Donside farm is venue for soil study

SAC Principal Consultant, Sinclair Simpson, describes how to ensure land fulfils its production potential to the community group
SAC Principal Consultant, Sinclair Simpson, describes how to ensure land fulfils its production potential to the community group

The importance of soil fertility to maximise crop productivity, particularly grass, was the main topic at the recent meeting at the Cairngorms Monitor Farm, part of the national programme led by Quality Meat Scotland.

George and Fiona Gordon and their son Charles farm a total of 1,157 hill and upland acres (468.23 has). The area farmed amalgamates four separate units, including the 650 acre (262.81 ha) home farm of Lost in Strathdon.

Land altitude ranges from just under 1,000 feet to 1,800 feet, with 358 acres (144.85 ha) classed as rough grazing. Other than approximately 90 acres (36.42 ha) of crops and 21 acres (8.71 ha) of “other”, the remainder is permanent and temporary grass.

The Gordons run just over 100 suckler cows and followers, plus 60 purchased bulling heifers, which are bulled, calved and sold with calf at foot. Ewe numbers total 1050, with an additional 400 replacement hoggs.

Opening the meeting, joint facilitator, Alister Laing of SAC, reminded the community group that well managed and productive grassland is crucial to the success of livestock farms but is often either taken for granted or neglected.

SAC Principal Consultant, Sinclair Simpson, outlined the basic requirements to ensure land fulfils its production potential. He explained that soil testing is the first step to providing meaningful information on what action is needed. Much of the land farmed by the Gordons had recently been soil-tested as part of the monitor farm project. The results had revealed significant areas with low phosphate and pH levels.

Mr Simpson had calculated the current stocking rate at 1.02 livestock units per forage hectare. “If the grassland could be improved to enable this figure to increase to 1.2 livestock units per forage hectare that would mean an additional 63 suckler cows or 420 more ewes and gimmers could be carried,” he told the group.

“To achieve increased productivity from the land you need to ensure that pH and phosphate levels match the needs of the crop grown. Grassland requires a pH in the range 5.7 to 5.9 and to maximise the performance of clover moderate phosphate levels are essential. Spring barley produces maximum economic yields on moderate phosphate soils where pH lies in the range 5.9 to 6.2.

“Twenty to thirty per cent clover within well-managed grassland can fix around 120 units of nitrogen per acre (150 kg/ha) of “free” atmospheric nitrogen. Clover supplies nitrogen all through the growing season with a surplus sufficient to kick start Timothy and Ryegrass growth in early spring.”

Chicory and its long tap root has a reputation for breaking up the soil pan and drawing on locked-up nutrients, including phosphate, from deeper in the soil. The Gordons plan to trial some chicory in the near future to assess its value as grazing for sheep.

The role of a monitor farmer means sharing not only your farming highs with the community group, but also your farming lows.

Charles Gordon showed the group a field of turnips which had been sown almost a month previously. Only a sparse amount of tender seedlings could be found.

“This field looked good a week or so ago,” he said. “But now, the turnips are gone, along with the weeds!”

The Gordons were not alone - a number of members of the community group had experienced similar problems this year with turnips. The verdict on what lay behind the problem was a combination of slugs, leatherjackets and weather.

The group suggested being brave and waiting to see what happened over the next fortnight in the hope that the crop would recover. However it did not improve and, delayed by bad weather, a seed mixture of rape and stubble turnips, supplied by Watsons Seeds, was sown a month later.

The next meeting of the Cairngorms Monitor Farm, focusing on cattle breeding, will be in early August.