Estate Builds Healthier Soils Within an Intensive Rotation

– Midland Farmer

  • Profit and soils status both important
  • Small changes can bring big benefits
  • Long term approach to improvements

A Shropshire estate is determined to show soil health can be improved within an intensive root-cropping rotation as it strives to bolster its environmental and financial sustainability.

The 350ha Isle Estate on the banks of the River Severn north-west of Shrewsbury has been owned by the same family since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and its current lifetime tenant and trustee Edward Tate is eager to secure a sustainable future for the farm.

“As a business, it has to be productive and profitable, but we’ve also got a duty to hand the land back in better condition than we took on,” he says. “Soil is our main asset and we must nurture it for
current use and future generations.”

Yield Plateau

Mr Tate acknowledges growing potatoes in the rotation, although profitable, is not usually conducive to building healthier soil given the mechanical disturbance involved. But he says the enterprise is an important source of income.

Recent years have seen arable yields plateau, possibly because of organic matter depletion, declining soil biodiversity and compaction issues. There is the added challenge of preventing nutrients leaching into the river that almost surrounds the farm.

As part of the drive to tackle these problems, Hutchinsons agronomist Ed Brown has been called upon to conduct a thorough assessment of the current soil conditions and develop a long-term management plan.

The estate has also teamed up with experts from Harper Adams and Ashton universities, and the Field Studies Council for a five year project to enhance the natural environment and biodiversity.

Benchmarking status

The starting point for any soil management plan is to accurately assess the existing status, says Mr Tate. Quantification and knowing where you’re starting from is crucial, he adds.

An electromagnetic survey was carried out to map variations in soil type across the arable area two years. Mr Brown checked the readings to ensure the soil texture map was accurate and any variations were due to genuine textural differences, not other factors, such as compaction.

A Healthy Soils assessment was then carried out on three fields of different soil types. This showed that the three main soil types – sandy silt loam, sandy loam and clay loam – were sensitive to overworking. Slumping, compaction and poor infiltration were particular issues.

Biodiversity assessments showed a large decline in worm numbers after potatoes compared with fields out of potatoes for five years.

There were good phosphate and potash reserves in two of three fields assessed. Areas with lower reserves were prioritised to receive compost. Organic matter content was a reasonable 3.5% but there was a need to replace seasonal carbon losses and increase overall levels.

“We’re certainly not starting from rock bottom as there were a lot of positives, but there are many things we can improve,” says Mr Brown. The estate has now embarked on a soil improvement programme to implement the findings.

“Hopefully this farm will demonstrate improvements to soil health can be made while still growing a productive rotation that includes intensive crops like potatoes. It’s not always about drastic changes to rotation and switching to direct drilling.”

Farming at the Isle Estate

130ha (320 acres) cultivated
Generally sandy loam soil
Seasonal grazing for 600 sheep and woodland
Cropping includes milling wheat, fodder maize and potatoes for Walkers crisps.