With rising demand to boost productivity while maintaining grassland health, Midland Farmer discovers some top tips to restore and improve soils from Timac Agro UK technical manager David Newton.
High production livestock farming has led to some pastures requiring more frequent reseeding – often every three to five years – due to pressure to maintain high quality forage in grass swards.
Despite providing short-term benefits in forage quality and palatability, this can have long-term implications on soil health.
Be aware of the mpact of short-term pasture replacement
Replacing pastures on a short-term basis prevents the grass from creating a robust root system.
The process of preparing the field for reseeding can be very disruptive to the structure of the soil. While the industry is moving towards minimum tillage for arable crops, sadly this isn’t always viable for replacing grassland.
Ploughing can be necessary in grassland replacement, but it exposes valuable organic matter and depletes the microorganisms that enrich the soil.
Whatever we can do to stretch the lifespan of a highly nutritional pasture means less soil damage is caused.
Newly established grassland nutrition is important
When feeding the newly established grassland, farms typically rely on urea and ammonium nitrate applications to push productivity.
These artificial fertilisers can be harsh on the soil microbiome and don’t encourage grass roots to go deep and seek the existing minerals.
As a result, soils may experience a reduction in mineral levels and increased soil compaction that reduces aeration. This can have a knock-on effect on grass palatability and growth.
Once a drop in palatability or quality is identified on-farm, it can seem like a quick fix to reseed. But it’s important to remember it’s what’s happening beneath the grass that needs nurturing.
Benefits of soil conditioning are well- proven thanks to science
One way to improve and maintain soil structure, health and fertility in existing grassland is to apply a soil conditioner.
Soil conditioners can be used to improve poor soils. They can also restore those damaged by previous detrimental management.
Conditioners can improve physical, chemical and biological qualities of the soil, such as nutrient availability, soil structure and activity.
What’s important to understand is this is a long-term approach to enhance and maintain soils to get them to their peak condition and stay there.
Maximising grass recovery
Anything you can do to maximise the recovery of grass following the silage season will put you in good stead for a resilient year ahead, when hit with weather challenges.
Applying nutrition in autumn, while grass is trying to revitalise without the stress of production, will make inputs more effective next season.
Slow-release fertiliser technology is your ally in these situations.
It helps to reduce wastage and, therefore, pollution and expense, but it also ensures the plant receives the right levels of nutrition at the right time in its development.
Soil conditioners, which have slow-release technology, can gradually release nutrients back to rejuvenate roots, boost plant and nutrient reserves and improve the soil index.
Ultimately, this process supports the production of high-quality grass and silage that has captured the key nutrients required for livestock diets, which should also help minimise reliance on purchased feed next winter.
Utilising organic matter
Alongside applications of a soil conditioner, utilising organic matter in a nutritional plan is key to success.
Organic matter, farmyard manure especially, is typically in abundance on farmland grazed by livestock, so let’s make the most of it.
Resting muck and slurry to ensure nutrient content is sufficient, and soils are best able to convert organic matter to mineralised nutrients.
“Turning things on their head, making sure soils are in tip-top condition will also help improve the efficiency of your manure applications.
A healthy soil offers a wider range of biology, such as bacteria, fungi and earthworms, which will be more effective in recycling the nutrients applied from manure – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but once you achieve a good balance, you’ll reap the rewards.
Planning nutrient applications
To get the most from applications, an annual plan should be implemented, incorporating other nutrition elements.
But understanding the current state of play is essential. Prior to nutrient applications, you need to know the nutrition requirements of your soils and grass. Soil sampling and observing the physical structure will provide a good indication of what you need the soil conditioner to do.
Once this is understood, applications can be planned. But wait for the nutrient application cycle to start in late summer.