Arable farmers have always recognised the benefits of good soil structure and nutrition, and while livestock producers are aware of the problems associated with compaction, few understand the important role soil has and how it functions.

It was nevertheless the focus of three 2017 Nuffield scholars – to include one from Scotland – who travelled the world in a bid to find out how the ground beneath them could work better for their grassland systems.

All three spoke at the Nuffield Conference, staged in Glasgow recently, including Perthshire-based beef and sheep farmer, Alec Brewster, Dunkeld, who also won the award for the best presentation at the two-day event.

Having discovered the benefits of rotational grazing through Quality Meat Scotland's grazing groups, Alec who runs some 3200 hectares of upland/hill ground was encouraged to build up the organic matter in his soils to further increase production.

And, after touring profitable beef, dairy and sheep farms in South America, Uruguay and New Zealand as part of his scholarship, he discovered the benefits of a rich forage species sward, and, resting the ground on a regular basis.

"I visited a farm in New Zealand where the grass was green, rich and buzzing while all around was dry, brown and barren, but that farmer's passion was feeding the living organisms in the soil – feeding the biota and the nutrient cycle.

"Worms are amazing creatures – they work to increase and enrich the nutrients in the soil through soil transfer," said Mr Brewster.

He added that while cattle and sheep eat, rip up and trample grassland created by the cycle, nutrients are pulled back down by worms. Resting the ground, he said, allows the plants to feed the biology of the soil. And, increased micronutrients are available to plants and the soil, as the diversity of the crops grown rises, he said.

Backing up these statements, Richard Tudor, who farms 800acres in mid Wales, highlighted the fact that while 75% of the UK is grassland, only 5% of UK soils are analysed every year. Furthermore, the majority of farmers apply the same fertilisers at the same rate year after year without measuring the nutritional requirements of the soil.

"Soil is a farmer's greatest asset and while 20 elements are required for plant growth, the vast majority continue to concentrate solely on N, P and K," he told delegates attending the conference.

Mr Tudor said farmers need to do more chemical soil analysis to consider more than N, P and K. He also urged farmers to get a spade out to dig up the soil to look for levels of compaction .

"We need re-newed focus on lime, because soils with a pH of 5.5 will produce yields with a 10% less than soils with a pH of 6.0.

Mr Tudor who toured throughout Ireland, Canada, USA, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Spain pointed out the benefits of short grazing with a long leave too

"Some of the best farmers I visited grazed a third, trampled a third and left a third. Trampled grass is not wasted it increases the diversity above and below the ground and helps to grow more grass.

"Before a plant grows up it grows down, so if you want to grow the healthiest animals to produce the healthiest meat you have to have the healthiest environment, so go and get your spade out," he said.

Further south, Geraint Powell, who farms 3000acres in the Cotswolds discovered how to make the best use of nature's services to increase profitability from the soil.

"If you've got no money to buy inputs you have to find another way to farm and nature's way of farming is based on soil health without any mechanical disturbance of the soil and continual cropping with a range of different crops and without any bare soils.

"You have to understand what you do and learn the language of the land. Plant size, leaf area, how much of a crop is left behind is incredibly important to the health of soil and rest is the most powerful tool we have for plant growth. Trampled grass is not wasted, it feeds the soil and the soil microbes," said Mr Powell.

"The more diverse the range of crops grown, the more diverse the range of micronutrients available to the soil and the crops being grown and the health benefits available to the livestock grazing it," he concluded.