Cultivation for soil health, cereal crop rooting and yield

As climate change may reduce UK summer rainfall at a critical growth stage for cereal crops, we look at whether different cultivation systems can improve soil health and crop rooting. The trial is part of our Strategic Cereal Farm West programme.

Impact of cultivation systems on soil health and crop roots – trial summary

  • Start: 28 September 2020                           
  • End: Harvest 2021


To determine the impact of cultivation system on soil health, crop rooting and yield.

Why are we testing cultivation systems on soil health, crop rooting and yield?

Research has shown that at 40 cm deep in the soil, wheat doesn't have the root length density for plants to take up water. Wheat roots may grow more in the surface soil and not get deep into the soil profile to access subsoil water. UK climate change predictions are that summer rainfall will reduce. In cereal crops, this will happen at a critical growth stage for flowering and grain fill.

UK farmers and agronomists need to develop practical solutions to this problem. This trial tests whether cultivation can improve soil health and improve crop rooting.

How are we testing the impact of cultivation systems?

The replicated tramline trial is in Field 15 (16 hectares) in Graham winter wheat. Strategic Cereal Farm West host, Rob Fox, drilled the trial using a tine seed drill on 28 September 2020 at a rate of 171 kg/ha. The soil type is clay.

There are four establishment treatments in the trial:

  • Direct drilling

  • 5cm depth: disc cultivator and shallow spring tine before drilling

  • 15cm depth: single pass deep soil disc cultivator and a shallow spring tine before drilling

  • 30cm depth: single pass deep soil disc cultivator and a shallow spring tine before drilling

Results from cultivation trial so far

Crop growth and rooting

In October and November 2020, ADAS measured the normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI). NDVI is the ratio between visual red and infrared reflectance of the crop canopy. The field team also did plant counts. The NDVI values were quite high which may be due to the volunteer bean crop in the field.

In April 2021, the team sampled the treatments for crop biomass and NDVI. There were no visible differences in the crop above ground. The field team did find differences between the treatments below the ground. The direct drilled crop roots were shorter and more compact compared to the 30 cm treatment.

Soil health

In November 2020, the research team completed a visual evaluation of soil structure (VESS). Earthworm numbers were low.

Assessing the impact of cultivation systems on soil health

Crop growth

From GS30 to harvest, ADAS will measure tillers, NDVI, biomass, and tissue analysis.

Before harvest, the team will calculate the harvest index and percentage nitrogen in the grain and straw.

Crop rooting

After harvest, the research team will measure the crop rooting in the soil profile. The team will extract 1 metre soil cores from the tramlines to measure root length density. They will extract the roots from the soil cores using a washing system and scan and measure them.


At harvest, the farm will collect combine yield data for ADAS to analyse.

Cost of production

The Farm Economics team will calculate the economic cost of production of the winter wheat in each trial field. Using Farmbench, they will produce costs per hectare and per tonne. The calculations will use:

  • Seed, fertiliser and crop protection

  • Farm labour, machinery and equipment

  • The regional average for property, energy and administration

Useful resources

Results from the 2019 cultivation trials

Results from the 2020 cultivation trials

Further information about our soils research and resources

Our Strategic Farms are an opportunity to see how to use our research on a commercial farm. Find out more about our Strategic Cereal Farm West Programme

Image of staff member Richard Meredith

Richard Meredith

Interim Head of Arable Knowledge Exchange