- AHDB Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland uses cover crops to help provide living roots in soils all year round
- It is part of an effort to improve soil fertility and resilience, with the strategy monitored with a Soil Health Scorecard
Speaking at an AHDB/SRUC soil health technical workshop at Balbirnie Home Farms in Fife earlier this month, David Aglen, Farms Manager, said: “Cover crops are starting to drive our system. As they harvest sunshine, I liken them to solar panels. By keeping something growing, our panels work all year round, pumping energy into the soil. This keeps the soil biology thriving, albeit at a slightly slower pace in the winter. Then, come spring, when it warms up, it is all ready to go. In contrast, a bare stubble field has all that biology sitting there, hungry.”
Cover crops are drilled as quickly as possible after harvest, which can be quite late in the season. Because of this, David has found that the cover crops that perform well on his farm are large-seeded crops.
He said: “Crops with large seeds produce plants with a bit more vigour, which actually get up and do some good. We use winter peas, initially imported from Europe, which we have multiplied to keep the costs down, rye in front of broad-leaved crops and vegetables, as well as beans, as cover crops. We are lucky that we can feed cover crops to the livestock, drill through them in the spring and leave them as a mulch. This allows us to keep the soil biology alive.”
Speaking at the event, Christine Watson, Professor of Agricultural Systems at SRUC, said: “There are some general principles on how to manage soils and improve soil health – such as increasing organic matter inputs, widening the rotation and diversity, adopting the use of cover crops, reducing tillage and introducing livestock.
“Whether it’s a grass cropping mixture or a cover cropping mixture, a more diverse rotation is going to bring benefits in terms of habitat diversity, both above and below ground. Plants are as diverse below the ground as they are above it.”