Written Evidence submitted by Mr A Measures (SH0079)


My career has been in farming since I graduated in Agriculture at Newcastle University in 1971, partly spent in Farm Management Consultancy (Laurence Gould Partnership Ltd) and partly in practical farming on my family’s holding currently with about 1400 hectares in the East Midland (Measures Farms Ltd) growing a cereal rotation and rearing turkeys.


I was prompted to write a submission because, until about ten years ago I would have shared a concern that soils in continuous cropping with cereals, oilseed rape and other combinable crops appeared likely to be suffering a very gradual process of deterioration in organic matter content and soil structure. 


I no longer hold that view.   Continuous combinable cropping is sustainable.  The soil structure can be protected and gradually improved with both better crop yields, much lower production costs and other benefits.  The thoughts we had some ten to fifteen years ago that crop yields might be at a plateau have proved unfounded.  The adoption of “Controlled Traffic Farming” (CTF) has brought this change and I am concerned that this technique is not overlooked in your considerations.


That we should move away from mould board ploughing and reduce the amount of cultivation work needed to prepared ground for sowing has long been the aim.  Farmers have looked to move to tine cultivations and to minimise the number of passes (Min-till) or, to drilling direct into the stubble of the previous crop (No-till). 


This transition was undermined by the wheels of the tractors and other farm vehicles compacting the soil, damaging its structure and resulting in reduced yields, especially of  more sensitive crops like oilseed rape and pulses.  Attempts to reduce the ground pressure applied by equipment traversing the land was of some benefit but failed to stop compaction occurring.   Deep cultivation, sub soiling, when the ground was dry was essential every few years to break up the compaction.


The essential difference introduced by CTF is that, instead of tractors and other machinery driving at random across fields resulting in a very high percentage of the crop area becoming run across and compacted, the equipment followed tramlines leaving around 80%, possibly more, of the field undamaged by being run over.  Farms using CTF operate a bed system with widths of, for example: 6, 8 or 12 metres.  Thus, for cultivations, drilling, rolling and harvesting there is a set of wheelings every 6, 8 or 12 metres. It is difficult to keep the same discipline when turning at the headlands.  Subsoiling is still needed but on a much smaller area: the headlands and to break up compaction beneath the tramlines.


Guidance of the machines along the tramlines can be done manually following marker posts positioned in the headlands but GPS technology has been transformatory with equipment now being steered automatically, with an accuracy of plus or minus about 25 mm.  This technology had been available in the maritime world and for sat navs in cars for some time, so was not new.  Though relatively complex by farming standards, the technology has proved reliable.


We monitored compaction through the period when CTF was introduced using penetrometers and recorded a gradual reduction in compaction.  The soil structure improved,  worm numbers and activity increasing.  The condition of the soil at the surface became more friable, preparing a seedbed easier.  Progress was monitored and the depth, type and number of cultivations adjusted to aid the soil in repairing itself.  The number and depth of cultivations reduced and min-till became readily and reliably practical which had not been the case previously.  Oilseed rape is now routinely direct drilled into the stubble of the previous cereal crop.  Cereals could be direct seeded but usually a very shallow cultivation pass is made to generate a fine friable tilth prior to drilling.


The benefits of adopting CTF are:


-          An improving trend in soil structure, the extent of compaction declining.  The soil surface more friable, easing seedbed preparation


-          Greater soil depth and the moisture retention capacity.  Soil accepts rain more easily with less risk of waterlogging and, is more drought tolerant.


-          Reducing the number of cultivation passes has made management easier and enabled closer attention to detail on the passes that remain.


-          Equipment is steered more accurately; savings of about 2% are estimated for inputs.  The saving re: cultivation overlaps is likely to be greater


-          Crop yields have increased, we have no untreated benchmarks but, looking at the trends in our yields and research findings, we are very confident of this.


-          Machine operators no longer need to steer machines so suffer less fatigue.  They also are able to look away from the direction of travel and better monitoring the quality of the work being done.


