Plan now for soil health crops

Good planning is key to get the best from your soil health crops this coming season, says David Ramdhian, RAGT’s head of forage and soil health plants.

Soil Health Plants

Soil health crops are an excellent option when it comes to opening up tight soils, breaking up compaction, improving drainage and helping to raise the organic matter content of the soil.

They also have a positive effect on the soil biosphere and are proving very useful at mopping up excess nutrients and reducing over-winter leaching.

All of these benefits helps to improve the health and vigour of the farm’s cash crops. As such, David believes soil health plants have a place on every farm.

“Soil health plants are not just for regen ag pioneers. They can also play a very useful role slotting in to existing arable systems.”

The trick is knowing what different species can do and managing them correctly, not just choosing a mix with the greatest number of species, he adds.

“Covers crops are widely used for stewardship and other schemes and these will come increasing so as we move into ELMS etc.

“At RAGT we are committed to helping growers get the best from their soil health cropping.

“We can offer advice on the functions of individual species, how to match these to specific problems using customised mixtures, and how to grow them effectively to deliver the required benefits.

“So, if you have any questions, please do get in touch and we’ll do our best to help.”

Soil health cropping checklist

The sowing window can be quite narrow for crops to establish successfully, so doing the research now can save time and money in the summer when the workload is hectic, says David.

Step 1 – identify the problem

What is causing a field, or part of it, to underperform? For example, is it compaction, waterlogging or poor fertility? You have to know the cause to select the right cover crop to cure it.

Step 2 – select the cover crop

• Compaction – Brassicas, such as oilseed radish and mustard, produce deep tap roots that can reach down to 1.5-2m, breaking up soil at depth. Extensive lateral root systems also work the upper soil layer.

• Waterlogging – rye or Japanese oats have fibrous root systems and are good at taking out excess moisture from the soil in troublesome areas.

• Poor fertility – phacelia exhibits strong autumn growth and is really good at mopping up excess nitrogen ready for the following crop. It has a very extensive root system when it is allowed to develop.

Vetches and clovers also help trap N for the next crop provided they are left long enough to do their job. As with all the species above, they also condition the soil.

• Think about whether you are overwintering your cover crop and if so, do you want it to be frost hardy or frost susceptible?

Usually one to three species is enough to do the job. There is no need to over complicate things – this can be costly and there is more chance of inadvertently encouraging pests and diseases that damage a cash crop or using species that become difficult-to-control weeds.

Step 3 - plan field work

• Cover crops going in before a winter crop need to be drilled as early as possible to make the most of any soil moisture and warm weather.

• Overwintered covers established in good time will put down better roots and develop a good canopy before going into winter.

• Vetch and clover drilled early will have more time to develop root nodules to maximise N fixing.

Many cover crop species can be successfully direct drilled, but most are still established using some form of cultivation. A good seed-bed is required, but it goes without saying that great care should be taken to minimise moisture loss.

If soils remain very dry and there is little chance of rain, delay sowing until conditions improve.

David Ramdhian

For further information call David Ramdhian on 01799 533714 or email him at

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