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Steve Heard: Startling facts about arable soils equivalent to a move into livestock farming

Insights

With the only machines operating at this time of year being the telehandler loading grain lorries or the digger clearing ditches, I have been able to afford some time to try and further my education.

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Apparently 2015 is the international ‘Year of the Soil’ and after now attending several conferences, it is very obvious how little I understand the subject. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to only now learn for example that, the mass of living organisms within even my poorer arable soils are probably equal in weight to 120 sheep per hectare (48 sheep/acre) and that the best high organic matter soils can host the equivalent of 2,000 sheep/ha (809 sheep/acre), living underground. I had never considered myself a livestock farmer before.

 

Several years ago we experimented with incorporating cooled exhaust gases into the soil to improve carbon levels, now I am convinced there are easier ways. Anything I can do to make the soil’s natural nutrients more available and then rely less on costly artificial fertilisers must be worth further investigation.

 

Some new practices are easier to implement than others. Growing additional organic matter and using cover crops rather than stale seedbeds or fallowed land should add increased root extricates and carbon to help feed and multiply my army of living soil conditioners throughout the year. With our new built drill proving very capable of working directly into bulky established cover mixes I am happy to trial much more cover cropping next year. My research into affordable types and species is ongoing.

 

More difficult to comprehend is the parallel theory that all cultivations are bad. The different soil scientists all preach that any movement of the soil is destructive, yet somehow we must ensure efficient drainage and avoid any water logging. I love a design challenge, but how to provide an efficient movement of rain water through clay soils with the very minimum mechanical disruption is not easy. Hopefully my trip next week to Kentucky for the National Farm Machinery Show might provide some new solutions; certainly ‘zero till’ farming has a bigger following in the USA.

Steve Heard farms at Illston on the Hill, Leicestershire. He grows a variety of combinable crops on 1, 192ha (2, 945acres) of land, which is rented and contract farmed. He also runs an arable contracting business, and is a keen user of new technology.

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