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Beneficial insect focus: Spiders – Ben Harrington, Edaphos

Beneficial insect focus: Spiders – Ben Harrington, Edaphos 591 340 Soilmentor

Edaphos offers agronomy services on all types of farms in all situations. Their philosophy is to improve soil and plant health, whilst harnessing the soils stored resources to their full potential to achieve a healthy, well balanced system.

Increasing biocontrol on farms by raising awareness of the beneficial insect community could lead to reduced pesticide use, costs and better support our own environment. In this blog we will be focusing on Spiders (which are arachnids and not an insect but certainly a most valued beneficial predator) through conservation biocontrol!

Before going into Spiders in detail, it is important to understand that to enable conservation biocontrol it is a direct focus on increasing the numbers and diversity of naturally occurring beneficial insects that are already within the area. To create a successful biocontrol through conservation alongside farming, predators and parasitoids need to thrive more so than in smaller production systems due to the fact that fields are subject to a whole host of management from us through mainly pesticide use, tillage, baling, mowing of margins and the management of field borders. Because a lot of fields are subject to the above, they don’t provide enough shelter, forage and overwintering habitat for many of our beneficial insects that would provide us with the wonderful benefits of pest control in crop and as a knock on effect, this also has an impact on other wildlife, pollinators and birds that are in a declining population.

The focus of conservation biocontrol is to focus on creating the necessary food and shelter and any other needs that has been proven to increasing numbers of beneficial insects. Once these are in place the biocontrol system will continue to develop and persist year on year as natures cycle of life and natural balance take place.

Back onto the Spiders! Hopefully over the winter and into the spring, many of you will have experienced spiders while walking crops, alongside margins or noticed a glint of an expanse of webs across the crop that is most noticeable at dawn and dusk which is a great sign and start to creating your biocontrol community.

Spiders are often the most abundant predator in agriculture although they play good and bad roles towards our purpose. Spiders are generalist predators which may feed indiscriminately on other insects and as you might expect for certain species their webs can cause chaos to any insects that fly.

Spider life cycles vary a lot between Arachne species, from species that have one generation per year and live for 2-3 years to those that are very short lived and have multiple generations per year. Spiders may lay eggs within silken nests in the soil, grass clumps, plant debris, under bark or inside hollow stalks of vegetation which these are the areas the adults also overwinter in as well.

For web-spinning species, vegetation as crops and weeds or a soil surface with adequate trash to create a diverse architecture provides a suitable habitat and hunting ground to spin webs. Leaving trash on a more cloddy surface with straw still standing helps retain web-spinning spiders in the autumn and the presence of the diverse architecture from the crop and arable weeds provides a suitable hunting ground in the spring and summer. Some web spinning spiders are capable of producing a long thread in which they can disperse themselves over long distances in a process called ballooning where they are carried in the wind. Web Spinning Spiders can offer us the first and one of the most effective controls against aphids in the autumn by covering whole fields in their threads from ballooning into and across the field. When they are present, you can easily see how and why they are so effective at aphid control and not many pests would get through their hunting grounds.

Wolf Spider (Wildlife Trusts, 2020)

For the hunting spiders such as Wolf Spiders and Jumping Spiders, they don’t rely on creating a hunting ground with their webs and will persist generally along field margins, hedgerows and plant foliage to hunt on the ground and will travel 50 metres into the field from these areas.

It is important to know that the more mobile species of Spider will only settle in locations with sufficient levels of prey and as such will show responses to prey densities. If you do not have the diversity or insect populations spiders will not be abundant.

To encourage the establishment of spiders you will want to integrate field margins as hedgerows, grass and pollinator strips into the field. Splitting fields with beetle banks or wildflower strips can help massively to improve coverage of these species into the field. Leaving crop residue and trash on the surface and leaving clods within the field will also give the spiders a diversity to their habitat and enable them to hunt effectively. Cover crops can also help to provide an ideal autumn habitat as a hunting ground and nesting site.

Flower rich margin

If you are interested in integrating Mid-Tier schemes for helping to promote Spiders and their necessary habitats and food sources the following would be useful to look into and integrate into the farm: Nectar Flower Mix (AB1 – £511/ha), Beetle Banks (AB3 – 573/ha), Flower Rich Margin and Plots (AB8 – £539/ha), Unharvested Cereal Headland (AB10 – £640/ha), Two Year Sown Legume Fallow (AB15 – £522), Autumn Sown Bumblebird Mix (AB16 – £550/ha), 4-6m Buffer Strips on cultivated land (SW1 – £353), In-field Grass Strips (SW3 – £557/ha), Winter Cover Crops (SW6 – £114/ha) and Woodland Edges on Arable Land (WD3 – £323/ha).

Spiders are highly vulnerable to pyrethroid insecticides and through good practice and management such as not spraying all fields with insecticide in one year and leaving some untreated, adhering to spray buffer zones and not spraying insecticides close to margins we should be able to minimise the risk to our populations of beneficials.

Soil Biodiversity #1: An Introduction

Soil Biodiversity #1: An Introduction 150 150 Soilmentor

Soil Biodiversity #1:
An Introduction

In this 6-part series we will delve into the role soil biodiversity and microbial activity plays in maintaining healthy soil. Read on to find out why focusing on soil biology is a must for all farmers!

Biodiverse soils are home to a rich tapestry of soil organisms – there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth! The soil community is made up of different trophic levels and functional groups; from microscopic bacteria and fungi to insects and our favourite wiggly friends, earthworms. These critters, large and small, make up the soil food web.

Soil organisms are an essential component in carbon and nutrient cycling, making nutrients available for plant uptake and creating stable forms of carbon stored in the soil. They create aggregated soil structure, allowing water and air, which are essential for plant growth, to percolate through the soil profile. They naturally buffer soil borne pests and diseases, purify water, clean up pollutants and boost resilience to climatic and environmental changes.

Each organism specialises in a particular function which is key to maintaining healthy soil. The whole biological community works together to provide these functions, it is tricky to isolate just a few organisms which are required, really you need a diverse mix. If soil biodiversity goes into decline, soil structure breaks down, leaving it vulnerable to erosion, as soil is unable to soak up moisture, leaving water to run off, taking soil and nutrients with it. Does this sound familiar – have you seen bare patches of soil and muddy water spilling into a nearby stream or river?

Relationships between soil biodiversity and food security pillars through soil processes and ecosystem functioning and services. Black arrows and black dashed arrows indicate, respectively, major and minor roles of functional groups on soil processes. Gray arrows indicate the relationships among supporting, regulating and provisioning ecosystem services.

Soil biodiversity is declining on many farms due to agricultural intensification and climate change. When we farm soils, we mine nutrients to grow crops, but are we putting these back in a way which improves soil health? Feeding soil with synthetic fertilisers is very disruptive to the soil community, rendering many of their functions redundant. If we begin to take the approach of nurturing our soil community, we will be richly rewarded with all the functions they can provide.

