Soil health article
Protection of soils, boosting soil health and encouraging the production of food in an environmentally-sustainable way are key focus areas of the current Agricultural Bill making its way through Parliament. Many farmers already know soil is the bedrock (literally!) of their farm’s fortune, but how best can they realise its value and remain compliant? Dr Becky Wheeler from 4R Reassurance offers some advice.
The importance of soil health and its productivity both now and in the long term is gaining increasing attention. As well as featuring in the Agriculture Bill, the protection of soils is also found within agricultural law.
The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018 (aka Farming Rules for Water) came into effect in England in April 2018. These regulations make nutrient management planning and soil testing compulsory on all land physically and chemically cultivated, i.e. where organic manures and manufactured fertilisers are used.
The primary objective of this regulation is to safeguard the environment, and to ensure that any fertilisers and soil conditioners applied are matched to field, crop and soil conditions. Far from being just another piece of red tape, this legislation will promote more considered applications of organic and manufactured fertilisers. A significant benefit of this will be that farmers, and land managers will likely see a significant reduction in their costs and expenditure on buying in straight and compound fertilisers often applied in conjunction with farm manures and slurries and other organic amendments.
In the majority of cases where this has already been adopted, most have seen a significant reduction in costs.
See Case Study below.
There are a number of different nutrient management tools available but if they seem daunting, there is plenty of expert advice on hand to help. One note of caution is to check that any advisor you choose is FACTS qualified. The Fertiliser Advisers Certification and Training Scheme (FACTS) sets and maintains the standard of advice being given on farm, giving you the reassurance needed to make evidence-based, informed decisions. They can work with you to complete farm and field records detailing exactly what has been done where and why.
Applying manure or fertiliser to ‘cultivated agricultural land’ must be planned based on the results of soil tests. But one area of misunderstanding since this legislation came in is the definition of ‘cultivated agricultural land’. It is not just referring to arable and ‘ploughed’ land. This definition covers all land:
- ploughed, sown or harvested at least once in the last year
- where organic manure or fertiliser has been applied at least once in the last three years
In other words, the majority of farmed land! Many farms fall short on this score, so are required to increase the amount of soil sampling undertaken across the farm. These tests must show the pH and provide levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium, and be no more than five years old.
Soil erosion and compaction was estimated to have cost £305 million in England and Wales in 2010 (DEFRA 2020). One important aspect within the current focus on soil protection is the value of organic matter and the application of organic manures.
With organic matter status a key indicator of soil health, protecting and promoting it should be central to today’s farming methods. As well as their nutrient value, on-farm manures offer financial rewards by reducing the amount of artificial fertiliser required. Organic manures have also moved beyond the traditional farmyard manure and slurry. An increasing range of utility sludges, composts and anaerobic digestates, as well as paper and manufacturing wastes are now available. This re-cycling of organics back to the land helps sustain the organic content of soil and promotes the environmentally-sustainable approach to food production sought by the Government in the new Bill. If the Bill’s new support mechanism rewards farmers for improving their soil the financial incentives for applying manures will be even greater.
Henry Bonner is on an 800-acre mixed beef and arable farm in Buckinghamshire and an early adopter of the 4R Reassurance having previously worked with the 4R Group. “With so much legislation now, working with 4R Reassurance is a good way to keep up and be able to show what we’re doing. It keeps us on our toes,” said Henry
Firstly we reviewed the results of soil sampling recently undertaken and identified a number of fields that had not been sampled and were therefore not compliant with the 5 year requirement. These fields were therefore sampled as a priority to ensure compliance. The sampling and analysis was included within the monthly cost of the Reassurance service.
Next we started to build the farm nutrient management plan using cropping information for current crops and following crops together with target yields and details of any organic manures applied within the previous 12 months. Our FACTS Qualified Advisors produced a detailed nutrient management plan, recommending the amounts of N,P and K to apply on a field by field basis. We also looked at the capacity for various organic manures such as FYM, Biosolids, Digestate and Compost and looked at the potential savings that could be achieved from applying these and reducing the amount of artificial fertiliser. In the case of Biosolids we were looking at a potential saving across the farm of £7,000.
Having used Biosolids supplied by 4R on the arable rotation before Henry is confident that the benefits are more than just the reduction in artificial fertiliser applied, “when conditions are dry you can definitely see a difference to the growing crops where the soil has received the biosolids. The organic matter helps retain the moisture in the soil, which in turn puts less stress on the crop”
The nutrient management plan is a ‘working document’ with cropping plans changing through the year due to weather and market conditions. The benefit of the Reassurance service is that because we visit a minimum of 3 times per year we can ‘fine tune’ the plans to reflect any changes made.
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