LIC (Livestock Improvement Corporation), the New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative, held its Pasture to Profit Conference 2018 in Birmingham yesterday, October 16.

A large crowd of dairy farmers and industry experts - along with a team of LIC consultants - attended the event which highlighted areas such as labour shortages and what farmers should focus on in times of uncertainty; other topics were also discussed.

As part of one of the breakout sessions - where farmers could choose a topic of their choice - James Bretherton, who has been involved with practical animal nutrition for 25 years, explained how soil health can have a huge effect on livestock health and on a farm's bottom line.

"We could not control the big dry this year. However, we're working with nature all the time; somethings we can't control, but there are somethings we can," James explained.

"We have a lot of different soil types in the UK and - this year - we went from one extreme to the other; it went from being very wet to being very very dry."

James outlined that there are many things we can't control when it comes to soil, including water content and soil temperature. However, he noted that there are many measures we can control which will have a positive effect on the soil.

Nitrogen uptake and compaction

James noted that compaction can negatively effect the nitrogen uptake in a sward and - therefore - this results in a reduced growth rate.

"If we have any compacted soil, soil that isn't working very well or soil that has started to crack more, it is not necessarily a very good sign," he explained.

"There are many soils in the UK that are compacted or semi-compacted, so it is a problem. If you put nitrogen (N) on your fields and you have some sort of compaction - moderate or heavy - then the return from the N is not as good.

Soil compaction is not going to help with the efficiency of N fertiliser.

Biological activity

Continuing, James said: "Soil is something we are still learning about; there is a lot we don't know about soil.

"But the evidence of worms can indicate how healthy soil is; worms are key when it comes to soil. They can help with drainage and sowing."

Touching on soil health, James compared the soil to the rumen of a cow. He said: "If a cow gets acidosis, she will let you know within 24 hours. If soil gets 'acidosis', we won't find out about it that quick."

Soil pH and balancing minerals

59% of UK tested soils in 2015 were not at optimum pH levels. However, James noted that soil tests are normally carried out on poor-performing soils.

"Soil pH is the single most important chemical property of the soil. Soil with a pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than soil with a pH of 7, while soil pH of 5 is 100 times more acidic. Every point is significant; it makes a difference."

James outlined that the best time to take soil samples is from November to March.

Continuing, he said: "Soil pH is controllable; the pH of soil and the balance of the minerals that drives soil pH is important - calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), sodium (Na).

"Ca is important in the soil because it will help drive the soil biology, which in turn, will help drive soil structure.

"Ca also helps with palatability; if the soils are slightly compacted, the palatability is not as good. If you have soils that are at a slightly lower pH, you will lose grass because it will take up more Mg and Iron (Fe) that will kill grass off," he added.

A lower pH will also allow more aluminium to be absorbed which will inhibit grass growth also. Knowing your soil pH is key.

"Farmers need to know their balance, what is making the pH the way it is. Knowing whether you have a high Mg or a low Ca soil is important," he explained.

In-depth soil testing

James highlighted that a more in-depth soil sample can help open the box when it comes to soil.

"Always consider your soil as a mineral. We can control the controllable when it comes to our soils. This includes: a balanced pH; effects on soil health; and balanced soil nutrients.

"We need to build soil resilience and look after our soil health and we need to beware of the Ca balance in the soil that may be effecting the soil biology.

"If you are having problems with certain fields that you can't seem to get over, maybe a more in-depth soil report might be a good thing to do," he concluded.