As featured in Arable Farming Magazine March 2021
HS2 survey to inform nutrient management guide
by Arable Farming
A unique opportunity to improve RB209, the industry’s ‘bible’ on managing crop nutrients, has arisen from the HS2 project. Andrew Blake reports.
Soil surveys carried out along the proposed route of HS2, from London to Crewe and Leeds, have produced valuable information which AHDB believes could help fill knowledge gaps identified in reviews of RB209.
Analysis of the results was conducted by Stephen Heming, of Reading Agricultural Consultants, who examined the relationships between soil nutrients, pH, organic matter, and texture between levels in upper subsoil and topsoil.
All samples were tested at the Berkshire-based NRM laboratory for pH, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, total organic carbon and nitrogen.
Key findings highlight changes in cultivation practices, the impact of sampling depth and the extent of P and K deficiency.
In the survey, samples were taken at depths between 0-30cm and 25-50cm.
The results show P and K deficiency in topsoils is much greater than indicated by the 2019-2020 Professional Agricultural Analysis Group survey of national laboratories, says Dr Heming (see table).
One reason is arable topsoils were sampled to 22-30cm depth compared to the standard 0-15cm, he says.
“Reduced cultivation depth has lulled us into a sense of having better nutrient levels than are actually present over the whole topsoil depth.” Even so, there were also many cases of excess P and/or K indices with soil texture a big influence.
P tended to be higher in lighter soils than heavier ones, while K showed the reverse trend.
Dr Heming believes texture-adjusted guidance is needed in RB209 to make better use of excess soil P or K and to give faster ‘builds’ where the index is low.
These results may help refine maximum soil P levels above which further phosphate additions could enhance leakage to groundwater.
“35mg/litre in topsoil [mid index 3] is the point above which subsoil P can rise sharply in lighter soils.
However, such soils are not an environmental risk if erosion is controlled and P is unlikely to leach into groundwater except in sand or alluvial subsoils.
Nevertheless, above 35mg/litre soil P, applying phosphate fertiliser seems unjustified in most situations.
“In clay subsoils P tends to be lower, index 0, even when there is 35mg/litre in the topsoil, though it can be higher.
Subsoil P needs measuring below 40cm to determine any possibility of P reaching drains.
“The upper subsoil is an important contributor to crops’ potassium uptake.
The analysis shows it contains less available K than topsoil.
When topsoil was within index 2-, clay subsoil was rarely less than upper index 1, whereas in sandy, light loamy or stony subsoils K could be lower, especially where subsoil had little organic matter.” Dr Heming concludes that for a safety margin, it is better to maintain topsoil above 150mg/ litre (mid index 2-).
Few clay subsoils were below 90mg/litre (mid index 1) with the exception of the Carboniferous clays common in the North East where farmers may need to increase K fertiliser applications, Dr Heming suggests.
RB209 could now clarify which heavier soils are likely to be high K-releasing, non-releasing or in an intermediate category, he adds.
“Only 60% of the variation in subsoil K could be predicted from topsoil K and texture, so in all potassium response experiments, upper subsoil to 50cm should be checked also.” RB209’s soil nitrogen supply adjustment uses soil organic matter as a proxy for total nitrogen to predict N mineralisation for crops.
“This is questionable because the carbon to nitrogen ratio varied from eight to one and 14:1.
It also increased with carbon content and reduced with clay content, so total N is best measured directly.” Initial estimates of average carbon stocks to 50cm depth were 95-125 tonnes per hectare in arable land.
“There’s a huge range and it’s influenced by soil type,” says Dr Heming.
Rare opportunity welcomed
David Langton, Origin Enterprises research and development innovation manager, welcomes the ‘rare opportunity to get soil analysis data from different depths with all samples having soil texture analysis, which is missing from the PAAG data’.
“There’s a progressive shift to less mixing of soil at depth with shallower cultivations which impacts on nutrient distribution and therefore soil sampling strategies.
“This data shows that some soils tend to have significant levels of P and/or K in the subsoil while others do not.
This could influence the target indices adopted or possibly lead to growers soil sampling the upper subsoil as well as topsoil.” The data also provides information to better guide index build rates by soil texture, which should enhance RB209, he believes.
“Growers could develop more refined nutrient management strategies through a better understanding of the soil nutrients available to their crops down the soil profile in different soil textures.
“P availability is more critical early in a crop’s life when it has a small root system and availability is lower in the colder winter months.
Although K is needed throughout that life, it’s the massive daily demand during rapid stem extension which needs considering.
This data shows there may or may not be K in the subsoil to supplement that which is known through standard soil analysis to be in the topsoil.
“This new data provides insights on environmental impact as well.”
*AHDB project 21140072b Analysis of nutrients, pH and organic matter in English topsoils and subsoils to inform RB209 revisions
1 July 2020 – 31 December 2020
Funding: £2,700 (all AHDB)