Software takes away SMP burden

Gathering the three points a hectare available under entry-level stewardship for completing a Soil Management Plan could be easier than expected on Farmers Weekly’s southern Barometer Farm in Berkshire.

That is the initial reaction of manager Nigel Horne after a demonstration of Crop Advisors’ new Soilman computer software at Catmore Farm, near Newbury.

Now that glitches in official maps of the farm permitting ELS access have largely been resolved, Mr Horne plans to apply for the scheme in the next few weeks.

And the new program could ease the task, he believes.

“We must go for the ELS to claw back some of our modulation money, and I will definitely be doing a Soil Management Plan,” he says.

Faced with drawing one up, along with its required risk management map, he had already bought several coloured crayons.

But a run-through of Soilman’s capabilities by Hampshire Arable Systems agronomist Stewart Sinclair, suggests most of the farm’s 486ha (1200 acres) of arable land is only at moderate risk of soil run-off or erosion.

So the sole colour needed could be yellow.

“It looks as though I should try to get some of my crayon money back,” says Mr Horne.

The wizard-driven program, based on information from Momenta adviser Simon Draper, allows users to assess inherent and managed risks field by field and to draw up reports showing how they intend to address them.

Ideally, it should be run with the help of a farm agronomist, in this case HAS’s Steve Cook, but that is not essential, says Mr Sinclair.

If necessary whole fields containing clearly different risks can be sub-divided within the programme.

Soilman does not produce a map, but the highlighted risk levels are easily coloured onto a standard OS version, he adds.

“I like its drop-down menus, though it does seem a bit of a Rolls-Royce approach,” says Mr Horne.

The menus encourage users to judge field risks according to slopes and locations on 1-10 scales, and to input soil types and compaction levels.

Assessing slopes can be subjective, admits Mr Cook.

“But one rule of thumb is to imagine that the field is concrete.

If a tennis ball would roll on it, the slope is more than 7.

So on the 1-10 scale it scores 5.”

Fields alongside watercourses and houses clearly merit higher scores than those surrounded by other fields, he notes.

Soil type entry should be quite straightforward – most of Catmore’s land is well-structured clay loam over chalk.

Soilman requires users to judge capping risk as well as compaction at two depths.

Probing with a metal fencing stake in a W-pattern across fields should suffice for the latter, suggests Mr Cook.

“It is best done in January or February, when the soil is at field capacity.”

Having received all the required information, the program calculates the field’s risk level on a 0-25 scale:

0-10 = low (green), 11-17 = moderate (yellow), and 18-25 = high (red).

Depending on the inherent risk and cropping, it then automatically presents a range of appropriate management options that the user can choose from to show ELS inspectors how they plan to counter any problems.

“You can also type in your own options if you are doing something different,” says Mr Cook.

At Catmore sowing winter cereals early helps avoid erosion, notes Mr Horne.

“One of the other obvious options is to break up tramlines after harvest, which is something we do already as a matter of good practice,” he adds.

Mr Cook estimates that an ELS Soil Management Plan is worth £1500 a year for five years at Catmore.

Against that the one-off fee for the CD software is good value, especially if it saves management time, he says.

“Time is money.”

“Many people say to me they have read the ELS booklet,” says Mr Sinclair.

“But then they ask:

‘Where do I start?’.”