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WITH soil health increasingly important to farmers, arable producers will be able to get down and dirty at this year's Cereals event to see what's going on under their feet.

Last year’s event featured an 8m long x 1.5m deep soil pit, demonstrating the impact of different crops on soil structure. It attracted so much interest, that this year’s feature will more than double in size to 20m long.

Aiming to pinpoint problems that traffic causes, a new compacted area will also illustrate the impact of poor soil structure on rooting ability.

“Soil health is a really hot topic right now. There is a lively debate on how to best manage soil structure both with machinery and through crop choice,” pointed out Ron Stobart, head of farming systems research at NIAB.

“By drilling different crops with a variety of sowing dates and digging the soil pit just before the event, we can show farmers what’s really going on beneath the surface. With plenty of expert advice on hand, this will enable them to make more informed decisions about their own soil management at home.”

This year’s crops will include winter and spring beans, wheat and oats, as well as cover crops like vetch, radish and a radish/oat mix. “Cover crops are an increasingly popular option to improve soil condition and reduce erosion,” explained Mr Stobart. “Last year, visitors were surprised at how deep roots can go – up to 1.5m in Cambridgeshire’s chalky soils – but different cover crops have very distinct rooting habits so farmers should choose appropriate species to tackle specific needs in their soils.”

The soil pit will also have experts on site to discuss varying cultivation and tillage options, he said. “And visitors will be able to see the results of these different techniques used to alleviate compaction in the soil pit.”

Steve McGrath, head of sustainable soil and grassland systems at Rothamsted Research, will be turning theory into practice at Cereals, demonstrating how soil physics, worms and microbiology interact with the plants.

“We do a lot of research into soil, so this is an ideal opportunity to show farmers what’s going on, with a living backdrop,” he said.

On fertiliser needs, Mark Tucker, from Yara, will also be taking samples throughout the soil profile, to illustrate the importance of measuring nutrients before choosing how and where to apply fertiliser.

“About 50% of UK soils have an incorrect pH, which immediately compromises nutrient availability,” he said “Nutrients can become stratified with minimum tillage techniques and only by measuring your soils accurately can you make informed decisions to help long-term productivity.”

Poor soil health can reduce cereal yields by up to 60% – so the financial impact of better management can be significant, says Jon Day, Cereals Event organiser. “At Cereals we want to give farmers all the information they need to benefit their bottom line. Soil is absolutely vital to arable production, so keeping it in best possible health is the foundation of a productive, profitable and viable business.”

* Cereals 2017 will be held on June 14 and 17 at Boothby Graffoe, in Lincolnshire, and will have more than 64ha of stands and live demonstrations, including crop plots, working demonstrations, the Syngenta Sprays and Sprayers arena and renewables. More than 20,000 are expected to attend.