Improvements in soil health can reduce inputs

We investigate how a focus on soil health has helped one farmer to reduce key inputs such as fertiliser, seed dressings and fungicides while maintaining yields.

Simon Cowell farms 400 acres on the coast of Essex and has been implementing a biological farming system for a number of years, to encourage soil biology and build soil health.

“Increasing soil health has not only helped my bottom line, but I believe it’s the right thing to do from an environmental perspective,” he says.

“I’ve been no-till for 12 years now and since implementing the system soil health has dramatically increased, allowing me to reduce inputs with no adverse effect on yield.

“For example, I no longer use any phosphate and potash fertiliser, or seed dressings. I’ve also totally removed growth regulators from my system and I’m using less fungicides.

“This is all due to the fact that my soil biology is working for itself. It’s able to digest and make available all of the nutrients that the plants need so I don’t need to add anything extra.”

Mr Cowell adds that due to high plant health, he is able to use his own home-produced seed and doesn’t need to buy anything in.

Methods to help maintain soil health

Now that he’s established a good foundation, there are a number of practices that Mr Cowell implements on his farm to help maintain soil health and improve plant health.

“I’ve been using L-CBF BOOST™, a carbon-based liquid fertiliser for a number of years to help stimulate the soil biology, which in turn improves overall plant health and vigour.

“It’s molasses-based, and I use it in three ways. Firstly, in with my liquid nitrogen, which I’ve found helps to feed the bacteria in the soil with a balanced diet, digesting the applied carbon rather than my organic matter.”

He also explains how he applies molasses with glyphosate applications for the same reason.

“I was concerned after my local water company tested the water in my land drains a few years ago and found that there was quite a lot of glyphosate present.

“I realised that I needed to do something to break it down in the soil and minimise the risk of crops taking it up through their roots from the soil water, so I decided to do some trials with L-CBF BOOST™.

“I applied straight glyphosate in one area, and glyphosate with L-CBF BOOST™ in another. Four weeks after application I sent off soil samples from both areas to be tested for glyphosate levels.

“I found that there was twice as much glyphosate present in the soil that hadn’t had the application of L-CBF BOOST™, so the biological stimulant had broken down the glyphosate in the soil and reduced it by half.

“Including the biological stimulant with the chemical helps feed the natural bacteria in the soil, which then break down the glyphosate molecules so that they are no longer active,” he says.

“I was very happy with the results, so I’ve continued to use it at a rate of 10 l/ha whenever I’m applying glyphosate.”

Finally, Simon explains how he’s started to use the product with his fungicide applications to help increase plant health.

“The molasses acts as a food source for the good bacteria and fungi on the leaves of the plant, causing them to multiply and outcompete any disease pathogens. The molasses also contains trace elements which can enhance the plants ability to fight disease,” he adds.

“Essentially molasses supports the plants natural defences which means the plant can fight disease more effectively, and it also increases the efficacy of the fungicide going into the system.

“I’m hoping that in time this will allow me to reduce the amount of fungicides I’m using which offers both financial and environmental benefit,” he says.

Mr Cowell also likes to use his own compost, made mainly from horse manure, as an inoculant to give the soil a boost of ‘good biology’.

Biological farming – where to start?

Mike Harrington, agronomist and soil fertility consultant at Edaphos, explains that for anyone looking to get into a more biological way of farming, they need to start with soil health.

“We can only begin to reduce inputs when we have all of the biological processes functioning. You have to start right at the beginning and look at soil health and biological limitations along with nutrient availability,” he says.

“What we’re trying to do as soil fertility consultants is to move the emphasis away from purchasing soluble nutrition and bypassing the soils natural systems, to empowering the soil to provide nutrition from its own resources.”

He explains that the best way for mainstream agriculture to do this is to shift emphasis towards carbon, rather than nitrogen.

“Carbon is what drives all systems, funding digestion and the recycling and releasing of nutrients in the soil. It’s essential to help feed the soil microbes which release nutrients for plant uptake.

“When the carbon to nitrogen ratio isn’t balanced, these microbes feed on the organic matter respiring carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere, depleting carbon and causing long term problems.

“This is exactly what is happening in many intensively farmed soils, meaning that inputs need to be increased to make up for the lack of biological activity, developing into a downward spiral,” says Mr Harrington.

“The problem is, as soil health deteriorates, less nutrients are available, so growers end up buying more inputs to replace what the soil can’t provide, and this goes on and on until you are buying in everything, adding significant expense to the operation.”

Mr Harrington explains that to get out of this spiral, the emphasis needs to shift to from a high yield dominated system to an efficiency dominated system.

“Over the last 30 years the emphasis has been on growing for high yield, which is considered to be the main driver for profit. This has placed a big emphasis on increased nitrogen applications and associated inputs.

“However, what we are trying to achieve is to place more emphasis on efficiency, by building fertility which will mean that long term, we can reduce our inputs.”

Every farm is different

Mr Harrington explains that every farm is different, and we will need a besposke plan that fits the requirements of the farm to increase soil health.

“For example, in Wales where rain is very high, reduction of fungicide usage may not be as easy because disease pressure from septoria, for example, is high.

“The art is assessing your system, looking at the limitations, assessing biological and chemical inputs and seeing what changes can be made to help soil health.

“Essentially there is only one person who can change farming and that’s the farmer. Our role as agronomists is to advise and support the farmers with the latest information available,” he says.

Top tips for soil health:

  •  Continually evaluate and monitor the health of your soil – look at your soil, conduct worm and beetle counts and carry out soil and plant tissue analysis
  • Understand your limitations – this could be weather, geography or labour
  • Look at the most sensitive parts of your system first – this could be waterlogging, weed, disease or pest pressure
  • Assess your rotation – the more variation you can include the more this will help maintain the carbon to nitrogen ratio
  • Be reactive – don’t have a set fertiliser or spray programme for each year. Instead assess pressures and the soils/plants needs
  • Speak to your agronomist or soil fertility specialistFarm Profile
    Location: Essex coast
    Size: 400 acres
    Crops: Winter wheat, winter barley, winter oats, winter beans, spring oats, spring barley, linseed, lucerne and ryegrass for seed
    System: Biological, no-till for 12 years