How to improve soil health to sustain future harvests

Improving the resilience of soils so that they can cope with severe wet or dry years will be crucial to ensuring the future of successful arable farming.

Intensive farming over the years has damaged soil health culminating in scientists at the University of Sheffield warning that the UK only has about 100 harvests left in its soils.

See also: Only 100 harvests left in UK soils, scientists warn

Alastair Leake

Alastair Leake ©Hugh Knutt

4 soil health facts

  • About 95% of the UK’s food comes from the soil
  • Every minute the UK loses the equivalent of 30 football pitches of fertile soil
  • It can take up to 1,000 years for just 1cm of topsoil to form
  • The UK loses 22,000t of topsoil every year

Source: Soil Association

Alastair Leake heads up the Allerton Project near Loddington, Leicestershire, which researches the effect farming has on wildlife and the environment. He believes poor soil health is holding back yields.

“For the past 20 years wheat yields have flatlined in the UK despite breeders raising their plant yields. The soil has depleted and cannot support higher production.”

How direct drilling can help

Phil Jarvis, head of farming at the Allerton Project, says growers “need to use cover crops, straw, a good rotation with good, fibrous roots to try and improve soil structure”.

Farmers should move less soil when cultivating and champions direct drilling over ploughing, he says. While he recognises that direct drilling on heavy soil is challenging, he insists it is “a crusade worth sticking with.”

Yorkshire farmer Richard Bramley is already reaping the yield benefits through improved soil health.


After parts of his farm were engulfed in 4m of floodwater in 2012, he looked to improve soil health in order to maximise excessive water tolerance.

He grows winter milling wheat, spring and winter malting barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet and potatoes on 230ha of silty clay and sandy loam land.

From August to March Mr Bramley puts 25% of his land down to cover crops – including vetch, quinoa and phacillia – to benefit the soil without impacting farm production.

Cover crops can help improve yields long-term, he says: “Last autumn I used 50% less nitrogen on sugar beet crops where vetch was planted after the spring barley.

“Sugar beet in those fields yielded 5t/ha higher than land that wasn’t cover cropped with vetch.”

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