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Blog: Making soils resilient to extreme weather

Blog: Making soils resilient to extreme weather

June 07, 2024

An interview with Dr Kenneth Loades

By Shanzay Qamar, PhD student and Arable Scotland Ambassador

Farming is a multifaceted and multi-level activity, with climate playing a critical role in the success and sustainability of arable farming. A key element of effective agriculture is the quality of the soil, which must possess physical, biological and chemical capabilities to be defined as healthy, critical in being able to adapt to climate change. The target for agricultural soils is that they are resilient, able to cope with external stresses, and are managed to be adaptable to the current and future challenges associated with climate change.

Kenneth explains that "resilience" in a farming system refers to the ability of a soil system to recover after a potentially destabilising event, such as ploughing, periods of drought, flooding or high intensity rainfall. This ability to recover can vary significantly depending on the type of soil. It is important to understand that soil texture is defined by the relative proportion of sand, silt and clay which can influence its inherent ability to deliver the services and functions we ask of it. For instance, clay soils respond very differently when compared to sandy or loamy soil when faced with the same pressures.

Dr Kenneth Loades

It’s not just texture that confers a soils ability to be resilient but also the structure, porosity and chemistry, making each type of soil unique. Moreover, factors such as land use, landscape, topography, and topology must also be considered when evaluating soil health and deciding which approaches are required to increase resilience to extreme weather.

On the other hand, from a farmer’s perspective, resilient arable land must be capable of recovering from physical and environmental stresses inflicted during different seasons. However, achieving this ideal state is challenging. Soils used for agricultural purposes may be degraded. Soil compaction is one of the most significant forms of degradation, with 4 million hectares of soil estimated to be at risk in England and Wales; additionally, estimates suggest that 40-60% of organic carbon has been lost from arable fields.

However, there is potential for remediation through a change in agricultural practices allowing soils to become resilient and meet the needs of crops, the farmers, and maintaining food security and delivery of other functions and services. To achieve this requires a continuous process of improving soil health and implementing sustainable farming practices to ensure long-term productivity and environmental stability. Implementing sustainable farming practices is not a quick fix, as changes in practices sometimes take many years before the farming system reaches a stable, resilient state. It should be noted that there is no single fix; building soil carbon can help but it is by no means the only solution for soil health.

Time is a critical factor for farmers, and even the best farming strategies can sometimes fail to yield the expected outcomes due to various complexities in arable land utilization. According to Kenneth, "the value of risk needs to be wisely calculated by the farmer to avoid crop yield and soil health penalties." He continues to emphasize that creating a resilient soil suitable for farming requires prioritizing approaches to achieve a balance of the physical, biological, and chemical components that confer soil health. He notes that there is a gradient of adaptation and a complex interplay between soil components, making long-term sustainability challenging to achieve with no broad-brush approach that can be applied to all soils.

Several factors, including trafficking, tillage approaches, and the application of organic matter and composts, interact dynamically with the soil and its environment. These interactions can significantly impact the goal of achieving resilient soil for sustainable arable farming.

Kenneth also highlights the importance of breeding resilient crops to combat the challenges posed by extreme weather and climate change. He suggests that in order to fully realize the potential of a resilient arable land, farmers must consider not only soil health but also crop resilience and diversity in crops to improve the soil environment physically, biologically and chemically. This holistic approach is essential to meet the demands of sustainable agriculture and ensure food security in the face of environmental challenges.

With changes in future agricultural support payments the question is whether farmers can afford not to change management approaches to safeguard our soils and enhance benefits associated with wider environmental functions and services.

Find out more by joining us for Kenneth’s seminar at Arable Scotland on 2nd July, at the institute’s Balruddery Farm. There will be a chance to ask questions and discuss the key aspects of soil health and learn more about practices that support healthy and resilient soils.

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