The agricultural industry faces a considerable challenge in meeting increasing demand for food and alternative fuels, particularly because of the combined pressure to reduce environmental impact and adapt to climatic change. Maintaining resilient soils is central to meeting these challenges.
For agricultural productivity to thrive and for environmental impact to be minimised, it is crucial that soil structure and nutrients be managed as efficiently as possible. AHDB invests in a wide range of research and knowledge transfer activities to help the industry manage its soils better. Poor soil structure leads to poor crop growth and soil loss through erosion and run-off that can get into rivers and streams. Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) offers advice, training and grants to farmers in over 80 catchments in England on soil management and other farm practices to reduce diffuse water pollution - visit its website to find out what is available to you.
Assessing soil structure and health
The first step is to assess the structure and health of your soil by digging a soil pit. Here Chris Duller (VIDEO) explains how to ‘MOT’ grassland soils and here CSF shows (VIDEO) how to remove soil compaction in an arable field with sub-soiling. The Environment Agency’s Think Soils shows photographs of soil pits to illustrate how to assess soil structure in the field. AHDB Potatoes' Soil Management for Potatoes, AHDB Beef & Lamb's Improving Soils for Better Returns and LEAF’s Simply Sustainable Soils are also excellent guides (see free resources section).
Looking to the future, AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds has a project underway to examine ways to manage soil organic matter and here Andrew Whitmore (VIDEO) explains why it is so important. Compost is an excellent source of organic matter and in two videos Anna Becvar explains the benefits of using compost (VIDEO) and sourcing quality compost (VIDEO).
AHDB also continues to invest in the development of advanced technologies, such as precision farming, to help improve understanding and management of soil variability. One project is examining if yield map data from combines could provide useful information about soils.
Routine soil analysis provides essential information about the nutrient content and pH of a soil. Additional broad spectrum analysis will also provide information on the micro-nutrient content of soil. AHDB Beef & Lamb's Improving Soils for Better Returns and the Potash Development Association's (PDA) Soil Analysis are useful guides. Soil analysis can then be used to ensure fertilisers and manures are used efficiently using the Fertiliser Manual (RB209) and nutrient planning systems such as Tried & Tested, PLANET or MANNER-NPK.
Cultivations: Improving soil structure and health
Rotations and cultivations have a substantial impact on soils. Here Philip Wright (VIDEO) explains how to recognise the signs of compaction and judge when to cultivate arable soils. Mark Stalham then discusses cultivating for potatoes following the wet weather in 2012 (VIDEO), timing cultivations (VIDEO) and causes of compaction (VIDEO). Looking ahead, AHDB’s soil platform research project is building on medium-term (5-10 years) field experiments, examining shifts in soil cultivation practices for cereal and potato crops.
Protecting the environment
It is essential to minimise the impact of farming on the environment. Lisa Chenery and Martyn Silgram explain how to prevent and manage runoff using banks, buffer strips (VIDEO) and tramline management (VIDEO). Visit Catchment Sensitive Farming’s website for more information on protecting the environment.