Baselining - looking at our top asset, soil, from all angles

Drain water analysis. Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Drain water analysis. Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Brian Barker

On November 1, 2017, Brian Barker’s farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK. He charts how his farm was scrutinised to give an overview of how it sizes up at the start of the journey.

Official launch of AHDB Strategic Farm at Westhorpe. Pictured is farmer Brian Barker. Picture: GREGG

Official launch of AHDB Strategic Farm at Westhorpe. Pictured is farmer Brian Barker. Picture: GREGG BROWN

My farm along with the AHDB Cereal and Oilseed team have the challenge to bridge the gap between high-end agricultural science research and the farmers on the ground. How can we demonstrate any success?

The plan is to run long-term and short-term field scale trials year on year looking at the ‘bigger picture’ scenarios facing farming today. These trials will be scrutinised against a number of critical questions like:

Does it have any impact on the food produced?

Does it impact on the farmed environment?

Does it pay back the farmer financially?

We want to give practical ‘how to…’ information to farmers to give them the confidence to try new approaches going forward.

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It will be a six-year journey and we need to know what state the farm is in and what might change with time. So as part of this #Strategicfarm programme, extensive data collection is being carried out to set baselines. These baselines are basically lines drawn ‘in the soil’ so that we can judge if levels have increased, decreased, stayed the same, or will highlight anomalies.

We are looking at soil from every angle as it is our primary farm asset: full spectrum nutrition, biological activity, sediment loss, organic matter, physical properties and outside influences such as weather, temperature and historical farming practice. We are delving into the cost of production, benchmarking and financial payback modelling, so that we can really give a practical farming message to those who are interested. I like to know what is going on; if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage correctly!

I will reveal first results of this baselining next time. A ‘worm numbers and worm activity’ report has just landed on my desk, soon to be followed by EC soil scanning reports, Visual Soil Assessment reports and soon, if we get some rain, I will have field drain water analysis back – busy but interesting times ahead.