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Abby Rose

Wet on Top — Dry Underneath – Guest Post by Niels Corfield

Wet on Top — Dry Underneath – Guest Post by Niels Corfield 1500 843 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, Independent Farming Advisor and Educator. Learn about his courses here.

The winter of 2019/20 was challenging for farmers to say the least. Incessant rain meaning fields were not accessible, and winter crops were not sowed, large areas of flat or low lying country flooded (sometimes repeatedly) and otherwise generally redefining the concept of mud.

By springtime, what was the ground like out there? Wet, soft, or already hardening-up? Chances are it was the latter. So how can this be, after the wettest winter in living memory? When the ground across the farm (and the country), it seems, was saturated.

What if I said, that it’s the same root cause that produces both drought and flooding? That your farm, whether it be cropping or grazing, organic or conventional can be reworked to be both drought-proof and immune to extreme rain events. Sound too good to be true? Well read on.

If it’s not there when it’s wet, it’s not there when it’s dry

First we better rewind a few steps and show so how it is that a single causal factor is responsible for droughts and flooding.

This single causal factor means that on the one hand (in 2018) we were feeding-out first-cut silage and achieving little or no grain-fill and this winter we ended-up with maize harvests that looked like the battle of the Somme (reparable but not good optics).

Management Dictates Infiltration

Time to Infiltrate 1″ of Water: 7 seconds (field margin, at left) — 20+mins (reseeded pasture)

Above we see two spade samples of the same soil type on the same day, margin on the left and grazed pasture on the right, recently reseeded.

Simply put, the causal factor is a lack of infiltration (or low infiltration rates) in all but the lightest or stoniest of soils — and a lack of water retention in these soils. The water that falls as rain has only one of two places to go – either into (and through) the soil OR away as runoff.

If your soil is very light or naturally free draining that water will go straight through, and in heavier soils that water will run-off. In both cases that water has left and has not been retained within the soil profile.

But our soils were clearly saturated this winter, I hear you say! How can you be suggesting there’s a lack of infiltration?
Well, the experience is, that it’s the surface of these soils that was at capacity, the bulk soil was dry, often very dry. See soil pictured below for an illustration.

Soil Sample: well hydrated in top 2″, dry below. Standing water and loamy soils.

You’ve got one chance, and one chance only, to get the water into your soil and that’s when it rains, as infiltration.

Without infiltration that water will run off. It’s a simple choice – where would we prefer to have our rainfall: in the soil where it can grow crops and forage, or in the valleys where it fills up like a bathtub: damaging property, and causing travel disruption and economic impact?

It seems counter-intuitive to say we want more water in our soils, given the experiences of winter we’ve just had. Surely, all that mud and saturation wants to be mitigated, by drainage or other means?

Well, no, in a word.

What we are looking for is deep penetration into – and through the soil profile.

Structure

So what does this mean? What is this indicative of?

Simply that these soils lack pore space. They often are blocky and consolidated and largely just structured in their “native”, mineral state (where all the soil particles are bonded to each other, in a tight crystalline state). These bonds are strong, but brittle, so when they fail, they may well “cleave” along fault lines, revealing: cracks, jagged edges and angular shapes.

At the landscape scale what features do we associate with these terms (and shapes)?

Generally: cliffs, rock faces, and mountains. And what is the study of these materials and these types of features? It’s geology.
Simply put, if your soil looks and behaves like geology: it shatters, cracks or cleaves, has the appearance of rocks or stone, it is geology.

Which makes sense because the sand, silt and clay is basically just ground up rock. However, when we refer to soil that’s just sand, silt and clay, it’s subsoil (in old money). Fundamentally, the difference between subsoil and topsoil is that topsoil is subsoil that has been acted upon by biology.

And what is biology’s influence on the soil structure? Primarily the creation of pore space. Converting the soil from its native, homogeneous state where the soil particles “pack” readily, into to a heterogeneous state, binding together disparate soil particles into crumbs or “aggregates” with a network of internal voids running between them.

Just as a biscuit maker converts base ingredients, flour and sugar, into crumbs with the addition of a binding agent, like butter. Where the flour and sugar particles are effectively the same size as one another, but once the binding agent is added those crumbs that result now have a large variation in size, from something like a bowling ball down to a golf ball.

In the case of the soil, our sugar is analogous to sand (coarse, granular), while the clay is analogous to flour (since if you purchase dried clay it comes bagged, as a powder). In soil, the aggregates are bound together by sticky substances like polysaccharides (carbohydrates) that are secreted by organisms like bacteria. In the same way that if you’ve ever got slug trail on your clothing it goes on sticky, cannot easily be washed off and sets hard, in other words these compounds are glue-like in nature.

So, we can say that soil aggregates are literally glued together by the secretions of biology.

This is what gives soil it’s friable crumbly and easily workable texture.

Fundamentally it’s this crumb structure and the pore space that facilitates infiltration. Over and above what the native soil does alone.

Moreover, with light soils these crumbs increase the surface area and with-it water holding capacity making them more moisture retentive. Since these surfaces of the aggregates are places where water films form. And it’s these billions of tiny water films throughout the soil volume that gives it its water holding capacity.
In heavy soils the opposite is the case, it serves to make the soil more free-draining. By opening up the dense structure and introducing pore spaces. Spaces that are interconnected, through which rainfall can easily percolate whilst also collecting around the aggregates as water films.
In both cases this forms a water reserve that can be drawn upon by crops and forages in the sunny, warm periods that are optimal for growth and grain fill.