-          Nitrous Oxide release is associated with nitrogen fertiliser and compacted soils. By eliminating compaction a much greater proportion of applied nitrogen fertiliser is used by the crop and much less released as nitrous oxide which is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Removing compaction also reduces net methane release from soils. 


-          Using cover crops to avoid leaving land bare is a focus within farming and covered within ELMs.  Soil compaction is a major barrier to the successful adoption of this technique. 


-          Well managed, the financial pay back period for CTF is well within five years.






Potential barriers to the uptake of CTF:


-          The scale of investment in guidance equipment and adjusting machinery to fit the bed system is potentially a deterrent.   Spreading the investment over several years  spreads the effect on cashflow the cashflow effect.


-          The benefits and the economics favour larger unit sizes which can operate with the wider bed widths, typically 8 and 10 metres.  Other farmers are operating with 6 metres and also 4.8 metres.  


-          Acquiring equipment to exactly match the bed width and to suit the fact that the direction of travel is always on the same axis has become less of a problem as equipment manufacturers have become more familiar with the needs of CTF systems.  When ordering kit farmers need to specify CTF capability requirements.


-          Setting up the guidance system requires education, training and is for some farmers very new technology.  They need support.


-          CTF requires a degree of discipline – to stay within the tramlines, even if it means slightly greater distances travelled.  All on a farm need to commit to this discipline and stay rigorously with it.


-          It can take a period of years for the benefits to emerge if soils are seriously compacted at the start and left to repair themselves naturally.  Identifying these compacted areas at an early stage and sub soiling to aid and speed the natural repair processes is important. 


-          For many farmers the job is very much a practical one, their education and training also pitched at that level and the technology involved in CTF a step beyond their comfort zone.


-          Agronomists play an important advisory role on farms, especially where identification of pests and diseases and chemical applications are concerned.  While compaction can be a serious limiting factor and is sometimes identified to the farmer by the agronomist it tends to be left to the farmers to sort out how to deal with the problem.  Agronomists could potentially have a greater role re compaction, perhaps as part of a more wholistic role in in securing the overall best outcomes.  The introduction of carbon calculators; looking at, for example, the relationship of nitrogen application to yield as an indicator of performance is an emerging approach which could be used. 


Prior to taking up CTF we had tried a variety of techniques.  In the 1970s we adopted direct drilling using the Bettinson 3D drill, drilling spring and winter cereals direct into stubbles.  Until then the mould board plough had been important.  When direct drilling produced disappointing results, primarily because of compaction, we moved increasingly towards cultivations using tines and discs to work seedbeds with subsoiling and occasional ploughing until CTF was introduced. 


While I have described what we did and how we got on, the practical work of implementing CTF was done here by James Robinson as Farm Manager for Measures Farm Ltd.  He had experience of CTF in Australia before joining us.  In addition, we were greatly assisted by Tim Chamen who was running the company Controlled Traffic Farming Limited.   Organising meeting and events over some ten years he brought equipment suppliers and farmers together and acted as a catalyst in initiating CTF in the UK.  Tim has a long career in soil research and is probably the most knowledgeable individual on CTF under UK conditions.


Referring to the Call for Evidence:


For us, erosion has not been a significant problem at any stage because of our soil type.  The risk of it occurring is probably lessened by the improved soil structure under CTF.  On soil types different to ours, for example on sloping sandy soils, erosion can be an issue along tramlines used by sprayers and, cultivation to break up the pan beneath the wheelings necessary.


Nutrient availability is believed to be improved by the adoption of CTF because the soil structure is better, the soil deeper and less prone to water logging, thereby giving crop roots a greater volume of soil from which to draw nutrients.


We believe the level of Soil Organic Matter (SOM) is gradually increasing.  However, the rate of growth is very slow and, with a great volume of soil being worked by crop roots, soil flora and fauna, it is likely to be more dispersed.  Accurately measuring SOM and monitoring the change at farm level at a reasonable cost is an issue.  (With carbon sequestration now a focus of attention the accurate measurement of SOM is more becoming important)


Referring to the numbered points raised in the Call for Evidence


  1. How can the Government measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030?


Removing compaction is essential in achieving soil sustainability”.  As noted above, it improves crop growth, it empowers the natural eco-system of soil and, it reduces GHG emissions (eg nitrous oxide).


