Somewhere along the road to modern crop production we lost sight of the crucial importance of rotation for the health and well-being of our soils
Rotation is this month’s no-till focus for soil husbandry specialist, Steve Townsend of Soil First Farming.There’s It’s all in the mix
Somewhere along the road to modern crop production we lost sight of the crucial importance of rotation for the health and well-being of our soils as much as our immediate bank balances. Cash flow and workload pressures have almost certainly played their part, as have continual flows of improved crop protection, fertilisation and tillage technologies.But the warning bells have rung out increasingly loudly in recent years. They’ve sounded in escalating grass weed problems. They’ve resounded in major issues with slugs. And, over the past year in particular, they’ve set off serious soil damage alarms across the country; all things now proving hard to fix with either the chemistry of inputs or the physics of cultivations.Which is why I keep banging-on about the need for more people to put far more attention into improving soil biology through a modern no-till ‘conservation agriculture’ approach. As Direct Action readers cannot fail to be aware, biological improvement is all about encouraging worms, roots and the vast range of micro flora and fauna essential to the health and resilience of our most precious resource. It’s inextricably bound-up with boosting organic matter, with minimal soil disturbance and with the positive management of residues, cover and cash crops across the rotation.A diverse rotation is fundamental because it promotes soil structure and fertility as well as combatting pests and diseases and giving more opportunities for effective weed control. By diverse, I mean a rotation that’s no more than 50 per cent winter cereals, has a decent mixture of break crops and, ideally, includes at least one spring planting.While this may be quite a step from the wall-to-wall winter cereals and oilseed rape of many regimes today, it’s not about going back to the Norfolk Four Course, I hasten to add – despite its many benefits.
Instead, it’s a matter of carefully balancing the needs of the soil for tomorrow with the economic imperative of profits today, based firmly on what’s best suited to the particular farm. As many people are coming to appreciate with late wheat harvests fast becoming the norm, winter barley provides a far better entry for oilseed rape. But wheat volunteer and grass weed control can pose major problems.So why not grow spring barley instead with a cover crop like beans or peas ahead of it? That way you get the advantages of better soil conditioning, grass weed and volunteer control plus the bonus of nitrogen fixation. Or, if your grass weed challenges are severe, you might consider a ‘double break’ of peas or beans then OSR before going back to wheat. This will really give the weeds a hard time.One of my clients who, like me, always has soil care at the forefront of his thinking is currently going even further. From winter wheat/spring barley/winter OSR, he’s moving to peas after the wheat – with a winter cover crop between. He’s following this with winter OSR, a short autumn cover ahead of winter barley and another short cover before going back to winter wheat.Interestingly, on paper this approach looks like generating exactly the same gross margin across the rotation (where it really counts) as his old one. But it will enable him to capture far more carbon, better control of weeds and diseases and significantly improve soil structure and fertility.
Which should, in turn, be very beneficial for his nitrogen and agrochemical bills.After the past season, rotations are coming under particular scrutiny this autumn, giving a golden opportunity for change. So why not seize it and make soil health a key factor in your decision making? You may be surprised at how much you can gain for so little cost.Steve Townsend’s attention turns to organic matter in his next column. He is more than happy to discuss any tillage or soil management issues, interests or concerns with Farmers Guide readers by e-mail on [email protected]rstfarming.co.uk or by phone on 01452 862696.