Growers need to be brave and grab the opportunity to benefit from regenerative farming practices, rather than waiting to be ‘100% sure’ that the system will work for them.

Telling one of Arable Scotland’s seminars that things worked ‘roughly eight years out of 10’, French farmer and founding father of regenerative organisation BASE (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil and Environment), Frederic Thomas, encouraged Scottish farmers to ‘get on the road’ towards a more sustainable future.

“It’s about risk management – everyone has to choose their own level of risk which they are comfortable with – backed up with the knowledge of how to use the tools available to them.”

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Leading soil scientist Dr Ken Loads of the JHILeading soil scientist Dr Ken Loads of the JHI

But understanding the whole system was crucial, he said, stating that while some thought that organic matter and soil carbon could be increased simply be chopping straw behind the crop, this was not the whole picture.

“Just like feeding nothing but straw to an animal, the soil and its microbes need a balance of other nutrients including nitrogen and energy as well to allow proper metabolism to take place.”

He said that this was one of the reasons why animals were so important in regenerative systems as their dung provides an important source of nitrogen to let this happen.

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Claiming that there was a great future for farm livestock to allow the proper cycling of carbon in farming systems, he said: “And you find that while many question the poaching which animals can cause in wet years, the same people are less willing to acknowledge the deleterious effects which are caused by driving over the same land with a 15-tonne tractor and a 20-tonne trailer. Cattle and sheep may poach the top few centimetres – but the damage caused by machinery goes much, much deeper.”

The topic of soil health and resilience was picked up by Hutton researcher and science communicator, Dr Ken Loades, who said that recently published research had estimated that soil compaction was costing UK growers between £16m and £49m each year in yield penalties alone, depending on weather conditions.

“The yield penalty is caused not only by the inability of damaged soils to drain properly when it’s wet, but also by the lack of capacity which they have to store water during drought and near drought conditions.”

Citing the work of Thomas Keller, a fellow soil scientist working in Sweden, he said that if farm machinery was viewed in terms of the dinosaur age, then today’s tractors and combines were approaching the weight and size of the sauropods, the largest dinosaurs ever to walk the Earth.

“The weight of fully laden combines has increased nearly tenfold from about four tonnes to over 36 tonnes over the past 60 years,”. Dr Loades said.

“And there’s little doubt that this is having an effect on soil compaction and challenging the resilience of soils to recover from the deep damage caused to soil structure, even when extra-wide tyres are used to stop machines sinking.”

He said that one way to help soils recover from such damage and to improve structure was to increase the level of organic matter – either through the use of grass leys grazed by livestock or by the addition of compost, as had been used at Balruddery.

But he also warned growers that while the damage could happen quickly, they shouldn’t expect an immediate recovery from any of these challenges by changing management practices.

Dr Loades stated that no quick fixes were available – and that farmers should expect things to take closer to a decade than a year to show any real improvements.