Rainfall Highlights Variation in Soil Conditions

The recent heavy rain has been a challenge for farmers and growers all across the UK. For one group of no-till farmers in the North East, the changing weather has highlighted the need for their AHDB-sponsored field lab.

The group are trying to understand the cause of in-field variations, and are exploring amendment techniques for improved soil conditions, with a focus on gypsum application. Gypsum, composed of hydrated calcium sulphate, supplies the nutrients calcium and sulphur, and is also thought to improve soil conditions by helping to aggregate soil particles to form a more stable structure.

One of the participants is Richard Suddes, who farms over a thousand acres of mixed beef and arable at his County Durham farm, said “We have silty-loam soils, and we’ve noticed that gypsum applications seem to have a positive effect on water infiltration and therefore soil structure. I’m interested to see whether the problems I face are also faced by other no-till farmers, but also whether my observations on the effect of gypsum can be replicated in other soils, or whether there are other factors at play. Ultimately ensuring the health of my soil is my top priority, and the field lab will help me gain some meaningful results and insight into how I can achieve that.”

Could gypsum benefit soil?

The farmers taking part in this field lab are members of BASE-UK, and have all been practising minimum-till methods for a number of years. They have observed some variation within their fields, but the reasons for this are not fully understood. Many of the participants have also been applying gypsum to their soils, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this has a positive influence on soil health, as well as reducing the in-field variation. Through the field lab the group will be able to carry out robust scientific studies, with the help of researchers from Newcastle University, to determine whether there is evidence to back up their observations and, if so, why.

Paul Flynn, Arable and Soils Advisor at the Soil Association, is coordinating the trials. He said: “The wet weather really highlighted how difficult it is to work with soils in this region, hence the original move to a no-till system. Working closely with the farmers, we can focus on their research needs and use their experience and feedback. This initial stage is to determine the effect different rates of gypsum have on soil physical properties, its bulk density, stability and rate of water infiltration. We will also investigate the impact of gypsum on earthworm populations. The aim is to be able to provide management advice for gypsum application in a conservation agricultural system.”

With conditions becoming drier, the group will now begin their gypsum applications. Soil samples have been taken pre-application and will be taken again later this year to determine any changes to the soil structure. The group will observe any changes to in-field variation by comparing fields treated with gypsum against untreated control plots.

Hear more about the trial at the Network Day

You can hear more about this, and other, field labs at the Innovative Farmers Network Day. Taking place on Wednesday 9 May, at Sheepdrove Farm in Berkshire, the event will explore past, present and future field labs and discuss what the future of farmer-led research may look like. What are the biggest challenges facing farming, and how can ground-level research and development help tackle them?

Have you got your ticket yet?


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