Posted 18 December 2017
“We’ve had a good spread of presentations today. We’ve revisited some fundamentals which will help farmers, advisors and students.”
The annual Soil and Water Conference returned to Harper Adams University this year on December 5, which was also World Soil Day. The conference programme was repeated on the two subsequent days at Throws Farm in Essex and Askham Bryan in Yorkshire.
The conference was opened by Harper Adams lecturer Dr Lucy Crockford who gave an insightful overview on earthworms.
During her presentation, she explored the differences between the three different categories of earthworms; epigeic (surface dwellers), endogeic (topsoil dwellers) and anecic (deep-burrowing subsoil dwellers).
To the conference audience, Dr Crockford said: “Most of you will agree that earthworms improve soil systems.
“It’s interesting to note that some of them actually bind soil particles together and compact soil while others loosen it. It’s not even consistent across earthworm categories of what they do! So you need a good diversity of species.
“It also takes time for the work of earthworms to make a noticeable difference, especially when trying to improve your compacted soils.
"When ploughing, earthworms are effected. Even if they are not killed, some are brought-up to the surface and then are at risk to birds, others are taken away from their food source and the burrows of the anecic earthworms are broken.
“In order to encourage more earthworms, you’d first need to look at your choice of tilling system. If you decide to not plough, it’ll lead to weeds, so we need more research to be completed on how we can manage these.
“We currently have a PhD student here looking at laser weeding, and another looking at an organic amendment.”
Following Lucy’s presentation Dr Simon Jeffery, lecturer at Harper Adams, addressed the aspects of soil amendments some of which where beneficial and others not. He advised the audience to take care when reading claims from suppliers. When reviewing the alternatives “good old fashioned” farmyard manure was probably the most cost effective beneficial amendment to improve both organic matter content and worm population.
The discussion on tillage was returned to later in the day, with presentations from Martin Lole of Springfield Farms and Clive Bailye of TWB Farms, who presented case studies of strip till and cover crops.
This was followed by visiting professor at Harper Adams University Dick Godwin. He presented the initial results of a ten year research project taking place at the University.
Established in October 2011 the project is investigating the effects of Random Traffic Farming (RTF), Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) and Low Ground Pressure (LGP) with conventional, minimum and zero tillage. The aim is to develop an integrated mechanisation system to optimise soil and water resources, crop growth and yields and system performance and economics in commercial agricultural practice.
Professor Godwin said: “We want to quantify the effect of tillage and traffic systems on soil structure and crop yield.
“Colleagues at Cranfield University looked at the economic cost of soil degradation to the UK economy and found it to £1bn a year, and around half of that was caused by compaction and erosion.
“That’s as a nation as a whole but most people here are more concerned about what that means to their own farmstead.
“In a study from the Czech Republic, 85 per cent of the field was covered in a wheel when growing a crop of wheat with a RTF system.
“In our investigation so far, we’ve seen the CTF system, with a 30 per cent trafficked area, had a significantly higher yield over RTF for the winter wheat and spring oats but the results were not significantly different in the two winter barley crops.
“Reducing the trafficked area from 30 per cent to 15 per cent increased the mean overall yield by three per cent.”
He also reported that in 2016 after five years of establishment there were significant increases in soil organic matter and earthworm populations in the zero/no-till plots.
Professor Godwin also chaired the conference. During his summarising speech, he said: “We’ve had a good spread of presentations today. We’ve revisited some fundamentals which will help farmers, advisors and students.”