SOil care and fertility must be top priority, Norfolk farmers told
15:56 14 February 2014
Soil care and protection must be given the highest priority to reverse declining yields of cereal crops, a Nuffield scholar told leading East Norfolk farmers.
Essex farmer Tom Bradshaw, who has built up a 3,600-acre arable farming business in the past 10 years, said that an estimated third of soil organic matter has been lost since 1980.
Speaking after the 173rd annual meeting of Stalham Farmers’ Club, he told about 45 members that average cereal yields have reached a plateau or even started to dip. The latest information reported in the past two months by two agricultural merchants had confirmed that trend.
“There’s a very strong case that the UK average yields are falling at the moment. Over the last 10 years, they’ve fallen and not remained static,” said Mr Bradshaw. “Something is happening on farm that makes the gap between the actual yield and the potential. Something we’re doing means that the yield increases in the Recommended List are not being seen on farm,” he added.
When he returned to the family’s 160-acre farm at Fordham, near Colchester, in 2004, he was given the chance to expand further the arable and contracting side. Their 130-cow herd and another 110 cows at a nearby contract farm were sold. Now, he runs 3,600 acres of wheat, oilseed rape spring and winter barley, peas and spring beans. His drive to improve sustainable yields has been to focus on improving soil quality, which has been reinforced by travels to Australia, the United States, Argentine and Germany.
The impact of rises in farm costs has been marked. “We’ve seen a massive rise in variable costs between 2005 and 2010 which doubled from £250 to £500 hectare. Fixed costs have increased by 60pc, now our fixed costs are over £350 ha.” Cereal growers were spending more than £100 ha in a wheat crop on fungicides. “All they’re able to do is to maintain the yields at previous levels, they’re not increasing.”
He had noticed too a big difference in the soil fertility and quality on the family farm, which had a history of livestock, and others. “At home, we can good crops of 9.5 to 10 tonnes ha on 150kg of nitrogen; on some of the contract farms to obtain a similar yield we apply 225 to 230 kg of nitrogen.”
A key to a healthy soil was providing the right nutrition for soil microbes, which feed on the organic matter and breaks into humus and then made the nutrients available to the plant. “It is estimated in every teaspoon of soil there’s more than a billion different bacteria with more than 30,000 species. The key indicator of the health of the soil is the earthworm, which is at the top of the food chain,” he said.
“If you’ve got lots of earthworms you’ve got a healthy, living thriving soil and if you’ve not got them, you’ve got to question what’s going on.
A healthy soil should have about five per cent organic matter but in east Norfolk, it was probably about two per cent. “It is really worrying to me that as an industry we’re not measuring organic matter. Government research indicates that between 1980 and 1995, we lost 18pc of organic matter in UK arable soils. And if you assume that has continued over the following years, it is possible that 30pc of organic matter has been lost.
Grain merchant Robin Appel has told his local discussion group that a farmer at Blandford Forum, Dorset, recorded 27 ins of rainfall between early December and February 11. “That’s more than we have a year,” he said, and on his farm, in same period, he had logged 8.5 ins.