Scotland’s grassland farmers need to follow the lead of the arable sector and pay more attention to the health of their soil.

NFU Scotland’s vice president Martin Kennedy has urged those segments of the industry that have traditionally focussed on animal well-being to see the bigger picture and the benefits that improved soil can bring to both their businesses and the environment as a whole.

Mr Kennedy stressed that Scotland's grazing land already played a major role in carbon sequestration, but that had yet to get proper political and consumer recognition – and suggested that the best way to highlight that public good was for livestock farmers to start regular soil testing.

On their Highland Perthshire farm, Martin and his family are now two years into a five year programme of soil testing every field and then, using GPS technology more familiar to arable farmers, targeting nutrients and fertiliser to where they are needed most.

"In general, the arable sector has been well ahead of the game when it comes to looking after soil health as it plays such an important role in the profitability of the farm," noted Mr Kennedy. "During the process of soil testing and mapping, which many have been doing for a long time, they then use technology to apply nutrients only where they're required by variable rate applications.

"That not only helps balance nutrients across the fields, but also reduces excess applications to some areas and maximises nutrient uptake, so keeping our soils in tip top condition and helping the bottom line. The arable sector has been doing this for a number of years but never gets recognised for these efforts – all of which help address one of the issues at the top of the agenda right now and that's climate change.

"There are those now taking further steps with either minimum tillage (min-till) or no till agriculture and those that have practised this for some time are now seeing both improved soil health and better returns. I'm not saying for one minute that this is the answer for everyone, but it is becoming increasingly popular, and with reduced carbon emissions it also helps the environment."

However, Mr Kennedy complained that, despite Scottish farmers' enthusiastic contribution to carbon capture, there continued to be political hurdles put in front of productive agriculture, whether they be 'greening' rules that don't fit with Scotland's farmland profile – which is predominately 'less favoured area' ground – or the continued removal of scientifically sound agri-chemicals under pressure from political lobbyists.

"If we are not careful, we risk losing what we already have here in Scotland and that is a productive sector that allows us to satisfy home demand, hopefully keep out imports that don’t meet our standards and can also be detrimental to our climate change objectives," he warned.

"Scottish farmers could do more on soil health, but let's remember that in comparison to some other parts of the world, we are starting from a pretty admirable position. Politicians need to recognise this and appreciate that, if we're not careful, the opposite of what is desired will be achieved."

For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk