Soil health and Regen Ag take centre stage at CropTec
Defra’s introduction of the Sustainable Farming Incentive’s (SFI) soil standards has reinforced the importance of building a healthy soil system. With this in mind, CropTec’s seminar series this year featured Soil Health and Regen Ag. These are key focus areas for CHAP, so here are our impressions for those not able to attend.
The first seminar was chaired by Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation, at CHAP partner Cranfield University, who acknowledged that soil health was increasingly recognised as being important for growers and agronomists. As more emphasis is placed on regen ag and sustainable farming practices, soil health will continue to be at the heart of agriculture, as regenerative agriculture depends hugely on building up and maintaining the strength of our soils.
The first speaker was Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, head of farming systems research, at CHAP partner NIAB, who looked at ‘Soils in practice: Building a healthy soil system to boost productivity and stabilise carbon’.
Soil health remains a central focus of agricultural policy and an integral part of the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) – but what do healthy soils look like on the farm and how can they contribute to carbon management? She examined some of the practical steps growers can take to monitor and improve their soils and access agri-environment financial support while boosting productivity.
Dr Stockdale’s focus was on viewing soils as separate and distinct. She pointed out that there is no single thing that we can point to and say, ‘that is soil’. Rather we need to think about soils in the plural. Different types of soil need to be handled in different ways to maintain and improve them. They also need different indicators of soil health, all of which involve an equal understanding of their combined biology, chemistry and physical properties.
She said that while the best thing we can do for our soils is to move it only when necessary, that doesn’t mean that everyone should immediately stop ploughing. There will continue to be a need to plough, but ‘the key is to plough well’, to do it at the right time, in the right conditions and to the optimum depth for that specific soil.
Farmers need to do regular field assessments to measure the chemical properties pH and nutrients and also checking on physical and biological properties. While it is not necessary to test every site every year, it is key to ensure testing is replicated in the exact place. As soils can vary hugely even within a single field, Growers need to have a rotational focus and be very precise about the positioning of the soil samples. For this reason, Dr Stockdale recommended using what3words in order to be able to sample soil one year and then be able to go back a few years later to the exact same spot for another sample.
She acknowledged that it takes time to build up a picture of what is happening in the soils, but said that locating sample points accurately would ensure farmers and agronomists had the best possible information at their fingertips.
The good news, as Dr Stockdale pointed out, is that ‘farmers are much better than scientists at assessing their own soils’ as they know the history and the local conditions and climate.
The second speaker was Thomas Gent, who spoke about the work he and his family have done for more than a decade to introduce and use sustainable farming methods on their farm in south Lincolnshire. He shared his perspective on the mechanical and biological soil management techniques implemented on the family farm. He also spoke about the launch of Gentle Farming, which aims to reward and recognise farmers carrying out sustainable farming techniques. and explained the system of carbon credits he has started to promote in the UK.
The Gentle Farming system enables farmers to input data on a field by field basis to understand each field’s carbon position and potential certificate yield. This information helps plan the year’s operations taking account of potential for carbon certificate yields that will result in.
He said the system had been praised for its ease of use and simple input system, which typically take around 30 mins to input 100 hectares for the first time. He was keen to stress that farmers need to stay in control of their carbon credits from year to year, and not sell them on a long-term contract of up to 20 years, which could cause problems in the future.
Other seminars throughout the event focused on:
There was also a lively lunchtime debate on Regenerative Agriculture, with the panel members, Ed Horton, Ben Taylor-Davies “Regen Ben” and Will Goff, each giving their own personal and very different experiences of switching to sustainable and regenerative farming practices.
It is clear that interest in Regen Ag and soil health is continuing to grow, and that can only be good for the industry, for the battle to reach Net Zero and for the health of the planet.