We are putting in the effort to learn about soil health, having realised we know relatively little about it
A discussion group meeting last week brought the expertise of Teagasc ASSAP advisor Cathal Somers to our farm to talk about soil
Both myself and my husband Neil have been putting considerable effort over the last 12 months into learning about soil health, having realised we know relatively little about it beyond pH or what P/K index it is.
I now realise this is like saying, I know how to put diesel into the car but I haven’t a clue how the engine works.
It turns out we are sometimes looking for Formula 1 performance from an old Fiat Punto. Without a decent engine under the bonnet, all the diesel in the world won’t make it perform.
We dug holes in various fields to assess the soil structure, and met the hoard of stones we are familiar with. The top layer of soil with the grass root mat was brown and crumbly; not as crumbly as it should be but not overly compacted either.
Underneath this were rounded small soil aggregates, but further down there were very few. It looked more like a loose collection of silt, clay and stones than clods of earth.
The aggregates are vital, I learned: they are the horsepower for the engine. Through organic matter, microbes and plant roots, a type of soil glue is created that sticks clay, silt and sand together, creating soil aggregates that can hold water, nutrients and carbon as well as delivering soil stability and resilience.
The opening line of a Teagasc soil booklet I read recently said: “Soil is both the physical and productive basis of your farm and therefore the basis of its economic success and future.”
The soil I was looking at was telling its own story. It became clear there were management decisions we could make to improve its structure — it needed organic matter and deeper root systems.
Getting a measurement of the organic matter levels would be a great start; we had the farm sampled last February as part of the soil sampling programme with the Department, but five months on, we still don’t have organic matter results.
This is a common theme with the Department. Application windows for schemes or grants are opened over a tight time-frame, expecting farmers to get on board ASAP while the administration side of things has a vacation.
Here we are, in year two of a five-year carbon budget still awaiting for the emission reduction target for agriculture to be announced.
The Department was aware of the scale of change required four years ago yet kicked the can down the road with postponements and delays.
That’s four years of missed opportunities to trial collaborative group applications for environmental schemes, where small groups of farmers could apply together and learn from each other resulting in a positive environmental multiplier effect, grants for discussion group KT on practical and applied soil health, sorting out clover safe herbicide availability etc.
Ultimately this dithering will lead to extreme measures for farmers to swallow in the not-too-distant future. The most recent announcement delay was likely to avoid the contagion of protests spreading across the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Poland. Timing is everything with announcements and protests are bad press for government popularity especially when confidence votes are swinging in the balance.
Every proposed change for farms will bring a degree of risk, as changing long-standing farm practices isn’t as easy a task as people make it out to be.
Managing clover on peaty soils, making silage from multi-species swards, reducing nitrogen usage — all the risk of trial and error is in farmer’s hands.
For farmers, finding time to learn and implement transitions to more sustainable practices is challenging.
Visiting discussion groups often say things like, ‘we’ll see how yourself and Neil get on with the multi-species before we try them ourselves’.
Many of us have a system of dairying built over years to suit the people, cows and landscape in which it sits. We follow that system over the seasons with relatively predictable outcomes that play out on the balance sheet of the bank account.
We balance risk across years of repeated decision-making to ensure the best results.
We don’t have titles to differentiate our abilities, like consultant, or specialist or master. We are all farmers — a word that hides the ocean of practical understanding, ability and knowledge that is gathered season by unrelenting season as we work alongside Mother Nature.
Farming is a slow game, practised by experts of the land within the framework of a rule book that is currently being rewritten — something that is often forgotten.
Gillian O’Sullivan farms with her husband Neil near Dungarvan, Co Waterford