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.

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.