AHDB Rotations Research Partnership


Core collaborators

NIAB CUF; Rothamsted Research; James Hutton Institute; Lancaster University.
Partner collaborators
Aarhus University; BIOSS; Vegetable Consultancy Services.
Contributing in-kind
Cambridge University Potato Growers Research Association; Frontier Agriculture; Grimme (UK) Ltd; Kettle Produce Ltd; Spearhead Marketing Ltd; B&C Farming Ltd; Greenvale AP; Farm Care Ltd; J & AE Montgomery; WB Daw & Son; Frederick Hiam Ltd.
Although there have been several studies that have investigated the effects of cultivations on the yield of individual crops within the rotation, there, are few large-scale statistically-valid studies that have examined cultivation strategies and rotation length and composition in the context of whole rotation productivity and sustainability to and better quantify soil quality and resilience.
There is also a need to critically evaluate these new technologies by reference to more established one, and how these could be applied across the rotation. As well as gaining a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms by which changes in soil characteristics (as a consequence of changes in soil management) affect growth and function of fibrous roots, soil water availability and crop water use and irrigation requirement, and how this subsequently affects crop performance.
Aims and Approach
This is an integrated research programme of soils and water research to optimise the productivity and sustainability of rotations. The 4 programmes are as follows:
WP1 AHDB Grower Platform to support resilient rotations
The aim of the Grower Platform will be to provide data (historical and current) that will help quantify the linkages between rotational management, soil physical conditions and economic and agronomic sustainability and the resilience of UK agricultural systems to external stresses.  It is also envisaged that the Grower Platform could be used as a resource to underpin further work relating to the biological and nutritional aspect of crop rotations.
WP2 Applications of new technologies to enhance rotations
The aim of this project is develop existing precision farming technologies, imaging systems, models and decision support systems to provide growers, agronomists and land-managers with a ‘toolbox’ that will help them manage their soil resources in a more effective way.
WP3 Enhancing rotational productivity and resilience
This project aims to investigate the effects of different rotation types (e.g. length and composition), soil amendments, cover crops and cultivation strategies on key soil metrics and rotational sustainability for a range of soil types used for crop production in the UK.
WP4 Linking soils, water and roots with crop productivity
This project will demonstrate how soil management practices (e.g. organic amendments and irrigation) alter soil conditions, root distribution and function and crop performance.  In addition, the project will also investigate how soil management and genotypic differences in root length distribution interact to determine water use efficiency and yield.

Key findings

Cover crops and organic amendments

In total, 96 field experiments were established as part of the Grower Platform. Most of these experiments had potatoes as a test crop, but other crops included spring and winter cereals, sugar beet and root vegetable crops.

In 32 experiments, use of cover crops was shown to increase total potato yield by 3.0 t/ha (statistically significant). Similarly, in 46 comparisons, use of an organic amendment was associated with a 1.3 t/ha increase in total potato yield (not statistically significant). Limited survey data showed, in the absence of a cover crop, average surveyed potato yields were 42.3 t/ha compared with 54.8 t/ha when a cover crop was used.

When compared with cereals or other root vegetables, potatoes were more responsive to both cover crops and organic amendments. Successful integration of cover crops into potato rotations will need careful consideration of cover crop species and management.

A three-year series of large scale, fully replicated experiments at the James Hutton Institute showed the benefits of cover crops (particularly those with a large brassica component) on the yield and quality of spring barley.

The main long-term experiment at Broom’s Barn compared, in factorial combination, historical applications of FYM (once every 3 years from 1965 to 2011) and a single application of FYM in October 2016. It showed that the potato crop responded positively to both the historic and recent application. However, subsequent crops in the rotation mainly responded to the long-term applications, suggesting that the benefit from organic amendment accrues over a period, and that single one-off applications may be of limited benefit. Initial recommendations from the organic matter model (Rothamsted Research) broadly support this approach. The model suggested that on taking on a new parcel of land, a grower should apply a large OM dressing and then, on a regular basis, smaller amounts. On leaving a parcel of land (for example at end of a rental agreement), organic inputs should be halved three years before the end and there should be no applications in the final two years. Whilst further work is required to refine the recommendations, this practice should maximise the value of amendments.

Tillage and risk of compaction

A small number of tillage experiments showed that mis-matched wheelings and over inflated tractor tyres resulted in increased soil damage and, in turn, resulted in decreased crop yield. The Terranimo model (https://terranimo.uk. was adapted to allow utilisation by UK farmers. It allows growers to select soil types, tractor, harvester types, tyres and tyre pressure; and then estimate the likely effect of this loading on soil properties and compaction.

New technologies

The Fourier Transform Infra-Red (FTIR) method demonstrated that it could detect changes in organic matter content resulting from the applied treatments. Also, data from long-term experiments showed there was evidence of correlation between soil FTIR spectra and grain and straw yields, which could be an area of research in the future.

Analysis of (ERT) and electromagnetic induction (EMI) scans showed that they may be used to infer information about depth of water abstraction which may aid water management.

Flatbed scanning technology was found to provide high quality data of soil structure in a cost-effective way. Using soil cores taken from the fields of collaborating Grower Platform members, the scanning and image analysis technology was able to measure changes in soil structure due to imposed treatments.

Quantifying roots

Traditional methods of quantifying roots in soil are labour intensive and expensive. The imaging method developed showed cultivar differences in root growth of parsnip and carrots in relation to bulk density and soil water content. Preliminary analysis suggested that for young seedling, soil moisture content was more important than dry bulk density in determining growth rates.

Developing management zones

Despite the relative sparsity of yield mapping and satellite data, it was found that variation in potato yields exhibit spatial coherence and thus are amenable to a zoning approach. The zoning approach needs to be refined by using other spatially resolved data (e.g. from maps of grain yield or soil properties).

Cereals & Oilseeds
Project code:
01 April 2016 - 30 June 2021
AHDB sector cost:
Total project value:
Project leader:
Marc Allison


91140001RotationsPartnershipSummaryReport (1) WP4Rotations9114000104LinkingSoilsRootsProd WP3Rotations9114000103RotationsResilience WP2Rotations9114000102NewTech WP1Rotations9114000101GrowerPlatform