The measure of soil health: Technical Open days – CPM – Dick Neale, Neil Watson

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Dick Neale presenting Nutrition Helix croppedSoil health and how to score it formed the focus of demonstrations and new activities seen at a number of events and distributor open days this summer.

Science into practice

A tour of Hutchinsons' Helix Project at Moat Farm, Whiston, Northants, farmed by J W Pitts and Sons, was an opportunity to get an insight into how the company is putting a number of innovations into farm-scale trials to explore how new technologies can improve farm productivity, profitability and efficiency. The project will act as a central research hub, says the company, bringing together all aspects of crop production through to field data and input measurement.

Among the five areas under investigation, Project Nutrition is the one that may have the most immediate and tangible application for arable units. The trials put Hutchinsons' new TerraMap service, that maps various properties of the soil through a non-invasive technique, through its paces.

"If we're going to put the right nutrition into the crop, we need to know what we're starting with," says the company's Dick Neale. "So we've used TerraMap to map spatial variability of P, K, Mg and a number of other nutrients as well as soil texture, water-holding capacity and other properties."

The output from the trials is carefully monitored and Hutchinsons' involvement with YEN brought in to understand better the relationship between soil properties and the sources and sinks of crop yield on an in-field basis.

This all ties together with another area of Helix, Project Optimising Output. "Mapping crop profitability through Omnia shows some areas of a wheat crop may only be costing 260-70/t, while others have a cost of production as high as 400/t," notes Hutchinsons’ Neil Watson.

The trials are looking at ways of using technology, such as satellite and drone imagery, to identify and quantify this variability. "Yield is the product of biomass and harvest index, and there's limited potential to raise the latter in wheat, so it's biomass that's our focus. Typically, this is around 18t/ha, but in high-yielding areas it can be as high as 28-29t/ha. Perhaps by looking more closely at ear numbers, crop stress and senescence we can identify ways to build and maintain biomass," he suggests.

Other key areas of the Helix Project on show were:

  • Project Predict and Justify: Risk analysis and prediction of pests and diseases and the benefits of accurate crop growth monitoring. One example in this area is BYDV with climate and pest models used to bring a more farm-specific threshold level.
  • Project Sustainability: The optimum use of inputs aligned with the environment and Integrated Farm Management. An example is investigating technology to enable mapping of the most beneficial pollination species in appropriate locations on a farm.
  • Project Traits: Understanding new breeding techniques and how to develop them to maximise their benefit on farm. While most are still on the horizon, an example on trial is how to tweak seed rates and N management in hybrid wheat.