CFT will reliably eliminate compaction – on most farms it should be an essential tool.  Other techniques (eg using low ground pressure tyres) reduce compaction but are not as effective or reliable.  There is now a considerable volume of both research data and commercial experience to support this. 


What are the challenges in gathering data to measure soil health and how can these barriers be overcome?


The research and commercial evidence to validate CTF as approach to removing compaction already exists.


For individual farmers, measuring soil health in terms of compaction, soil structure, worm activity etc is readily possible, whether by using a penetrometer or but simply digging with a fork and making a visual assessments.  This is established technology and should be part of every farmer’s / their agronomist’s “tool kit”.  It should be included in training requirements to emphasise its importance.  


Above I list and briefly discuss the barriers to adoption of CTF.  These need to be overcome.  In addition, Government in guiding agriculture towards improving productivity and sustainability needs to find a way of encouraging the adoption of CTF.


  1. Do current regulations ensure that all landowners/land managers maintain and/or improve soil health?  If not, how should they improve?


  1. Will the standards under ELMs schemes have sufficient ambition and flexibility to restore soils across different types of agricultural land?  What are the threats and opportunities for soil health as ELMs are introduced?


Compaction is a major threat to the adoption of techniques favoured by ELMs, for example, low and no till cultivation techniques and the introduction of cover crops.  Eliminating compaction should be a precursor to the introduction of these but has to a serious extent been over looked.


ELMs and other new schemes are voluntary so their impact relies on the willingness of farmers to participate and to what degree.  So  far as I can see, CTF is given no specific attention in the schemes currently on offer and this represents an opportunity foregone.  It is as if DEFRA are unaware of CFT. 


It is pertinent to assess the extent of uptake of CTF and the numbers, size and types of farms that respectively have and haven’t taken it up and to then plan accordingly.  Also, to review the extension work carried out by Controlled Traffic Farming Limited over about ten years and subsequently by the NIAB to evaluate successes and failures and identify the best way forward.


  1. What changes do we need to see in the wider food and agriculture sector to encourage better soil management and how can the Government support this transition?


There are widely differing views as to how agriculture should change to protect health, reduced GHG emissions and improve sustainability.  No matter which path is followed, removing compaction from farmed soils will remain crucial and CTF will have an important role.


  1. What does Government need to do to tackle other stressors on soil health such as soil contamination?       


While not stressors as such, consideration could be given to one issue:

Crop residues:  it is routine practice for cereal and oilseed rape straw to be baled and sold for burning in power stations, this being rated as a form of renewable energy.  This straw is then not available for incorporation in the soil where its presence should result in a gradual rise in soil organic matter.  A few farmers have already decided not to remove straw and to incorporate it.  It is a subject that farmers are thinking of, unsure which direction to take and, it warrants detailed investigation.


Work is, I understand, continuing at Rothamsted into the soil biome which will hopefully produce new ideas and guidance about soil management and the impact of a wide range of things farmers do: chemical applications, organic matter incorporation etc.  


The main thrust of my submission has been to emphasise the value of CTF as a technique which has proved very successful whatever point it is viewed from:


-          Crop yields and improved agricultural productivity


-          Climate change re savings in fuel use and wear in cultivations and, reduced nitrous oxide and methane release


-          Allowing the natural soil eco-system, the flora and fauna etc, to better develop and pave the way for potential longer term benefits as we come to understand more about the soil eco-system and how what we do affects it.


I invite the Government to quickly evaluate CFT and work out how it might most readily be deployed to become a standard technique across all suitable farms. 


If any members of the Committee are interested in seeing the equipment used and crops grown using CTF, they are welcome to make contact.   If I am asked to give evidence in person I would like to be James Robinson and Tim Chamen to attend with me, subject to their availability.


February 2023