Plan to avoid the slippery slope

You have just under a month to fill in DEFRA’s risk-based Soil Protection Review as an on-farm record or you risk not qualifying for the Single Payment Scheme, warns Simon Draper, independent agronomist in East Anglia.

And while Mr Draper recognises just completing the review will contribute to environmental protection, he encourages farmers to go further.

He advocates assessing the risk of soil issues on a field-by-field rather than a crop basis, and formulating a soil management plan.

The Landcare project, initiated 15 years ago in the Avon catchment, has highlighted the benefits to fish populations, not to mention farm yields, of reducing winter soil loss from fields into rivers.

“I’ve seen for myself that identifying fields which are eroding and cultivating and cropping them sensitively, can help to reduce environmental pollution and improve yields,” he says.

“While soil erosion is more a problem of sandy soils, soil wash tends to occur on clays.

A wet harvest can change a soil’s condition immeasurably, leaving fields vulnerable to causing localised flooding.

Did you know that a 20-acre field produces half a million gallons of water from just one inch of rain?”

Finding out the true inherent risk of a field helps growers adjust the management of soils, and possibly the use of pesticides and nitrogen fertiliser, to alleviate problems before the Water Framework Directive bites in 2015, he stresses.

Assessing the soil type, slope and its location are keys to determining the inherent risk of the field. It need not be complicated.

A simple method to assess a slope is to imagine how fast a ball rolling down the field would travel, if at all.

This can help you judge the likelihood of runoff.

Ranking fields in order of risk, and colour coding a farm map accordingly, will help you prioritise management, says Mr Draper.

The greater the risk, the higher the level of management required.

Growers hoping to qualify for the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme will probably have already done a soil plan.

It counts for 3 of the £30 points needed to reap the 30/ha payment.

Advice comes from various sources.

Mr Draper runs two-day Environment Agency-sponsored workshops over the winter months for anyone wanting to know how to identify soil type or grade a slope.

Having been shown how to assess soil factors and risk on the first day, growers can return to their farms with a pack to help formulate a soil plan.

The second session, about three weeks later, involves running through the new plan with an adviser on the farm.

The sessions are free.

The EA’s Melissa Robson is keen to see all farmers sign up to the workshops.

Last winter, 400 farmers within four designated pilot catchment sensitive areas took the free advice, and have benefited from the knowledge compiled during the Landcare project.

“Last autumn, we delineated 40 high risk catchments across the UK, which are listed on DEFRA’s website.

Each has been designated an officer to identify the pollution risk and advise on field scores and subsequent management.

“We plan to expand the scheme, but farmers outside these sensitive areas can also make use of this service.

The only commitment they need make is time to attend the course and do a soil plan.”