Conference blogs

Thanks to all our bloggers who gave us their views during the course of the conference...

Ben Raskin, Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association

Whenever I listen to really knowledgeable people speaking about soils I realise (yet again) how ignorant I am. This morning is no exception. In particular I was blown away by the 3d images showing the internal structure of 1cm soil blocks that Prof Wilfred Otten showed.

We often hear the statistic that there are as many organisms in a gramme of soil as there are people on the earth, what isn’t usually mentioned is that they occupy a similar percentage of their respective environments - less than 1%. What is it that makes that 1% of the soil a good place to live?

The key to increasing yields might not just be getting more organic matter into your soils, but making sure that you get the right kind of organic matter (very stable and well rotted) at the right time, to the right place in the soil structure. Not that any of scientists yet know what, when or where that is yet? Good to know I’m not the only ignorant one!

November 13, 12:36

Oliver Dowding, Soil Association Trustee

The morning session illustrated how little we know of the most complex resource in the world, and it's below our feet - the soil. With over 80% of all life forms living above ground identified (some may find it surprising we don't know 100%), only 1% of life forms in the soil have been identified.

Sadly most consumers don't realise how dependent we are on soils, and the role they play in their protection. Every kg of food produced in America results in the loss of 6kg of soil. The record, for which they should be ashamed but I fear they are not, is held by China where they lose 18kg for each kg of food produced.

That we know so little of our soils life-forms and inter-relationship with each other, and ultimately with us, suggests shockingly poor awareness and priorities by policy makers at Defra and in all countries. About 50% of a crop’s yield is determined by the soil, yet we spend maybe as little as 5% of our research budget on soil, and 95% on things we can buy and apply to crops. That relationship must change, and Defra ought to be leading the way. Are they listening?

November 13, 13:32

Lynda Brown, Soil Association Trustee

Sitting in the hall, talk of soils all around me: such a buzz! My take on the morning? Long term studies really do show that organic farming systems hold the key to sustainable soils; and how when considering efficiency, we need to consider not just yield but inputs. So, organic systems already achieve yields of up to 80% of conventional systems (and e.g. increase productivity in subsidence farming systems in the Sub-Sahara 2-3 fold), yet their inputs are considerably less. Add the two together and organic systems come out to be far more efficient. The icing on the cake? Conventional systems degrade soils, organic systems improve them; and long term studies show that organic farms sequestered 450 kilos pa more carbon than conventional studies. Beat that!

November 13, 13:56

Oliver Dowding, Soil Association Trustee

We've now had some impressive input from soil scientists on the 'weakest link'. Charlie Bannister ran through the minerals that ALL crops need. There are 17 of them. The key point for all farmers and growers to note is that you can have all the other elements in your soil, but if there is one of those elements missing, even if only a teeny bit is needed, your crop yield will be seriously compromised.

The key message is that we all need to learn more about our soils, analyse them for every key element, and do it regularly. In the livestock session Jo Scammell was reminding farmers that they should be digging holes in every field every month, and looking for the best barometer of soil health - the humble earthworm. If you have plenty and they are a good colour, your soil is in good heart.

Charlie also referred to the need for farmers to 'feed the hidden hunger'. It’s crucial to establish what it is and deal with it. If there is one key element missing, it could compromise or prevent the uptake of a much more prevalent one. In discussion he agreed that this is also one of the key factors besetting the human obesity surge – incomplete food not satisfying our body’s needs. If you have fully mineralised food, you will feel full sooner on less!
Jerry Knox has also highlighted the increasingly precarious position in providing enough water for crops. The supply side may be largely unchanged, but the seasonal delivery is more extreme, and supply thus more compromised for many crops in summer.

Did you enjoy your cup of tea? Well, if it came with milk and sugar, the process of growing the crops and providing it for you consumed approximately 32 litres of water. For each cup. There’s a thought!

November 13, 16:19

Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy at the Soil Association

It was great to hear the passion for soil which came through in Jo Scamell's excellent session entitled 'healthy soil, health forage, health livestock.'

