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Warwickshire Rural Hub Soils Group

In early 2009, in response to a request from Hub member & Warwickshire farmer Tom Newbery, the Hub established a Soils Group and organised the initial meeting.  Fortuitously, the Environment Agency had approached the Hub as they wished to support NVZ work, and so the Environment Agency funded the first meeting, including the provision of Simon Draper, an EA soils specialist.

32 people attended, a lively, cheerful Group with plenty of banter.  Simon Draper was happy to instil an informal approach where Soils Group Members asked questions at all times and occasionally downright disagreed with Simon.  There were over two hours of talk and discussion on soil health, with all 32 Members attentive, fully participating and, according to the feedback afterwards, enjoying themselves enormously.  An added benefit was that all those who attended received the EA’s useful “Think Soils” Manual free of charge (normally a charge of £8.50).

Members were asked what topic they wished to focus on next - the mantra being “this is your Group - it will do what you, the Members, want it to do”.  Members agreed with a suggestion by Chairman Tom that cultivations systems and minimum tillage should come next.  This was where the RASE’s contacts came in very useful and Soils Report co-author Prof Gordon Spoor agreed to speak at the next meeting a month later.  The cost of the second meeting was met by Natural England, who had offered funding for appropriate Hub activity.

If anything, this meeting was even more successful.  Members sat spellbound as Gordon talked about the principles of cultivations systems, then used slides of farm machinery to punctuate his very practical points on how to obtain success given different soil conditions/problems.  This speaker had really gained the Group’s respect:  they thought he could probably use the machinery as well as they could!  The Group Member who thanked Gordon said that he epitomised the person that the RASE Soils Report highlighted:  a research scientist of the highest calibre who could at the same time talk to farmers because of his down to earth practical knowledge.

When the EA had agreed to fund the first meeting, they had also offered to support a farm walk taken by Simon Draper.  It was soon arranged that two farm walks would take place, the first at Tom Newbery’s farm on how to improve damaged soils, the second at Tom Mahon’s Stratford farm on increased yields from improvements in soils.  Almost as soon as the first walk was announced, people booked in and the twenty available places were quickly taken.

The day of the walk was lovely and sunny - great for a visit to a farm near the picturesque village of Honington in south Warwickshire.  But sunny can be a double-edged sword with farmers.  Most of them could and probably should have been doing tractor and spraying work on their farms.  But they didn’t.  Instead they committed to spending almost a full day with the Hub’s Soils Group.

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The Group started looking at fields on the farms of both Tom Newbery and neighbour (and Soils Group Member) Malcolm Bryan.  Building on farmers’ love of “looking over the hedge”, there was soon discussion and debate about what Members were seeing, what was right, how problems could be solved etc.  Knowing the soils, testing it correctly and understanding it are key tools, and this was perhaps one of the most useful pieces of information for Group Members.  At one stage Simon Draper and Tom disagreed about the course of action for a particular field.  Tom’s solution was to offer to prepare a strip of the field using Simon’s method and the rest using his own:  a brave move and one which could potentially have cost him money.  The results were extremely interesting and gave many of the attendees and Tom food for thought.

Those present professed themselves well pleased with the day.  Not only had they learned a lot, but the Group was further developing as a Group, building trust, plenty of banter, enjoying themselves.  The Group is able to accommodate a mixture of those with big and smaller farms, those with a lot of big farm machinery and those with less, the analytical farmers, the instinctive ones, all learning something, taking something back to try on their own land.

A variety of events have taken place, the topic is always decided by the group.  Previous events had focused on the heavy clay soils that the majority of Warwickshire farmers farmed on.  However, there were still many farmers who farmed on lighter soils and they requested help with learning how to assess this type of soil and treat the problems that this type of soil experienced.  During an on-farm event they were taught how to look at the structure, how to manage it, how to subsoil and how to get a bigger yield.  A surprising outcome of this event was that many of the farmers who thought they had “light” soils in fact didn’t....after assessing the soil type in relation to the soil protection review, many found they actually had medium soils.  This made them reassess how they cultivated their land and whether they needed to change their current practices.

Following on from how apparent it was that farmers were incorrectly assessing their soil types an event took place that provided an in-depth look at classifying soil types and completing the Soil Protection Review paperwork.  All attendees were invited to bring soil samples from different fields on their own farms.  The group were then taught the correct technique so that they could then repeat the process on their own farms.  The feedback from attendees was that it was extremely helpful for them. In fact one farmer felt it was imperative that all farmers had the same learning experience on soil classification that he reported this to Warwickshire NFU members.

An event for Warwickshire farmers to visit each other farms and look at problem fields took place.  This enabled the group to have a practical attempt at assessing and solving problems, such as compaction, drainage and flooding, that were relevant to the majority of them.  It was also extremely encouraging to witness the knowledge transfer that was occurring between the group members when they were discussing and comparing their own soil problems/issues.  They were, in some circumstances, starting to work as a team by offering to lend other farms their ploughing/cultivating machinery if it was needed.

A lot of the soil problems experienced can be a result of or acerbated by the vehicles that farmers drive on the land.  A theory and practical based event on tyres, traction and compaction was held.  This extremely informative event, looking at the relationship between tyres and compaction resulted in feedback from farmers that they now realised just how important it was for them to be knowledgeable and reactive to what went on top of the soil as well as what went into the soil. There was quite a surprise at the beginning of the event when the farmers were asked to identify what the numbers/letter/symbols meant on the outside of all tractor/trailer tyres; the group were unable to correctly respond.  By the end of the event they all knew the relevance of the tyre information and were able to return to their own farms to check their own vehicles had the most appropriate tyres and were being used in the most effective and economical way.

There was also an on-farm practical event specifically aimed at the Soils Group members who grew potatoes.  Taught by a potato expert and agronomist, they learnt how to grow the best potatoes possible and how to get their soils in the correct condition to do this.

Another event looked at trial and demonstration plots at Loddington, including a guide to the Allerton Project and the UK Soil Management Initiative.  This informative event was very well received by the Soils Group particularly as they learnt to enhance the soil quality and the wildlife in their farm environments.

An NVZ workshop for any farmers in Warwickshire took place.  Attendees were encouraged to attend the event with their own paperwork.  By doing this the attendees were able to understand the regulations in relation to their own farms.  Feedback was very good and it appeared that the farmers were starting to understand these complex regulations and have more confidence in completing their own paperwork in the future.

The Soils Group, working with Agronomist Simon Draper, started a Cultivation Challenge.  Group member, Mark Hollands from Wootton Wawen, allowed the group to use one of his fields to cultivate a spring crop of wheat.  The field was split into four sections; Half of the soils group took one section, the rest of the group took another section, Simon Draper the agronomist had the third section and the farmer, Mark Hollands had the fourth section.  It was up to each group how their quarter was cultivated.  The crop has recently been drilled and the results so far are very interesting!

Throughout all the different events it was encouraging to see that they were having a positive effect on how the farmers looked after or worked their soils.  Farmers were changing their preconceptions and practices in direct response to what they had learnt.  The Group members are all eager to continue to learn about soils to enable further improvements of their soil which will lead to a positive effect on their farm businesses.

Any farmer in Warwickshire is welcome to join the Soils Group and participate in any of the events. 

FOR upcoming Soils Events see the Event Page.

For further information please contact the Hub office: carrie@ruralhub.org.uk or 02476 697 496

 
 
 
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