Soil structures and the impact on production

As farmers, we know that soil is fundamentally important for a stable and secure supply of food, but it also plays an important role within the greater environment and climate.  For these reasons, a focussed approach to soil management is crucial and action is needed.

In recent years at MSP, we have seen an increase in the use of cover crops in rotations to help manage this, particularly cover crop mixtures containing rye and legumes such as clover and vetch with the emphasis on deep rooting species for soil structure.

This has come about, partly, due to a growing awareness of the need to improve soil structures and prevent future damage with the choice of crops and cultivations.

So, what can farmers do to make a difference to the soil structures? There are several areas to consider and many simply involve making sure you implement the most efficient management for your farm:

pH & nutrient availability

  • It is important to achieve the correct pH for growing crops in order to maximise nutrient availability and to improve efficiency to get the most out of the fertiliser and crop nutrients that we apply.
  • Ensure you soil sample (match up with tissue analysis if deficiency is observed) to maintain the correct pH and so fertiliser applications can be planned to match crop requirement and maximise nutrient efficiency.

Cultivation

  • When soil is cultivated and subsequently cropped, the natural weathering and soil forming processes speed up. As a result, some soils become shallower over time, losing valuable topsoil, organic matter and crop-available nutrients.
  • With increased cultivation comes a reduction in organic matter and an increase in compaction which is detrimental to nutrient availability and general soil health, greatly reducing crop potential.
  • Cultivations need to be made in the correct weather conditions to reduce compaction risk. Controlled traffic farming, minimum tillage and no-till farming are all viable options in reducing compaction risk.

I cannot stress enough the negative effects soil compaction can have on the productivity of the soil – affecting the physical, chemical and biological properties and functions of the soil. It needs to be taken seriously.

Soil type is also a factor when looking at structure. Speak with your agronomist to discuss your specific farm and the best approach to manage your soil structures.

Soil Organic Matter

Organic matter is a food source for the soil biology and the micro-organisms contained within it, which thrive in healthy, well-aerated soils. Under the right conditions, these micro-organisms play key roles in nutrient availability and disease containment within farming systems.

Soil Organic Matter (SOM) positively influences soil structure, buffers soil pH and improves water holding capacity and aeration. The benefits of SOM are well documented and most arable soils would benefit from applications of organic matter – this can be done in several ways, such as through application of organic manures like FYM, or through using cover crops. 

Adding a cover crop to a rotation is possibly the easiest change in system to implement for many farmers and one that can see almost immediate benefits.

To fix atmospheric nitrogen legumes can be used, while rye and mustard can be used to minimise the risk of nitrate leaching. Some green manure species can be used to improve problems with soil structure. Lucerne, chicory and several radish species have a strong tap root that can break through compacted soils or those with a plough pan. A further advantage of green manures is that they can help prevent soil erosion, binding soil particles together and greatly reducing the loss of topsoil.

At MSP we have seen significant improvements in soil structure following a cover crop. The soil that is turned over is totally different after the roots have broken it all up and aerated it, creating a more porous, aerated soil with finer crumb sizes. It’s an exciting and effective addition to a crop rotation and can offer real benefits to soils.

Our advisors at MSP can offer technical advice regarding mixtures of different species for bespoke cover crops to fit specific situations, and all matters relating to soil health and optimising crop productivity. Get in touch today.

 

By Ben Gothorp, Technical Officer