System Design

Taking a step back

It’s hard to look at soil health in isolation. Almost every business decision you make impacts your soil; the crops you choose; the machinery you use; your stocking densities. All your actions will either deplete, maintain or enhance your soils. So, if you want more productive, healthy soils you may need to take a step back and look at your farm as a whole.

Put simply, farm systems fall into those that are stock-based, mixed and stockless. Whatever your system, there are things you can do to make it more soil-friendly. Introducing cover crops and green manures will build your soil fertility on a stockless farm. Whilst extending the rotation and bringing in a greater variation of crops with different rooting depths will improve soil structure and workability. Planting a leguminous herbal ley would benefit soils in stock-based systems. On a mixed farm, you might decide to extend the fertility-building grass ley stage of your rotation, so that your soils are more productive for your cash crops. Each year, consider tweaking your system to benefit your soil. 

The trend in farming systems over the last fifty years has been towards greater and greater specialisation, with most farms now focusing on a single enterprise. This may suit you and your farm, but if you are considering diversification there are some interesting business models that can benefit both your soil and bottom line.

Introducing Livestock

Bringing livestock back to arable farms is no small undertaking. You’ll need significant investment in infrastructure, not to mention time and skills for husbandry. But if you’re interested in the fertility building benefits, you could consider extending your rotation by renting to a livestock business.

Working Together

Even without livestock, we’re seeing more collaborative approaches to rotations.  It has become normal for farmers to rent out fields for short periods to vegetable growers looking for fresh land, though sometimes the consequences for soil health can be less than positive. However, there are now more and more examples of farmers co-operating in this way, working together to focus on soil health through the life of the whole rotation and agreeing on crops to grow whilst taking account of what’s in the best interest of the soil.

Even Trees?

For a long time, trees on farms were something that got in the way of the combine. But increasingly, their benefits for the whole farm are being understood. Agroforestry means incorporating trees with other farming enterprises. By either grazing livestock (silvo-pastoral) or growing crops (silvo-arable) you can benefit from two crops on the same acre. Plus, you’ll be protecting your soil from run-off, building soil organic matter and providing protection for crops and livestock from extreme weather.

Alan Schofield: Profit Through Trees

Soil Association

Improving Soils for Better Returns

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Dr Paul Hardgreaves - Soil Compaction: Problems and Remedies



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Author: Paul Flynn

Arable and Soils Advisor

Paul has been a Lecturer and course manager in Agriculture at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria for the last five years, helping to build student numbers to over a hundred new young farmers starting this year and opening new dairy and sheep enterprises. He studied Agriculture at Aberystwyth alongside working at College and Bryn-Llys farms. Paul has worked on a wide range of farms in the UK and overseas, including growing for the retail supermarkets. He has already put in twelve years at the Soil Association working with the certification and Food for Life teams before returning to University as a mature student to qualify as a teacher. Recent research projects included protected fertiliser, micro-nutrient fertiliser, control of rushes and non-chemical weed control. In his spare time, he can be found working at the local community supported farm or providing dad’s teenage taxi service.

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