Precision approaches for sustainable soils

Precision approaches and technologies will play a key role in successful, economically viable and resilient management of crop systems to maximise soil health gains, while supporting yield resilience.

 

The CHAP Field Scale Precision Equipment, based at Stockbridge Technology Centre, North Yorkshire, is being used in the EU-funded Horizon 2020 Diversify project. Dr Jennifer Banfield-Zanin, Senior Project Manager, Stockbridge Technology Centre, explains the challenge and methodology behind the project.

 

Challenge: Agricultural production needs to increase by 60% by 2050 in order to feed the growing global population. Despite this, improvements to crop yields have shown signs of having plateaued, while pressure on farmers to produce crops sustainably with fewer inputs has grown. The arable sector also faces the need to meet other key production challenges, as driven by political, societal and environmental pressures. These include reduction of soil erosion and surface water pollution, fixing of atmospheric nitrogen and recycling of unused soil nitrogen, and, critically, the management and improvement of soil health, which underpins productivity as well as environmental benefits.

Precision approaches and technologies will play a key role in successful, economically viable and resilient management of crop systems to maximise soil health gains, while supporting yield resilience.

Study Title: Precision strip-tillage approaches and polyculture: managing perennial clover living mulches for soil health benefit

Methodology:

The EU-funded Horizon 2020 project DIVERSify (“Designing InnoVative plant teams for Ecosystem Resilience and agricultural Sustainability”) brings together a consortium of 23 international partners, including Stockbridge Technology Centre, with the aim of increasing biodiversity in crop systems through polyculture. Species-rich systems often show higher productivity, increased resilience to environmental challenges and decreased pest, disease and weed pressure, but changes to management practices are often required to realise these benefits.

Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the DIVERSify project learns from tacit knowledge of innovative practitioners, and brings together growers, plant breeders and researchers to facilitate development of concepts, methods and decision tools for the improvement of crops grown in ‘plant teams’.

The CHAP Field Scale Precision Equipment plays a key role in STC’s field validation trials, where the potential of clover ‘living mulches’ is being tested as part of this large five-year project. Grown as perennial green crop understories, living mulches can provide multi-functional benefits; among other things these include improved soil fertility, structure and organic matter content, as well as reduced weed pressure. Nevertheless, the need to mitigate competition between the clover and the crop, which can lead to reduced yield, is essential.

Precision cultivation of the living mulch, using the RTK GPS-supported CHAP strip-till cultivator, allows drilling of the crop into a prepared seed bed, in strips that can be repeatedly placed with high accuracy year after year, at a commercial scale. This supports germination and establishment rates of the sown crop, while leaving undisturbed strips of clover that maintain the associated soil and plant health benefits of a minimum tillage approach.

Commenting on the significance of the CHAP Field Scale Precision Equipment, Dr Dave George (Reader, Newcastle University) said: “We’ve known about the many benefits of polycultural production systems since the very early days of what we now call agriculture. In recent times, however, we’ve moved away from plant team approaches and towards high-input monocultures. This has worked well in increasing yields and has supported a human population that has doubled over the past 50 years or so.

“With current challenges to farming, however, it is questionable whether monoculture represents a sustainable way to feed ourselves into the future. Plant teams can help here, but we need to overcome the agronomic challenges they present to allow their biological benefits to shine through.

“The CHAP Strip Till is a great example of how we can engage with modern machinery and precision agriculture to achieve this goal through a marriage of agro-ecology and engineering.”

Living mulches, soil health, and grand challenges:

Applying the leading-edge machinery platform provided by the CHAP Field Scale Precision Equipment, with high levels of accuracy and repeatability, is allowing for the thorough validation of crop management options and combinations that maximise productivity while also supporting soil health. It also allows for the refinement of existing approaches which, combined with developing technologies to drive innovative approaches and crop solutions, will play a role in addressing key challenges for agricultural industry.

For more information go to our Field Scale Precision Equipment capability page or visit Stockbridge Technology Centre.  Further details of the project can be visited on the DIVERsify website

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For more information go to our international pest horizon scanning capability page or visit cabi.org

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