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Unravelling the mysteries of soil at the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm

PUBLISHED: 12:22 02 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:22 02 February 2018

Simon Brock at the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

Simon Brock at the AHDB Dereham Monitor Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

Soil is a complicated resource which needs to be nurtured and understood says SIMON BROCK, manager of Hoe Hall Farm near Dereham, which is the Norfolk member of the AHDB’s knowledge-sharing Monitor Farm network.

Soil is a very “in” topic at the moment, and this seemed to be demonstrated by the record number of visitors we had at our recent winter meeting at Beetley Village Hall. It is a fascinating subject which seems to raise as many questions as it has answers.

To help us unravel the mysteries we very lucky to have two excellent speakers joining us: Clive Bailye – a “zero tillage” farmer from Staffordshire and Matthew Shepherd – a soil scientist from Natural England based in Devon.

Our Monitor Farm in Norfolk has quite difficult soils. They tend to get very wet and sticky on the surface making cultivations at times quite tricky – especially as we move to later drilling to control black-grass. The idea of zero tilling is very attractive solution but on our trial site, where we have zero-tilled for the last six years, we have had one or two crop failures, mainly due to slugs. This year we are also trialling different autumn cultivations for spring cropping – with and without cover crops.

Clive had approached the idea of zero tillage to improve his drought-susceptible soils as opposed to a cost reduction exercise. However, he had clearly managed to do both as he was now able to farm around 5,000 acres with just three full time men, which is incredible. He showed some amazing video footage of drilling crops straight into cover crops. Pictures of the same crops a few months later revealed excellent establishment. It certainly re-inspired me to try and improve my own zero tillage plot.

Matthew demonstrated the incredible abundance of life working beneath us in our soils and the benefits they could provide. It even made me feel guilty for any cultivations I might be considering – especially any ploughing and the damage that may do. He set up some fantastic practical sessions showing the differences between soil from a permanent grass site and contrasting that with a sample from typically intensive arable cultivations.

The destruction of organic matter and the demonstration of the value it adds to the soils was quite sobering. A set of microscopes was also available so that we could see the various soil-dwelling bugs at first hand.

At the end of the meeting I was left with a feeling that I could definitely do better. The trick seems to be to reduce cultivations to save costs, to save the soil and to hopefully improve yield and profit. However, farming is never as simple as that and it certainly provoked lots of discussion afterwards.

• The next meeting at Dereham Monitor Farm is on February 20, covering fungicide efficacy, resistance and micro-nutrients. To get involved in the Monitor Farm programme in Norfolk contact Teresa Meadows on teresa.meadows@ahdb.org.uk.

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