Why Do We Have To Treat Our Soils Like Dirt?

by Nick Woodyatt, Soil Fertility Consultant at Aiva Fertiliser

Normally when starting an article there is much gnashing of teeth and wandering around the garden, or pub in my case, deciding on how to help and enlighten our industry (hopefully). But seeing as it did not stop raining during the autumn/winter, on this occasion the decision was somewhat easier. My town should have been re-named Upton under Severn. On my rounds I saw two four-wheel-drive tractors tied together pulling a plough through the field which looked like toothpaste and all eight wheels were spinning as they pulled themselves down onto their axles: really. Funnily enough the managers of this farming area were having a heated debate at the same time on whether to use a direct or strip till drill which simply amazed me.

We all know that if we lose Glyphosate then getting to a good position [soil wise] for direct drilling is going to be so much more difficult, but not impossible. What is perhaps now becoming obvious, is the effect that climate change will have on this method of growing, with longer and wetter periods, and yes, I do realise now we’ve gone from one extreme of constant rain to the next which is as dry as a party in a nunnery, but that still has the same effects.

On my farm walks I saw the relentless tapping of billions of raindrops on the soil surface produced an 80-100mm cap that has the consistency of wet play-dough which, is either going to cap over growing crops or produce an airless situation in to which seeds will be put. Indeed, I watched seeds direct and strip drilled (on good soils) and I have had to ask the question, ‘Why’? The direct seeds are firmly encased in a solid wall of mud so as they chit, they will more than likely rot. The strip tilled seeds are more of a surprise.

I tripped over this problem in the wet autumn when I was told that my bacterial application had stopped having the desired effect on clubroot in cauliflower. When I visited the problem it was plain to see that the soil wasn’t ready for this method of drilling and the drill had in effect formed shallow drains across the field, therefore producing an anaerobic environment for the soil life hence allowing the harmful anaerobic pathogens to run amuck. Now if it had stayed like that I wouldn’t have been too alarmed, but since then, I have noticed that the lifted rows left by the strip till are overtly wet compared with the surrounding soil regardless of how good the surrounding soil is. The phrase that we earn the right to use any specific piece of machinery is oh so right.

The importance of air

This is leading me to suggest we need to see that there are times when sowing isn’t going to work (difficult to say the least) and we need to stick to the rule that the soil needs what the soil needs, to get air into it. If you can’t find it in you to see that I may have a point then get a friend to strangle you and see how long you can last and no, there is no difference (only in time). We discuss soil, nutrients and where unenlightened, agrichemicals, but how often do we look at air and its importance. Without a free and open soil structure everything else starts to fall apart and your inputs will rapidly rise whist your profits rapidly fall. A perfect soil contains 50% air, and this impinges on so many plant processes and as farmers who are or considering min/no till we really need to understand that this allows:

• Fresh air into the soil where bacteria such as Azotobacter can convert gaseous N into a plant available form saving you money.

• Better penetration of applied nutrients in whatever form they are applied to avoid this surface rooting that we see in many crops.

• Carbon Dioxide from bacteria from the soil up into the leaf increasing photosynthesis and increasing your yield (Why do you think the stoma are on the underside of the leaf?) • Roots to penetrate deeper to get to more nutrients allowing you to reduce your inputs and this increases drought resistance.

• Better roots which allows more sugar release into the soil which feeds the soil life which in turn feeds your crop and resists disease therefore less inputs (the circle of life).

• Better penetration of earth worms who do so much for you free of charge that it is one of the wonders of the world why we try to kill so many (oh, I remember, it’s the profits of the chemical companies, silly me)

I could go on and on, but I think you get the message, start with air and work out from there as against start with Nitrogen and work for the chemical companies. However, as we have to work with excessive wet and excessive dry periods is there anything that we can do to alleviate the situation and of course the answer as always is yes.

Many farmers who are going down the min/no till route are doing it because they feel a moral duty to improve their soils for future generations and those like me, fancy making a profit occasionally. Those who are doing it just as a Black Grass control have stopped reading ages ago.