So, with the exception of a small number of self-aggregating soils, crumb structure is entirely a product of biological activity and an expression of the carbon cycle in action, as these are carbon-based compounds, derived from plants, often root exudates (sugars).

It’s these processes at play in the above example comparing margin with reseeded pasture

Management Determines Infiltration Rates

So, what can you do, how can you achieve this friable structure without necessarily going to grass? Simply put, apply the soil health principles at every stage of your cropping and management practices.

Pasture vs Covered Arable vs Bare Arable (Photo: LSU AgCenter)

Simply put here in the UK we are not victims of either too much or too little rainfall, just inadequate infiltration or retention. In a cropping situation it’s not only the lack of pore space but also surface capping (from rainsplash etc)

As Yoda might say:
“Hmm, not how much it rains that matters, how much we retain, it does.”

So in one fell swoop by fixing infiltration we not only do ourselves a favour: eliminating muddy conditions and poor field access options early and late season, we also optimise production through seasons like 2018.

Learn all about soil health and regenerative farming! Upcoming courses and workshops by Niels Corfield: Specialist Training courses for farmers, growers & land managers.

Courses focus on soil health and include specific courses for pasture, arable and horticulture. As well as regenerative grazing and whole farm planning.

All courses are now online.
Find out more HERE

Soilmentor makes it easy to monitor infiltration rates over time – discover how well your land is soaking up water now, and see how changes in management impact/improve infiltration rates (and other metrics!).

Soil Science Latest: How Can We Sequester More Carbon and Build Soil Health?

Soil Science Latest: How Can We Sequester More Carbon and Build Soil Health? 3024 2257 Soilmentor

A few weeks ago we presented at Wageningen Soils Conference with Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming, NIAB. We shared about the work we had done together converting the AHDB soils scorecard into an interactive Soil Quality UK Dashboard, with the main focus being “How can we get farmers talking about their soil health, based on soil health tests?”. We had lots of brilliant feedback about the dashboard we built and everyone at the conference was very positive as we talked about the benefits of a very different, more thoughtful, type of user research.

Whilst we were there we also listened to many brilliant talks sharing the latest soil science, some of which were incredibly relevant to the farming community, so we want to share the insights with you.

Building short-term vs long-term Carbon – it’s all down to the microorganisms!

We have all heard of words like humus, humic acid etc in terms of soils and carbon stored in soils. Well it turns out in the words of Johannes Lehman, soil scientist at Cornell University “humus is dead”.

He was very clear that it’s false to think there is such a thing as a long term carbon store that is locked up forever.

The idea that stored organic carbon can be neatly separated into 3 different types (Rapid, labile, stable), which has been the model for many years, is not reflected in the research any longer.

We shouldn’t worry about the idea of building long term carbon vs short term carbon, essentially all carbon that is sucked into the soil via photosynthesis or decaying organisms has the potential to become long-term carbon. What actually matters is which microorganisms are present and what they do with it.

There is no clear silver-bullet pathway to locking up carbon for good, instead we can think of soil organic carbon as an ongoing cycle of carbon gains and losses which we need to constantly manage. To many farmers this may not come as a surprise – that is exactly what we have seen happening in the field. As we practice more regenerative approaches (living roots in the soil, ensuring plenty of plant residues etc) we are quickly seeing the advantages of healthier soils which is so often synonymous with higher soil organic carbon and a more alive soil system (i.e more microorganisms).

Read more in this paper: Microbial models with minimal mineral protection can explain long-term soil organic carbon persistence
Dominic Woolf & Johannes Lehmann  Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 6522 (2019)

Johannes showed that soil management techniques on farm to improve food security can have large beneficial effects on soil organic carbon. He drew from an example of changing agricultural practices in Ethiopia where they have been implementing agroforestry, diversified cropping systems, terracing, and many other agroecological practices — first and foremost as a measure to decrease poverty and prevent future drought scenarios. The project was undertaken on 600,000 Ha and had many benefits to the community, food security as well as environmental rehabilitation. However Johannes pointed out that it also had an unintended positive effect of sequestering significant amounts of carbon helping Ethiopia to meet their climate targets.

Read more in this paper: Land restoration in food security programmes: synergies with climate change mitigation
, & Climate Policy Journal Pages 1260-1270 | Received 24 May 2017, Accepted 05 Jan 2018, Published online: 26 Jan 2018

Carbon Current Account and Interest Rates

We discussed these findings with Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming at NIAB, and she gave the analogy that this implies we need to think of our soils like a current account – you are constantly making deposits and withdrawals of carbon, and that will be reflected in your carbon balance. From a farming perspective, what I wanted to know is what is the interest rate on this current account? That essentially would reflect how effective we will be in the long run at sequestering carbon in soils and building up our SOC. The banking analogy also makes a lot of sense, as it reflects the fragility of soil carbon in the face of larger scale disasters and fluxes in the market, as everything can be ‘lost’ at any time.

