Soil is a farmer’s most fundamental asset and effective, long-term soil management can bring benefits for both crop production and the environment.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that this win-win features strongly in the SFI (Sustainable Farming Incentive). There are a range of SFI actions that contribute to soil health – for example legumes on improved grassland (NUM2), such as a clover ley at £102/ha; legume fallow on arable land (NUM3) at £593/ha; and companion crops at £55/ha.
However, our focus this time out is the big three, SAM1, SAM2 and SAM3.
SAM1 – test organic matter and produce a soil management plan
£5.80/ha + £95 per agreement
The aim here is to increase your understanding of the soils across the farm. For each field entered, you need to have had a soil organic matter test in the past five years. If you’ve not got these, you need to obtain them in the first year of the agreement and they need to be kept up to date throughout the agreement, ie. no older than five years.
Following NFU lobbying there’s a solution for small fields, which can now be combined into one sample area. There are no precise area requirements set out in the guidance. You’ll also need to have a soil management plan, based on a soil assessment, which needs to be updated annually.
If you’ve already got one for a scheme like Red Tractor, you can use that.
It’s suggested that the plan covers soil type, texture, structure and biology, plus risks to your soils, and you can keep the plan in any form you like, as long as it can be checked by the RPA.
There’s an example in the ‘how to’ guides. Importantly, if you already have land in an agri-environment agreement you can, in most cases, overlay SAM1.
SAM2 – multi-species winter cover crop
This is a rotational action for arable ground, including temporary grassland. The aim is to protect the soil surface during winter (December to February) by having a cover crop in place, which should be a mix of at least two species.
It is possible to graze the cover crop, but you still need to maintain that leafy cover to protect the soil. You can destroy the cover early if you are establishing a spring crop within six weeks.
It is for you to choose the right seed mix. This gives you scope to ensure it fits with your soil types and prevents ‘green bridges’ for pests and diseases between crops.
The other requirement to be aware of is that you can’t use mechanically-applied fertilizer or manure on the crop.
Did you know?
Soil carbon volumes could be improved in approximately 40% of arable land.
SAM3 – herbal lays
Herbal leys provide a varied root structure, which is a good way of improving soil structure. You get more benefit the longer you leave it in place, but you don’t have to keep it in the same location through the agreement.
Again, it is for you to determine which seed mix works best for your land. Your mix just needs to have grasses, legumes and herbs. You should not do this action on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, areas with historic or archaeological features, or on peaty soils (20%-plus organic matter).
Applications – be prepared
Applications will be made through the RPA’s Rural Payment Service. To speed things up, the service will draw in field information already held by RPA on the land register. This means that it is important to ensure your maps are up to date, before you start to apply (there is an exception for hedges, which don't need to be up to date on application).
If your SFI agreement starts at the wrong time to complete an action, then you are required to do the activity within the first 12 months. There is no expectation that you’ll be doing the activity before you enter the agreement. For example, if your agreement starts in January, it will be the following autumn that you need to establish your winter cover crop (SAM2).