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LEAF Technical Day for Farmers 3 June 2014

Demonstrating the soil carbon app at LEAF Technical day 2014
The LEAF Technical Day for Farmers shared knowledge, best practice and practical advice.

The Institute and LEAF held a Technical Day for farmers on 3 June at Balruddery Farm near Dundee. Here we report on the day's events - the demonstrations, the talks, the discussions.

The main topics of the Technical Day were soil (its condition, testing and management), plant nutrition (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) and Integrated Farm Management at Balruddery's Centre for Sustainable Cropping. Visitors experienced a range of demonstrations and exhibits by James Hutton Institute staff and contributions from SRUC, Soil Essentials and LEAF farmer Ed Baxter.

Welcome and introduction to LEAF

LEAF's Kathryn Mitchell at Technical Day 2014The day began with brief welcoming addresses. Farm Manager, Euan Caldwell, welcomed all visitors to the event and explained the importance and role of the LEAF Innovation Centre based on the James Hutton Institute's Mylnefield and Balruddery Farms. Chief Executive of the the James Hutton Institute, Iain Gordon, confirmed the Institute's commitment to LEAF and reiterated that LEAF's ideals, principles and down-to-earth approaches offer a practical means of turning scientific advances into a more sustainable farming. Finally, LEAF's Caroline Drummond (Chief Executive) and Kathryn Mitchell (IFM Development Manager outlined the aims and purpose of Integrated Farm Management and the important contribution of Innovation Centres and Demonstration Farms.

The exhibitors then went to their stations around the farm, visitors divided into groups each with a guide or two and the tours began. 

Soil structure, quality and assessment

Soil health and the tools needed to achieve it were presented by Robert Ramsay of Soil Essentials. Soil carbon is the basis of a healthy, functioning soil, yet carbon can decline due to factors such as excess tillage and traffic. Practical methods to maintain soil heath include regulation of pH, controlled traffic, 'virtual tramlines' and autoboom control to prevent double application. The results are increased yield, reduced waste, reduced costs, lower runoff and a potential to raise soil carbon. Email:

The practical soil quality assessment tool - Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure - developed by Bruce Ball at SRUC, was demonstrated by reference to soil samples dug from one of the fields. The assessment requires only a spade and the instruction sheet (right) which is available online for download together with video guides. The soil samples clearly differed - that from a headland subject to considerable traffic broke into large, compacted lumps, which the roots of crops would find difficult to penetrate. The nutrients and water in large volumes of this soil would be inaccessible to roots. Soil from several other locations in the field showed variable degrees of quality. The simple instructions in the guide enabled a user to assess the soils without recourse to external analysis. Email:

The James Hutton Institute's Soil Carbon App developed in association with Quality Meat Scotland, SOCiT - free to download - was demonstrated by Matt Aitkenhead. To use the App, a hole is dug in the soil, a reference colour card placed in it and a photo taken of the soil by the phone or pad's camera. When connected to a mobile network, the photo is sent to a server at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, where on the basis of soil colour in the photograph and by reference to a background spatial grid of data from soil survey, the soil organic matter and carbon percentage are estimated. Ideal for a rapid check of soil organic matter status. Email:

Tracy Valentine described a new project on tillage, soil physical properties, root growth and yield. Crops need effective root systems for high yields, and to grow well and function optimally, roots need soil with the right balance of physical properties. While farmers can improve soil and rooting through tillage, there is no single prescription for maintaining good soil or repairing a damaged one - the ideal form of tillage may differ with locality and may vary over time. The new project will compare results of tillage experiments across the UK. Email:

Plant nutrients and element cycling (P and N)

Pea plants at LEAF Technical Day 2014Nitrogen fixation is the result of a symbiosis between a legume (peas, beans, clovers, vetches, etc.) and a bacterium that forms nodules in the roots. The nodules fix nitrogen gas from the air into plant matter. Euan James demonstrated how to check visually for nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots of pea plants. The presence of nodules indicated that the plants are likely to be fixing atmospheric nitrogen. If there is readily available N in the soil, then the legumes do not fix atmospheric N. However, new measurements at Balruddery show that a crop of faba bean, not given N fertiliser, can fix up to 200 kg/ha N which is similar to that applied as fertiliser to crops such as winter oilseed rape and winter wheat. Much of this N is taken off at harvest, but a residue of 50-100 kg/ha can be left in the soil. Research is now looking to increase residual N and find methods to ensure it remains available to the next crop. Email:

