Isobel Eames of AHDB welcomed visitors to the Mindrum Estate in Northumberland for a Monitor Farm meeting. Bruce Jobson reports.

Isobel Eames, Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) Cereals & Oilseeds Regional Knowledge Exchange Manager welcomed more than 80 attendees to the Mindrum Estate as part of the Chathill Monitor Farm programme.

The meeting was held in conjunction with Nourish Scotland and included a keynote presentation by world-renowned soil and arable expert, Ontario-based, Joel Williams. Mr Williams is a leading plant and soil health expert, with a wealth of knowledge and experience gained through his work with growers, researchers and agricultural organisations on a global basis.

Ms Eames opened the meeting by saying: “Soil plays a crucial role in the success of both arable and livestock farming enterprises, serving as the foundation for agricultural productivity. In farming, soil serves as the medium for plant growth, providing essential nutrients, water retention, and structural support.

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“Soil composition directly influences crop yields and quality, making this a determining factor in the success of crop cultivation. Soil quality is equally significant in livestock and arable farming systems as it directly affects the availability and quality of crops. Additionally, soil acts as a filter and regulator for water resources, influencing both water quality and availability for agricultural use.

“In essence, the health and fertility of soil is fundamental to sustaining both arable and livestock farming enterprises, forming the cornerstone of a sustainable and productive agricultural system. Working together can bring diverse skills, perspectives, and immense experience to the table – creating a collaborative environment where collective intelligence thrives, leading to more creative and effective solutions.”

Mr Willams’ passion for sustainable farming practices and his ability to communicate complex concepts in a relatable way make him a sought-after speaker and educator in the field. He explained soil health is synonymous with plant health, being similar to a three-legged stool comprising biology, chemistry and physics.

If any of these are neglected, soil doesn’t work to its full potential. By undertaking a bottom-up approach, farmers can get the soil working to its full potential first, then the rest follows – healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people. Plant species diversity can improve many soil health properties.

The Northern Farmer: From left, Ana Reynolds (AHDB), Isobel Eames (AHDB) and soil health expert, Joel Williams

A cover-crop mixture of oats and phacelia is beneficial according to Mr Williams. He said: “Oats have deep rooting characteristics and can improve soil structure and phacelia is beneficial to fungi numbers. In brassica and legume cover-crop mixture, brassicas are great at storing nitrates and legumes are great at bringing nitrates into the system.

“In one cover crop, you’re preventing nitrate loss and building fertility. In order to achieve multiple goals, you need multi-functionality and a diverse mixture of species. Diversity within the crop breaks up the susceptibility of monocultures to pests and diseases, and this prevents spread through-out the field.

“This can be spatial through intercropping or genetic through wheat blends. Legumes are the powerhouse of companion crops and stimulates microbes that benefit cereal crops. This synergy wouldn’t happen under a monoculture. If there are poor outcomes from companion crops, this could suggest that the varieties aren’t best suited with each other.”

Integrated Pest Management provides increased benefits Mr Williams said. Plants that are nutritionally imbalanced are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Therefore, optimising plant nutrition can support robust plant defences. Boron and silicon deposited in the cell wall can induce cell strength and create a physical barrier.

Integrated Nutrient Management requires as many tools as possible to manage fertility and reduce dependency on artificial inputs including cover crops, composts, crop residues and companion crops.

Nitrogen has a NUE of 30-50 per cent, meaning up to 50 per cent of nitrogen applied is not utilised by the plant and has the potential to be leached out of the soil profile. Phosphorus has 15-20 per cent efficiency-rate and could be cycled and reused as long as the soil is not being lost through actions such as surface run-off.

Ana Reynolds, AHDB Head of Engagement for Cereals & Oilseeds thanked Mr Williams and summed-up proceedings by saying: “Joel is a leading plant and soil health educator and AHDB has tapped into his wealth of experience by organising seven meetings across England and Scotland, focussing on farmer-to-farmer networking and highlighted on-farm steps to unlock additional profitability and resilience.

“Joel also spoke about systems more familiarly known as Holistic Management, an approach to understand, improve and implement agricultural systems by considering their complexities and how these systems are interconnected. The soil health principles provide macro-level guidelines to help farmers deal with the complexity involved making these tangible and more applicable.”