Stay tuned for the next installments in this series to hear more about functions soil biodiversity provide.

Sources

European Commission. (2010). The Factory of life: Why soil biodiversity is so important. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/soil/pdf/soil_biodiversity_brochure_en.pdf

Mujtar, V, E., Muñoz, N., Prack Mc Cormick, B., Pulleman, M., Tittonellad, P. (2019). Role and management of soil biodiversity for food security and nutrition; where do we stand? Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912418300300?via%3Dihub

Plaas, E., Meyer-Wolfarth, F., Banse, M., Bengtsson, J., Bergmann, H., et al. (2019). Towards valuation of biodiversity in agricultural soils: A case for earthworms. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800918304610?via%3Dihub

van Leeuwen, J., Creamer, R., Cluzeau, D., Debeljak, M., Gatti, F., et al. (2019). Modeling of Soil Functions for Assessing Soil Quality: Soil Biodiversity and Habitat Provisioning. Frontiers in Environmental Science, Frontiers, 7, pp.113. Retrieved from: https://hal-agrocampus-ouest.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02280390/

Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources!

Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources! 595 596 Soilmentor

New to all this? These resources are a great place to start:
(scroll down for more in-depth info)

Short video: What is regenerative agriculture?

Still not sure exactly what it means to be a regenerative farmer? This is a great short video to get you up to speed;  the key messages of regenerative farming are brought to life in colourful animations.

Talk: Charles Massy – TEDx

Now you know what regenerative farming is, but how do you apply it? Charles Massy’s talk at TEDxCanberra “How regenerative farming can help heal the planet and human health” is an inspiring resource that discusses the wider impacts of an ecological approach to farming.

Talk & in the field: Nicole Masters – renowned agroecologist

Meet Nicole, who shares insights in this video on the regenerative agriculture movement in New Zealand. Find out about the importance of soil biology and the profitability of regenerative practises. Watch more of Nicole’s videos here.

Talk: Gabe Brown – Keys to Building a Healthy Soil

Gabe Brown’s lecture at the Idaho Sustainable Agriculture symposium is a great in-depth explanation of how regenerative agriculture methods keep soil healthy.

Youtube: Groundswell Agriculture

Our next stop is the Groundswell youtube channel, sharing recordings of facsinating talks from their past events. Word on the street is there will be new videos posted in lieu of this year’s cancelled show – so worth a subscribe to stay in the loop!

Podcast: Farmerama Radio

Our sister podcast – Farmerama shares new regenerative farming stories every month. The recent five-part series ‘Cereal’ is worth checking out – taking a deep dive on cereals, milling, baking, supply chains, and the importance of regenerating this system.

Youtube: Cotswold Seeds

The Cotswold Seeds Youtube channel has some great resources on the benefits of diversifying your rotation, and the amazing benefits cover crops and herbal leys can provide for soil health.

Ready to dive deeper into regenerative farming? Let’s go!

Articles, Audio & Video: Integrated Soils

There’s a great list of resources on Joel Wiliams’s Integrated Soils website – including audio clips, videos, and articles worth exploring to learn from Joel’s experience in soil health, plant nutrition and sustainable food production.

Farmer profiles, Research, Blogs: Agricology

Thirsty for more? Agricology is a knowledge exchange network, providing an interface between farmers, researchers and organisations. The Agricology site is bursting with innovative resources, with a focus on agroecological methods that are practical and sustainable.

Articles, Research & Podcasts: Sustainable Food Trust

Regenerative farming is all about healthy food. The Sustainable Food Trust website is home to a plethora of great articles and informative resources which aim “to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems”. The SFT podcast is also well worth checking out – including interviews with some key figures in sustainable farming and policy.

Podcast: Regenerative Agriculture with John Kempf

This is a brilliant podcast for anyone who wants to learn about the science and principles behind regenerative farming. A regenerative feast for the ears!

Research, Videos & Community: The Savory Institute

The Savory Institute is a great resource for those interested in mob grazing of livestock for the regeneration of grasslands. There are plenty of informative videos and information on regional holistic grazing hubs to connect with.

Innovative thinking: The College for Real Farming and Food Culture

The College for Real Farming and Food Culture aim to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the global norm, and to encourage complementary food cultures. Their website is full of interesting information about the college and its ideas.

Blog & Courses: Niels Corfield, Soils Advisor

Our resident soils advisor has a great selection of informative regenerative agriculture blogs on Medium – it’s well worth digging into this archive!

Courses: FarmEd

FarmEd is the centre for Farming & Food Education, with a mission “to accelerate the transition towards regenerative farming and sustainable food systems”. The website has some great resources to read up on, we particularly enjoy their seasonal wildlife updates!

Handbook: Regrarians

The Regrarians handbook is a positive, practical and pragmatic guide to regenerating human, plant and animal lives along with productive landscapes. The full text is paid for, but worth it!

Innovation for Agriculture

Innovation for Agriculture have a fab mix of resources covering regenerative farming, livestock, soil and water. In particular they share information from their Animals to Arable conference, which was all about integrating livestock into arable rotations to improve soil health.

What do you think, feeling up to speed now? Let us know if you have any resources to add – contact us

After the rain — How to get more forage from your pasture – Guest post by Niels Corfield

After the rain — How to get more forage from your pasture – Guest post by Niels Corfield 2592 1936 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, soil health, agroforestry and whole farm planning advisor, researcher and advocate.

What can we do to capitalise on rain when it comes; so we can get more forage and improve the health of our pasture and animals? I’m going to present some observations from pastures around the UK. Along with what I feel are the key opportunities available to graziers (in the West at least).

Key Observations
Below are 2 pics of the same spot in a permanent pasture. What is a fairly typical situation. What can we glean from them?

Firstly, and most importantly, there are clear bare patches. There could be as much as 50% bare soil, in this case.

These images are following a grazing event (in this case rotational grazing). This type of situation may well be similar to what is revealed after a hay cut, although in this case a low “sward density” maybe a more representative way to quantify the amount of bare soil, since much of the soil after a hay cut will be covered with residues (which is good but is only short term) and otherwise covered by leaves, though still open at the base — leaving space (bare soil) between the plants.

Bare patches in the pasture (as in all soils) are a weakness since it’s a place where water and carbon are lost, and soil health is declining. But they may also be an opportunity.

Ideally, there is no bare soil in pasture, it being covered by living plants, a tight/dense sward, with a closed canopy.

See here for details on recording bare soil in pasture.

Ideally these areas are covered with residues (litter or mulch). In a grazing situation, this would be the product of high stock density grazing management, where low utilisation rates leave residuals that are trampled on to the soil surface, see brief discussion on this topic in earlier article here.

A more ideal solution to this is to have a dense sward with leaves and turf tight enough that it forms a closed canopy that covers the soil surface.

