Getting the most from your soils means actively managing them, anticipating problems and implementing changes to prevent damage and build soil fertility. Not only is healthy soil more productive, it’s easier to manage too. If your soil is in good heart it will drain well, and can be more resilient against compaction and poaching. Likewise, cover crops are going to protect you from run-off. All this said, things can go wrong, so here are a few key areas where soil management will pay off.
Soil erosion can result in reduced nutrient storage capacity, poorer soil structure, and decreased water holding capacity and soil depth. The key to avoiding soil erosion and nutrient run-off is good management practice: sound rotations, maintaining cover, appropriate cultivation and efficient nutrient management. Avoiding late-harvest crops like maize and potatoes in vulnerable fields is important. Some areas will be vulnerable to wind as well as water erosion. Maintaining soil organic matter content and ensuring good soil structure will help protect from the wind, and shelter belts can have an effect over a distance up to 20 times their height.
Around half the UK’s farmland requires drainage to allow it to achieve its maximum potential. Although the capital cost is high, the potential impacts are significant, leaving soils more productive, less vulnerable to damage from machinery and grazing livestock, and responding better to good management. It can also reduce the loss of fertiliser and pesticide to water.
Poaching is a problem. Not only does it cause direct physical damage to the crop and the soil, leading to bare patches, there is also an increased risk of erosion, leaching and invasive weeds. Protecting grazing swards from the risk of poaching requires good management of stocking densities, feeding procedures, sufficient forage supplies, and appropriate housing to accommodate stock when field conditions are unsuitable for grazing. There is interesting work being carried out by farmers increasing their stocking densities for short periods, using the system known as mob-grazing.
Compaction is caused by livestock poaching and from inappropriate traffic on land when soils are too wet. This can be difficult to avoid and is made worse by the use of heavy machinery when soils are vulnerable. Compaction causes pans and restricts the ability of roots to penetrate deep into soils, it also reduces water infiltration, causing higher levels of run off. Soil compaction reduces yields and leads to higher levels of nutrient run off. Avoiding poaching and the use of heavy machinery when soils are vulnerable will reduce levels of soil compaction.
Head of Standards
Chris is Head of Standards and Best Practice at the Soil Association. Growing up in a farming family, Chris has a degree in Agricultural Science and took his MSc in Agricultural Engineering. Following several years in agricultural research and practical farming he became an independent agricultural consultant. Chris worked regularly for the Scottish Organic Producers Association being involved in inspection, certification, research and education before joining the Soil Association in 2007.
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