Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Soil and Water, Our Greatest Team?
What can I say, one of the most riveting conferences I have been to in a very long time, well done to the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) for putting it all together. Prof Tim Benton kicked off the Conference with a sobering overview of our climate and what we might experience in the future. Considering the extremes of weather we've experienced in the last two years, his presentation was of little comfort! In summary, more rainfall causing more issues with our soil (great!) Our soils and farming systems need to be more resilient and more sustainable to deal with these changing weather systems. What was once a 1 in 50 year event could soon become 1 in 5! (hold onto your seats!) Next up was Jean Spencer from Anglian Water, who with 6million customers, needs a constant supply of water. A 25 year strategy is in place to continue to reduce individual household water use, using meters, water re-use and recharging aquifers in periods of over supply. Meurig Raymond spoke about the need to increase wheat supply by 60% in the next 40 years. Currently the UK is 62% self sufficient but this could drop to less than 50% in the future. He also stressed the need for more R&D into maintaining production as buying food on the world market may not always be possible in the future. Alan Wilson of Waitrose, spoke about the urbanisation of our customers, moving further from the knowledge of their food supply change, and how water is key to their sustainability plan, which is inextricably link to the soil. We need to learn from drier countries when it comes to water use technology, Spain for instance has reduced water use in some produce by 50%.
After a quick lunch it was onto the afternoon sessions, the first one I attended was titled 'Boosting Arable Soil Productivity". Ron Stobart kicked off with the STAR project. The project aims to have a long term study into arable rotations, and also the benefits of cover cropping on soil organic matter and fertility. This theme was prevalent throughout the afternoon sessions that I attended. Roberts Barnes, a Bedfordshire farmer, spoke about his experience of controlled traffic farming and how this method of farming can reduce costs, increase output as well as earthworms and soil organic matter. Controlled Traffic Farming is something that I had quickly dismissed before, but maybe there is merit in the system, although potentially difficult to implement where vegetable crops form part of the rotation.
The next session was by Dr Eric Ober from Rothamsted, who enlightened us on the current research about wheat breeding, (right up my Nuffield Street). In 1888 the Rothamsted yield was 2T/Ha which is still the average world wheat yield today. I also heard that the contribution to yield comes 50% from the genetics and 50% from husbandry. There is also a need to develop new varieties for maintenance breeding. This means that a variety looses its ability to yield due to environmental factors reducing its potential year on year, things like changing strains of fungi.
The final session was entitled Soil Biota - Harnessing the Earths Biological Engine and was taken by Karl Ritz (Professor of Soil Biology - Cranfield University) and was all about the interaction between soil microbes, nutrients and organic matter. There was a practical element of putting the science into practise by Jo Franklin (Nuffield Scholar). Jo's study took her around the world looking at the status of soils, building fertility and how organic matter can be introduced back into our soils. This includes the use of livestock and their manure, of compost, cover crops and even treated sewage cake. All these ingredients added to the soil help keep it aerated, healthy, staying in the field and delivering greater yields!
It really was a cracking lineup of speakers, the topic right on the pulse of the issues we are currently facing and those that we will be facing in the future. I for one will be signing up to go again next year, if it is held, and I would strongly recommend other farmers to attend as there will be valuable lesions for us all to learn next year.