We’ll focus on this second approach and see about turning this problem into a solution.

Selecting Options

Establishing seed into existing leys or pasture is notoriously tricky. In this piece I will not focus on the nuance of this process. Except to say that when selecting methods available to you, whether through contract work or doing it your selves, those options that score higher on the soil health principles should be preferred, see above. With obviously the plough down reseeding scoring pretty low.

A few of the standard methods are outlined below:

Ensuring Good Establishment

Broadcast Overseeding
In this case, where we have a high degree of bare soil, broadcasting is an option that is highly indicated. Basically, spinning-on a mixture of seed. Though slot seeding is still a good option, see below. Where considering broadcasting, there are a few things to bear in mind to get a good take:

1.Improve seed-to-soil contact by rolling or trampling
Cambridge rollers, cultipackers etc are suitable for this purpose as well as, grazing livestock at high stock densities — 100,000+kg live weight/ha, for a day or less (aka mob grazing) after broadcasting. Both these practices could be combined with mulching, or bale grazing, see below.

2.Retain soil moisture by covering soil
Even when there has been a lot of rain, it’s still a good idea to maintain that soil moisture, to improve the take.
Do this by spreading loose materials like straw, woodchip etc. To mulch the soil and keep the soil surface damp.
See pics below for illustration. And further discussion in mob grazing section at foot of earlier piece here.

3.Offer fodders in the field (while still moving the animals)
There’s a few different ways to cut this. But basically keeping the animals in the field and keeping them moving, ideally in tight groups, will aid the process of seed establishment. Different options include: bale grazing and green hay strewing.

Both methods mean being able to keep the animals in the field (when there’s insufficient forage left) and, particularly when combined with high stock density grazing they are ways to:

– tread-in seed — see point 1, above
– dung and urine densely — seeds will grow under pats
– provide some residues to cover seeds and retain moisture
– introduce perennial pasture seeds back into the pasture

In fact these solutions provide most of the functions required to achieve good take: seed contact, covered soil, seeds.
While also keeping animals out in the field, removing the need for muck handling in the yard. And providing better conditions for animals, than indoors.

Legume seedlings germinating in manure pile

Slot Seeding
Another option for establishing seed into pasture, perhaps where bare soil is less prevalent, and the appropriate kit is available, is slot seeding.
Drilling, rather than broadcasting means the seed will have the better seed-to-soil contact. It will also be placed below the surface where the soil moisture will be higher, at least nominally.
It is certainly more frugal with seed.
Perhaps the main drawback with this option, is that in these very dry conditions it may be difficult to penetrate the soil surface.
Either way, where the kit is available, this method is perhaps the most robust and economic — when it comes to seed, at least.

What Seeds to Sow

Making Initial Selections
We’ve talked about establishment options. So what’s the best seed to actually sow in the pasture? Given that we have run out of forage (due to a lack of regrowth) and we have a degree of dormancy in our pastures.
What might our selection criteria be for selecting plant species:

  1. Fast growth — forage available this season
  2. Bulk — lot’s of dry matter to make up for the short-fall
  3. Nutritious — ensuring sufficient animal performance

So, what type of plants meet these criteria?
Annuals, diverse mixes of them.

Why Annuals, What’s Wrong with Pasture Grasses etc?
Well in a word growth rate — annuals need to complete their lifecycle in a year or less (so it’s a sprint race for them), in that time they can grow tall and produce a lot of bulk and their seed is cheap. You might even have some in the shed right now.
In this case particularly, as a way to get an early bite, and to beat the season, they are highly indicated.
Coupled with that the option to use warm season species (those adapted for hot dry conditions) they’re doubly indicated.

How to get the best return on investment? Sow mixes of annuals.

Compared to this pasture species are perennials, they are: generally slower growing, slower to establish and typically much smaller plants (adapted for multiple grazing events in one season). This is all related to their life cycle of multiple year.
It’s not to say that they can’t be included in a seed mix for sowing now, but with annuals. There’s also the small consideration of seed cost. And grass seeds are on the upper end, needing to be purchased from specialists seed merchants. Another indication for hay strewing or bale grazing.

Principles of Diversity & Soil Health
One of the most important of the soil health principles is diversity. The key insight being that a diversity of plants feeds a diversity of organisms. This diversity is regarded as the key to soil organic matter formation and to a balanced diet for plants, as each organism has it’s own nutrient mineralising specialisms. Ensuring a better diet for animals.
Diversity is also correlated with increased yield.
This is where cover crops and pasture species, being mixes, really excel, compared to crops which have their own restrictions, tending to monocrops.
Once you add-in annuals into the mix, alongside perennials, you really can push the diversity lever up to 11!
Experience has also shown pasture cropping examples, like this, that have resulted in step-changes in soil aggregation, with all those extra living roots pumping-out exudates into the pasture.

Diversity in Action
When it comes to diversity, how much is enough? And what should you choose? Given there’s so much choice.
Thankfully there’s some simple rules, we have been offered from US practitioners, that we can follow:

  1. 8x species (or more) is a sweet spot, for soil health benefits, from
  2. 3 out of 4 functional groups

Functional Groups
What are these functional groups, and why are they important?
Well they give us some pointers as well as narrowing-down the options somewhat. They are:

  • Warm season grasses
  • Cool season grasses
  • Warm season broadleaves
  • Cool season broadleaves

Perhaps this seems like an odd list. And why choose warm season plants for instance?
Well, the first reason is they can actually grow really fast. Due to the fact they photosynthesise using different frequencies of light, more prevalent in strong sun situations. This is why maize is such a high yielding crop, growing to 7′ in a season. These plants are also known as C4 plants.
The other reason we’d select them, in this particular case is due to the fact that we are actually in a warm season, right now. And our pastures (which are all cool season species) have gone dormant or “burned off” because of the extended dry spell. Warm season plants are adapted for these conditions, and have the ability to grow through the “summer slump”. Though establishment is certainly still an issue.

The Specifics
Below is a table of the main species of cover crops.
Remember select 8 or more species from 3 or more of the functional groups.

There’s nothing to stop you using farm-saved seed: peas, oats, wheats etc.
The other option is to source bird seed mixes and feed cereals locally/in bulk. This will certainly bring down the cost, compared to a seed merchant.
In fact there’s a real advantage to doing this as it will allow you to up the seeding rate. If there’s one golden rule with cover crop establishment it’s:

Don’t skimp on seed, too little is as bad as no seed at all.

Putting It All Together

So what might a successful oversowing of annual-based forage mixes look like?
Some examples below. And a few new bits of jargon, all of which are relevant to this situation. Although the text mostly refers to a cropping situation, they are equally suited to pasture, when due diligence is followed around establishment. It’s clear to see that these mixes have the potential to produce large volumes of diverse (quality) forage in a short space of time.
Pasture stitching is the name given to drilling forage crops into pasture.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this piece offers some practical suggestions of what to do in droughted, burnt-off pasture or more generally in tired pasture, when you want to get a forage boost, or provide forage in the off-season, while improving soil health, and with it animal health — through better quality (diverse) forage.

