FARMERS HAVE a thirst for knowledge on soils and are implementing techniques found to improve them, according to a leading soil expert.

Alastair Leake, of the Soil Management Initiative, has been involved with running soil-based workshops for farmers for around five years.

“Every time we‘ve ever run a workshop we‘ve been over-subscribed,” he says.

“Farmers are extremely interested in their soils. What they want is more knowledge and experience.”

This was illustrated recently by the Home-Grown Cereals Authority-funded Soil2Crop initiative, run with SMI in 2003 with more planned for summer 2004.

“As well as being over-subscribed, feedback forms showed it got a satisfaction result of 8/10, which I understand is very good,” says Mr Leake.

At the heart of the work SMI is doing has been encouraging non-ploughing tillage techniques.

Figures from a 2004 survey of 2000 farmers show 40% of UK land is now under non-plough tillage.

This is up from a 9% estimate made by the European Conservation Agricultural Federation in 1998.

As well as bringing farmers economic benefits, it brings 83% better water retention to soils, which reduces fast run-off and consequential flooding, points out Mr Leake.

“That also means less run-off of nitrate, phosphate and pesticides,” he added.

But it is not a prescriptive science, warns Mr Leake, and minimum tillage should be adopted differently, according to farm and soil type.

“We need more funding to research this and also explore how shallow ploughing can help – there‘s still 60% of the UK land area to go, after all,” he says.

Alastair Leake was one of five top min till experts who hosted FWi‘s highly successful Lo-till Advice Line in 2001.
This built up into a valuable min till Q&A library you can still browse for top tips on tackling tillage.