Soil: Its health, our future – Farmers Guide – Dick Neale

A virtual open day recently held by Claydon highlighted the importance of soil health and sustainable crop production systems ...

“The future viability of the agricultural sector will depend on growers embracing more environmentally and financially sustainable crop production systems,” said farmer and strip seeding pioneer, Jeff Claydon, during the filming of a Virtual Open Day at the Claydon factory and 340-hectare arable enterprise at Wickhambrook, Suffolk, in May.

The event incorporated a range of soil, crop and machinery-related presentations. The event started with a presentation by Jeff Claydon on the importance of optimising soil health and how to achieve it. During a tour of the Claydon farm, Dick Neale, technical manager for leading agronomy company Hutchinsons, also emphasised the importance of soil health and soil structure, how to assess it, and the role of cover crops.

The Virtual Open Day also saw export sales manager Simon Revell discuss how worms are nature’s indicators of good soil health, while commercial director Spencer Claydon outlined how the company’s TerraBlade inter-row hoe provides a low-cost, mechanical method of controlling weeds in combinable, band-sown crops. Oliver Claydon, operations and manufacturing director, then talked through the key benefits of the Claydon Hybrid drill, the cornerstone of the Claydon Opti-Till System.

Excellent results despite the weather

“After a season of very erratic weather farmers have been in reflective mood as many who relied on conventional or min-till methods were often unable to establish their planned area of autumn- and spring-sown crops. To avoid being in that position again, many are reconsidering their approach and looking to adopt a more efficient, resilient system which reduces the weather-related, agronomic, environmental, and financial risks involved in crop production,” explained Jeff.

“Last autumn on the Claydon farm we established all 280 hectares of winter wheat, beans and oilseed rape that were planned in just 70 hours using the Opti-Till System.

“After harvest we had plenty of time to carry out an effective stubble management programme with a 15m Claydon Straw Harrow and 6m TerraStar. All our winter wheat was in the ground by 31st October, somewhat later than normal, and the autumn establishment programme was completed on 19th November when the last of the winter beans went in using our 6m Hybrid T6c drill. Despite atrocious weather at the time, the crops established well and even headlands areas now look exceptional.

“Wider crop rotations, combined with a 50:50 split between wheat and break crops, have helped to spread the workload. After harvest we had plenty of time to carry out an effective stubble management programme with our 15m Straw Harrow and 6m TerraStar. This encouraged multiple flushes of volunteers and weeds, any remaining green material being killed off with a single application of full-rate glyphosate in October/November. For spring crops this left fields clean but with a shallow layer of surface tilth which provided ideal conditions over the winter and prevented the surface from capping.

“Between the end of September and mid-March we had only three consecutive dry days, but our soils remained in excellent health. When the rain finally stopped, we had almost the exact opposite situation: no rain, dry winds, and hot sunshine. Nevertheless, we were able to drill the remaining 46 hectares of spring crops directly into this perfect growing environment during the last week of March, then in the last week of April 30mm of rain arrived just at the right time,” Jeff concluded.

Enormous benefits for the soil

Dick Neale surveyed soils on the Claydon farm and found them to be in optimum condition, with excellent structure and permeability. He used coloured dye to highlight how worm burrows allow water to permeate the profile and root structures to develop. He stated:
“The Opti-Till System generates enormous benefits to soil biota, soil structure and crop performance, with only straw returned to the soil and no organic matter added from other sources such as manures or digestate.

“Conventional full cultivations and min-till systems can over-work the soil, while sunlight kills the bacteria in the inverted soil. These methods also reduce worm populations by up to 80 per cent, inhibiting the soil’s ability to drain water away in wet weather and increasing moisture losses in dry conditions. Starving the crop’s roots of essential air and nutrients reduces yield potential and increases the cost-per-tonne of production, whilst the risks from flooding and soil erosion are substantially higher. Similarly, the use of min-till systems and disc-type direct drills results in soils which drain poorly and flood easily, creating crops with poor rooting structures and low yield potential.

“With Opti-Till most worm burrows are left undisturbed, which safeguards their numbers and helps drainage. Roots from the previous crop are also left largely undisturbed, adding to the level of soil bacteria, and improving soil structure. Organic matter depletion is minimised due to nominal soil disturbance, whilst moisture and nitrogen are preserved.”

This spring Mr Neale’s work on the Claydon farm included taking 10 spade-sized soil samples from a field of winter wheat and in one he found up to 52 Epigeic, Anecic and Endogeic worms.

“That tells me that the soil is in good shape,” Dick Neale stated. “Worms burrow up to 2m deep and are fundamental to efficiently draining and oxygenating the soil, acting as pumps by pushing oxygen around the network of borrows as they move through the profile. If soil has 30 deep-working earthworms per square metre things really start to happen and the benefits quickly become apparent,” concluded Dick.

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