With the recent challenging wet weather in many areas of the country, farmers should consider what can be done to make their soils more resilient for the years ahead, says Matthew Hyslop, the Hutchinsons’ agronomist based in Angus and Perthshire.

Rainfall in the central Angus area for the months of August, September and October totalled 283mm – in 2018, the same period totalled 122mm – which means that growers have been facing problems establishing winter cereals and finishing their potato harvesting.

“Soils have had little opportunity to dry out properly and with additional heavy rains in early November, the opportunity for any further field work is limited,” he said. “Whilst thankfully the potato harvest on the whole is mostly complete, many fields have been lifted in less than ideal conditions, so what does this mean for soils after potatoes?

“Driving around the countryside, many fields are heavily rutted with standing water and it’s clear that in most cases depth of cultivation has had an impact on potential damage caused during a difficult harvest, because heavy machinery effectively sinks to the previous cultivation depth, making any remedial action more challenging.”

“This is particularly the case on higher clay content soils,” he added. “The AHDB has highlighted that the higher the clay content of soils, the closer the critical depth to the surface for avoiding compaction.”

He referred to recent work undertaken by AHDB that showed the positive effects from shallower cultivation for bulk production on potato yields, as well as better grade outs.

But, what else can be done? “Looking at what’s going on under our feet is of vital importance to help look after and improve our most precious asset, soil, which in the long term will help provide sustainable and profitable crop production,” he said.

“If we can employ more soil science and cultivation research to move less soil and avoid over-cultivation, then the benefits will be clear to see.

“After the recent less than ideal harvest conditions, identifying any soil damage is important, which can be simply done by taking a spade and having a look at what’s going on in the soil profile – once soils have dried out sufficiently to do so.

“This will allow the most appropriate action to be taken for those soils, by looking at cultivations, establishment techniques, rotation and perhaps positioning of cover crops in some rotational situations to alleviate and minimise future damage to the soil.

“Have a ‘look and see’ can help with decisions such as; setting sub soiling depths and leg spacing accurately to rectify compaction problems and not, in turn, create new problems which can so often be the case.”

He added that subsoiling as deep as possible is often utilised to address such conditions, but it was critical to set depth to tackle the actual area of identified compaction or the operation could be counter productive, causing more compaction than it removed.

Matthew believed it was worth having a ‘Healthy Soil’ assessment to identify and improve problem areas. “Soils are assessed by three key components – physical (texture, compaction, bulk density, water infiltration), biological (organic matter, soil life, carbon content) and chemical (minerals, nutrients and nutrient availability), during October through to April.

“The beauty of this type of assessment and analysis is that it enables farmers and agronomists to understand the soil, why it performs like it does and what the key future production issues may be,” he explained.

“The report is targeted at soil types across the farm and Hutchinsons agronomists can help farmers put a plan in place to improve on all the physical, chemical and biological issues identified.”