Improving farm soil to align with the Agriculture Bill – find out what is happening in your soil.
The Agriculture Bill legislation introduces a new land management system that will replace the Basic Payment Scheme subsidy system over the next seven years. It will also reward farmers for their efforts to improve air and water quality and provide habitats for wildfire.
It is interesting to note that the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) say that in 2018 the UK food supply was only 61 per cent self-sustaining. An important part of the Bill aims to bring transparency and fairness into the supply chain.
This hopefully will also address the 39 per cent production shortfall that the UK will have to import to maintain food supply.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Our landmark Agriculture Act will transform the way we support farmers. The funds released as a result of the phasing out of the legacy Basic Payment Scheme will be re-invested into a roll-out of our future farming policy, which will be centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of new woodland and other ecosystem services to help tackle challenges like climate change.”
I do wonder if the future government will be able to ‘re-invest’ in agriculture now that so many billions of pounds have been spent supporting people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aims of the Agriculture Bill
The essential aims of the Bill are to boost productivity and maximise the potential of land for producing high-quality food in a more sustainable way. Boosting productivity sustainably takes time and patience as soil does not change overnight and can take decades to improve.
The photograph below is a case in point. Eight years ago, virtually any crop sown in this field would fail (or yield a minimal return) largely due to drought stress in the spring. When you consider that the 25-50cm lighter soil band that is clearly visible in the profile used to be the colour/condition of the topsoil, it can be seen that the farmer has listened to advice and been able to make significant progress towards a productive environment that should dovetail with the ‘sustainable farming practices’ element of the Agriculture Bill.
Even though the soil has lost invaluable clay particles, the organic matter content has been increased significantly above the anticipated one to 1.5 per cent for a Sandy Loam soil.
The steady improvements have been made by utilising a combination of direct-drill techniques; whole-cropping oats and peas; drilling stubble turnips for sheep grazing by a local farmer; spreading poultry litter onto standing crops in the spring; incorporating farm yard manure after a cover crop in February; growing Rye (as it thrives in impoverished environments) for straw and utilising the grain production for pigs. Even now, the soil rarely sustains a viable winter wheat, but winter barley can now be grown with reasonable success. The more typical cropping is now a cover crop of vetch, rye and fodder radish followed by spring barley or more often naked spring oats.
The more traditional farming cultivation strategy of plough press and power-harrow has only served to destroy the inherited structure and fertility of the soil. This strategy created the situation that allowed the more productive clay particles to be either washed through the soil profile or separated by granular segregation. The result was the creation over the decades of a field that was unprofitable.
The soil profile analysis below the picture quantifies the movement of the more productive clay particles. Clay has a negative charge, which holds the positively charged (cations) nutrients in the soil colloid that any crop needs for productivity. Once the clay moves down through the soil profile it will not return! This schematic details the different sizes of the soil constituent parts.
Silt and clay both have a negative surface charge, which binds on to the positively charged cations in the soil retaining them for productivity.
Conversely, sand is inert (neither positively or negatively charged) and only provides pore space in the soil for drainage and air infiltration. It is interesting to note that the roots of the previous barley crop have penetrated over 60cm through the profile to access water and nutrients.
It is crucial that the roots of the previous barley crop can penetrate as far as possible through the soil profile, and in this case the roots have penetrated over 60cm to access water and nutrients.
Roots are much cheaper than metal. Appropriately designed and implemented cover crops, and a crop rotation that matches soil with farm objectives, will both help to restructure soil biota to significantly increase profitability and productivity. Healthy crops grown in productive soils sequester atmospheric carbon (via photosynthesis) and will play a significant part in generating a healthier planet.
Every time soil is ploughed the carbon is volatilised back into the atmosphere, the essential soil microbe Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) are irradiated and killed, and worms are killed or eaten by birds. AMF have a symbiotic relationship with the highly nutritious exudate that plant roots produce and in return they flood the soil with hydrogen ions that liberate soil borne nutrition for the plants to absorb by osmosis.
So, for farmers to remain profitable they need to start to grow liquid carbon (Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi – AMF) in their soils now so that they can produce food in a sustainable way for the future of UK food production.