Take Home Messages

  1. Use the soil health principles to inform your decisions and to direct your observations in pasture
  2. Cover bare soil by litter and living plants
  3. Choose rapid growing annual species for instant results
  4. Diverse plantings are preferred, where planting date is appropriate
  5. Keep costs down by: using your own seed/creative sourcing
  6. Experiment, try some different: mixes, seed rates, establishment methods

And for those that want to find out more, or discuss this in more detail please get in touch or consider joining me on one of my soils courses. If you have any thoughts or questions, get in touch: info@nielscorfield.com

Soil health courses & info
https://www.facebook.com/pg/nielscorfieldland/events/

Further Reading
Part 2 — Realising the Promise of Soil Health in Organic Horticulture
https://medium.com/@nielscorfield_90202/no-till-for-growers-realising-the-promise-of-soil-health-in-organic-horticulture-646fd553257

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently!

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently! 559 397 Soilmentor

What does the future hold for farming? Well, the truth is, we don’t have a crystal hoof! But, there is one way to make our farming enterprises resilient, through the wettest of winters and driest of summers. A way of reducing inputs, increasing biodiversity and building a healthy planet. Farming with a focus on regenerating our soils.

We all need to start somewhere on this journey. What does your soil structure look like? Is it compacted? Is your soil at risk of erosion? Is it alive with worms, microbes and fungi? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves as farmers today, and they can be answered by getting out into your fields and observing for yourself.

Whatever type of farm you are, whatever your location, you can benefit from soil monitoring. It is the basis for knowing if your soil is healthy or not and if it supports healthy crops and animals. Without knowing how healthy your soil is, how can you improve it?

Lab tests are only part of the picture, numbers on a page. Soil health analysis is visual, connecting you to your land, monitoring it’s pulse. It is your guide.

But what will you get from soil monitoring? (Apart from muddy fingernails!)

From your first set of tests you create a baseline of your soil health. Straight away you can draw insights from comparing soil test results on fields under different land use. But really the magic happens when you come back to the same sample spots and do these tests again, and again, and again.

Record observations, photograph what you find and save the GPS locations of your sample sites using the Soilmentor app. Next time you can return to the exact same spot on the map and compare it with the last time you were there. Worms love the camera!

Then you will learn if your cover crop roots are improving soil structure, or if your new grazing system is stimulating microbial life and so on. All this information is available to you through simple, low cost tests, and acts as your guide for how to improve your soil health.

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently!

To be successful at soil monitoring you need to build it into your routine. The first time is always the hardest and perhaps you have another more pressing task (like tidying the farm office!) BUT once you get going, you’ll be hooked.

Day-to-day farming activities you can do when you’re soil monitoring:

Checking livestock
Once you’ve made sure they are all there, no one has jumped the fence and the water trough isn’t overflowing why not fetch your spade, dig a hole and count earthworms? Manure from the beastys feeds dung beetles and worms, so you should find lots of activity.

Crop walking
Heading out to see what growth stage you’re at? This is the time to assess how well your soil is supporting your crops. Is there an area that doesn’t look so good? Perhaps there is a compaction issue, you’ll only know once you get the spade in and do a visual evaluation of soil structure.

Fencing
Need some light relief from moving electric wires or post bashing? It’s likely you’re in fields grazed by our furry and/or feathery friends. Check out the diversity of their forage by throwing a quadrat around and see how what’s growing affects soil biology by doing a slake score.

Taking the dog(s) for a W-A-L-K
We have it on good authority that dogs love to go soil testing, we’ve seen it with our own eyes. They will get a good leg stretch and tail wag as you tour the fields with your spade. They might even carry your quadrat for you.

..and remember, digging one hole is better than digging none. Just dig it!

 

Ready to get started soil monitoring? Check out Soilmentor – a handy smartphone app to record soil test results and photos in field and online account to analyse your observations.

What is soil health and why should farmers and growers care about it? Guest post by Niels Corfield

What is soil health and why should farmers and growers care about it? Guest post by Niels Corfield 2379 1770 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, soil health, agroforestry and whole farm planning advisor, researcher and advocate.

In this article I’d like to lay out the main tenets of soil health, but before that I want to present what I feel are the main motivations for “going to all that effort”!

Why bother about soil health?

First of all, in this climate change acceptance world, all forms of agriculture, and land use must wipe their face in terms of carbon. Being at least carbon neutral, if not carbon negative (or positive, whichever way you prefer it phrased).

All land, and all production must sequester carbon and it can, it’s been done, one example has raised their soil organic matter (SOM) from 2.4% to 8–11% in 6 years. 0.5–1% per year increases are regularly achieved.

Every single cropping cycle is a growth cycle and therefore should be net cumulative, in terms of carbon — through the process of root exudation. Simply put, all plants have the potential to improve soil (fertility), it’s the simply the management and composition of those plants (in space & in the rotation) that determine this fact. However, this is very hard to achieve when regularly cultivating, for example.

If you’re serious about climate change, business as usual is not an option. The good news is if you rigorously apply the same health principles production can be carbon negative.

What’s in it for us?

Apart from saving the planet, are there any other arguments for adopting novel practices? Is it just about doing good while our livelihoods suffer? Not at all!

Adopting the soil health principles wholeheartedly is one framework that can both address global issues and bring production benefits — showing that cropping (and farming) doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

How would these benefits manifest? Everyone knows how well their crops look when the land is in good heart. And that that translates to fewer crop failures, less drought-stress, better infiltration and more yield. Moon on a stick? All of these are correlated with better soil health.

Another benefit of better crumb structure will equate to fewer passes to raise a seed bed, where cultivation is practised. That’s less diesel and better windows for field access (a window that’s fast becoming undependable). Either way there’s wins to be had once we harness the latent potential of plants.

Grass & fertility

Perhaps one of the few things that farmers (and growers) can agree on is that the land is “in best heart” the first year out of grass. So, is there something magic about grass, compared to other plants? Does it have unique “healing powers”?

Basically no, but to be clear, what is it we can say about the conditions under grass?

A living root, covered soil, undisturbed, diverse (ideally), some animal impact (potentially) and few if any chemicals.

Cropland (at left) — Grass margin (at right)

Soil fertility (health) can and should be built within the cropping phase of our operations, and can be achieved without going to grass. Not that grassing-down and fallowing aren’t efficacious practices, just that we have more tools available to us that are perhaps more appropriate in a cropping situation. We just need to closely mimic those conditions we find under grass, and that’s where the soil health principles come in — 7 ways to help you select management practices, and to make decisions on your operation that build soil: cropping or fallow, spring or fall.