In summary Johannes Lehmann’s work showed that the focus of building soil organic carbon should be on farm ‘short-term’ carbon cycling interventions (e.g cover cropping, leaving plant residues, agroforestry, composting applications, rotational grazing) and the microorganisms will do the work to build longer term carbon deposits from there! Unfortunately this new understanding of soil organic carbon and the value of microorganisms has not been incorporated into IPCC models yet, so the value of these practices aren’t fully taken into account in global carbon targets…but Johannes said it will all change quickly.

Johannes also posited that the traditional models for understanding soil, based on adsorption and aggregation, although helpful in their way, are not necessary to explain soil organic matter and soil functioning. His work has shown that soil organic carbon and soil function can all be explained by the makeup of microorganisms and the action of microorganisms in the soil. It’s early days for fully understanding this as we still only understand around 5% of all the microorganisms in our soils!

 

The Soil Microbial Carbon Pump – how do microorganisms affect carbon storage in soils?

One model put forward for understanding the effect of microorganisms in sequestering carbon in soils was the Microbial Carbon Pump, explained by Chao Liang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Soil Microbial Carbon Pump is a model for understanding how microbes are an active player in soil carbon storage. Chao showed how it could be applied at many different scales from the rhizosphere (plant root-soil interactions) to the field and landscape scale, which could have implications for understanding the responses of ecosystem carbon processes to global environmental changes.

My interpretation of what he was saying is that there are two types of carbon sequestration pathways through soil microorganisms:

  1. Biomass: The living biomass of the soil i.e living microorganisms taking carbohydrates being offered by plant roots and using it for food, excreting it in the form of slimes, building fungal hyphae etc. This is what Dr Christine Jones refers to as the liquid carbon pathway. (Catabolic pathway)
  2. Necromass: All the dead material, whether plant residues or compost materials etc being broken down and processed by microorganisms. Increasingly scientists are recognising the important role this plays in building soil organic matter. (Anabolic pathway)

Read more in this paper: The Importance of Anabolism in Microbial Control over Carbon Storage
Chao Liang, Joshua P. Schimel, Julie D. Jastrow Nature Microbiology volume2, Article number: 17105 (2017)

Chao showed how this model allowed them to investigate the effects of plant covers on microbial communities and what that meant in terms of the magnitude and composition of the soil carbon pool. He outlined that once the Microbial Carbon Pump processes carbon, it will either be released back to the atmosphere as CO2 – known as the priming effect (i.e decreasing the storage life of the carbon) or further increase the storage life of the carbon – known as the entombing effect. Their results showed that as the fungal proportion in the microorganism community increases the amount of carbon that goes through the entombing effect and becomes longer term carbon significantly increases after a certain time and then remains constantly high, whilst the priming effect although initially peaks, it then decreases and falls significantly below the entombing effect (you can see this in the photos below, where the high fungal content soil sample is the middle graph, highlighted in red)

Essentially what that means is that in soils with a higher proportion of fungi, the carbon is more likely to be turned into longer-life carbon deposits.

What does this mean for farmers?

The scientists are saying that yes it’s all about building microbial communities if you want to increase soil organic carbon.

There is no silver bullet, but it will take new management strategies based on careful monitoring of carbon gains and losses and making sure you are building more carbon on a field than you are taking away.

We can very much see ourselves as key actors when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon at a global scale and that employing methodologies that improve soil health and soil microbial communities are the best way to do this. Of course, we already know this is what regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, permaculture and so many other farmer-led practices are all about! But it’s good to know the scientists are behind it all, and we hope this will enter the minds of the policy makers sooner rather than later!

We learned a lot from the conference and you will see some changes to Soilmentor in the coming months as we reflect some of our learnings to bring you some new tools to help you understand what your soil monitoring results mean.

Know your Soils #5: How well can your soil can hold onto nutrients?

Know your Soils #5: How well can your soil can hold onto nutrients? 5184 3456 Soilmentor

Welcome to the fifth instalment of our Know your Soils series sharing practical tips for monitoring the soil health on your land. Keep an eye out for our bitesize videos and fact sheets on simple tests you can do yourself on farm.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.


Can your soil hold nutrients effectively?

A video from the ‘Learning from the Land’ series created by Catchment Sensitive Farming &Innovation for Agriculture

Earlier in the series, we discussed how rainwater can wash away all the precious nutrients in your soil, literally leaking money and resources down the field drains. Try this test at home to discover how good your soil is at holding onto different types of nutrients, specifically positively and negatively charged nutrients:

 

Making sure your soil has a stable structure and a high organic matter content is helpful for reducing nutrient loss. There are six basic soil health principles to follow to ensure your nutrients will not be lost with the next rainy day:

Living Root

Living plants have living roots, they photosynthesise and transmit energy into the soil. This energy is feed for the beneficial soil organisms at work, creating aggregation in the soil.

Covered Soil

It’s best to have living plants in the soil, as then you have living roots. But the next best thing is to ensure you cover ground with plant residue, e.g. with a terminated cover crop

Minimise Disturbance

Ploughing disturbs the soil organism population, preventing them from doing their necessary work to maintain healthy soil. Reducing cultivation or going no till keeps them happy!

Diversity

A diverse range of plants in the soil means a diverse range of roots and a diverse diet for the soil organisms the roots are feeding. Roots have unique functions e.g tap roots bring nutrients up from deep in the sub soils and legume roots fix nitrogen directly in the soil.

Feed soils

Feeding the soil with compost, manure or compost tea will directly increase soil organic matter levels and provide plenty of food for worms!

