Soils at Newark Monitor Farm

John Miller

The health of our soils reflects the health of the crops we grow and ultimately our profitability, so it is the number priority to ensure their healthy well being.

We moved from a mixed farming system when the cows were sold in 1983. Since then the soils have been worked hard as part of an arable system. Annual cultivations have seen a decrease in the organic matter (OM) content of the soils but now we are putting something back with applications of sewage sludge and farmyard manure imported onto the holding. We have dipped our toe into growing cover crops but rather than buy expensive mixtures from the trade, I make my own mixtures up.

For a number of years, we have sown stubble turnips for over-winter sheep grazing. Last year with the same sheep farming neighbour we grassed a 10ac field down for him to use for four years and then bring it back into arable cropping.

On our lighter soils in the Trent Valley, that are prone to burning up in dry summers, we have been applying regular amounts of FYM for six years now. We can see a general improvement in their robustness to deal with extremes of weather.

On our heavier soils, we have a problem with high magnesium levels compared to calcium levels. This leads to soils drying out quickly in dry periods and then wetting quickly when it does rain. Also, the soils seem to go tight / slump during the cropping year, so what do we do? We rip the soils up after harvest to try and create structure and this is a costly and time-consuming exercise. This summer we have been applying gypsum to fields to address the Ca:Mg ratio and we will look to do this across the farm on a three-to-four year rotation. I appreciate the effects will be seen slowly over time but hopefully our soils will become easier to work and be more able to cope with extremes of weather. With more healthy soils perhaps we will be able to use less fertilisers and sprays?

I feel there is a knowledge gap in the minds of UK farmers. We know a lot about tractors and farm equipment, fertiliser and agro-chemicals but we have little understanding of the biodiversity that live in our soils. Through the Monitor Farm network, we can get scientists in front of farmers to improve our understanding of soils, the beneficial organisms that live in them and how to promote their proliferation.

Overall harvest has been pretty good, winter wheat, winter oats and winter OSR have been above the five-year yield average. Spring barley was poor with far too many heads on the floor and it was a struggle to get the spring beans harvested in a catchy September. I doubt the beans will make human consumption with too much Bruchid beetle damage. The non-combinable crops of sugar beet and forage maize have grown well.

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