One key insight — microbes matter

Perhaps the most important single insight that underpins, most, if not all of us or health principles is the understanding that microbes matter. And they matter to us the growers. But, why do they matter? What’s so good about them? And, what do they do for us? There are three parts to the answer:

Firstly they create crumb structure. Their actions bind together disparate soil particles into crumbs or “aggregates”.

Secondly, they feed plants. They digest elements out of the soil mineral matrix (as well as organic matter) and transform them into plant available nutrients. They literally eat rocks. Hitherto known as decomposition but since the process is done enzymatically it’s much more akin to digestion.

This is what’s known as the “microbial bridge”. Simply put, plants (and healthy plants in particular) are nourished by nutrients provided by organisms.

Thirdly microbes protect plants. Through a number of different mechanisms they either out compete or shield plants from disease-causing organisms and often pests as well. Perhaps the poster child of this final point is mycorrhizal fungi that snare root feeding nematodes which when caught are then digested and past up to the host plant.

So the plants are getting a pretty good deal here! They’re getting a nice loose structure to push their roots through easily, room service and their own live-in healthcare service. Are they getting all that for free? Emphatically no, this is where the soil health principles come in, read on..

The Soil Health Principles

Weed roots, rhizosheath forming (at upper left)

1 The Living Root — maintain a living roots in the soil for as long as possible and as often as possible

This is number one on the list because perhaps it is the most important. Because, simply put, roots make soil and they do this by producing root exudates, — carbon secretions that feed (and recruit) soil organisms, which in return deliver plant available compounds, right in the “root zone”.

Gothelney Farm: Rhizosheaths on oat cover crop (Photo: Fred Price)

If you want to see the effect of the living root on soil structure examine the soil around the roots of the healthiest plants on your farm (often a weed!). So the next time you’re out in the field, take a moment to carefully lift one or two plants and examine those roots. You will typically notice finally grained soil that has excellent crumb structure, potentially some of which may be actually stuck to the roots themselves, in what’s called a “rhizosheath”, this is a phenomenon seen where microbes are active and producing the glue like substances that bind together soil particles into aggregates. Where you see rhizosheaths you can infer from that that root exudation is taking place, as, without this carbon (energy) source these organisms would be inactive.

What you are seeing is soil building in action — where you are seeing crumb structure around roots and rhizosheaths. Without roots and root exudates, organisms become inactive, microbial populations become simplified and ultimately aggregates become consumed by those same organisms, since they have nothing else to eat, as these, glue-like substances, are all organic (carbon based) for example polysaccharides, hence are comestible. Literally the structure of aggregates is edible, Think Hansel and Gretel.

2 Covered Soil — protect soil, from wind, rain and sun, with leaves or residues

Maintaining a soil cover is essential. This is a fact that “nature intrinsically understands”, which is why bare soil is such a magnet for weeds, because without a cover, soil degrades quite rapidly, nutrients are lost, soil caps and water runs off. Ultimately that porous structure crumb structure that we all value is sacrificed. We should be taking steps to reduce the frequency of bare soil as well as the length of those periods.

Bare soil is the enemy of soil health. Don’t farm naked as some say.

3 Minimise Disturbance and Compaction — reduce tillage severity and frequency

No dig and no till are perhaps the foster children of the soil health movement but certainly it shouldn’t be reduced to this one single measure. Simply shifting to no-till and making no other changes will not bring the kind of results that we are really looking for. It will not bring health back to the soil on its own, it must be coupled with the other principles and particularly diversity. That said it’s worth expanding on the rationale for not tilling, by laying out the issues with tillage itself.

The first and most important point to make is that tillage destroys soil structure. This seems counter-intuitive because one of the primary reasons for tillage is to improve structure, or to get a tilth. While certainly there is a loosening effect post tillage, this is a short lived phenomenon, however, the structure of the soil is soon lost and it will then settle back into it’s more native, mineral-structured state, more akin to the subsoil. If all conditions are right then the crop can be established in this short phase, but this window is getting more unreliable by the day.

The reason that tillage destroys soil structure is because when we are talking about crumb structure we are talking about aggregates ultimately, and aggregates are made of small soil particles bound together with glue-like substances that have been secreted by organisms. When you till you break open these aggregates, splitting apart these crumbs, exposing them to oxygen at which point “R-strategist” organisms invade the space and rapidly decompose or digest (literally eat) the binding agents that glue together these crumbs. The process of aggregation is directly analogous to that of making biscuits in that the homogeneous flour (and sugar) particles are bound together by the butter or fat into larger non-uniform (heterogeneous) clumps or crumbs. In this analogy the sugar is analogous to sand and the flour is analogous to clay. And the fat is analogous to those binding agents, those polysaccharides that are biologically derived in the same way that a fat is.

Generally speaking if you want retain good crumb structure then reduce tillage — reduce the depth-, the frequency and minimise inversion.

That said, is there a place for tillage as a force for good? That depends much on the starting point. But there does seem to be a small number of clear cases where tillage (or mechanical interventions in general) can help to rectify the situations related to past management.

If your starting point is tired old pasture (But I thought you just said that pasture ticks all the soil health principles? Well yes it does, but management is always superior).See photo below: Old pasture (especially horse) may well be heavily consolidated and there’s only so much that your crop roots and even cover crop roots can do to undo this situation. In horticulture operation the Real Food Garden, they good results with ploughing the existing pasture and then a year of cover cropping before conversion to no dig.

Horse pasture (at right) — Fence line (at left)

4 Diversity — increase diversity in your plantings and rotations

Diversity above ground feeds diversity below ground. If you want your plant to have a balanced diet it needs to associate with a diversity of organisms that mineralize a diversity of nutrients.

It’s been shown that so that the formation of humic substances and stable aggregates is closely correlated with below ground diversity.

Below ground diversity requires a diversity of foods, from a diversity of root exudates etc.

This is one realm where cover crops can really excel. We can bring in so much diversity. And so long as we’re destroying without tilling, we can retain a significant portion of that beneficial structure. This diversity can be so much more, it can include C4 plants, which are rare and general in the UK cropping situations. Plants like maize, millet, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth, and the more common sunflower and buckwheat.

Trill Farm: High diversity (at left) — Low diversity (at right)

All these fancy seeds in a mix sounds expensive don’t they? Well it doesn’t have to be, just source your seeds from the feed merchant, rather than the seed merchant. Bird seed mixes are a great starting point and most of them already have the 8 species or more, recommended: broadleaves and grasses, warm season and cool season. And when the costs are low you can start sowing at proper seed rates which maybe 2 times or 3 times the standard advice. This overcomes the main pitfall people have when experimenting with cover crops: too little seed.

Schumacher College: Amaranth crop

That said, diversity isn’t limited to cover cropping. We can introduce diversity into our cash cropping operations. This is potentially where some of the biggest wins are actually to be had. Given that increasing species diversity from 1 to 2 represents a doubling in diversity that’s a big win. And going from 2 to 3 represents another 50% increase. So, include: catch crops, intercrops and relay crops whether practical.

