With an estimated 40% of fertiliser lost to leaching and volatilisation, growers are being urged to improve soil health to increase better nutrient use, protect the environment and optimise margins.

George Hepburn, the biological soils expert at QLF Agronomy, told The SF that fertiliser prices had risen by 31% this year making it important to ensure applications were as efficient as possible.

“In many cases, poor soil health means that a lot of growers aren’t getting the most out of their fertiliser,” he said. “For example, as much as 40% of nitrogen can be lost to leaching, immobilisation by soil microbes, denitrification and volatilisation. This leaves growers out of pocket due to wasted resources and reduced yields.

“In addition, there’s environmental impacts to consider and these are likely increase in light of Brexit. For this reason, improving soil health should be a key consideration. It will help soil biology work properly, allowing better nutrient movement from the soil to plants and reduce fertiliser wastage,” he added.

He urged growers to go ‘back to basics’ to improve soil structure. “Soil structure is the foundation of nutrient efficiency as it helps soil microbes thrive, meaning they’re able to mobilise nutrients more effectively and make them more available to the plant.”

Go out with a spade, or in extreme cases a digger, to physically look at the soil, he argued. “The presence of deep rooting systems, good soil aggregation and abundance of visible soil life are all key indicators of healthy soil structure.

“To test this, look at how far rooting is going down and whether or not there are any fine hair roots. It’s also useful to smell the soil – healthy soil smells almost like dark chocolate, and anaerobic soils have an unpleasant smell. Assess the aggregation of the soil to see if it’s crumbly or compacted, and check for soil life, such as millipedes, beetles and worms – the latter should be around 10 to 20 per spade in a healthy soil.

“Compare soil in the field with that from under the hedgerow where soil health and structure won’t have been affected by cultivations or compaction.”

Once you’ve established the state of your soils, you can start to put a plan in place to improve them. “To improve structure, increase organic matter (OM) to an ideal level of 5% of the soil mass by incorporating sources such as farm yard manure, compost and digestate,” he said.

When it comes to improving soil biology, he recommended including a bio-stimulant with other inputs to feed the soil microbes.

“One option is a liquid carbon fertiliser, such as Boost, which feeds the whole spectrum of soil micro-organisms with a range of sugars and yeasts,” he added.