Soils – the foundation of agriculture

Thursday, 20 October 2022

Over the past year, the agricultural industry has faced several challenges. The rising cost of fertiliser and the limited supply over the growing season caused concern across the livestock industry. Despite these rising costs, well-managed grass remained the lowest-cost feed available for ruminant livestock. However, a wide variety of factors influence grass growth including soil pH, availability of other nutrients, soil water, soil structure, solar radiation, and the age/productivity of the sward. The inflated cost of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser makes it even more important to minimise the impact of other potentially limiting factors.

Agricultural production relies on environmental resources such as soil, water and air, and we saw this year how vulnerable to climate change and drought it can be. Good soil nutrient management is an important aspect when you are trying to balance the benefits of fertiliser – both economically and environmentally.

There is no clear indication at the present regarding the future cost of manufactured fertilisers. However, there are long-term strategies that can be implemented on livestock farms to reduce manufactured fertilisers and increase utilisation. These actions could also improve business resilience, improve the sustainability of production, and help in reducing a farm’s carbon footprint.

Over the next few months, assess your soils and make sure your field conditions are right for grass growth by minimising the impact of all potential limiting factors. Soil conditions affect the yield and quality of grass and forage crops, which directly influences livestock performance and enterprise profitability.

To achieve optimum economic yields, crops must acquire sufficient nutrients and water from the soil via the roots. Developing and maintaining good soil structure depends on good soil management, including cultivation and minimising traffic over the soil when it is too wet. Conducting some soil assessments by digging a hole will enable you to identify the soil type, structure, compaction, and earthworm activity.

The amount of organic matter in soil depends on the farming systems, soil type and climate. Maintaining and increasing soil organic matter will help improve soil structure. This will enable roots to grow more easily and access more nutrients and moisture. Soil organic matter also has a role in holding phosphorus and potassium in a root, making them readily available. It is also a source of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sulphur that can be released by soil microbes.

Soil sampling and nutrient management are key to identifying soil shortfalls and surpluses and are closely linked to farm profitability. Ensuring you are at target soil pH will improve the yield response of grass and the uptake of nutrients you apply. If essential nutrients are in short supply, plant health and yield are affected. Key nutrients will also influence how efficiently nitrogen will be used and reduce the risk of restricted growth of clover in the next growing season.

Phosphate is essential for root development, which is important for efficient uptake of nitrogen and the rapid establishment of new seedlings. It is key for clover survival. Potash is also essential for the transportation of nutrients around the plant, efficient uptake of nitrogen and protein production. By measuring and analysing your soils you can better manage your nutrients and optimise your outputs while reducing the potential negative impacts environmentally and economically.

For more information on how to assess your soils visit AHDB’s GREATsoils | AHDB

Image of staff member Katie Evans

Katie Evans

Senior Engagement Manager – Beef & Lamb

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