Soil and business risk management

Soil and nutrient management is a key topic for our Monitor Farm in Wantage.

During the Monitor Farm’s meeting in November attended by local growers, soil carbon management, particularly promoting microbial growth, was identified as a key long-term objective to build the soil for the future, allowing good crop root development and nutrient uptake.

Discussion groups at the meeting reviewed soil and tissue analyses from a linseed crop, to highlight soil nutrition problems and management techniques to get around them.

Wantage November 2014 Meeting

Soil is one of the main themes, and definitely something I want to work on with the business.  Over the years, inputs have been cheap and so we’ve all used a lot without necessarily thinking about the soil. Now, we’re trying to take risk out of the business and we need to think about soils again.

One of the things I’ve been asking is: can we achieve current or enhanced yields from less input? I want to look particularly at timings, types (solid or liquid) and the balance of nutrition.

There’s also a knock-on in terms of plant health. Is there a better nutrition programme to achieve healthier crops, so we need fewer pesticides?

The Monitor Farm group discussed the potential benefits of getting soil biology right long term, compared with the short-term cost benefits of using traditional fertiliser applications and more cultivation.

After this meeting, we decided that at East Hendred we’d try a couple of fields where we will have a system of activating the soil biology to feed the plants, and compare it with our traditional way of fertilising. We’ll be encouraging arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (which could help provide phosphate to plants through its symbiotic relationship with the plants’ roots) for example, and also trying to increase our earthworm population, through adding compost and manures. We’re also using controlled traffic farming in order to reduce our cultivations and to improve soil biology.”

I want to make the business robust for the future, to protect it against a shortage in fertiliser or if fertiliser gets more expensive.

I joined the Monitor Farm programme in spring 2014, and am already seeing the benefits.

It’s making me think and put figures to things much more. My cost of production figures are now more up to date, and therefore it’s easier to react to changes in prices. Having to share my figures with the farmers in the group is making me sharper. When people are asking questions about why you’re doing things, you need to know the costs!

The next meeting is on 16 December at 9am, and will focus on profitable rotation choice and the role of pulses within it.

Unlike many other growers who are expanding their area of beans, we’re thinking about reducing them. And now we’re asking – where do pulses fit in? How do we do we achieve more reliable yields and consistent margins?  We’ve found that over a 10-year period they’re fairly profitable, but year on year yields go up and down like a yo-yo.  This year I was around £60,000 down on my bean budget because my yields were down, and for that reason I think it’s difficult to justify pulses in the rotation, because of the margin risk. However, beans are good for the rotation, but not for short-term profit.

Growers interested in attending should contact Philip Dolbear, AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Regional Manager, by emailing or calling 07964 255614.

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds has a programme of soil research which is available on www.AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds/soil and includes publications and videos on assessing soil condition, precision farming, no-till, and improving oilseed rape establishment.



Julian Gold is a farm manager in East Hendred, Oxfordshire. He farms 800ha on a five-year rotation of oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring beans, winter wheat and second wheat, winter or spring barley. There are also sheep and shoot enterprises on farm. Julian is passionate about sustainable intensification, soil health and Controlled Traffic Farming. East Hendred has highly alkaline, silty clay loam soil over chalk, with 679mm average yearly rainfall.