Gaining insights to make the best decisions for your farm

With long-term farming systems vital for sustainable supply chains, experts from Frontier Agriculture’s SOYL precision and Kings Crops are highlighting the solutions available to help growers build more resilient soils for the future.

Often considered a ‘farm’s greatest asset’, soil is fundamental to food and farming. Its condition can quite literally determine the success of a crop, while also having a direct influence on the wider environment and overall farm biodiversity. Often though it can be easy to overlook, taken for granted as something that’s there to be worked and prepared, but not necessarily measured and improved.

At the recent Covering Soils event kindly hosted by Neil White at Greenknowe Farm, Kings Crops technical advisor, Ed Jones, explained to visitors why it’s so important to go back to the basics to build an overall picture of soil health and, ultimately, farm performance.

“The physical, chemical and biological properties of soil are what define it as a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Each area is crucial on its own, but how they interact with one another is equally important.”

The physical components of soil can be defined by good structure that supports easy movement of water and air, supporting moisture levels and nutrient retention while reducing compaction. They help to create an ideal rooting environment too, which can contribute to better disease and drought resistance for crops.

When looking at chemical properties, this is about optimising a soil’s level of macro- and micro-nutrients, while in a biological sense, the microbial activity within soil is crucial for its health as it’s what drives nutrient and organic matter cycling. Being able to measure the microbial biomass in the soil and linking it to organic matter levels ultimately leads to better management and improvements overall.

Ed continues: “It starts and ends with soil. It is an essential natural resource, vital for the productivity, profitability and sustainability of every farm. So, how can you really find out what’s going on beneath your fields?”

The value of a VESS score

A visual evaluation of soil structure (VESS) score is done by removing a small square of soil from the ground to assess the different profiles. It is given a score between one and five – one being a ‘friable soil’ and five being ‘very compact’.

Ed explains, “The findings from a VESS score can help you understand your soil’s true structural state. Through visual examination and handling, we can record how aggregated the soil is – in essence the ‘crumbly’ texture that is associated with good soil health.”

During the event, visitors were able to learn more about the process using soil samples taken from various field areas at Greenknowe Farm.  

“Evaluating different areas of soil can be eye-opening,” says Ed. “The structure and texture of soil within the same field can be notably different, so a VESS score is a great way to identify problem areas that may need specific attention, or locations where slightly different land use may be more appropriate.”

SOYL area manager, Andrew Carswell joined Ed at the event and highlighted to visitors the valuable role that digital tools can play when it comes to soil assessments and monitoring field performance too.

“The approach here is all about measuring to manage – if you know what you’re working with you can make evidence-based decisions catered to what is really going on in your fields. You can fine-tune everything in a way that works for the individual farm scenario, as no two situations are the same.

“With platforms such as MySOYL and its ‘environment manager’ tool, you can map several categories of activity and performance to truly understand your soils, the status of your fields and progress of your crops – alongside environmental features. For example, you can undertake electro-conductivity soil scanning, record seed rates, monitor the establishment of crops and review biomass imagery to get a picture of variation.

“The technology also means you can pin point areas of interest, natural capital assets, environmental scheme actions or farm features to build a true picture of land management activities and ongoing conditions.”

Electronic conductivity scanning accurately maps soil type variation across the farm by taking hundreds of soil readings per hectare to identify where differences exist in a field. The maps produced provide growers with a better understanding of their soils, with the insights used to target cultivations, seed rates, further soil sampling regimes and determine appropriate land management strategies.

Andrew continues: “Biomass imagery is another great precision tool with a whole range of uses. It involves using real-time satellite imagery to monitor a field’s crop performance over time. By layering that data over other maps, the images can be viewed collectively to determine a picture of progress, for example, how the soil type is influencing crop development, how pH or nutrient levels are impacting performance and how the current crop data compares to yield maps from previous years.

“All of this combined can help you to see the bigger picture. If a certain area is proving difficult when it comes to establishment or yield, you can use the insights to optimise management decisions for the future – for example, variably applying nutrients to meet the needs of the crop – an action now supported under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) in England.”

Reconditioning soils and the SFI

The soil actions within the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) are designed to support improvements to ‘soil health, organic matter and biology’, with the aim of improving long-term productivity and soil resilience to benefit food production while simultaneously benefitting the environment.

Some of the actions available for soil health are:

  • SAM1/CSAM1: Assess soil, produce a soil management plan and test soil organic matter
  • SAM2/CSAM2: Multi-species winter cover crops
  • SAM3/CSAM3: Herbal leys.

Soil assessments and effective record-keeping to evidence activity can help you meet the requirements of SAM1/CSAM1, whist other actions focus on keeping a constant cycle of living roots in the soil.

Ed explains: “These actions are about not leaving soil surfaces exposed for long periods of time, such as between commercial crops or at points of the year where they are vulnerable to risks such as erosion. Wherever possible, cropping should have a varied rotation to help maximise the benefits to soil.”

This is where cover crops come in, Ed continues: “They can deliver so many benefits – which can be monitored and measured too. They improve ground conditions, can reduce tillage costs, support soil to retain more nutrients, reduce the risk of erosion, increase beneficial microbes and encourage earthworm activity.”

Now is an opportune time to look at rotations and methods of production in tandem with environmental considerations. For example, a herbal ley could be a great choice as it builds soil organic matter over three to five years and reduces weed burdens.

Many species in a herbal ley are deep rooting, drawing up nutrients and minerals from depths that can’t be accessed by shallow rooting species.

Funding for cover, catch and companion crop options doesn’t need to necessarily come via schemes such as the SFI or Countryside Stewardship either, with the private sector now increasingly supporting farms to incorporate more sustainable farming actions to benefit supply chains.

Ed concludes: “Taking a holistic approach to crop production and broader land management is really important, as what works for one farm won’t necessarily work for another. It’s all about understanding your baseline – knowing what you’re working with means you can ultimately make the best decisions for your farm, the environment and continuity of food production.”