Farmers manage 71% of Britain’s iconic countryside, and are dedicated to enhancing and protecting the environment, maintaining habitats for native plants and animals, maintaining footpaths, protecting watercourses and supporting wildlife species. Without fertile soils, farming is not productive. That’s why British farmers prioritise the protection and management of soil.
Soil is a farmer's greatest asset as we know that healthy soil means healthy yields, a healthier environment and resilience to future climate change.
Farmers naturally recognise the importance of soil as keeping fields in good condition ensures sustainable production in the future.
Crop rotation is just one way in which farmers can help soil fertility. Bioenergy production gives the opportunity to diversify the crop rotation, benefiting IPM and soil health as well as supporting food security, investment and environmental benefits.
Today, at the Devon and Cornwall soils alliance meeting, the Environment Agency has published a report which it says aims to widen understanding about the state of soils.
“Farmers have an inherent interest in maintaining their land in good condition and in assuring its long-term fertility and productivity.
“Farmers manage approximately 71% of the landscape in England and are therefore key, not only to help maintain and enhance our environment, but also produce high quality safe and affordable food.
“Recent years have seen an increasing interest in, and wider adoption of, practices designed to protect and enhance soil quality by farmers like the use of reduced tillage technology so soil is not overworked and damaged, cover cropping to reduce soil erosion and replenish nutrients essential for crop growth, and the use of low impact machinery to reduce soil compaction, which can improve root growth and make it easier for water to penetrate the soil.
“Progress could be slowed if farmers are not supported in the new system of public money for public good. It is imperative that farmers are rewarded for agricultural management practices that maintain and improve soil.”
Last December, the NFU launched its Farmed Environment report ‘United by our environment, our food, our future’ which contained a section on the importance of soil. You can read the report here.
Farmers are increasingly aware of the link between good soil management and increased productivity.
Defra’s 2018 Farm Practices Survey showed that 74% of farms know the soil type for each of their fields and 35% keep track of the organic matter content of their soil. The more farmers know about their soils, the better placed they are to actively make strategic management decisions to maintain and improve the health of their soil, from informed choices about cultivation methods and crop rotations to decisions regarding the input of organic matter.
The use of compost and digestate can help improve soil organic matter, reduce the use of manufactured fertilisers and means more material is recycled into the land.
Soil is an extremely complex system and there is still much to be researched and learned on a practical scale. Soil biology thrives when the chemical and physical conditions are correct. Soil chemical properties (like nutrient content and acidity/alkalinity) and physical properties are the most commonly measured elements.
Biological parameters are more difficult to measure and understand. Soils are host to very diverse and complex ecosystems – some species like earthworms are known for breaking down organic matter and reducing soil compaction, while nitrogenfixing bacteria around the roots help fix this vital nutrient required for plant growth.
In the UK, approximately 64% of agricultural land2 is permanent grassland and common rough grazing. This soil acts as a carbon storage area, mitigating against climate change and locking in greenhouse gases that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
Peatland also plays an important role in agriculture as well as acting as an important store of carbon. Lowland peatlands such as the Humberhead Levels, the Lyth Valley, the Somerset Levels and Moors, and the Fens support a wide range of crops such as cereals, grass for livestock and high-value field vegetables, potatoes, sugar beet, as well as bulbs and flowers.
Upland peatland areas, such as the Pennines, North York Moors, parts of the Lake District, and in the uplands of the South West, are dominated by livestock farming.
Initiatives like the CFE, Tried & Tested and the Voluntary Initiative have played a key role in helping protect and improve soil health. Statistics from 2014 show 72,000 hectares of land were put into voluntary soil protection measures under CFE. These measures included in-field and watercourse buffer strips to protect against soil erosion, and winter cover crops using seed mixes with a diverse range of root lengths to reduce soil compaction and retain important nutrients.
The NFU will continue to work with industry-led initiatives to emphasise the necessity of maintaining and improving soil health.
Other initiatives are also having a positive impact. Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) gives free training and advice to farmers in selected areas of England with the aim of improving the environmental performance of their farms, and includes soil condition and nutrient management among its training topics.
LEAF Marque Farms’ Integrated Farm Management is a site-specific farm business approach that uses the best of modern technology and traditional methods to help increase productivity while protecting valuable resources.
Regulation has also been used as a way to protect and enhance soil quality. The Farming Rules for Water, introduced in April 2018, contain rules aimed specifically at soils which require farmers to test their soils and then produce management plans to improve soil nutrient levels and meet crop needs.
But regulation can, at times, be a blunt, inefficient and costly tool. It is possible for the same outcomes to be achieved through carefully targeted advice and information and voluntary action, alongside a greater emphasis on monitoring and research, with proportional and targeted regulation used when other more appropriate and cost-effective measures have failed to achieve results.
Water companies are also investing more in working with farmers to educate about, and incentivise, actions that help prevent soil erosion and soil loss to watercourses. One example is Wessex Water’s EnTrade project, which invited farmers to bid for funding to grow cover crops over winter to reduce nitrogen leaching into watercourses, and to return arable land to grassland to prevent soil erosion.
While progress is being made there is more work to do. Projects like the CFE and CSF have an important role to play in providing farmers with the information they need to make further improvements in soil health and the NFU and its members will continue to be involved in these projects.
The way land is cultivated needs to suit the soil and cropping type of each farm. The benefits of organic matter, as well as the encouragement of cover cropping and other organic matter inputs, also need to be more widely explained as does the effects of erosion on watercourses.