Report Synopsis

Soil health and fertility in grasslands: an essential component in improving upland beef and sheep productivity and sustainability

2015 was declared the International Year of the Soils and December 5th has become our annual World Soils Day to raise awareness amongst us all of the importance of soils in our daily lives: from agriculture to food to mitigating climate change. ‘Soil’ has become a very fashionable topic but, as grassland farmers who are responsible for 70% of the UK agricultural land, do we really understand its role and how it functions?

In general, arable farmers have better recognition of their soils than livestock farmers: quite simply for the reason that they literally see it. Upland and hill farmers rarely actually see their soils, which leads to a lack of understanding of its vital role and importance in grass and forage production. As with arable yields, grass yields have also plateaued. From presenting at a recent roadshow I estimate that only an approximate one third of Welsh livestock farmers currently soil test (despite 80-100% financial assistance from the Welsh Assembly Governments Farming Connect programme to do so). Dr Sinclair Mayne, CEO of AFBI, Northern Ireland’s Agri-food and Bioscience Institute, delivered a message to Westminster in June calling for a renewed focus on grassland management, and reported that many of the constraints on grassland production were due in large part to under-investment in soil analysis with only 5% of UK grasslands analysed every year. There is an urgent need for our farmers to better appreciate the value of their soils.

Soil is every farm’s greatest asset, and most farmers believe that they are passing their land on to the next generation in a better state than they received it. Defining ‘better state’ is not easy, but we can only judge this belief if we understand the fundamentals of what constitutes a healthy soil.

The aim of my study was to gain a better understanding of soil in relation to upland farming systems in order to develop healthy fertile soils capable of producing healthy forage and healthy animals, whilst reducing our reliance on chemical fertilisers. I have learnt the value of grazing livestock to the ecosystem and their role in sustaining the biodiversity of flora and fauna and their positive effect on carbon sequestration but my study has focused on understanding the basics of a productive working soil. This is the base for everything that we do especially when attempting to defend agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Efficient, healthy livestock are key to reducing emissions and our footprint. The Carbon Navigator management template produced by Teagasc and Bord Bia measures the environmental benefits that can be provided by increasing efficiencies.

The barriers to implementation amongst farmers are always difficult to understand but effective communication and engagement has to be the starting point. Legislation has a role to play in setting the wheels in motion, and I welcome recent change in requirements in England to test soils every five years.

Key to farming sustainably in the uplands is an understanding of what constitutes a healthy fertile soil, and the management practices that are best suited to provide it.

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