Incorporate Animals

Grazing livestock in a rotation is beneficial for increasing soil organic matter, terminating cover crops and decreasing weeds in your fields. Why not try mob grazing?

Minimise Chemicals & Synthetics

Adding chemicals can undo the good work you put in for the principles above — pesticides kill soil organisms, fertilisers make plants dependent and herbicides kill living roots.

 

 

There are a few bits of equipment you need to get together for this test, like ordering the dyes. How about doing it together with other local farmers so you can learn together which fields you are losing nutrients from?

Equipment


See our free online soils guide for soil tests you can do at home and find out how our app Soilmentor helps you record & learn how your soil is changing.

Intro to Jennifer Dungait: Soil Health Expert

Intro to Jennifer Dungait: Soil Health Expert 451 193 Soilmentor

We are honoured to have Professor Jenni Dungait as a soils advisor and ambassador for Soilmentor. Jenni is a leading soil scientist, Editor in Chief for the European Journal of Soil Science and also offers brilliant insights into how soil works in the field through her consultancy Soil Health Expert. Find out more at www.soilhealthexpert.com

Our planet may be the only place in the universe where the conditions are right for soil to form. We rely on this miracle substance to grow our food, and it doesn’t usually let us down. So, most people, even some farmers, rarely think about the soil as more than ‘dirt’. But, relentless pressure over several decades to produce more and more food, with little regard for the effect of increasingly intensive agricultural production on soil, has taken its toll on this irreplaceable resource.

There is now real worry that the degradation of agricultural soils, combined with the changing climate and competition for agricultural land for other uses, will affect our ability to grow enough nutritious food in the future. Already, rarely a week goes by without reports in the media about food shortages caused by unpredictable extreme weather events and disease that are seriously affecting human well-being somewhere in the world.

Over the last couple of decades, I have devoted my life to discovering the science behind the remarkable ability of soils to keep on helping farmers to grow food, and what can be done when they don’t.

As a Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry working in world-renowned agricultural research institutes and universities, I have been lucky enough to travel across the world to talk to farmers about their soils and the problems that they are facing in the hope that scientific solutions can be developed.

There are some very common themes amongst concerns expressed by farmers that I have recognised across all continents.

  • The weather is becoming more unpredictable, with droughts and flooding becoming more common.
  • Yields are stagnant or declining despite using the latest crops, technology and agrochemicals which are all becoming more expensive.
  • Breaking soil compaction is a major expense in time and money.
  • Top soil losses in run off are causing local pollution problems.
  • Weeds and disease are increasingly difficult to deal with.
  • Falling farm incomes are forcing farmers to sell land for non-food production and construction.
  • Farmers are expected to act as environmental stewards as well as producing food which seem to be opposing demands.

The innovative farmers who are successfully adapting to change and meeting these problems head on are those working in partnership with the life in our soils. These farmers say that getting the organisms in the soil to work with you is a win:win strategy that has reduced their workload and their expenditure on pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation, fuel and livestock medicines, whilst ensuring sustained yields and enabling them to meet their commitments to protect the environment. They recognise that Soil Health is the beating heart at the centre of their farming life.

Optimising Soil Health by managing the physics, chemistry and biology of agricultural soils is now recognised as a major part of the strategy for farmers to improve and sustain their businesses during the current period of intense change and to futureproof their livelihoods against the challenges to come.

What are the signs that soil is healthy? In recent years, I have been working with farmers’ groups in the UK and USA to find out which are the best and most reliable tests for Soil Health that can be easily used by farmers, but are also supported by the latest scientific evidence.

I am very pleased to be working as an independent Soil Health Expert with Vidacycle to develop the Soilmentor app using my knowledge. Watch out for a series of blogs from me on the Vidacycle website in the coming months, starting with ‘Soil Health – what’s it all about?’ as an introduction to the scientific basis for the individual soil health tests chosen for the Soilmentor app. If you have any questions you can email me at jenni@soilhealthexpert.com.

Soil Health Principles

Soil Health Principles 2000 1333 Soilmentor

The Soil Health Principles, thanks to soils advisor Niels Corfield:

  1. Living Root – for as Long/as Often as Possible

  2. Covered Soil – with Residues or Living Plants

  3. Minimise Disturbance/Compaction – Tillage

  4. Diversity – in Rotations/Plantings

  5. Feed Soils – w/Organic Matter (Between Cropping)

  6. Incorporate Animals – Ideally Adaptive Grazed

  7. Minimise Use of Chemicals/Synthetics

Building soil health: 5 Key Soil Tests to get you started

Building soil health: 5 Key Soil Tests to get you started 2000 1500 Soilmentor

The first thing to decide is where to do your soil tests. You might pick a few sample sites in 4 key fields and test them every 6 months. Most of these tests require a decent spade so you can dig 10-20cm depth into the soil profile in order to analyse it.

Soilmentor is made for farmers, to allow an understanding of the ‘pulse’ of the soils on their farm, so this is not a precise science – it’s about what works on your farm in order to monitor your soil health, better meet your management goals and ultimately have a thriving farm. So the key to all these tests is to be as consistent as possible with what works for you. We try to keep this as simple as possible to do, so for example, use a spades width and depth to ensure you dig up the same amount of soil each time you do your earthworm count, and use the same spade! Repeat the tests in the same field, at the same time of year (the app tracks this for you). Working with this simple principle you will build up an amazing picture of how your soil is changing, and hopefully improving!

We have more advice to help you make these decisions here.

1.The VESS test

This is where you get to dig in and really get a feel for your soil. We take a photo as soon as the soil is dug up to see its profile and initial structure (and so we can share it with others later to get their thoughts). Then we look to see if there is an obvious divide between a top soil and the subsoil below. On most farms we have visited the top layer of soil is as thin as 1-10 cm. This is where the aggregation* is happening and there are lots of roots so this is the layer we want to work on building up. Then the next 18cm is relatively uniform in colour and structure. We think it’s helpful to score topsoil and subsoil separately and record the depth of each – one indicator of better soil health is when the topsoil depth begins to increase, as roots reach further and further down and aggregation begins to happen deeper and deeper.

*aggregation: Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (like roots), gums (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae. The aggregates are relatively stable and vary in size. This means that there are spaces of many different sizes in the soil and these spaces are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter.

Find full details about doing this test here.

2.Count your earthworms

Earthworms can be considered as the top of the soil food chain. They are engineers of their ecosystem, and provide some really amazing benefits to soil (learn more in our earthworm blog series here!). For this test, take the soil sample you’ve dug up and count how many earthworms are present. It’s important to note that this test is quite seasonal: on the farms we visited in the UK in November there were loads of earthworms but when we went out on the farm in Chile last week in the middle of Summer, we saw just one earthworm very deep, across 9 sample sites on 3 fields. When it is very dry earthworms tend to hide away! They also move around depending on heavy rains and other factors, so if you are going to do this test, then it’s best to do it across all the fields you are monitoring in one go. That way you can compare between fields.

Find full details about doing this test here.

3.The Slake test

This test is very easy to do – you just put a large pea-sized piece of soil in water and leave it. How much the ‘pea of soil’ breaks down indicates how much sticky stuff there is holding your soil together, thanks to the work of all those little microbes. Our three fields had soils that broke down completely differently. In one field where there was the most evidence of aggregation, the ‘pea’ did not break down at all over 24 hours. However, in another field, where the soil was very crumbly, red and easy to dig into but also not much evidence of structure, most of the samples broke down completely within 2 hours and all within 24 hours. As far as I understand this shows that the microbial activity and aggregation activity is very low in this soil. It was deep-ploughed somewhat recently which may explain the lack of compaction but its lack of aggregate structure suggests it’s lacking biological activity.

Find full details about doing the test here.

4.How much ground cover and bare soil is there? What is the percentage cover of weeds (undesirables), herbs, grasses?

For many of us, a key reason healthy soils is important is because we want healthy plants above ground, and importantly healthy plants that support the bottom line. For PFLA members that often means increased forage, more grass species, less buttercups. On our farm in Chile that means healthy vines and olives, and fostering warm season grasses and perennials for fire retardant ground cover in Summer.

This measure is a great way to understand the link between healthy plants and healthy soils. The 1st soil health principle is a living root, so lots of bare soil is not a good sign. What’s on the surface of our soils can tell us a lot about what is happening below, so for this test record % cover of undesirable species, herbs, grasses and bare soil. Our farm is not pasture-based but this is still helpful as a measure – one of our main tools for managing damage from fires is to shift our ‘undesirables’ to plants that remain green all Summer long.

To do this test you need to make yourself a quadrat. Full details on doing these tests here.

5.Measure the sugar content and health of your groundcover with a Brix reading

Brix is a measure of photosynthetic activity. The building block for production and plant immunity/health. Brix measures how much photosynthesis is occuring in the plant by showing the amount of sugar and dissolved solids in the sap. Higher values indicate the plant is photosynthesizing more rapidly, therefore growing faster, with a better immune response and a higher nutrient profile. Brix is already used by many fruit producers as an indicator of when their fruit is ready to harvest. Research has shown that Brix readings show the actual sugar content in pasture, as well as other plants.

I first heard about it from Australian farming advisor Graeme Saite as he explained if you take a Brix reading in the morning and then another in the afternoon, there should be a big difference in sugar content because late afternoon the plant moves all its sugar from its leaves (solar cells) to its roots to converse with the world below. If this isn’t the case then the system connecting your plant to the soil isn’t working.

We mainly use Brix as an indicator of plant health. We compare Brix readings across fields at the same time to see which plants have more sugars. It’s then interesting to do see how the Brix value evolves over time. An increase in Brix value could be a good indicator of improvements in soil health and healthier plants. Brix is very dependent on the time of day you do it (as explained above) as well as the season, so if you want to compare across fields you need to get round and do the Brix readings all in one go and then try to do them again, on more or less the same day and time a year later. Also, Brix doesn’t work in wet conditions as the rainwater dilutes the reading.

To perform a brix test you will need a refractometer and garlic crusher. Find full details on how to do this test here.

So, those are some ideas of soil tests to get you started! Keen to learn a few more? Head over to the free soil testing guide on our website to check out the full list, record some wildlife with the biodiversity tool, and learn more about our Soilmentor app here.

Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rose

Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rose 800 600 Soilmentor

 

Sunday morning early my dad and I went out to observe and investigate our soils on our farm in Chile. As you may know 2017 was a very difficult year for my family’s small farm as the mega fires in Chile consumed our farm, burning all our crops — olives and vines, just the buildings survived. Come November (Spring) it became obvious that most of the 8000 olive trees and 2ha of vines were dead or growing back from the ground. In terms of having a crop, it’s a bit like starting again.

Many of the old trunks stand bare, a reminder of what was there before the fire. The trees all starting again from the ground.

It is at times an overwhelmingly dire situation. But there is no point lingering on the negatives as this is what’s happened and mega fires are bound to happen again based on global trends, so we must rethink.

Where to start? The soils. If there is one thing I have learnt over the last year, it’s that soil health is the litmus test for the direction your farm is going in. For fire prevention we see two ways forward: Either we bite the bullet and plough between all the trees and build fire breaks around the whole farm (100m wide!?) — a disaster for soil health; Or, we make our 700ml of rainfall each winter go further and retain moisture on as much of the farm as possible, for as long as possible, allowing a green ground cover all year round. Neither sounds particularly easy, but as the realities of the changing climate and human impact on our landscapes intensify — we have little choice. So we are opting for the latter, as the first sounds like a barren nightmare.

To systematically observe our soils and document where we are at now we used Soilmentor, an app I recently launched, along with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and soils advisor Niels Corfield. I’ve used the app on a number of other farms in the UK (read more about them here) but this felt like a seminal moment using it on our own farm in Chile for the first time. This app is just part of my commitment to ensuring smaller-scale farming businesses around the world thrive, building a more resilient future for us all. In an odd way, it felt very moving to have this tool support our farm, especially at this moment of so many unknowns! I can’t explain but when you go out and really observe the soil, something happens, you become immersed in a whole new dimension of the farm. This is why I think farmers such as IanFidelity and Tim have also been so excited using the app, doing the simple soil tests themselves — we are empowering farmers to take the ‘pulse’ of their soils.

My dad on a mission to measure our soils 🙂 The best looking olive trees still standing near our house!

Back to our farm. Doing the tests. We went to 3 fields and dug a hole as best we could at 3 sites in each field. At first it felt incredibly daunting looking at the different tests in the app. I am still learning about soil science, so many things I don’t know! How deep should we dig? How many samples should we take? How can we tell where the top layer of soil ends and the bottom one begins for the VESS (Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure) test? And in fact how can we determine aggregates* from clods* in this incredibly arid soil? Luckily many of those questions are answered here.

We gave it our best shot, followed the notes on the VESS diagram and gave the top layer of soil a slightly higher score than the bottom, determining it was just 1cm deep — that’s where almost all of the roots were and some evidence of aggregation. We had to use a hammer to cut down into the soil, so Spading Ease was definitely 1 (the worst). As we moved on to the next hole it got easier to assess VESS and by Sector 2 we felt confident scoring our soil. Here, in Sector 2, things were quite different, the top 5–6 cm were top soil and showed definite signs of aggregation but then beyond 6cm the ground was almost impenetrable. In Sector 7, we were amazed the spade went in easy after the initial top cm or so. It was completely different again, a crumb-like soil all the way down, quite red, but oddly little sign of microbial life or root activity.

For each VESS reading we took two photos of the soil, one before breaking it up and one after. Later this week I will be talking through the results and photos with soils advisor Niels Corfield in the UK to better understand what it all means and how we might move forward in terms of management. Pretty exciting that we can so easily share the state of our soils with an advisor.

Our rather clodd-y soil, almost no spaces in each clump and incredibly dry!

We brought back samples from each field and did a slake test, Sectors 1 and 7 mainly disintegrated but as expected those from the top layers of Sector 2 stayed glued together. I did question whether the slake test would work for such dry soils, maybe they wouldn’t break down because they are baked into shape…or they would disintegrate completely because they have no moisture in them to keep their shape? Always so many questions and variables. But as we looked over the tests 24 hours later it seemed pretty obvious. Only Sector 2 had any real sign of the soil being stuck together thanks to microbial and root slimes (good stuff!) — it stayed completely intact. Sector 1 disintegrated partially and Sector 7 completely disintegrated. An interesting indication that the light crumbly soil in Sector 7 probably isn’t thanks to great soil creation from plants and microbes but a combination of other factors in the short term (it was dug up most recently of the 3). But I’m not sure on this one so will be asking in the group convo what others think!

Slake tests for sectors 1, 2 and 7 after 24 hours.

The whole experience was rather brilliant, my dad and I in conversation about our soils, really looking and recording whilst we go. We now have begun to understand what we are working with and that the mechanism for living soils is not currently in action on our land. The next step is how to get that mechanism in action as soon as possible. Currently we are considering direct drilling with multi-species herbal leys, grazing lambs in Spring, or maybe chickens all year round. We also want to use compost teas to move the soil health more quickly, as a short term input. If you have any other suggestions please let us know 🙂

How will we test if things are getting better? Well if our VESS top depth begins to increase and the score goes up in the bottom layer, if we start to see rhizosheaths, if we have even one or two earthworms and if we have all 3’s on the slake test then we will know our soil health is improving — it seems like a huge challenge but we believe it’s possible. Let the work begin!

Soilmentor is now available for anyone to use to investigate and monitor their own soils — find out more here. Join a community of farmers working together to monitor our soils and improve soil health!

