How to choose the right cultivation for your soil type

July 23rd, 2021


When it comes to cultivation, soil types are a significant factor to consider, as each type and class needs to be treated differently.

The four main classes of soil type are:

  • Very light soils
  • Light soils
  • Medium soils
  • Heavy soils

Most growers are aware of what soil type they are working with, but by having an understanding of how this impacts a plant’s ability to grow in this environment, they will be able to achieve better yields and help to increase soil health.

In this blog, independent agronomist Jonathan Holmes, discusses the main classifications of soil types found in the UK and his recommendations for cultivation styles in each of these.


Soil types

Soil types Sub class Characteristics
Very light soils Loamy sand ·       Low water retention

·       Prone to soil erosion

Loamy fine sand ·       Weak structure

·       Easily compacted

Coarse sandy loam ·       Low water retention

·       Fast draining

Light soils Sandy loam ·       Stable structure

·       Fast draining

Fine sandy loam ·       Good water retention

·       Structure liable to cap

Sandy silt loam ·       Porous

·       Good water retention

Silt loam ·       Stable structure but can collapse when overworked

·       Good water retention

Medium soils Sandy clay loam ·       Hard when dry

·       Difficult to work

Clay loam ·       Slow draining

·       High nutrient retention

·       Stable structure

Silty clay loam ·       Good nutrient retention

·       Deep working required

Heavy soils Sandy clay ·       Can be difficult to work
Clay ·       Wide cracks when dry
Silty clay ·       Extreme cracking when dry


How to choose cultivation equipment for very light soils

Particularly common in the east of the UK, including Suffolk and Norfolk, very light sandy soils are inert and hold little to no nutrients.

This is mainly due to the sand dominance, and lack of silt and clay in the soil profile which help to retain nutrients.

Really light soils also have issues with compaction, which is not necessarily caused by machinery, like in other soils, but by heavy rainfall. Because the soil colloids are mainly made up of sand particles, they can become compacted by the weight of the rain falling on the surface.

Because of these issues, growers should aim to do as little as possible to disturb their soil, in terms of cultivation, to avoid granular separation. This is when the sand particles rise to the top and any clay or silt that is present in the soil is lost. This is very important to avoid as any loss of nutrient holding silt and clay could further decrease the fertility of the already depleted soil.

Which machinery works well in very light soils?

The main aim of cultivation in these soils is to let air back into the profile, without this, crop establishment can be extremely difficult.

What we’re looking for is a tine that goes through the soil and is followed by a system which closes this gap. The Sumo Multipress has three staggered rows of spring-loaded tines, followed by a double-ring packer that offers excellent soil-carrying capacity that consolidates close to the surface in light and medium soils.

Shallow tillage machines, such as discs and tine cultivators are also recommended. These can work the top 100mm down to 250mmand include:

  • Multipress – Tine cultivator that eases compaction and aids aeration
  • Mixidisc / S – Disc cultivator that helps create a fine tilth
  • Vaxio – Shallow tillage combination cultivator that lets air in but retains moisture by surface mixing and cutting trash and crop residues


How to choose cultivation equipment for light soils

Light soils are common in the eastern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk but can occur anywhere from Boston to Norwich.

Light soils are slightly more forgiving than very light sandy soils. This is because they contain more clay and silt, which helps to stabilise the structure of soil and hold onto nutrients.

Therefore, there are more cropping options available to growers on light soils, particularly for high value crops such as sugar beet, carrots and potatoes as well as rotational crops like spring barley or oats.

However, these soils can still suffer from compaction as a result of heavy rainfall, so require a similar thought process to very light sandy soils when it comes to cultivation.

When light soils are overworked, a cap can be created, forming a crust on the soil making it harder for crops to establish. Ploughing is often the go-to when this happens but is not a good option, as it can cause the soil structure to collapse.

Minimum tillage is the most suitable cultivation option for light soils, however, zero tillage can be carried out to help alleviate some of the above issues and will help reduce costs. This does, however, need to be well thought out and with accurate timings .

Which machinery works well in light soils?