There should be gains to be had in this case, so long as we doing our due diligence with the other soil health principles — especially around bare soil and the living root. Again we don’t want massive space between the plants being unfilled with roots and uncovered. This is where intercropping and catch cropping can really pay dividends.

5 Feed Soils — hungry organisms need food to stay active and healthy

This is definitely one area where the organic crew got it right. But what do we mean by this? What eats stuff in soil? Well organisms, life, life eats stuff. Not the “soil” per se, as this is simply a matrix of geological degradants.

What actually eats stuff in the soil is soil organisms: the soil food web members. So the question is then, what do these soil organisms like to eat? Really we’re talking about fungi and bacteria in this case, as they make up the vase majority of soil biomass. So, what’s their preferred food? Well in this case it’s root exudates. Simple to utilise (metabolise) foods such as carbohydrates, often as straightforward as glucose. But that is what’s being supplied by the roots, no? So, that’s covered under principal number one — the living root, right?

Well yes. Except we are in a cropping situation which means there may be a break in cropping. Where there’s a break in cropping, the organisms that are present in the soil, those active communities of bacteria for example that have built up, through your good management of cropping (and potentially diverse cropping) will all go dormant, but before they do, that they will consume the most readily available food source present. And what is that in this case? It will be the binding agents that hold the aggregates together. They will literally eat their own homes because there’s nothing else to eat. Evoking that famous phrase “burning the furniture” — when you’re snowed in and it’s freezing outside and you run out of firewood, you’re only alternative to keep warm is to burn the furniture but once you’ve done that where are you going to sit?

So what are we to conclude from this observation? Simply, where a break in cropping exists, provide a subsistence ration. This would typically be over winter. But either way, this is the prime time to apply bulky organic matter. And if all goes well, when you come to plant your next crop you will have a nice surface tilth and an active population of organisms ready to immediately associate with your plants.

The last two soil health principles are perhaps the least relevant to an organic growing situation. However I include them for the purposes of being thorough.

6 Incorporate Animals

Diversify your straight cropping operation by rotating animals or integrating livestock into your system.

So what’s good about animals? What benefits can they bring to a cropping system? Firstly, their manure contains inoculants that are rare, even in good compost and they can carry out the work of distributing (or applying) that manure through their own natural behaviour.

That said the key rationale behind this particular principle is that all ecosystems contain animals as part of the web, and they add a whole new dimension of diversity to the system so perhaps they should come under principal number 4, but in this case the desire is to be explicit.

Ian Boyd’s farm Whittington Lodge

7 Minimise Use of Chemicals

Simply put, the use of chemicals and synthetics undoes all of your good work further up the list.

Firstly, use of synthetic fertiliser or soluble nutrients in general discourage, the production of root exudates. Basically root exudation is a quid-pro-quo for plants. They’re effectively paying for nutrients in a form that they can absorb with energy (or sugars) the only currency plants hold. So, when a plant is artificially nourished through soluble fertiliser applications it’s need to offer exudates is removed, though this is fine in the short term, however, the removal of foods from our friendly minions (the soil microbes) means they will at best go dormant and at worst start chowing down on the aggregates themselves because there’s nothing else to eat and then go dormant.

Fertilisers in salt form, and in very high concentrations, actually force their way into the plant structure. So the plant almost becomes over nourished or certainly has no control over the quantities and types of nutrients that enter the cell structure.

Further to this and perhaps, more obviously is the use of pesticides etc which basically have all sorts of impacts on non-target species. But it goes without saying that applications of fungicides for example have detrimental effects on mycorrhizal fungi, though that said, so does tillage.

Putting it all together

Ultimately the strengths in this approach, this framework, is that the principles can be applied individually or in consort. But ultimately the real wins are to be had where all of the soil health principles are applied both in the cropping phase and fallow periods.

I like to think of the soil health principles as different levers maybe like you might picture in an old signal box, or a graphic equaliser. With each lever representing a different principle. Ultimately, over time want to be able to push all of the levers up to full, bring all of the benefits to bare.

Furthermore, for each principle there’s obviously a range. Similar to gears on a gearbox. Ultimately where limited by equipment or tools, it’s like being unable to change up from 3rd gear for instance. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in 3rd gear on the motorway. If we can gradually increase the upper maximum we can achieve each year we will gradually be able to leverage more of the latent power of nature to grow better crops.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, the soil health principles are another iteration of nature mimicry, offered, in this case to farmers and growers as a tool for decision-making on-farm.

Simply put, where two options are considered for a particular situation, that which scores highest, in terms of the soil health principles, should be preferred, where practical, or when it becomes practical.

I hope that you will use these principles in your day-to-day practice and in your longer-term rotation planning.

And for those that want to find out more, or discuss this in more detail please get in touch or consider joining me on one of my soils courses this autumn. If you have any thoughts or questions, get in touch: info@nielscorfield.com

Soil health courses & info
https://www.facebook.com/pg/nielscorfieldland/events/

Further Reading
Part 2 — Realising the Promise of Soil Health in Organic Horticulture
https://medium.com/@nielscorfield_90202/no-till-for-growers-realising-the-promise-of-soil-health-in-organic-horticulture-646fd553257

Use maps to save your sample locations

Use maps to save your sample locations 4032 3024 Soilmentor

We’re excited that you can now use the GPS mapping feature in both our iPhone and Android apps, to save the exact locations of where you are doing your soil tests in each field. That way you can very easily come back year after year to the same spot and monitor changes in soil health. We have spoken to many different soil scientists and advisors and we feel that the best way to monitor soil health on your farm is to select specific sample sites and observe trends/changes in soil over time at each site.

As all farmers know, there can be huge amounts of variability, even within a field, so the idea of finding an ‘average’ soil health for the field is difficult, and requires you to have many, many sample sites. So our advice is to just pick 1-3 sample sites in a field, and monitor how things change at each site as you change your management practices. To do this you need to go back to more or less the same spot, which is where being able to mark your sample sites on the map makes things easier!

What does this mean?

With our GPS feature, you can save the location of each of your sample sites within each field, so they appear as pins on the map. This means you can view the location of each sample on the map, and the next time you go out soil testing you have a precise point to go back to, to repeat the tests – just follow the map on your phone to find the same spot in the field.

 

Why does this matter?

Coming back to the same sample sites when monitoring information on your soils is important. It saves lots of time, as you can sample fewer locations in the field but still have a good idea of how your management is affecting soil health! That’s all because by going back to the same location, you reduce most of the variables, so you can be pretty certain that any changes in what you see and record are due to a change in management (or extreme weather conditions!). 

So, now you’ll really know if that cover crop helped improve your rooting depth and VESS score or not! With GPS you can locate your samples sites more accurately, you can view them on a map, and ensure you return to the same spot each time.