*A few soil words:

  • aggregation: Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (like roots), gums (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae. The aggregates are relatively stable and vary in size. This means that there are spaces of many different sizes in the soil and these spaces are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter.
  • clods: Soil clods are clumps of soil stuck together due to compaction. They often have very few spaces in them and can be very large. A sign of not as good soil health.

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm 2000 2667 Soilmentor

Ian Boyd is a farmer and wildlife photographer, who has been farming at Whittington Lodge Farm since he took it over from his father about 40 years ago. He sadly watched the wildlife decline significantly on his 700 acre farm as he grew monoculture cereals for 30 years. Plus his thin Cotswold Brash soils got worse and worse, the weed burden grew, and it became unviable to farm in that way. With the advent of Environmental Stewardship schemes about 15 years ago he realised that maybe there was a different way, maybe he could bring back the wildlife and have a viable farm business. His family bought some Pedigree Hereford cows to manage the grassland and wildflower meadows. It became a huge success, the land needed fewer inputs, soils improved, wildlife returned and people were very excited about how special the resulting beef tastes.

“I move the cows daily onto fresh grazing that has been rested for a couple of months. I love cows. You have to love cows if you are going to work with them every day. They are very rewarding, you do tend to end up living with your cows, but that’s all part of the joy.”

Now the whole farm has gone organic. For the cereals they plant each field in herb rich leys for 4-5 years before growing the crops for a few years and then back into herbal leys. The herbal leys are grazed by the 40 strong cow herd (with calves, yearlings and 2 year olds). “In order to restore the farmland wildlife, initially I thought it was all about insects. But I realised now that I had overlooked a complete link in the food web. Insects need healthy soils. So now we are trying to build up the soil health and soil organic matter, this is what we are using the herbal leys for.”

We arrived at Whittington Lodge in the Cotswolds on a very grey and damp day in August. A cheery Ian Boyd greeted us and immediately put the kettle on. At first Ian seemed very wary as I (Abby) told him I’d made an app that was going to help him monitor his soil health today. I don’t blame him for being suspicious, I am a British girl with a distinctly American accent, wearing leopard-print leggings and claiming that I had created an app that could help him out in the field. Who wouldn’t be suspicious!?

Ian only feeds his cattle on the pastures and herbal leys and is a certified member of the PFLA (Pasture For Life Association). This practice requires careful soil and sward (grass) management to ensure the animals always have something to eat out in the fields. This type of farming can also be extremely regenerative for soils, as the animals help to return critters to the soils and this practice is thought to have the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soils.

Back to the misty farm – we all bundled into the trucks with our simple tools – a spade, a card-table, few trays, soil corer, garlic crusher and a refractometer.

First thing you notice when you get out into Ian’s fields is that there are wildflowers everywhere, the fields are alive with colour. We trundled over to First Hill, setup the card table and got to work. Ian downloaded the app on his phone, and we walked around the field counting the % of undesirables (i.e weeds), % of bare earth, no. of grass species, no. of broadleaves and more every 60 steps, Ian recording it all himself using the app.

By lunchtime Ian was so excited, all reservations abandoned, he was telling all the newcomers about how easy he had found the different visual tests Niels had put together, and that the app made it no trouble at all to record the results. I was thrilled at the turn around and his enthusiasm – It’s moments like this that make me realise bringing simple digital technology to the sustainable farming sector is so worth it!

“It was all pretty simple to do, something that I could do on a standard basis over a number of years to see if we can measure how our soil health is improving and build up a database of how our soils are improving over the years.”

Ian has already noticed some patterns by eye from some of his longest standing herbal leys. “Initially there is lots of clover, then as the years progress we get more and more grass coming through. I’m really looking to build up the soil health so we will get more grass, more growth from them. We are starting with some continuous arable soils, so there is a huge scope for increasing soil health and increasing amount of growth over the years.” Ian is keen to learn how he can best manage the herbal leys and grazing them to build soil health quickly and increase grass growth.

 

What are Ian’s management objectives?

  1. Increase soil health and insects/wildlife on the farm.
  2. Understand best rotation patterns and grazing techniques.
  3. Improve grass and legume growth so can have more cows and more winter grazing.

What is Ian measuring?

  • % of undesirables
  • % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • brix % & fuzziness
  • VESS (1-5)
  • earthworms

Find Ian’s Farm on twitter @CotswoldBeef

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground? 

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Tim Williams – English Farm

Tim Williams – English Farm 2000 1500 Soilmentor

“My role here is to look after the land. My aim really is to be a carbon negative farmer.” Tim Williams is a young farmer, based at English Farm, near Reading. He spent many years farming in New Zealand’s more intensive systems before moving here to find ways of farming that regenerate soils and mitigate climate change rather than add to it. Tim took on the ultimate challenge of working with cows to achieve this, now demonised by many as a key cause of greenhouse gases, but Tim has also seen the positive benefits as the once arable land is beginning to transform. He is using a mixture of grazing and herbal leys to return the whole farm to healthy permanent pasture.

Tim has only been at English Farm one year running the herd of 28 English Longhorn cows. With their horns the animals look so majestic munching through the green pastures. The cows live outside all year round, so it’s important there is plenty of shelter in the fields and of course enough grass to last through the Winter. Tim does supplement with a bit of hay in the coldest, darkest days, just to make sure they are all happy.

