Soil health and drainage

hands in soil

Being British and involved in farming means that we are genetically pre-disposed to include the following in the first two sentences of a conversation with anyone that we haven’t spoken to in the last week; How quickly the year has gone and the weather!

So here we are again the 1st of June, with the Cornwall show baring down on us again, the unofficial beacon that it is announcing the start of the tail end of the year and the inevitable run towards Christmas. As I write this it is peeing it down outside, which of course means I have to lament about how dry it has been, and no doubt impart words of wisdom which will be completely irrelevant by the time that this lands on your kitchen table. The thing this does illustrate is the growing need for flexibility.

soil tests

Consistency

When it comes to farming the golden rule is consistency. The better we are at smoothing out the bumps the better the response we get from each of our farming enterprises.

It may seem rather contradictory talking about consistency and flexibility in the same breath, but that’s because we tend to view consistency as a process rather than the end goal. Let me give you an example…

I am always reminded of the guys and girls out there who make good silage every year irrespective of what the season is doing.  They don’t have a magic wand, its just that they do the right things at the right time (which will be different each year), with the end goal of consistent high quality silage.  A good example of consistency through flexibility.

Flexibility

The ability to adapt under changing conditions (flexibility) isn’t limited just to timings. When we start thinking about the resources on farms, we need to ensure that there is capacity to exhibit this ability.  I am specifically talking about our soils.

The ability of our soils to adapt to varying conditions will have a dramatic effect on the crops we are producing.

You will all have fields that consistently produce good yields, fields that you can travel on after heavy rain and fields that are less prone to drought. In many cases these fields are one and the same. The question is why.

This is where a little curiosity and investigation is needed, starting with 3 things:  A spade, A soil test and a drainage map.

Start with the fields that show the greatest consistency to get a bench mark and then move on to the ones that show most variability and start to note the major differences.

Drainage

Field drainage (admittedly not the most exciting of dinner party topics) is something that we tend to take for granted, and fields are compartmentalised in our heads as yes its drained or no it isn’t.  However drainage is something that needs to be maintained. A good routine job during the drier months is finding and marking drain ends, ensuring ditch bottoms aren’t higher than the drains and as obvious as it sounds ensuring the water has somewhere to go to get off your land. A starting point is to find the exit route and work backwards from there, this may involve some diplomacy with your neighbours.

Soil Health

Digging soil pits in fields at different times of the year will help build up a picture of the changes and differences in good vs less good fields.

Some key indicators of a health soil.

• feels soft and crumbles easily

• drains well and warms up quickly in the spring

• does not crust after planting

• soaks up heavy rains with little runoff

• stores moisture for drought periods

• has few clods and no hardpan

• resists erosion and nutrient loss

• supports high populations of soil organisms

• has a rich, earthy smell

• does not require increasing inputs for high yields

• produces healthy, high-quality crops

Soil Tests

The use of soil test is no different to body conditioning scoring of livestock, in that it gives an indication of reserves as a direct result of nutritional inputs.

The body reserves of the animal enables production to continue during challenging times or periods of nutritional deficit. This is the same with the base fertility of the soil. Without the reserves the ability to adapt to challenging conditions is severely diminished.

NRM publish their average soil analysis every year, I have included 2 extracts, which illustrates an very interesting trend. Firstly over the last 10 years, on the grass based area west of the country, the top soil pH has got worse, this has all sorts of ramifications, but does show the need to at very least try and halt the trend. The second shows the proportion of Grassland P and K  samples that are at target levels. This is now running at a POOR 29% for P and 26% for K, again showing the need for a change of approach.

As a result of these soil tests you will probably find that a one size fits all approach doesn’t fit, with fields having differing phosphate and potash requirements.

Now applying this same flexible approach you could take the option of balancing your P and K in the autumn with slightly different rates on a field by field basis. Leaving you free to apply a straight N in the spring when timeliness is more important and you don’t have the option of 4 or 5 NPK grades for the spring.

Increasing the flexibility of our approach to soil nutrition, will in the longer term increase our soils ability to adapt and respond to varying conditions and will help improve the consistency of the quality and quantity of crops we are producing.

When your soil isn’t working properly you are effectively reducing the size of your farm, limiting the output and compromising the efficiency of your inputs and ultimately costing you money.