Future farm profits lie in the soil
Soils hold the secret to future farm profits at a time when making the optimum use of on-farm resources - and relying less on bought-in fertiliser - has never been more important in achieving a sustainable farm business.
"UK agriculture is on the brink of new and exciting opportunities to cut costs - and the answer lies in the soil," Liz Russell, managing director of Envirosystems, told the UK's first national conference on soil - "Soil - the Hidden Resource" - held at Stoneleigh this week.
Organised by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and the British Grassland Society - and sponsored by Envirosystems - the conference highlighted the need for farmers to re-assess their attitudes to soil management.
"If improving farm profits is the goal, a re-think on how we manage our soils has to be agriculture's new priority," Liz Russell told the conference.
"We all know the problems caused by compaction and erosion, but the decline in the level of organic matter in soil is a serious concern to our farming systems. It's reducing soil quality as well as the nutrients available for plant growth - and increasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
"But while soil is undoubtedly farming's most valuable hidden resource, for decades we've been staring in the face of another. We've been dealing with it primarily as a waste product - and that resource is slurry."
Liz Russell told the conference there was an overwhelming amount of data - both from official research and on-farm trials undertaken by Envirosystems - that continued to show how the treatment of slurry with an inoculant not only enhanced its ability to retain nutrients but also enabled fertiliser use to be cut by up to 70%.
The need to increase levels of organic phosphorus in soil is also part of on-going research by Envirosystems which is assessing the effect of Slurrybugs on organic phosphorus.
"One of the UK's highest yielding dairy farms has been treating slurry with SlurryBugs and has cut its fertiliser use from 100 tonnes a year down to 28 tonnes a year. Other on-farm trial work in North Wales has shown treated slurry has the potential to save £9.30 an acre on fertiliser costs."
But Liz Russell said agricultural systems were also being alerted to the critical role played by carbon in soil and its influence in retaining nutrients as well as increasing the soil's output potential.
"Envirosystems is involved in a three-year research project with Lancaster University and our first results have shown that treated slurry tested after five weeks of treatment with SlurryBugs achieved a 300% increase in carbon retention compared with untreated slurry which had a 19% reduction in its levels of carbon.
"The same trial is highlighting how treated slurry can cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia. After five weeks the gas emissions from treated slurry had been reduced by 67% compared with untreated slurry that actually showed an increase in emissions of 37%.
"DEFRA has suggested that 50% of all ammonia emitted from cattle farming in UK comes from slurry storage and spreading but results from Lancaster University show that slurry treated with the inoculant SlurryBugs contained 56.8% of organic nitrogen compared with untreated slurry at just 43%."
Soil health dependent on slurries and manures
Slurry and manures are the "trump card" when it comes to the most effective ways of restoring soil health, France-based consultant John Bailey of PadstureSense told the Stoneleigh conference.
"Soil health and microbiological activity must be addressed. Where microbiological activity becomes depleted it doesn't readily correct itself as easily as might be hoped. But slurry and manures are the trump cards and should certainly not be regarded as constraints or handicaps.
"And high proportions of legumes in the sward as well as "mob" grazing to achieve an even spread of urine and muck have an important part to play in soil improvement and boosting fertility," said John Bailey whose company works with livestock farmers across Europe to improve livestock performance per hectare.
Envirosystems is one of 50 companies undertaking three year research project with the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation, which unites the expertise, resources and global contacts of Lancaster University and the University of Liverpool, together with international commercialisation consultancy Inventya Ltd, to develop new products, processes and services for the global marketplace.
The Centre for Global Eco-Innovation is part financed by the European Regional Development Fund.
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