Safeguarding your soils this season
The theme of the 2019/2020 growing season has been nothing but rain and UK soils are certainly paying the price. It’s not surprising to learn of substantial nutrient losses via leaching. As a result, extra care and attention should be paid to the farm’s greatest asset this spring.
It’s important to assess individual circumstances before leaping into action. The urge to get out into the field as soon as possible can sometimes lead to more damage if the necessary precautions aren’t taken.
Frontier Fertiliser Technical Development Manager, Mike Slater says that there are three field scenarios that growers are likely to deal with: “Each scenario needs to be dealt with on a field-by-field basis. Carrying out a Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure (VESS) can provide valuable insight and is a useful way to compare soils across the farm before planning immediate actions.”
Scenario 1: Land which has been damaged by a late harvest, especially with maize and potatoes
Action: Leave the field until it has dried out, or potentially pull a tine across the surface to help with drainage. Tackling too early will only make the ground worse.
Scenario 2: Land where cultivation happened for autumn drilling but fields were then too wet to sow
Action: The risk of compaction here is high but there will be an urgency to get the fields back to working order so use the lightest tyre weights possible.
Scenario 3: Land that has not been touched since harvest
Action: These fields have the potential to be the first fit for travel but don’t rush – plan for when weather and soil conditions allow.
Record observations from the field to help guide future decisions
It’s incredibly beneficial to log any in-field observations. Available to use on iPads and iPhones, SOYL’s iSOYLscout field scouting app lets you record, monitor and review any features, problems or variations that you notice when out walking.
Any information stored within the app can be synced and GPS-logged to a MySOYL account, available within Frontier’s farm management platform, MyFarm. This information can be shared with the farm’s agronomist too, giving the whole farm team the ability to access and work from accurate data. Knowing the precise locations of certain field features and any areas of concern can help to determine field management plans and application programmes going forward.
Recovering from nitrogen losses
Following the extensive rainfall, AHDB has produced a map to show the winter rainfall classification. This forms part of the RB209 book method for producing a Soil Nitrogen Supply (SNS) index and is a good starting point for putting together a nitrogen programme for this spring.
In conjunction with this information, Frontier has also carried out the measurement of Soil Mineral Nitrogen (kg N/ha) at a number of its nationwide 3D Thinking trial sites. These findings are outlined in the below table:
As an average, the book-based RB209 method is calculating a SNS index of 2. However, after carrying out some analysis of the Soil Mineral Nitrogen using CF Fertilisers’ N-Min Service, the index levels were reduced to an average of index 0, as seen above.
Southern Fertiliser Business Development Manager, Finley Hawkins explains, “If we take wheat as an example, it will have increased by as much as 60kg N/ha against the RB209 nitrogen recommendation (based on standard yields). At this stage in the farming year we don’t yet know yield potential or the type of weather Mother Nature could still throw at us, so we’re advising that growers don’t rush out to apply increased amounts of early nitrogen across the field.
“In the case of backward crops, these will need nitrogen and sulphur in small amounts to reflect demand and the leaching risk, as well fresh phosphorous to improve rooting if possible. As always, overall considerations must be taken around soil conditions in relation to weather events both before and after fertiliser applications.”
Don’t forget sulphur too
Alongside nitrogen the levels of available sulphur will have decreased too. While a large proportion of UK crops are receiving sulphur already, for the 2020 season growers may need to consider increasing inputs as we are likely to be in the high risk category (or the medium at the very least).
Finley continues, “If your current fertiliser programme does not contain sulphur, this is the year to introduce it for all crops on the farm. Don’t compromise by trying to fit a product in and then not making the application; every single crop is likely to benefit from sulphur this season.”
Get the most from your spring nutrition
The priority from September to November was mainly focussed on getting a cereal crop in the ground, so many autumn P and K inputs could have been missed or delayed. However, there is still the potential for decent yield uplifts from fresh spring P and K; this is especially true for phosphorous given the poor rooting of winter cereals.
Spring cereals will need nutrition very early so that crops come out of the ground and accelerate through their growth stages. The overall efficiency of any applied nutrients is absolutely critical too – each kilogram of nutrient should be given every possible opportunity to get into the plant. While this approach is crucial for every season or year, nutrient efficiency in spring 2020 is more important than ever.
Monitoring crop development
There will undoubtedly be a variation in crop growth across both field and farm, so it’s important to make use of any monitoring tools that are available. For example, the real-time biomass imagery accessed through MySOYL offers valuable insight which can help with field management and growth regulation.
“Biomass imagery is a great tool for helping to determine which inputs to use and the appropriate levels,” explains Head of Digital Development, Tom Parker. “For example, significant weather events like those that we’ve seen recently can impact conditions and overall field requirements. While field-walking is always useful, biomass imagery offers accurate readings and information you can’t always assess from the ground.”
Carrying out in-field assessments with tools like the Yara N-Tester, or by physically sampling the leaf and sending it off for laboratory analysis, is incredibly useful too.
Resurrecting soils with cover crops
For some, the barrage of wet weather may have impacted the farm to such an extent that the best option is to leave the land bare.
Unplanted land has the potential to result in slumped soils, loss of nutrient and a decline in overall soil health. However, the careful selection of a cover crop can help to significantly improve soil structure, as well as retain and recycle available nutrients.
If considering a cover crop, Kings Sales Manager, Richard Barnes says there are some key considerations: “Cover crop selection will depend very much on the scenario you are dealing with in the field. Options such as spring rye, phacelia, vetch, oil radish and our Soil Structure Mix are ideal as short term solutions. In the medium term, i.e. periods between three and six months, look to incorporate the likes of crimson, berseem, and red clover. For anything longer you can turn to options such as Herb Rich leys or westerwold annual ryegrass.”
Similarly, if land is proving unsuitable for conventional cropping it could be worth looking at the opportunities available with stewardship. Richard continues, “Entering poor-performing areas of land into a Countryside Stewardship scheme can secure additional revenue for the business while providing multiple benefits to the wider environment.”
If you’d like to know more about any of the services mentioned or are unsure about the best option to suit your own circumstance, please contact your local Frontier, SOYL or Kings advisor, or get in touch.