It’s more than the right products

Firstly, let’s make it clear that to improve a soil for both dry/wet periods isn’t just a case of buying the right products as some want us to believe. One farmer has been told that by applying a good soil wetting agent excess water will drain away; this was said to a farmer whose soil was under water so we did have to wonder where the water would go. There are any number of ways of moving forward and I am going to mention my friend Tim Parton who was `Soil Farmer of the Year 2017’, `Arable Innovator of the year 2019’ and is `Sustainable Farmer of the Year 2020’ and has transformed his soils over the last 10 years just by judicious use of cover crops which absolutely amazes me on two fronts. The first is that Tim is a farm manager so has treated soils with a loving care even though they are not his. How can you not respect a man like that?

Secondly there are many salesmen, sorry, agronomists, who claim cover crops are a waste of time. Tim now uses a low input system so that a bad season doesn’t throw him into pits of despair and he can afford to wait to sow until conditions are right, like me believing that a well planted spring crop will outperform a badly planted winter one. If you get chance to hear Tim speak it is well worth the effort as he explains how regenerative farming starts and ends with looking after the soil, as well as drastically reducing Nitrogen inputs which then allows everything else to work. I have enjoyed working with Tim again this year to make sure that we keep Nitrogen levels low to remove the need for PGR’s or fungicides so smiles all around, well apart from a few obviously but they have had their pound of flesh many times over.

– Please note that I am not making light of this as depression is a major part of our industry so let’s keep an eye on neighbours and colleagues –

Along with cover crops we are seeing an increase in digestate use and any number of other manure wastes, although we do need to look at those to protect our soils for the future and to make sure they don’t become toxic in drier conditions.

My point here is that for every 1% of organic matter that we can increase in the soil we will get an extra 17,000lts of water available to the plants plus drainage is improved as airspaces remain airspaces, except that is in severe flooding. I know that sounds stupid as we were under the damn stuff but as soon as it goes dry, we will all be saying, ‘Why don’t we store more of the water that is around in the winter?’, won’t we? Also, organic carbon, not matter, allows the soil to breathe even when it is very wet (not flooded unfortunately).​​​​​​​​​​​​

Getting better roots

I have never believed that there is a time when you can’t learn something which is why I don’t like the term ‘expert’ which denotes a closed mind. On my travels I have seen things starting to change on regenerative farms where limited tillage is the name of the game:

• Far better plants where no seed treatment was used allowing better germination and faster and better root penetration.

• An amazing root explosion where natural microbial counts were augmented with added brews of bacteria. In one trial, noted at the end of January, the seed in the normal field was on its third leaf but only had a poor shallow root. On the adjacent field under the same conditions but with my added seed drench (bacteria, humate and Silicon), we had similar tops to the plants, but the roots were over 300mm deep (that’s a foot to my dad!)

• Superb root systems where digestate and slurries are buffered with a Humate such as AF Nurture N from Aiva Fertiliser (see, I told you I was a salesman). I have digestates that kill seeds if applied directly to the seed but work wonderfully when added to a Humate. 

As far as a way forward is concerned, we need to feed what we have in the ground growing as it has very little in the way of available nutrients although I do not agree with flying around with Nitrogen as that is just meat with no gravy, leading to empty calories and the need for fungicides. Try spraying with Phosphorous, micronutrients and Silicon to prepare the plant for the Nitrogen otherwise you will have to use agrichemicals. I would say not to go onto the ground before it can take you, but I know a waste of breath when I see one.

Apply the N with AF Nurture N (me again) so that you can reduce the amount you use by 30% with no visible signs of a yield difference but a major step on the way to better soils and higher profits. With Boron being an issue I believe that we should use less but more often otherwise it can get a bit toxic. I have put Boron on this year in lower levels but more often as little and often always seems to pay dividends for me.

Controlling disease

Amongst regen farmers we are starting to see that getting the soil healthy and balancing and reducing nutrient input can have a huge difference on disease control.

Where we use a biological seed drench and a microbial package as a foliar programme along with micronutrients in low/no till systems, we use no PGR’s or fungicides which is a major target of all my farmers. The overuse of chemicals has left us with monsters such as Fusarium and Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle which now we must deal with. Our biological system has had a dramatic effect of Fusarium and other diseases with really low rates in the seed when tested so, there is another way. Following the wet period, I noted huge amounts of Phytophthora on farm which could be the next monster to attack us, although luckily the healthy biological system used by many regen farmers actually stops this problem so we will be able to explain this to more conventional farmers when they are scratching their heads so try not to look too smug.

So, do we have to treat our soils like dirt? Of course not, we just have to grow well and work with nature and not fight it!