Why good soil health is a win win for farms and the environment
The South West benefits broadly from healthy soils, with soil organic matter ranging from 4-12%, compared to a global average of below 1.5%. Tom Tolputt, founder and technical director at Terrafarmer, believes this is a status farmers should be proud of and manage effectively for better farm performance.
Soil organic matter
“We have a great starting point to work from and can take advantage of it to build resilience for the future. By building soil organic matter, you increase a soil’s ability to hold moisture and improve the infiltration rate, protecting your land for extreme weather events, be it floods or droughts, more and more of which we’ve experienced in recent years.
“Increasing biology in the soil provides more nutrients which, over time, reduces the need to add them artificially. As well as improving the soil, this has a positive financial impact on a farming business.
“Each farm is unique, but there are some fundamental practices applicable to all systems. Look at cultivation, for example. Adopting a reduced or zero tillage policy will protect the soil structure and certainly try to avoid deep ploughing which buries your best nutrients.
“Feed soils like you feed yourself – with a balanced diet. This builds soil biology. Look beyond traditional fertilisers to alternatives such as green crop residues. Incorporate them into the top 10cm to feed soil bacteria, or use composts and manure to feed the fungal mycorrhizal network. These increase the soil’s ability to mobilise locked up phosphorus and synthesise its own nitrogen, once again reducing the need for costly artificial fertiliser.
“But however you decide to feed your land, make sure applications are little and often when the plant is growing. Excessive applications can do more harm than good.”
“The benefits of using cover crops for providing organic matter and available nutrients to soil are widely known, and many farms in this region have already adopted this technique into a rotation. When using them, assess each plant on its merit; different plants bring different nutrients to the subsequent crop, so look at what works for your business.”
Tom also advises not leaving the ground bare over winter. “Bare ground is a missed opportunity to use a cover crop which can pump carbon into the soil, feed the fungal networks and nourish it for next season's crop.”
The South West has a high percentage of mixed farms, which Tom stresses is a significant advantage for soil health. “Integrating livestock into a rotation is hugely beneficial, but if that’s not possible, look at introducing perennial crops into your arable system. The potential to improve the soil is significant. Research has shown the number of earthworms (an indicator of soil health) can triple within 18 months of a grass or herbal ley being sown.”
The importance of soil management continues to increase as more emphasis is placed on improving soil health and reducing inputs. Tom suggests a focus on understanding your soils and correcting any imbalances results in better farm performance and a reduction in carbon footprint.
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming Programme