it is worst. We also drill as late as we can but given the heavy clay, this tends to be no later than October.
“We have been subsoiling – around 12-14 inches – rather than deep ploughing for the last 10-15 years as a way of helping deal with black-grass. We still have a problem but the change in cultivation has made a significant difference.
“With the dry weather last year we had cracks in the soil and we decided to try minimum tillage. We bought a Kuhn Optimer which allows us to go in a lot shallower – around two inches.
“Going forward, where we don’t have an issue with compaction, I think we will make more use of the Optimer, followed by the Kelly and direct drilling. Our initial experience with the Optimer suggests it made a big difference, and this is something we will continue to assess going forward.
“Given the soil here we need something to work with before using the direct drill. We have been involved with NIAB direct drilling trials, but we do need to do something to break the soil up and the Optimer worked well.”
Steve Townsend of Soil First Farming has been working as an independent consultant advising farmers on soil health for 20 years since leaving Monsanto where he helped pioneer their approach to ‘eco-tillage’. Steve was surprised by the results of the survey which showed most respondents ‘regularly’ assessed the health of their soil.
He says: “From my experience few farmers do more than look at their soil from the road or the combine, so I would be surprised if that many are actually assessing their soil regularly in a meaningful way. I go to lots of meetings in fields and frequently I am the only one with a spade in my hand.
“I advise my clients to spend one day looking at soil four times a year, in March, June, September and December or January. I tell them to put the dates in their diary and make sure they do it every year.”
From Steve’s point of view the tests do not need to be complicated.
He says: “Farmers should trust their ability to assess the soil and there are lots of simple things you can do yourself. Organic matter is the main thing we can influence and that is what we should be assessing.
“It is important to make a comparison. For instance, take a sample from under a hedge and compare it with a sample in your field. The hedge sample will show what your soil can look like with good organic matter.
“Soils with good organic matter should be darker towards the top. You can smell the soil and see if it smells nice. Award it a score out of 10 and record it so you can compare it next time. Try putting it on a spade, lift it to waist height and drop it. A good, structured soil will fall apart and look crumby or ‘tilthy’. A poor soil will drop and might just break into two bits. Again, score and record it.
“The fact the soil does not look good on the surface can be misleading. By grinding it in your hands you get a real feel for it. Roots are our best friend when it comes to soil health. If roots go through the soil, even if it looks bad, they will provide conduits for next year’s crop and open up the soil.”
Steve also recommends simple drainage tests using a bucket or enclosed cylinder. He says yields provide an excellent guide to soil health too.
He takes a ‘holistic’ approach to soil management and does not believe soil health can be managed just by using metal.
“Too many farmers believe the way to manage their soil is by bossing it with machinery. This has led us to where we are today and does not take account of the fact soil management involves biology and chemistry, not just physics,” he says.
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.