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If you put Quality In you get Quantity Out

THE IMPORTANCE OF SOIL MAINTENANCE

 Andrew Ward advises on soil maintenance

 

How important do you think it is to look after our soil?

It’s absolutely vital. Soil is the most important resource we have, it gives everyone in agriculture their livelihood and feeds the nation. Maintaining healthy soil is essential if we’re going to feed an ever increasing global population.

 

Why do you think it’s more important now than ever?

Farming is changing so much at the moment. We’re losing fertile soil at an alarming rate. In the UK alone, we lose 2.2 million tonnes of valuable top soil each year, that’s eroded by wind and rainfall. This costs farmers circa £9m a year in lost production. According to Defra, UK land has been steadily degraded by 200 years of intensive farming and industrial pollution. We need to ensure that we conscientiously farm with soil health in mind, to safeguard our most important natural resource for future generations.

 

What crops do you farm?

I grow 202ha of rape, which ultimately ends up frying MacDonald’s food. We grow 223ha of spring barley that ends up at Coors Brewery, 40ha of sugar beet to British Sugar at Newark, 157ha of feed wheats and for the first time in 20 years 24ha of milling wheat. We also have 30ha of wildflower and grass margins.

 

What is your soil type?

We have a mixture. Our wheat, rape and spring barley rotations grow on three different soil types. From heavy clay, light sandy loam over limestone, that’s self-draining, to good medium loam soil.

 

What measures do you take to ensure you look after your soil?

Reducing compaction

We do everything possible. Compaction is a big issue. We use tracks, wide tyres and dual wheels to reduce compaction. We pay a lot of attention to tyre pressures, lowering them according to the weight of machines.

Ground compaction is significantly affected by heavy machinery. The difference that adjusting the tyre pressure can make to it, and therefore, infiltration of water through the soil, is staggering.

A six PSI difference in tyre pressure can result in a six fold difference to filtration rate. It’s about attention to detail. Weighing machines and ensuring we have the correct tyre pressure is something we’ve been doing for years.

It’s also important not to drive around with excess weight on your tractor. And this saves on fuel costs.

Dry cultivation only

Other key measures we take are that we don’t plough, and haven’t done so since 2002. We’re protecting the structure and quality of the soil, letting it develop a strong microbial profile. It also helps our earthworm population, and we know good soil is full of earthworms.

Incorporating straw

We incorporate all the straw back into the ground, rather than baling it.  We save on bagged fertiliser because It’s full of potash and puts organic matter back into the soil, vital in making the soil resilient and able to withstand machinery and heavy rainfall.

Potash & Sodium

Our heavy clay soils naturally generate about 40kg/ha of potash every year but we grow sugar beet on the rest of the soils and here we apply 200kg/ha potash and 200kg/ha sodium.

Use of bio-solids

We’ve been using bio-solids (sewage sludge) for 12 years. It comes from Severn Trent and they spread about 18 tons/ha on selected fields. The product contains large amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphate, Sulphur and most of the micronutrients. It’s slow releasing and so is available for up to three years. It also puts organic matter back into the soil and over the years we have seen this rise so our soils now vary from 3.4 % – 4.5 %.  Most UK soils are not much more than 2%.

Nitram®

We apply Nitram® and DoubleTop on most crops to ensure we get the best quality out.

Soil sampling

We take regular soil samples and in February CF Fertilisers test our soils for Nitrogen using their N min service, and from the results we can see exactly what’s in the soil so we know precisely what we need to put on it.  It saves us a lot of money each year. I’d say soil sampling isn’t done enough.

 

Where’s the balance between prioritising yield over soil or soil over yield?

Good yields and good quality soil go hand in hand. If you jeopardise soil quality, your crops will suffer. There’s too much soil moved and over cultivated in the UK damaging the soil structure, environment and the farmer’s pocket. Cover crops and direct drilling are now a vital part of the soil recovery process and we are only just learning what mixes are best suited to different soils and the following crops.

 

How do you tackle the threat of blackgrass on farm, and how does this affect your soil?

We have a zero tolerance policy for blackgrass. This means we don’t let any fields go to harvest with blackgrass in the crop. If it’s present in whole fields we spray the whole crop off with Glyphosate, and if its intrusion is sporadic, we hand rogue it out.  We don’t drill wheat before Oct 20th and have switched a lot of the heavy soils into spring barley. These two things are having a major impact on reducing our blackgrass seed population in the soil. I don’t agree with some farmers that think you can’t grow spring crops on heavy soils. Cultivations are the key and it’s our job as a farmer to make our soils more resilient and more adaptable to the weather and the crops we need to grow.

 

What’s the future?

Research is more crucial than ever to agriculture as the industry strives to farm sustainably in the face of increasing pressure on natural resources.  And the research needs to be translated back to farmers. It needs to tackle the real problems faced by farmers as they grapple with improving their productivity while protecting the environment and reducing external inputs. We need more new research into soil. We need to understand it better, in order that we respect it more, and for it to benefit our crops. 

 

Andrew's Top Three Tips for looking after your soil.

 

Top Tips for soil health