Spring is the ideal time to check your soils and consider how to improve them, says Jeff Claydon, farmer and inventor of the Claydon Opti-Till® direct strip seeding system.
SOIL HEALTH & SOIL HEALTH TESTING IS A PRIORITY
Spring is an excellent time to focus on soil health and how to improve it because, regardless of where you are, excellence in this aspect of farming is essential to maximise crop production and financial performance. Recent weather extremes have highlighted the importance of resilient, well-structured soils supported by an effective drainage system to take water away.
Conventional full cultivations and min-till systems can overwork the soil and destroy its structure. This reduces the soil’s ability to drain in wet weather and can lead to collapsing, slumping and baking out, which increases moisture loss in dry conditions and starves crop roots of air and nutrients. The risks from flooding and soil erosion are also substantially higher. Ploughing can deplete organic matter and soil struggles to support the weight of heavy machinery, resulting in compaction and deeper wheelings, requiring more cultivations to repair the damage.
ADOPTING A DIFFERENT APPROACH FOR IMPROVING SOIL HEALTH
Instead of continuing the cycle of cultivations to resolve poor drainage/soil structure it makes sense to find an alternative. The Claydon Opti-Till® System, which we have used since 2002, has been transformational on the Claydon farm. Expensive cultivations have been cut and savings have helped finance drainage improvements, resulting in better soil structure and health, and better yields and reliable profitability.
The Claydon drill’s leading tine technology is at the heart of the Opti-Till® system. The leading tine loosens and aerates the soil, but only where necessary – in the rooting and seeding zone. The bands between the seeded rows are left undisturbed where earthworm populations thrive, and old rooting pathways and capillary action remain intact. The front tine creates a friable tilth which provides a perfect environment for seedlings to germinate and develop strong, deep roots that tap into the moisture in the undisturbed banks of soil. The leading tine action encourages excess water to drain from the rooting zone. Soils support heavy field traffic, reducing the risk of compaction.
SOIL HEALTH TESTING
Spring is an excellent time to evaluate the condition of your soils, check for signs of compaction and ensure that drainage systems are working correctly. This is easy to do, requiring nothing more than a fork, penetrometer, water infiltration tray and a glass jar. With the information they provide you can plan to correct any deficiencies.
The first step is to insert a penetrometer into the ground at various points across the field to check that there are no soil pans, as these will severely limit drainage and root development. They are not caused solely by compaction from heavy machinery or working when conditions are unfavourable but can result from the sedimentation of soils that have been over-cultivated and ‘settled out’ over the winter. If they are present, the probe becomes much more difficult to push into the ground and the indicator needle swings into the red.
SOIL HEALTH INDICATORS
Unhealthy soils run together, or ‘slake’, very quickly when wetted because they lack the natural glues which help bind them together. Slaking blocks the natural pores and worm burrows in soil, which can lead to waterlogging and can develop into erosion, resulting in a loss of topsoil. Conversely, in very dry conditions wind erosion can occur and be equally damaging.
The slake test assesses the stability of soil aggregates when exposed to rapid wetting, as in the case of heavy or prolonged rainfall. The longer it takes for the soil sample to break up the better as this indicates a high degree of organic matter which helps to bind it together. This simple test provides an excellent indication of a soil’s resilience and health – visit claydondrill.com/soil/ to see the test being carried out.
Soil is an extraordinarily complex web of interactions, but in the right condition, with the right structure and nutrition it will help deliver the results you are looking for. The key is to appreciate that its natural biology is there waiting to help; you just need to create the conditions to allow it to kick in.
The Opti-Till® system has been used to establish crops on the Claydon family’s arable farm since 2002, bringing a wide range of benefits, including better soil structure and health.