NFU column: The free bank: farming vertically to gain more soil

Cover crops growing on Brian Barker's land.

Cover crops growing on Brian Barker's land. - Credit: Archant

Having completed 18 months as an AHDB monitor farmer, I look back at a rollercoaster of thoughts, change and excitement, writes farmer Brian Barker. This year, our farm started a new, exciting era with the adoption of strip-till, direct drilling and cover cropping winter land.

This year Brian Barker's farm started a new, exciting era with the adoption of strip-till, direct dr

This year Brian Barker's farm started a new, exciting era with the adoption of strip-till, direct drilling and cover cropping winter land. - Credit: Archant

Why have we changed? Well, it is a mix of a lot thoughts but most of it comes back to the idea of vertical farming. Many farmers are hungry for land. They will pay over the odds to buy or rent more acres but in doing this they start a snowball of effects. Growth in acres is done to spread fixed costs and gain efficiency but then compromises are made on timings. Operations and labour become too thinly spread, timings of applications are stretched and the soil is compromised and worked when it shouldn’t be.

The idea of vertical farming is the thought of gaining more soil by going down and accessing more soil per hectare by having your soil in better condition. Soil condition is one of our biggest limiting factors. Everything that the crop does has a direct correlation to your soil condition. If you abuse your soil, you penalise your crop from the start. If we can get our roots deeper by not cultivating when we shouldn’t i.e. in the wet, we increase organic matter, increase earth worm populations and increase micro-organisms within our soil. In that way we open the door to a free bank!

A free bank? Not much in farming at the moment is free but by getting roots deeper by one centimetre you increase your farm’s soil by another 110t/ha. Over my farm, that 1 cm gives me another 65,000 tons of soil. 10cm would open up 650,000tons of unused nutrients, air and water! Soil bulk density is affected if we over-cultivate, compact and abuse our soil; we squeeze the life out of it. Soil bulk density is one of the most underestimated calculations. If your soil has a density of over 1.3t/m3 it is too dense for plant roots to push through. It becomes tight and waterlogged at the top and the air pores close up, the micro organisms cannot function very well without the air and so they work in an anaerobic state and the essential relationship between bacteria, fungi and our crop roots, reduces in efficiency. Nutrients unlocked in the process of the bacteria and fungi feeding on them in our soil are lowered and so the plant cannot feed itself and in turn that switches off the plants’ pump of sugar into the soil to keep this two-way friendship going. So how can we keep this ‘two way friendship’ of soil organisms and plant roots working in our favour? Well I have mentioned a few key ideas already.

Reduced cultivation. Over-working our soil has huge impacts on it, especially if done when the soil is not fit to be moved. Strip-tillage and direct drilling has its place but only again when soil is in the right condition but also don’t under-estimate the value of the soil reset button: the plough, for other farming reasons like weed burden.

Brian Barker is an AHDB Monitor Farmer

Brian Barker is an AHDB Monitor Farmer - Credit: Archant

Maintain plant cover throughout the year. Over-winter ploughing is very detrimental to micro soil life and the use of winter cover crops is something that I believe should become the norm. It will feed the micro soil life, add organic matter to the soil, reduce silt runoff and reduce nutrients leached out of the soil while it is laid bare.

Root mass manipulation: the role of bio stimulants, zinc and copper as essential root builders. Placing fertiliser on seed and into the root zone at the planting will increase the root potential to catch and absorb available nutrients.

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So, as the spring develops and crops grow, bear a thought for the bits that you cannot see. Go out and use your farm’s cheapest primary cultivator......the spade! Dig a hole and see how much of the free bank you are accessing. I will be aiming deeper and trying to secure all my crops’ potential because yield and nutrient efficiency is king at times of low commodity prices.

Brian Barker farms at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket.