Serving the Farming Industry across the Midlands for 35 Years
Arable farmers at the top of their game are constantly striving to improve crop production. They do so by tweaking inputs and management practices....

Arable farmers at the top of their game are constantly striving to improve crop production. They do so by tweaking inputs and management practices.  Soil status has a significant impact on yield and quality. Growers are at risk of not reaching a crop’s full potential if soils are poor – but various strategies can be used to improve soil health.

Soil health and conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture has become a hot topic among growers in recent years. 

More farmers are conscious about what they’re doing to their soils and their impact on the environment and yields. 

Regenerative agriculture is increasingly popular. It encompasses practices such as:

• Reduced soil movement 

• Diversified cropping 

• Keeping soil covered 

• Increasing biodiversity. 

How can soil health affect crop production? 

Soil health impacts crop production in many ways. Good soil health ultimately leads to a healthy crop because soil is pivotal for the nutritional status of crops and water uptake. 

Healthy soils are usually rich in carbon, which is vital for the carbon cycle to take place. This cycle is crucial for plant fertility and responsible for good crop production.

If soils are poor or are lacking in carbon, crop production can be significantly impacted. In extreme cases, no matter what a farmer does, crop yields will be reduced. 

It can be difficult to identify unproductive soils unless there are obvious signs of substandard health. These include compaction or limited water infiltration, or poor crop yield. 

This means farmers need to look at historical crop data and how the crop is growing to identify if there is a problem. It is then possible to decide the best steps to improve soil health. 

How to improve soil health?

Conservation or regenerative agriculture is key to improving soil health. This can include examining cropping options, the nutritional status of soils and cultivation methods. 

Cropping and rotations 

Some farmers work within tight rotations which are profitable but detrimental to soil health. This is because tight rotations reduce soil biodiversity. Tight rotations can also mean a routine reliance on a narrow range of plant protection products.  

To prevent such issues, widening the rotation to different cropping options is important. Wider rotations strengthen soil biodiversity and structure while delivering organic matter into the soil profile. 

Cover crops can add diversity to arrable rotations. They are also easy to grow. A catch crop, such as mustard or linseed, can be drilled quickly and will establish rapidly.

The crop can be destroyed after six to eight weeks. As it breaks down, it adds organic matter into the soil, leaving behind roots and channels. This enhances the soil’s natural structure and porosity, improving water infiltration, drainage and air movement. Again this is beneficial to the following crop.


When it comes to cultivation, the best way to improve soil health is to recuduce the amount of tillage. 

Farmers often feel compelled to work the soil into a fine tilth using lots of different machines. But this has negative implications for soil carbon content. 

Intensely cultivated soils are much more susceptible to compaction, erosion and carbon loss. This makes it harder to preserve soil carbon.

Trial results shows that where tillage is reduced, the concentration of soil carbon is much higher than where soils are intensely cultivated. 

If farmers are looking to improve the health of their soils, doing the bare minimum when it comes to cultivation can be beneficial and will prevent a significant amount of carbon from being lost from soils. 

Firms such as Sumo and others have developed a range of minimum-tillage machinery for conservation agriculture. These machines focus on working at reduced depths to protect soil from erosion and degradation.

This improves soil biodiversity and protects natural resources such as water and air. It encourages better crop establishment, lower input costs and higher yields over time ­– ultimately leading to higher margins too.

Balancing nutrition 

Another crucial aspect of improving soil health is balancing the nutritional status in soils. Calcium and magnesium are two important macronutrients that need careful consideration. 

Calcium lets water percolate by holding the soil open – important for a healthy crop.  Conversely, magnesium tends to disperse clay colloids when wet causing the soil to slump and become sticky.  When dry these soils can harden with wide deep cracks.  

This means balancing magnesium and calcium in soils is crucial to achieving good soil structure.

Top Tips For Soil Health

Tip 1: Treat your soils like a bank account – you want to put more carbon in than you take out to deliver the best rewards

Tip 2: Be patient – improving soil health is often a long process and can take many years before results are noticeable 

Tip 3: Leave chopped straw – rather than bailing it up, leave it on the fields as this will breakdown into the soil profile and boost organic carbon content 

James Warne, from Soil First Farming, has worked with farmers for many years 

to improve arable soils.  For full details and further information, visit