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Farmers should nurture their soil's 'amazing' properties, says Anglian Water

PUBLISHED: 15:38 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:59 24 January 2020

Worms are a good indicator of soil health - but there are many others too, said Rob Holland of Anglian Water. Picture: IAN BURT

Worms are a good indicator of soil health - but there are many others too, said Rob Holland of Anglian Water. Picture: IAN BURT

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The "amazing" ability of healthy soil to capture and store water should be nurtured for both its economic and environmental benefits, Norfolk farmers were told.

Rob Holland, catchment advisor at Anglian Water. Picture: Anglian WaterRob Holland, catchment advisor at Anglian Water. Picture: Anglian Water

Rob Holland, Anglian Water's catchment adviser for Norfolk and north Suffolk, was one of the expert speakers at the annual Farm Business Update meeting at Dereham Town Football Club.

He said water companies are interested in soil health because of a well-structured soil's extraordinary capacity to store water and prevent costly and potentially-damaging pesticides and nutrients escaping into watercourses.

A teaspoon of healthy soil can contain more micro-organisms "than all the humans alive on Earth", he added, with every 1pc increase in organic matter resulting in as much as 25,000 gallons of available soil water per acre.

"Soil is a key part of the water cycle, so how fast it moves through, what it picks up, and what comes out into the watercourses not only affects our business, it affects your businesses in terms of what you are losing from your farm," he said. "If you can 'slow the flow' it means you can hold on to your assets and inputs."

Rob Holland of Anglian Water speaking at the 2020 Farm Business Update meeting at Dereham Town Football Club.Rob Holland of Anglian Water speaking at the 2020 Farm Business Update meeting at Dereham Town Football Club.

To make the most of this, he urged farmers to "get their spade out" and examine their soil's structure, colour, rooting and worm populations - and compare it to a sample taken from under a hedge as an indicator of the original, natural state of the soil.

Key actions to consider immediately could include cover cropping to "armour" the soil by keeping something growing all year round, extending or diversifying the crop rotation, and cultivation changes such as reduced tillage, rotational ploughing.

Longer term plans could include detailed soil biology analysis, a CO2 "burst", bringing livestock into the rotation, incorporating fallow periods or introducing a "controlled traffic farming" system to minimise soil disturbance and compaction from machines.

Mr Holland also updated the meeting on Anglian Water's monitoring of agro-chemicals including metaldehayde pesticides and nitrate fertilisers in the region's rivers, and how significant rainfalls could cause "spikes" in their concentration.

The meeting covered topics ranging from herbicide-resistant weeds to the proposed changes to farm subsidies and environmental payments after Brexit. Organisations involved include the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the Environment Agency and Championing the Farmed Environment (CFE).

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