Soil Regenerative Agriculture Group
What is the Soil Regenerative Agriculture Group?
Five farmers are working together to establish how best to support, enhance and protect their farm soils. They will aim to improve production and tailor inputs, maximising profitability. Many other benefits can be gained from healthy and resilient soils, ranging from improving water retention and drainage to supporting biodiversity and helping to lock up carbon on the farm.
What will the group look at?
With support from SAC Consulting, researchers and other industry specialists, the group aims to get to the bottom of which management techniques, treatments, crops and rotations help to shape and protect a resilient farm soil.
How can you benefit?
We can all make changes, but it helps to hear about the experiences of other working farmers who have tried it out first. We want you to be involved too; there will be opportunities for you to share and discuss soil issues with the group once we have some results. The group will be posting regular updates about their findings via this webpage and through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Setup in 2014, Arable Ventures combines the family farm Lindertis and Walker-Munro Farms. Arable Ventures operates over 1,100 ha of arable land with a range of soil types; three-quarters of which is sandy loam with the remainder sandy silt, organic or clay loams, Arable Ventures grows winter wheat, spring barley, winter barley, oats, peas, oilseed rape and grass in a long rotation. Dung is put back on to the land via a straw for dung exchange at Walker-Munro Farms and an in-house cattle enterprise at Lindertis.
Hugh farms in partnership with his father James. The business extends to around 400 ha, 50 ha of which is rented ground. Although there is some variation in soil type, most soils at Backboath are sandy loams. James and Hugh produce winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape and potatoes. They operate a six to seven-year rotation with two breaks.
Ben farms over 200 ha in Perthshire with his family. Leitfie is a mixed arable and beef unit, growing grass for livestock plus barley, wheat, oats, beans and oilseed rape, with the intention of trying linseed in 2020. The rotation at Leitfie will be a diverse 7 crop 9-year rotation with 3 break crops.
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Douglas Ruxton farms Moss-side of Easslie, near Fettercairn, a 121 ha arable unit. Following some research and investigation, Douglas moved away from traditional ploughing to direct drilling, investing in a Claydon Strip Till Drill and straw harrow. Moving to this system in 2012, Douglas has learned a lot about his soils already, and on the whole, is very encouraged by the results to date.
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Ross Mitchell runs Castleton Farm in partnership with his father Murray. The business covers over 600 ha, specialising in strawberries, raspberries, cherries and blueberries, supplying Marks & Spencers. Ross and Murray have some root crops and daffodils, although the land is predominantly managed for soft fruit production under polytunnels.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture (also referred to as conservation agriculture or ecological farming), is an approach centred around improving and revitalising soil health. The group are focusing their work around the following principles:
- Minimise soil disturbance - help support a healthy soil food web.
- Maximise crop diversity - different crops bring different rooting depths and attributes, supporting a range of biodiversity both above and below ground.
- Provide constant soil cover - protect soils from wind and water erosion; reduces water loss.
- Keep a living root in the system - root exudates benefit microbial populations, supporting soil health.
- Integration of livestock - promoting species diversity from microbes to mammals and putting dung back into the system.
The key will be working out how we can integrate these five principles into a profitable business in Scotland.
- Valuing Your Soils: Practical guidance for Scottish farmers (3.53 MB, PDF )
- Improving soil quality (699.59 KB, PDF)
- Soil Organic Matter (2 MB, PDF)
- Soil management (599 KB, PDF)
- West Mains of Kinblethmont - controlled traffic farming (871 KB, PDF)
- Mountfair Farming Ltd - taking care of soil life (1.12MB, PDF)
- Scotland's Farm Advisory Service
- Scotland's Soils
Listen to Ben Barron, Ross Mitchell and Peter Lindsay, (SAC Consulting) discuss how they've found the move to no-till and the benefits of working as a group when they were interviewed as for episode 19 of the Farmers Weekly podcast series.
To till or not to till?
The primary aim of tillage is to create a tilth; however, tillage can also achieve levelling, optimise soil moisture, improve aeration and control weeds. So why is there a move to reduce tillage?
Subsoiling, ploughing, power harrowing, grubbing – no matter how or why you chose to cultivate there is no doubt about it, it is time-consuming. Timeliness aside, there is a growing bank of evidence to suggest that tillage is destructive. As scientists and researchers slowly begin to understand the complex interactions of soil microorganisms, an increasing number of papers prove that tillage interrupts and destroys these habitats, not to mentionthe significant drain it has on resources. Ultimately, the more species which are disturbed, the less diversity we have in our soils and the less resilient we are to extreme events.
Nevertheless, if a field is compacted it can take years to remediate if a machine and some metal are not used – it might never fully recover. However, that isn’t the issue, it’s the repetitive and often unnecessary tillage which creates the havoc within a soil. The overly aerated soil increases organic matter decomposition; the extra-fine seedbed creates soil capping and runoff; or the land which has been worked when it is wet can have smearing and impermeable layers.
On the contrary, research also suggests that, when isolated, minimum and zero tillage can negatively affect yields. So, what is the answer? A study in 2015 found that crop rotation and permanent soil cover are two key drivers, recommending that these should be incorporated into farming practises alongside reduced cultivations. These same ideas are used in regenerative agriculture.
Maybe the question shouldn’t be to till or not to till, but instead how little cultivation can we get away with while maintaining a healthy soil? Perhaps agriculture needs to look further than the implement being used, towards ways in which nature can assist in the daily challenges of producing crops.
Zach Reilly, SAC Consulting for Farming For a Better Climate.