21 November 2019
Agroforestry event in Melton Mowbray

A Win Win for Farm productivity and the Environment

3 December 2019
iSAGE training course and workshop

Innovations to improve sustainability in the sheep and goat sector

4 November 2019
Calling all UK Sheep farmers!

Survey on breed distribution and management

31 October 2019
Proceedings of the European Conference on Crop Diversification

Abstracts, presentations and workshop reports now online

21 March 2019
In adversity, what are farmers doing to be more resilient?

Opportunities, barriers and constraints in organic techniques helping to improve the sustainability of conventional farming

Soil management for grassland systems

Soil quality and condition is vitally important in grassland farming. There are fewer opportunities for physical intervention compared to cropping systems but much can be done without resorting to the plough. This session will present a range of approaches to address grassland soil problems.
Mark Measures (IOTA/ORC): Chair

Session Summary

All organic farmers know about the importance of soil health in supporting a stable and productive organic system, but understanding what is going on in the world beneath our feet is a massive challenge.

This session explored the chemical and biological nature of the soil environment of grassland systems. Jon Wilson, dairy farmer looked at ways to increase our understanding and tailor management to improve the functioning of the soil, and thus forage productively, and ultimately animal health and productivity.

Key issues discussed included the value of more expensive soil tests such as the Albrecht for finding out the state of your soils; and the use of mechanical methods and manure management to improve the soil.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Expensive soil tests such as the Albrecht are useful for looking beyond NPK in a systems approach to matching soil properties with plant requirements. You are also more likely to pay attention to the results and do something about it when you have paid so much!
  • Soil sampling should be carried out systematically i.e. same time each year, and using the same lab, to make results comparable.
  • Observation is essential to understanding your soils – sight and smell
  • Experiences of the use of aerators were of varying success

Speaker presentations and abstracts

Heather McCalman (IBERS): PROSOIL – 2 years on (1.3MB)

The concept that the quality of agricultural food products is based on the health of the soil is central to organic farming. Working with key industry stakeholders and farmers, the PROSOIL project aims to achieve a better understanding of soil management to optimise farm productivity. Linked to IBERS research that is scientifically determining the impact of improving soil health on forage and livestock productivity and quality, the farmer participation is a key part of the dissemination. At IBERS, plot and field work is evaluating a range of soil management methods to improve soil health. Eight Commercial Development Farmers (CDF), who volunteered during a series of events, are working with IBERS Grassland Development Centre (GDC) to explore the effects of their farming practices on soil health and productivity by making field-scale measurements of soils, forage yield , quality and, where possible, animal performance. The farms represent different sectors of agriculture, soil types and climatic conditions and an organic upland farm is included. Project activity on CDFs is based on soil analyses and recommendations from RB209 and a Base Cation Saturation Ratio approach to soil nutrient management, as well as another soil improvement method chosen by the farmer. Data and information is collated by IBERS GDC, interpreted in a practical context and shared widely during open days, discussion group meetings, newsletters and topical factsheets. The network of farmers meets at IBERS to discuss key ‘PROSOIL’ issues’ and to share knowledge and experience. Early physical results from the farms and their views on the project to date will be presented.

Jon Wilson (Holt Farms, Yeo Valley): Practical soil management and role of soil analysis

Holt Farms comprises 500 ha of land split between the heavier clay loam soils of land adjacent the Blagdon Reservoir and the droughty brash soils 700 feet up in the Mendips. We keep 420 pedigree British Friesian cows in two herds. Soil management has been a challenge on these difficult soils, good soil structure has been difficult to maintain on the clays and the brash soils are of inherently low fertility. Organic farming necessitated a move away from the historically high conventional inputs of both P and K and required an approach which relies more on ensuring better soil structure, good biological activity and improved availability of nutrients. Using the Thompson and Joseph soil analysis and Ground Level Nutrition advice, both based on the Albrecht analysis and approach to soil management, we have focused on improving soil structure, through the use of gypsum kieserite and soil aeration. We have been able to maintain satisfactory forage stocking rates of 1.4 LU/ha. Cow health has been maintained since converting to organic farming, which may also be linked to our soil management.

Elizabeth Stockdale (University of Newcastle): Supporting soil biota in grassland systems - learning from practice (460KB)

In 2011, Elizabeth Stockdale led a Natural England project involving farmers and growers across the UK combining literature review with farmer workshops to allow the evaluation of a range of different farming practices with the potential to deliver benefits through the soil biota, looking at the likely mechanisms, benefits, and practical constraints and opportunities for farming systems. This talk will summarise the key findings for grassland management. The project considered both systems-oriented approaches (involving management changes across the whole farm), and "point interventions", which are usually short-term and target specific aspects of the soil biota or their environment. The project identified three general principles that are most likely to deliver benefits through the soil biota: increase OM inputs to soil; increase diversity of aboveground plant species; and reduce tillage intensity.

In livestock systems, on-farm management changes to manure handling with reduced direct use of slurry and more on-farm composting provide an opportunity to enhance soil biota, mainly through reduced negative impacts of slurry application. In addition, increased species diversity in swards can bring a number of benefits not only linked to the support of soil biota.