Friday, December 15, 2017

How better soil health improves farm profitability

December 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Crops

Soil health is increasingly in the spotlight and the launch of Sustainable Soils Alliance has prompted many farmers to consider the management of this vital resource. 

Biological farming is seen by many as a sustainable way to manage soils for productivity and profitability. This month, Midland Farmer reports on an event which saw the concept brought to the fore.

QLF Agronomy held a farm walk last month in Staffordshire, at Brewood Park Farm, a holding which has embraced biological farming.

A fundamental principle of biological farming is to improve soil health by prioritising the role of soil microorganisms, says farm manager Tim Parton.

“I first became interested in biological farming over a decade ago,” he explains, adding that he first started to think “biologically” by introducing conservation tillage techniques to reduce soil erosion.

Biological farming

“Making these changes to my tillage programme turned out to be just the start of my biological farming journey and for the past ten years the concept has been critical to all of my business decisions.

“From my choice of cropping, rotation management, soil testing to my selection of inputs. It’s had an impact across the enterprise.”

Mr Parton says his aim is to utilise the nutrients already in the soil to benefit the crop and therefore reduce any inputs. “A combination of biological farming techniques helps me to achieve this,” he explains.

“One of my main input changes has been to introduce a liquid carbon-based fertiliser into my fertiliser applications. Having sufficient carbon reserves in the soil is vital to feed soil microbes and therefore increase soil fertility.

“I’ve also found that by feeding the soil microorganisms with ‘Boost’ a liquid carbon-based fertiliser, it has greatly improved residue decomposition, which has reduced disease pressures and importantly prevented nitrogen lock up.”

Cover crops

Speaking about his arable rotation, Mr Parton explains that he also uses cover crops to encourage soil biology, increase water infiltration and reduce compaction.   

“I’ve found that cover crops greatly improve soil structure which enables quicker root establishment.

“In addition, as the cover crops decay they add valuable organic matter to the soil which helps to improve seedling establishment in the following year,” says Mr Parton.   

Biological farming expert Gary Zimmer also spoke at the event, he explains that biological farming is all about balancing chemistry and biology to achieve naturally healthy soils that need minimum intervention.

He encourages farmers to prioritise soil health to increase crop productivity and urges growers to monitor soil health by getting back to the basics of trusting their natural instincts.

“Soils should smell healthy and be teaming with activity and, while microbes are not visible to the naked eye, the presence of earth worms is a great indicator of good soil health.”

Alongside grower’s instincts, Mr Zimmer recommends farmers and crop advisers should be using a range of soil analysis techniques. He recommends using tissue testing in conjunction with soil testing to analyse secondary and trace minerals.

“Plants need a wide range of nutrients, not just NPK, to unlock their full potential. Therefore, it’s important not to overlook both macro nutrients and trace minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and boron.

Nutrient uptake

“Tissue testing can give us an indication of essential nutrient uptake,” says Mr Zimmer. “This can help to determine if additional fertiliser applications have been effective. Tests should be repeated to check soil profiles for separate fields as a deficiency in just one trace mineral could be limiting yields.”

Mr Parton advice for those who want to try biological farming for the first time is to get out into fields with a spade and look at their soil health for themselves, analysing their best and worst producing fields to try to find any limiting factors.

Working in conjunction with his agronomist, he aims to reduce inputs as much as possible to increase efficiency and yields. He believes there is no better time to start using biological principles as the chemical tool box is reducing and new solutions are needed.

“By no means are we perfect but I believe we’ve a made a great start,” says Mr Parton. “I think biology has the answers for the future, and that’s why I’m trying to work with nature to achieve better crops, better yields and increase biodiversity.”

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