Unlocking Soil Potential – George Baxter

With many farmers considering soil their most valuable resource, land managers can delve deeper into understanding how soils are functioning, working to unlock their potential and put more sustainable practices in place.

Probing soil performance by analysing its chemical, biological and physical status is key to feeding its success and generating positive enhancements going forward.

Hutchinsons’ Healthy Soils assessment presents soil health status in a straightforward and easy-to-understand format, allowing trends to be identified which are impacting on the function of soil at all levels.

At a chemical level, this means looking at nutrients in soil, what is available and, more importantly, what is unavailable.

Hutchinsons arable agronomist George Baxter says: “Getting nutrients from the unavailable total fraction could be as simple as changing the form in which you apply fertiliser.

“For example, if you have a lot of iron in soil and you are applying Triple Super Phosphate, the likelihood is it might be getting locked up, so changing to a form which is less prone to lock up would be beneficial. It is about understanding how elements interact in soil and putting clever fertiliser strategies together to get the most out of them.”

This means instead of aiming to meet the demand of the crop being grown, the demand of soil is treated as equally important, supplying it with what it needs to function properly.

Microbes

Mr Baxter says: “This is key to unlocking its potential and getting the soil to work for us. This might mean looking at things such as enhancing soil microbes, instead of just applying inorganic inputs and expecting to get things back. It is about feeding it with the right things to make it flourish.”

In many cases, the solution is simple, says Mr Baxter, with frequent issues being flagged up including soil pH or compaction.

“These are straightforward to get right and make a big difference to how soils perform. However, in some cases there are issues which take longer to rectify, such as deep compaction, but by knowing the field situation, plans can be made to get back on track.”

This makes tracking progress all the more important and the Healthy Soils assessment will create markers for the status of the soil, he says, so growers can assess and validate improvements that have been made.

Mr Baxter says: “Soil health is such a buzz topic, but you need to measure improvements you have made and see which ones made the most impact. If you have a start point, you then have a marker for making improvements and in five years’ time you can assess soil again to quantify what you have achieved. lt is a really good parameter to say this is where my soil was.”

Soil health benchmarking could also prove useful under Government plans, should soil become a public good, providing evidence of improvements which have been made to the state of ground, he adds.

While the Soil Health analysis provides an in-depth assessment of soil health, Hutchinsons’ TerraMap service looks at the field as a whole and can be used to make decisions which reaffirm what is found in the soil assessment, says Mr Baxter.

“On the flip side, you can do a TerraMap assessment and if you want a more detailed look at a part of the field, then the Healthy Soils assessment might be where to go.”

Pre-drilling soil check list

With winter wheat drilling due to kick off, Mr Baxter says growers should consider seedbed conditions carefully before making cultivation decisions this autumn.

“Growers are only going to find their true seedbed conditions by getting out a spade and having a dig. If you have got a good soil profile with lots of worms, you can question your cultivation strategy and how much seed you are going to use depending on drilling date and what soils are like.”

With the damp weather increasing slug pressure, Mr Baxter says attention to detail will be particularly important.

“Look at slugs and straw laying on the top and think about aspects which will make a big difference to your establishment come drilling. The more you look at soil now, it will give you a flavour for what you are going to drill into in the next month or so. There are some fantastic seedbeds out there from reduced cultivations and sometimes you have to farm what’s in front of you. Less is more sometimes.”

Top tips:

  • Get digging – check the soil profile before making cultivation decisions
  • Consider threats to establishment and review pest pressure
  • Do not overwork seedbeds – less is sometimes more