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Soil a grower’s key asset – preparing for the next season

9 October 2013

Field selection is one of the most important contributors to yield and quality. Whether you have grown potatoes on the land before, or whether the ground is newly acquired or rented, autumn marks the time that key field decisions for next year’s crop are made.  

 
“Potatoes are a high-value crop and are grown on the best land available,” explains AHDB Potatoes’s technical executive, Chris Steele. “That’s why many growers choose to take soil samples for nutrient, PCN and free-living nematode testing and plan drainage requirements, the autumn prior to the potato crop. The earlier this takes place, the longer there is to plan for the 2014 crop.”
 
“As well as assessing the phosphorus, potassium and magnesium (P, K, Mg) indices to ensure that pre-planting maintenance applications meet the potential yield requirements for next year’s crop, the pH level also needs careful evaluation. This is because just prior to potatoes is not the right time to lime a soil, due to issues with common scab,” added Chris. 
 
“Soil pH is fundamental to nutrient availability and optimal root growth in the potato crop. At pH levels between 6.5 and 7.5 most plant nutrients are at their most available.”   
 
Utilising science to optimise soil systems: BP2013 hot topic
 
For potato productivity to thrive and for the environmental impact to be minimised it is crucial that soil and nutrient management is prioritised. 
 
Visitors to this year’s must attend potato industry event – BP2013 (www.potato.org.uk/bp2013), which takes place on the 27 and 28 November in  Harrogate, will get the opportunity to attend an insightful seminar on soil management, entitled, ‘What lies beneath?’.
 
International soil guru, Professor Karl Ritz, has been announced as one of the keynote speakers this year’s BP2013 seminars. 
 
Professor Ritz is a soil ecologist, with considerable experience in studying the complex interactions between soils, plants, and microbial and animal life below ground. With both University and Research Institute backgrounds, he has travelled widely carrying out research, teaching and consultancy in many countries. He has published extensively, and edited several books on a range of aspects of soil systems.
 
The BP2013 seminar will focus on utilising science to optimise soil systems for GB potato production. “Understanding diverse perspectives on root and soil interactions, the nature and functioning of soil communities, and assessing and monitoring soil health are all vital in order to achieve effective soil performance, both generally and in the specific context of a potato rotation,” explains Professor Ritz. 
 
As well as loss of organic matter and biodiversity, soils face other threats that interact and limit their ability to perform including compaction, erosion and contamination. These factors combine to affect potato growth, yield and quality, together with hampering field machinery operations.
 
AHDB Potatoes’s (PCL’s) head of research & development, Dr Mike Storey, says “For potato productivity to thrive and for environmental impact to be minimised, it is crucial that soil structure and nutrients be managed as efficiently as possible. Professor Ritz is an eminent speaker and his seminar theme complements our latest PCL-funded research.”  
 
Are there soil structure losses by growing potatoes and what are the consequences for the subsequent crop?
 
Poor soil management in potato production, particularly due to soil compaction, can cause varying yield losses.  Therefore identification and enhancement of favourable soil management practices for potatoes is required. 
 
A three year, PCL-funded trial, was started in October 2012, as part of the AHDB Soils Platform initiative, in collaboration with the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and NIAB-Cambridge University Farm (CUF). 
 
The project complements corresponding HGCA soils platform study to assess a range of established soil management experiments, in order to understand soil conditions for improved crop productivity and their interaction with cultivar traits. These are taking place in a range of soil types in the West Midlands, East of England and Scotland and draw on analysis from two other parallel AHDB Potatoes projects looking at the effects of the different management practices, including depth of destoning and combination of pre-planting cultivations.
 
PCL’s research executive, Alice Sin said, “We’ll be looking at the impact of potatoes in the rotation, but for the first time it will not only look at the current growing season of potatoes, it will also include sampling before and after the potato phase of the rotation.”
 
Pre and post planting samples have been taken this season and will be followed by post-harvest soil sampling in the October and throughout the subsequent cereals crop. 
 
“The physical conditions that affect potato production over the season will be accessed as well as the resistance and resilience of the physical soil structure to weathering stresses and machinery damage using controlled approaches,” added Alice. “Changes in soil structure over time and their resilience to a range of stresses also needs to be understood to identify constraints to crop production at different times in the season. “
 
A range of soil management practices will be considered, including minimum tillage of other cereal crops in the rotation and depth of cultivation for potatoes. Subsoil compaction effects and soil structure changes associated with bed formation and harvest will be analysed along with their subsequent recovery. 
 
“We know changes in soil management can take many years to reach a new equilibrium before crop productivity benefits can be realised,” explained Alice. “The AHDB Soils Platform initiative will address the current knowledge gap by providing information from robust experiments that will provide the agronomic, environmental and economic impacts of soil management practices.” 
 
Mike Storey and Alice Sin will be on the AHDB Potatoes stand at BP2013, Harrogate, 27 and 28 November to discuss soil best practice and the latest findings of the AHDB Soil Platform initiative with levy-payers. For more details about the BP2013 event go to www.potato.org.uk/bp2013.
 
AHDB Potatoes’s Technical Executive Chris Steele has recently updated the Soil Management for potatoes guide, which is available at www.potato.org.uk/publications/soil-management-potatoes. Chris will also be on the stand at Harrogate if you have any questions.
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