Seedbed preparation is key in light soils, so leaving an undulating seed bed surface can help to channel both water and wind, reducing compaction and soil erosion while also helping with establishment. Sumo’s patented Multipacka roller consolidates and levels leaving a weatherproof finish. The shoulders on the packer create a trough in which surface water can move into and also help drive the packer and eliminating smears on the soil surface. The design increases soil’s resistance to wind and water erosion as the finish reduces the amount of soil particles that are carried away by the wind.

The Sumo machinery, ideal for light soils includes:


How to choose cultivation equipment for medium soils

The vast majority of UK soils are medium soils. They are great for crop establishment, particularly in crops like sugar beet.

Commonly nicknamed ‘boy’s land’, medium soils are forgiving and nutrient rich, making them a desirable soil type. However, this doesn’t mean medium soils are any less at risk from compaction.

The most important thing when considering cultivation on medium soils, is drilling. Soils shouldn’t be drilled just for the sake of it, but only when it’s suitable and drilling fits in well with both soil and weather conditions. This will not only save time but will be beneficial for both yield and the environment.

In peas, beans and oilseed rape specifically, seed to soil contact is important on medium soils. Soil needs to be ‘folded’ around the seed by machinery to prevent it being held in an air pocket. The DTS Strip-till drill includes covering discs that push soil back over the top of the seed, which helps increase soil-to-seed contact, thus speeding up establishment. In silty clay loam, it’s important to make sure to go deeper into the soil, so the DTS is particularly important in this circumstance.

Which machinery works well on medium soils?

Similar to light soils, it’s important to leave an undulating seed bed in medium soils, so that compaction and soil erosion can be reduced, and establishment can be encouraged. Preparing the seedbed with a machine such as Sumo’s patented Multipacka is again recommended as the packer helps to channel both water and wind.

The Sumo machinery, ideal for medium soils includes:


How to choose cultivation equipment for heavy soils

Heavy soils can be highly productive when worked right, as they are rich in clay and nutrients.

The weather can cause many challenges on heavy soils, especially in extremes such as heavy rain, where it becomes easily waterlogged, or very hot and dry conditions where they become ‘baked’.

One of the biggest things to consider with heavy soils is the nutrient relationships and how these can cause compaction. With the right management, these relationships can work with you to create the ideal conditions for growing crops.

The calcium to magnesium ratio is important in this soil type and needs careful consideration. Calcium holds soil open so air and water can percolate, helping to support microbiome function. Magnesium ions are very water soluble, meaning that when moisture is lacking, they are small in size but expand once coming into contact with water.

This causes issues, particularly in heavy rain, when these larger magnesium ions expand, displacing the calcium ions and closing up pore space. Soil becomes ‘tight’, which is not strictly compaction, but can make cultivation hard along with crop establishment.

Balancing the effect of magnesium in the soil and managing soils around the weather conditions is therefore particularly important in heavy soils.

Which machinery works well in heavy soils?

Just like in medium soils, soil to seed contact is important in heavy soils. Making sure the soil is folded around the seed by the machinery is crucial and helps to prevent air pockets forming.

Using machinery which push the soil back over the seed such as the DTS Strip-till drill will therefore help to encourage establishment.

The Sumo machinery, ideal for heavy soils includes:

  • Trio or Quatro Combination Cultivator – helps alleviate compaction with surface cultivation, trash mixing and consolidation, all in one pass.
  • Mixidisc / S – Disc cultivator that helps create a fine tilth
  • Subsoiler is a heavy-duty, robust machine which enables the loosening and consolidation of heavy and compact soil conditions
  • Rippa is a heavy-duty deep cultivation tool to rip up the land, aiding aeration of the soil

If the ground is particularly hard then a Trio Quatro can be used before the DTS as the extra set of discs in the front can bring more air into soil profile before drilling.


How can I learn more about my soil type?

If you’re unsure of which type of soil you are farming in, or wish to learn how your cultivation methods can be changed to suit your soil type, please speak to your agronomist.

Soil testing ahead of the season is a good way to understand which nutrients are in soils and a good opportunity to rectify any issues regarding nutrition. If you’re interested in soil testing, please speak to your agronomist.

Alternatively, contact us here to learn more about Sumo machinery.