Got any questions about GPS and using Soilmentor to monitor soil health? Contact us!

Defragmenting UK soils policy – the journey so far…

Defragmenting UK soils policy – the journey so far… 4896 3268 Soilmentor

Much of what we do is about empowering farmers in the field to build soil health, but of course we realise that we are all part of a bigger system and government policy can have a massive impact on the way land is farmed.

We have always admired the work of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), bringing an independent and holistic voice to UK soils policy. Here Ursula Billington from the SSA gives us an update on the work they have been doing, what’s next for their policy work and how you can get involved if you are interested…

By Ursula Billington, Sustainable Soil Alliance, June 2019

At the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance in 2017, the UK Department for Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Secretary of State Michael Gove charged us to hold the UK government to account on soil health and we’ve been doing this to the best of our abilities ever since. The principle aim of the SSA since inception has been to improve political and public understanding and appreciation of soil in the UK – and to identify the policy mechanisms needed to begin the reversal of land degradation and restore soil health within one generation.

We knew we’d have our work cut out and have spent the last two years ricocheting between positive, fruitful conversations with government, and leaps in appreciation of the frustrating complexity of the soils issue and policies it is embedded within. We’re delighted with the success we’ve had so far, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure the sustainability of our soils for generations to come.

The SSA was born from a knowledge of the crisis affecting soils across the UK, and the globe, and a sense that the time was right, with the dreaded Brexit allowing for a significant reshaping of policy, particularly around the agricultural sector. More recently the focus on climate and ecological breakdown has proved effective in inspiring a wider audience to adopt soils as a solution to the key challenges of our times, and to push even harder for farming, land and environment policy reform.

So the need was identified and the SSA formed a partnership of high profile government, environment, farming and NGO allies to give weight to the cause and generate urgent, immediate action. Two years later, we have established close working relationships with DEFRA, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Environment Agency and the emerging Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) team. We have also inputted in to the new Agriculture and Environment Bills, the 25 Year Plan for the Environment, the new regulatory framework for farmers, the consultation on the future of Welsh farming and more. Success has been based on a slow but steady and reliable ongoing dialogue, a persistent chipping away at the rock-face of government, an endless search for the killer questions necessary to achieve our goals and, above all, – a non-partisan, relationship-based approach.

One of the first lessons we learnt – and a key one inspiring us to form a membership organisation representing all soil stakeholders across farming, land management, science, business and environment – was the siloed nature of thinking around soils. This may not come as a surprise and is certainly not unique to soils within government, but an issue we found to be both highly pertinent and damaging given the critical nature of soils to so many of our fundamental systems. Soil is the foundation of basic ecosystem function, intrinsic to food production, biodiversity and our natural environment, to water and air quality, to public health. It supplies medicines, stores carbon, prevents floods, helps regulate the earth’s temperature. It provides countless services which, if wearing a natural capital hat, have direct consequences for government spending and the Treasury. Its security is relevant to Defra, Natural England, the Environment Agency, BEIS, the Treasury, the Natural Capital Committee and more. Soil has been referred to by government as ‘the golden thread that runs through everything’ and features significantly in countless reports published by a multitude of agencies and departments. And yet the decision-making that encompasses it is fragmented. Building a joined-up strategy with soil health at its heart has therefore been a Herculean task, and we believe partnership working has been key to clarifying and supporting the flow of interdepartmental thinking. We’ve tackled this particular challenge by building ever stronger non-denominational relationships across the alliance, simultaneously working within departments to identify where their unique problems lie and help to deliver their own goals – whilst keeping in mind and working towards the wider context of interlocking aims and solutions.

As SSA Director Matt Orman recently put it:
“We have before us an opportunity almost unique to an industrialised nation to build from scratch a joined-up, fit-for-purpose national soil policy. This should reflect the scale of the problem and the political intent. We should seize it while harnessing the potential of technology and the groundswell of commitment in soil health among farmers, land managers and policy makers.

But what kind of policy is needed? All environmental governance depends upon the careful interweaving of key policy levers: regulations, education, incentivisation, monitoring and enforcement. The unique characteristics of soil such as its variety, ownership, timeframe and constituents represent a very particular challenge requiring careful consideration.”

The problem of fragmentation does not lie only within government. The SSA were not the first to identify or begin working to resolve the national soils crisis – there are a myriad of individuals, organisations and practical projects out there on a local and regional scale attempting to do just that. Breaking down silos, building relationships and attempting to unite with common leadership and purpose therefore quickly became a core approach of the SSA, in order to amplify the work of positive soils initiatives on the ground and present a united front to government. This partnership working also enabled us to fully understand the complexity of the challenge and the unique issues of the different stakeholders, as we engaged in conversations with as broad a representative of the soils community as possible. Critically listening, collating opinion and feeding back to government has become a key task of the SSA. We have convened meetings to include the widest possible spectrum of stakeholders, in part to help identify where conflicts lie and how to resolve these, building bridges and brokering to establish a level of basic agreement from which we can push forward to sustainable soils. We have not shied away from allowing like-minded and conflicting agendas to share the same space, and interesting outcomes have emerged as a result.

So where are we now? Under Gove, soil is at least now a part of government policy-making, which it hasn’t been before. There are encouraging references in the Agriculture and Environment Bills, and the 25 Year Environment Plan. But of course ministers are experts at saying the right thing, and we have yet to see concrete action on the issue. Soil has still not gained equivalent recognition and commitment as our other natural assets, water and air. We’re mindful of the need to pin down legislation, particularly at this time of tumultuous change and policy development within UK government. The temporary nature of ministerial positions and short lifespan of government can undermine progress and momentum at the best of times, so we’re working hard to firm up government commitments and ensure these are enshrined in new policy.

And we’re not afraid of change. Our fundamental aims remain the same, but within this framework we are constantly evolving, re-evaluating, responding to news, events, policies and ministerial attitudes, capitalising on new information and relationships that come our way. We aim to be agile, and we’re all too aware we may need to regroup around the change of leadership. These are interesting times, and there isn’t a blueprint for what we are attempting to achieve. But this makes it all the more important. We’re confident that strides can be made and we have hope for a step-change in soil health that will render our land, and all that stems from it, sustainable within one generation.

If you’d like to support our work please consider making a donation to help us grow.
For more on soils, Sustainable Soils Alliance projects and activities, visit our website.

Find more on our work with government here. Connect with us via twitter. If you’re interested in working with us please email ursula@sustainablesoils.org

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate 1440 1079 Soilmentor

The beautiful family run Hampton Estate is nestled in the sandy soils of Seale, near Farnham in Surrey. Most of the farmland is in woodland or grass and twenty years ago Guernsey dairy cattle grazed the estate. The family have since switched to a Sussex cattle herd and started producing grass fed beef to sell direct to their local customer base. Their cattle are raised on tasty grass and lovely Surrey sunshine! Hampton Estate are members of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and in the process of having their beef pasture for life certified. Pasture fed systems with good grazing management can be very regenerative for soil health. Hampton have started using Soilmentor to monitor and understand how soil health is changing across their farmland.

