Agri-Tech East special interest group will explore soil health

A farmer ploughing his field at Bayfield.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A farmer ploughing his field at Bayfield.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Farmers and scientists will aim to provoke new ideas about maintaining vital soil fertility during the first discussions of a dedicated new taskforce.

Agri-Tech East's new Soil Health Special Interest Group (SIG) will be launched on September 8, and one of the presentations at the event will explore the importance of microbial activity in determining soil structure and maintaining its natural health.

Prof John Crawford, associate director of Rothamsted Research and co-chair of the Soil Health SIG, said: 'Soil is the most important natural resource a farmer has and we know surprisingly little about what makes it tick.

'One thing we are sure about is that micro-organisms have a vested interest in maintaining a beneficial soil structure. To survive they need the right amount of oxygen, water and nutrients to flow through the soil.

'The soil ecosystem appears to be self-organising. Microbial activity varies from pore to pore. The hypothesis is that where these micro-environments are beneficial, the microbes thrive and release a substance that glues the soil particles together, protecting these beneficial micro-environments against disruption. Farmers who help microbes thrive will improve structure and increase the soil's natural fertility.'

The research by Prof Crawford and his team explains the benefits of leaving crop residues in the field after harvesting, using cover crops between August and spring drilling. The organic matter feeds the microbes that otherwise would die over the winter, thus helping to maintain soil structure.

Robert Salmon, who farms at Hyde Hall in Great Fransham near Dereham, said: 'As growers we need to extract the most out of our soil. Meetings like the Soil Health SIG are incredibly important as they link scientific knowledge to decision-makers in the field. Without proper dissemination and interpretation of the results, the value of the research will be lost and the reports will gather dust on a library shelf.'

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Also contributing to the event will be Dr Tony Miller from the metabolic biology department at Norwich's John Innes Centre, who will define healthy soil and explain how to make more efficient use of applied fertiliser.

The Agri-Tech East Soil Health SIG event will be held at NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) in Histon, Cambridgeshire.

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