Tim has realised that to reach his goals he needs to understand and monitor the health of his soils and pasture. So when we turned up in November to get him setup he had already prepared an outline of the fields he wanted to watch, some that ‘had never done well’ and some that were the best fields on the farm. He wanted to know why was one field better than the other, maybe the answers lay in the soil? And could he improve the quality of the field through how he managed his animals?

On arrival he showed us a soils report he had done of the farm when he arrived a year ago. “I didn’t know anything about the land and needed to know if I could make a low-input system work here, so I had a professional soils assessment done. They came and spent a day taking readings and then they sent me a report which basically advised me where to put Lime to balance the pH of the fields. It was dealing with patching up symptoms not long-term solutions, so I put it on my shelf and haven’t looked at it since.”

After going out and doing above and below ground assessments across multiple fields we bundled back into the truck and headed home as darkness descended. Back at the office with a warm tea Tim told us, ‘Even just going out there today I have learnt more about my soils than I did from that expensive report. I’m very excited to be part of this project and better understand my soils, plants and animals so I can make the farm here a carbon-negative success.’’

 

What are Tim’s management objectives?

  1. Take it up to 40 cows from 28 cows.
  2. Improve carbon holding of the soils. Is this farm carbon positive or carbon negative?
  3. Continue to run a low-input system on the 200 acres

How will Tim judge those?

  • Total live weight gain
  • Amount of soil with living plants in
  • Possibly compare the Brix morning and Brix evening
  • Improvement in Soil Structure

What is Tim measuring?

  • % of undesirables, bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • brix % & fuzziness
  • plate meter/sward stick (Dry Matter/ha)
  • VESS (1-5)
  • earthworm count
  • total approx weight of animals on each field

Find Tim on instagram @EnglishFarm_

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground? 

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Fidelity Weston – Romshed Farm

Fidelity Weston – Romshed Farm 2000 1333 Soilmentor

Fidelity Weston is a wonderfully positive and curious farmer, she was previously Chairman of Kent Wildlife Trust and sees farming as a way to work with the natural world around. As with many farmers, she cares about her animals, biodiversity on the land and of course has to make ends meet.

We arrived at Romshed Farm in Kent, where Fidelity has been farming for 30 years, on a chilly November day. We bundled into her kitchen and were promptly offered a tea. To get the lay of the land she rustled up a field map of the farm, and explained how about half the farm has been in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) programs but will be coming out in 2 years time. With future subsidies very unclear she is experimenting with ways to keep high biodiversity and wildlife on the farm whilst also harnessing profit from those fields. She has one full time farm worker and she needs to make sure she can continue to pay him.

Fidelity has 60 cows (20 suckler cows and all their followers) and 150 ewes that she grazes on the land, all 100% pasture-fed (she is an accredited member of the PFLA). One of the experiments she has just started is mob-grazing her fields: regularly moving cows around small portions of the field, mimicking the movements of a herd on the savannah. There is scientific evidence that this grazing method can help grass grow quicker as well as put more nutrients into the soil.  This seems like a great option for Romshed and Fidelity.

She tells us one field, Mud Mead, has always been a poor performing field, but ChurchField 1, right next door, fares much better: the colour of the grass, the forage, everything is just happier. She has no idea why but suspects the soil may hold some clues. We choose 4 fields, including Mud Mead, and one control field to monitor the soils in. Some ‘good’, some ‘bad’, one with particularly good diversity in the ley.

Fidelity is not a tech-lover but knows her phone is vital for her direct sales meat business and running her medium-sized farm. She downloads Soilmentor app on her phone and we head out the door. We work with Fidelity so she is confident about doing soil tests at 5+ sites in each field. Tests include the spade test below ground and then forage tests above ground. Fidelity then enters those results in the app, as well as taking photos as she goes. We go back home and compare above and below ground test results on her computer.

Fidelity keeps telling us “I can’t believe in my whole time farming I have never looked at my soils like this. This is so exciting!”. “I’ve never done it before because it seemed like such a hassle, but with a few simple tools and this app it’s easy.”

For Fidelity monitoring her farmland above and below ground is vital to understand whether the mob grazing is increasing the biodiversity on the land, rebuilding the soils and producing more forage. All these affect her bottom line, some more imminently than others. Ultimately she needs to understand how she can manage more animals, whilst maintaining biodiversity on her land and generate a profit.

Fidelity hopes that as the rest of the land comes out of HLS in 2 years time she will have a better idea of what works on her farm and understand how things change as she works with that land to regenerate soils and cultivate pasture. This is all vital as so many farms are staring into a very uncertain future financially.

“This app is brilliant. In 30 years of farming I have never looked at my soils in this way before and with the app I can easily collect the information and learn from it.”

 

What are Fidelity’s management objectives?

  1. Improve grasses and forage for animals, without affecting the current good levels of diversity.
  2. Understand if mob grazing is effective as a management tool to improve forage and carrying capacity on the land.
  3. Reduce issue with copper deficiency in cows and sheep.
  4. Reduce buttercups in the fields.

What is Fidelity measuring?

  • % of undesirables
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • brix % & fuzziness
  • plate meter/sward stick (Dry Matter/ha)
  • VESS (1-5)
  • infiltration rate (mins)
  • slake test (1-3)
 Find Fidelity on Twitter @RomshedFarm

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground? 

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