Andrew Pitts is a second-generation farmer working 2,000 acres of land at Moat Farm, Northamptonshire. He hosts the Hutchinsons’ Helix Technology Development Farm at Whiston, which gives him early sight of new technologies and the opportunity to test them on his farm with minimal risk to the business.
Actionable insights from soil and cost mapping
Over the last five years Andrew has moved the farm towards minimum tillage and direct drilling. He has gained useful input from Michael Shemilt, the Helix Farm agronomist, that has enabled him to build soil health and resilience to reduce risks from extreme weather events.
Cost mapping for decision making
Michael used Hutchinsons’ Omnia service to produce baselines for the farm. The service provides soil and cost maps that not only show the soil composition, but also the input costs, yield and return for each parcel of land.
The baseline assessment of the Lockstump Field at Moat Farm revealed that the top section of the field was performing very poorly, with a wheat yield of 5t/ha compared to 13-15t/ha for the rest of the field. The input costs were also double for this section of the field.
Data reveals nutrients stored in soil
Further analysis of the field using the Gold Soil Test demonstrated to Andrew that there are two pools of nutrients – those that are readily available to the crop and those that are ‘complexed’ and locked away in the soil.
The mineral elements – sand, silt and clay – and the cation exchange capacity (CEC) gives an indication of the nutrient holding capacity of the soil.
The larger the CEC, the bigger the nutrient reserves and thus the greater potential for nutrient saving if the soil can be stimulated to cycle its nutrients.
Big question: ‘what is stopping the nutrients from cycling?’
Talking at a recent farm open day, Ian Robertson, Hutchinsons’ Head of Soil Services, explained that the big question has moved from ‘what is deficient in the soil?’ to ‘what is stopping the nutrients from cycling?’
The acidity of the soil is a big factor in reducing the availability of nutrients such as phosphate, it also impacts the ratio of bacteria to fungi in the biome. Adding calcium and organic matter to a clay soil, for example, can reduce the acidity – in turn unlocking the nutrients.
Some of the species grown within a cover crop also have a role in adjusting the acidity of the soil. Additionally, their root networks and exudates feed the microbes and mini beasts in the soil. Increasing organic matter and biological activity in the soil accelerates cycling of nutrients and improves soil structure, increasing water retention and building greater resilience to adverse weather.
Taking data-informed action on-farm
Reducing acidity to release nutrients – Although initially sceptical of cover crops, Andrew is now a convert. Selecting the right combination of plants in a herbal ley has adjusted the pH of the soil and made a visual improvement to its health.
He says: “Based on information about soil quality and cost production maps, we made the decision to take this section out of cropping and instead plant a fertility-building mixture containing clovers, tillage radishes, buckwheat, phacelia and linseed to enhance the soil rather than leave it totally fallow. That proved to be a big success.
Improving soil resilience to adverse conditions – Peas are a high risk, high value crop that is sensitive to soil quality. Andrew continues: “When we were cropping the whole field, this top section increased the risk. Waiting for the clay caps to dry out meant we were delayed from drilling at the optimum time and as that section was late to ripen, it would also delay combining. You have a small window of opportunity for these procedures.
“As our soils have improved through better soil management, the areas that in the past considered not cropping have got smaller. It’s a leap of faith to change but over time the soil will get better, and you can see it with your own eyes.”
Reducing need for crop protection products – Other adaptions include strips of wildflowers across the fields to provide a habitat for natural predators – known as a beetle bank. This habitat also supports pollinators.
Reducing need for crop protection products – Other adaptions include strips of wildflowers across the fields to support pollinators and provide a habitat for natural predators – known as a beetle bank.
Improving water management – The water strategy has moved away from drainage towards increasing water retention in the soil. Organic matter increases water storage and worm holes enable greater penetration of the water. This banks the water from the winter for use by the crop in summer. Andrew says it is noticeable how the soil retains its structure and is now more resilient during extremes of hot and wet weather.
Reducing risk with Sustainable Farming Incentive brings dilemmas
Crop choices can also reduce risk, as Andrew explains: “To further de-risk the business we are considering reducing the break crops as they are too risky. We lost two-thirds of our Oil Seed Rape crop this year, not to cabbage stem flea beetle as expected, but to winter stem weevil. Linseed is another high-risk crop.
“As an alternative, we are considering using the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) which is coming in August 2023. This would provide an opportunity for fertility-building and soil-improvement between the second and first wheat. It would further reduce the amount of bagged nitrogen used and we would be paid to do it, increasing the gross margin on this land.
“This would be a massive change for the farm, but it also creates a real conflict because that could mean as much as a third of our cropped area would not produce a food crop. There is an ethical issue there. If we don’t produce it, who is, where is it coming from?”
“You’ve got technical input, crop protection and specialist advice, and coming through there is SFI stuff. All of those elements each add a layer of de-risking and that’s how we try to survive in an ever-changing political and financial world.
“The theme of REAP is very topical and I am looking forward to participating in the discussion.”
This post originally appeared on TechToday.