Jo explained how part of the reason she became interested in this link after maize growing started in earnest in the South of England. There were higher milk yields, but potentially a link to bigger problems with fertility. She started looking at the connection between soil health and animal health. Jo was inspired by an Australian lady who was working on the same farm as her who said that the problem with Britain was that the soil is too good - we don't spend enough time looking at it.

Jo urged us all to get out into the fields and get into the habit of carrying a little spade to dig holes in fields really regularly. For a really quick analysis we can look at it, feel and smell the soil. It's also possible to track earthworm populations. It's also important to have a range of sizes which indicates a range of ages. You can spot a healthy earthworm if it's red and angrily wriggly. A pale and calm earthworm is not a good sign!

I will definitely be heading out with my little spade in future.

November 13, 16:54

Ed Palairet, Senior Certification Officer at the Soil Association

This morning's 'Optimising performance' (livestock session) was discussed at many levels from our three expert speakers, including costs and values of resources available on farms.

Giving grass, conserved forage and manures a financial value goes a long way to show the importance of managing these well. For example, manures can be given a value purely on how much it would cost to apply the equivalent nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the land. Likewise, silage has a financial value (and not just what it would have cost to buy it in).

An important fact for all farmers, but especially those in catchment sensitive areas, is that manures from different farms will have significantly different nutrient values - it’s worth doing a nutrient analysis (sometimes available for free) and not relying on average data, so you know how to manage your own asset.

Some free downloads sounded like useful tools, have a look at PlanetV3 or Manner NPK.

Factors affecting silage digestibility and quality include many things outside our control (these need to be taken into account), but it is key to manage the things within our control, such as cutting date, storage and varieties. Analysis is (again) useful to know what you have.

I know I’m a bit keen on having data to work with, but I’m sure you’ll see that knowing the value of manures and conserved forage can help you plan (for example the intake and stocking rates) to maximise the performance of your land, stock and farm.

November 14, 12:42

Louise Payton, Policy Officer at the Soil Association

It is amazing to see the diversity of speakers at Day 2 of the Soil Symposium. We are hearing about subjects as ranging widely from silage management, to agricultural informatics down to how we can help lapwings. The unifying theme between the talks has been the need to advance agriculture into a system which puts soil biology at its centre. It seems that if we improve our soil biology and therefore soil health, we are well on the way to solving some of the major concerns facing us.

For example food security - Charlie Morgan spoke earlier on how improving our soil biology can increase yields, as plant health, nutrition and growth are enhanced by improved soil structure and nutrient availability. And this may mean improvements to human health too - the right soil communities can lead to improved nutrition, for example through increases in key trace nutrients in our diet, something Jo Scamell touched on yesterday. Then there is biodiversity - as Caroline Corsie from Worcester Wildlife Trust asked us - when was the last time you had to wipe insects from your windscreen?

Improving your soil biology leads to remarkable increases in wildlife, from buzzards to bumblebees and other insects. Lastly, there is climate change - we are struggling to cut our emissions, but improving our soil biology offers an incredible opportunity to increase organic matter and sequester carbon - soils hold 10 times more carbon than forests, and offers the potential to mitigate nearly 90% of agricultural emissions. And it can help us adapt too; Rob Richmond spoke today about the potential for healthy soils to absorb water and to both recover from and reduce flooding. Recent research also suggests that improving our soil biology can prevent desertification.

So clearly, soil biology is very important to us all!

November 14, 16:23

Soil Symposium


British Society of Soil ScienceCarbon GoldParticle ProductionsWestern SeedsWoodland TrustYour Day FoundationAbacus OrganicLow Carbon FarmingNRM LaboratoriesFarm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

This event is supported by the Royal Agricultural University and partners under the Skills Programme, a Rural Development Programme for England funded initiative.

Royal Agricultural University   Defra

Supported by the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme

We would like to thank all of our sponsors for supporting this event. Without their kind support, we would have been unable to offer a reduced ticket price to delegates.