Different parts of the country come with their own unique ‘soilscape’, or soil composition profile. Surrounding our base in Lincolnshire, for example, we have a mixture of loamy, clay-rich soils with a naturally high groundwater level around the coast, and more acidic, seasonally wet clay soils further inland. Elsewhere in the country, soils are quite different. Much of Wales and the south-west of England have sandy soils rich in lime that do not retain much surface water, whereas south-central England has a band of shallow chalk-rich soils. Each soilscape comes with a distinct profile that affects how farmers plant and rear crops.
Ways in which soil can be improved
Soil quality can be improved over time to increase yields and broaden the repertoire of crops a farmer can grow. There are three markers for improvement you could look at when aiming to enhance your soil:
1) Water retention capacity; farms in sandy soil areas may wish to take action to increase this.
2) Water drainage capacity; in rich clay and peaty soils where there is a lot of groundwater all year, steps may be taken to enable better drainage from the fields.
3) Soil structure; this refers to how loose or dense a soil is and affects both its stability (e.g. how vulnerable it is to erosion) and how easy it is for a plant type to take root.
Practical steps to understand and improve your soilscape
Understanding the main three soil improvement markers will allow you to set out a practical plan based on your goals for your farm. For instance, you may wish to improve drainage in your fields while adjusting the soil structure to make it easier for crops to take root. Once you have a goal in mind, soil can be improved by any of the following methods:
- Undertake soil analysis
The very first step to improving your soil quality is to understand exactly what you are working with. Referencing a national soilscape map will give you a broad idea, but this is no substitute for specific analysis undertaken on your soil. It is worth the investment to get this professionally done every few years or so, as this will give you a benchmark figure for how successful you have been in your improvement efforts. You can make a start by using the free app available from the Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute.
- Increase organic matter content
Increasing the proportion of organic matter in the soil will have a direct, positive effect on yields by improving the nutrient profile of your fields. The best organic way to do this is by using animal manure fertilisers. These are widely and cheaply available and can usually be sprayed directly onto fields after a short composting period. Manure includes the three most important plant nutrients for domestic crops; nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
- Break up your soils to improve aeration and water retention
Heavy clay and peat-rich soils are sometimes too dense for plants to take root easily. They also struggle to retain enough oxygen, do not hold enough water and keep whatever minerals are present firmly locked up where no crop can reach them. This improves naturally of course through ploughing and the introduction of earthworms to your fields. Treatment with leaf mulch and compost also helps, as this serves to break down the composition of the clay, making it friendlier for domestic crops. It also encourages a healthy balance of soil microorganisms, which is especially important if you are also using manure fertilisers.
- Choosing the right fertiliser
Matching your soil’s nutrient profile to the requirements of the crop you need to grow is the best way to improve your overall soil quality. For this, choosing the right fertiliser is essential. There are many commercially produced and organic fertilisers available on the market, so shop around carefully to decide what is right for your farm.
Many farmers aim for a fertiliser that strikes the desired balance between phosphorus and potassium, and then add nitrogen separately, whether in organic or chemical form. While the agricultural sector is becoming ‘greener’ with each passing year, it is still common to use a mixture of conventional and organic fertilisers – you just need to make a business decision that works for your farm.
- Try chicken litter fertiliser
At Pedersens we have become passionate converts to the use of poultry litter as an effective fertiliser for all types of British farm. Each year we collect in excess of 150,000 tonnes of nutrient rich chicken litter, made from a composted blend of poultry manure, bedding matter, sawdust and rice husks. This has been tested to contain high levels of nitrogen, potassium sulphate, potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients, all in organic and easily water soluble forms. Progressive treatment of fields with chicken litter has successfully improved soil quality and yields for a number of important crop types; including wheat, barley, cabbages, other winter vegetables and oilseed rape.
To find out more about how chicken litter fertiliser can help you improve your soil quality, please don’t hesitate to give us a call, or send us a message through our online contact form.