With input costs top of mind in the current climate, it’s a simple ‘no no’ to consider applying fertiliser without first knowing what the soil already contains, according to Donald Harvey, managing director of Galloway and MacLeod.
He believes that seeking out the value of farm yard manure and slurry first, to determine the value of the nutrients already on farm, is essential and becoming increasingly commonplace throughout Scotland. With margins being continually squeezed, his company is actively encouraging farmer customers to get their ground tested regularly.
“The marked uptake we’ve seen in soil testing demonstrates that farmers are being responsible and looking at input costs closely, with their mind firmly fixed on getting the most from home-grown forage and maximising efficiency,” he says.
With extremes in weather being witnessed over the past few months, Donald explains that Scotland has experienced a dry August, September and October, before November arrived giving unrelenting rain which just hasn’t stopped, leaving the ground sodden and water-logged.
“Although soil temperatures may well be ready for fertiliser application, the ground simply will not allow any machinery on it,” adds Donald, predicting that the sheer volume of water will mean that they’re in for a late spring.
“The use of Sulphur is also something farmers are looking at closely,” says Donald, with his team keen to support farmers with the CF Fertilisers range of Sulphur products (e.g SingleTop®, MultiCut® Sulphur, CropMaster® Sulphur and other quality compound NPKS product from the range). There is plenty of trial work for these products showing that as they’re water soluble, and applied little and often, they mobilise the Nitrogen well within the soil which, in turn, helps boosts grass performance in terms of both quantity and quality.
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“By getting the right nutrients into the soil farmers will save money later on in the season. Animals themselves can become deficient and need supplementing if they aren’t eating forage containing the right nutrients... finding dry cows with retained placentas is an example,” he says. “Problems such as milk loss, or higher reproduction costs, can easily cascade, making it difficult to rein in on costs later.
“Our farmers are cost conscious because they have to be - and adding supplements is expensive and best avoided at all costs,” says Donald, who again points to soil testing as the platform for grassland fertiliser planning.
“Once you know what you have in the soil, the next step is getting the right product applied in time to reap the rewards of maximising grass production.”
Independent grassland consultant Dr George Fisher explains that it’s not about cutting back on costs, but also about making sure all inputs are being used effectively.
“With a delay to spring turnout looking likely because of wet and compacted soils – which will also hold less water through the season – at worst could result in lost swards and at least in reduced utilisation,” he warns.
According to SRUC, ADAS and AHDB work, there are four easy steps to take to check the healthiness of your soil:
- A surface assessment where farmers look at sward quality to identify potentially damaged areas which will require further assessment. When the sward is ‘good’, it will be intact, with no poaching and few wheelings. Moderate swards will show a poached surface with some wheelings and more weed species. Poor swards will show the surface compacted, soil exposed, poaching and poor overall quality.
- Inspect the soil by digging out a spade-sized block of soil to a depth of about 30cm. Cut down on three sides, then lever the block out, leaving one side undisturbed.
- Assess compaction by gently open the soil block like a book to break it up. If the structure is uniform, assess the block as a whole. If there are two or more horizontal layers of differing compacted structure, identify the layer with the poorest structure. Carry out the rest of the assessment on this limiting layer.
- Score compaction by breaking up the soil with your hands into smaller units and assign a score based on what you see. A score of one or two is good, where the soil easily breaks apart in small clumps. A score of three is moderate, and four or five is poor, requiring management action. For these scores, the soil will be more difficult to break apart and will remain in palm to hand sized compacted chunks.
A guide chart which uses photographs to indicate how to score is available from AHDB Dairy.
“Rejuvenating soil structure can lead to increases of 15% in grass yield,” says George. “Both sward lifting in autumn and spiking in-season can help to alleviate the problem, but it’s important the right technique is used at the right time, otherwise you can make the problem worse.”