Tim George speaking to visitors about rhizosheath researchTim George summarised progress in the identification and selection of cereal varieties that show improved uptake of the major nutrient, phosphorus. The grasses (which include the cereals crops) have a marked ability within the plant kingdom to develop a 'rhizosheath' that seems active in the acquisition of phosphorus from the soil.  The rhizosheath is composed of roots, root hairs and various excreted mucilages which entrain soil particles and have unique properties compared to the surrounding soil. Evidence of a rhizosheath appears when a young plant is uprooted: much more soil adheres to cereal roots than to those of most other types of plant. Cereal varieties differ greatly in their ability to generate a rhizosheath and this distinction in barley has now been traced to a genetic origin on one of the chromosomes. The way is open to introduce rhizosheath traits in advanced breeding lines. Email:

Demonstration of the nitrogen cycle at LEAF Technical Day 2014

The crucial importance of the nitrogen cycle in agriculture was demonstrated by Tim Daniell. He summarised the environmental problems caused by the massive rise in industrially made nitrogen in the 1900s. Then explained the different steps in the cycle, the underlying mechanisms and methods used at Balruddery to measure uptake, transformations and losses of N to air and water, particularly denitrification which results in the release of greenhouse gases. Plants can affect denitrification and losses through root exudates that affect the soil microbial community. Exudates are to a degree under genetic control, offering potential to plant breeding. Email:

Integrated management

Erosion is a major factor that degrades soil, takes away nutrients and compromises yield. Tramline wheelings within agricultural crops account for about 80% of runoff and diffuse pollution losses from winter cereals. Given pressures to improve water quality, spatially targeted measures which are practical and cost-effective are needed to limits losses from high-risk fields. Ken Loades demonstrated field experiments to assess and reduce runoff due to tramline wheelings. Recommendations include - use correctly inflated, low pressure tyres to reduce compaction and runoff at no extra cost, increase tramline spacing and remove near-surface compaction (for example, by a rotary harrow). Email:

Regulation of insect pests by supporting their natural enemies is an increasing feature of IFM. Carolyn Mitchell showed examples of pests and natural enemies and the complex biological relations that result in a control of a pest without the use of chemical insecticides. Natural enemies, such as parasitic wasps, operate over a range of scales, notably relying on vegetation outside the fields and even wider in the landscape for their life cycle. Similarly, management has to operate at these scales - for example, by providing near-field habitat, to enhance populations to the level where they are effective in biological control. Email:

Ed Baxter, a LEAF farmer from Fife, has for many years been looking at ways to both sustain high yielding and profitable crops and to enhance wildlife such as grey partridge on the farm, which he revealed by his exhibit - farming on the edge. His aim is to create wildlife habitat near the edges of fields, not through long-lived margins, but by a distinctive approach that rotates a low input headland or margin around a field. In year one, no herbicide or fertiliser is applied to the headland along one margin. If this practice was continued there would be an inimical build up of weeds, so the low input margin is rotated round the field over time. In any year, there are in-field weeds available which support the insect food webs, that in turn support the birds. Ed is testing his ideas on several farms including Balruddery. Email:

Seedbank map of the Balruddery CSC platform (C Hawes)The Centre for Sustainable Cropping is a major 40 ha, six-field (six-crop) experimental platform on Balruddery Farm that is putting into place and testing many potential facets of sustainable cropping. Cathy Hawes outlined the experimental design and summarised results of the first three years, notable among which are that the integrated 'sustainable' treatment has substantially reduced the carbon footprint of growing crops. Spring crops are yielding similarly in 'sustainable' and 'conventional' treatments, whereas so far the higher-input winter crops have a lower yield in the sustainable treatment. The aim is to work sequentially to close the yield gap for these winter crops. Email:

Flyer and booklet


The Event was organised by Euan Caldwell (Farm Manager and Cathy Hawes (co-ordinator of the CSC), supported by LEAF and the Events team at the Hutton.

Many thanks to the students and staff offering their time as tour guides. The staff restaurants at Dundee and Aberdeen provided the catering, for which there were many deserved plaudits. Photographs and text this page: Geoff Squire

Learning & Resources

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.