The estate has some very special gardens filled with hops! This speciality crop has been grown in the local area for hundreds of years, despite a lot of production being wiped out by a fungal disease called verticillium wilt. Many other farms gave up their hop gardens, but Hampton has maintained growing this traditional crop with high biosecurity measures. Their hops are used in three major breweries across the country. The infrastructure required to grow hops is extensive and to fit in with the natural landscape Hampton uses tall poles made of chestnut from their own woodland.

Hampton are developing their farm strategy around building soil health and improving their sward. Using Soilmentor they can create a baseline for where their soil health is at now and give them an idea of where they want to go. Growing good grass is essential for their pasture fed cattle and so one approach they will take is to increase species diversity and deeper rooting plants in the sward. This will increase their resilience in times of drought as deep roots can reach water and nutrients further down in their sandy free draining soil. A more diverse range of broadleaf plants and root systems will increase the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the ground. Hampton is monitoring the % of different plant species and their density to see how this changes over time in their pasture fields. As they collect more information about their pasture with Soilmentor they will be able to compare plant species readings with soil structure and earthworm readings to see if there are any trends and links in their improvement.

“I’d been looking for a tool to monitor soil health just like this, I’d tried other tests but they were always so complex and involved lab testing. It’s great to have a set of simple tests that I can do easily myself.” – Will Godwin, Hampton Estate

We spent the day soil monitoring pasture fields under different management approaches with Will Godwin. Will is part of the estate management team and works very closely with Bridget and Bill Biddell who own and manage the Estate on behalf of the wider family. Heading out to the field with Will and Bridget was great fun and the excitement about digging holes and hunting for worms was palpable! Will had expertly crafted an infiltration rate pipe from a piece of drainpipe, sharpening one end to make it easier to get into the ground. He used an old water bottle with 444ml of water marked on it to ensure the exact same amount of water was used each time. An old dustbin lid made an excellent examination tray for the soil block and Bridgett didn’t seem to mind us using her freezer bags to collect samples for the slake test!

We started on a very sandy permanent pasture field grazed throughout winter by their steers and very poached up in places. On this field we found no worms at all! This meant Will recorded an earthworm count of 0 in Soilmentor and we all agreed this is definitely an opportunity to improve how the soil on this field is managed to increase earthworms for the next time it is monitored. Next we headed to a permanent pasture field being rested after grazing last year which had an abundance of wigglers, seventeen in one soil pit, and even a dung beetle popped its antlers up. At the time we didn’t realise it was a dung beetle, but took a photo of it using Soilmentor so Will could look back at a later date to identify the beetle. This field had a dense thatch of grass on the surface which slowed the infiltration rate down considerably. The third field we tested was a grass field cut every year for hay which had a few worms but an exceptionally fast infiltration rate. In addition to these fields Will plans to monitor two more pasture fields and one hop garden.

Going forward Hampton plans to start a new grazing system, to improve sward quality and soil health across the estate. Changes in the way the herd is managed and trying mob grazing to encourage tall grass and deep root growth are central to the strategy. Over in the hop gardens, although they cannot return the biomass from the hop plants back to the soil due to the verticillium wilt disease risk, there are plans afoot with Rob, their Agronomist, to plant green manure cover crops in between the rows of hop plants. Verticillium wilt only affects broadleaved plants and to avoid attracting it to the garden the cover needs to be a cereal to mitigate this risk, so rye and oats are good options. The cover crop will anchor the soil, protecting it from erosion, photosynthesising and putting nutrients into the soil.

Soilmentor will help Hampton monitor how their soil is changing as they experiment with new farm management approaches to improve soil health. For example, with a new approach to grazing the fields over winter, such as mob grazing, Hampton will hope to see an improvement in earthworms, sward density and soil structure. All of these are what we call ‘soil health indicators’ and are easily monitored using soil tests with Soilmentor. All the information Hampton collects using the Soilmentor app is visually displayed on their online account making it easy to look back at their soil health records and analyse how things have changed over time.

What are Will’s management objectives:

  • Improve soil health across the estate
  • Increase grass and broadleaf species
  • Understand best grazing technique to optimise grass growth

What is Will monitoring:

  • Earthworms
  • Infiltration
  • Slake (Wet aggregate stability)
  • VESS (1-5)
  • % of undesirables % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each

 

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

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter

Are you a Pasture Fed Livestock Association member? Get a discount on Soilmentor, contact us or the PFLA for more info.

Soil Test Challenge

Soil Test Challenge 559 397 Soilmentor

Try something new this year, start monitoring your soil health. Do you accept the Soil Test Challenge?

We challenge you to do 3 easy soil tests on your fields. It takes one day in total and will give you valuable insight into how healthy your soil is and how well it will support healthy plants and livestock.

Knowing your soil is the key to successful farming, so take the time to do these simple tests and improve your understanding of your soil health. It will help you to develop the right approach to manage it.

Soilmentor makes physical soil analysis easy and informative. It works with a handy smartphone app to record soil test results & photos in the field and an online account to review & analyse a range of soil health indicators.

 


How to participate in the Soil Test Challenge:

Before you start:

  1. Pick 3 fields to test, repeat the tests 3 times in different locations on each field.
  2. On the day you do your tests, take a note of the weather over the last 24 hours because the temperature and amount of rainfall will affect the outcome of the tests.
  3. Take photos of each place that you test and record the results of each test (do this easily with Soilmentor). This helps you to monitor change over time and is important if you want to get advice further down the line.

 

TEST 1 – Earthworm Count

Earthworms are a key indicator that your soil is alive and has good soil organic matter content. They move nutrients around the soil profile, playing a vital role in feeding your plants, and open up the soil structure allowing water and air into the soil. Their sticky mucus also helps to build good soil structure.

Equipment: spade and tray or plastic bag

Method: Dig a 20 x 20 x 20 cm hole with your spade. Place the dug up soil on the tray/ plastic bag. Using the app, take a photo of the soil profile then gently break it apart with your hands. Count the number of worms and record it using the Soilmentor app. Take a photo in the app too!

In the UK, an average of 15-20 worms in a 20 x 20 x 20 cm soil pit is considered good, but it will also depend on the time of year and your soil type, and any recent field management. Using Soilmentor makes it easy to look back and compare when you do the count again next year.

 

TEST 2 – Slake Test

How well your soil structure holds together in water shows you how it withstands heavy rainfall, and what its capacity for storing water and nutrients is like. Good soil structure is an indicator that you have adequate soil organic matter that supports the life in your soil.

Equipment: spade, sieve with small mesh (>2mm), bowl of cold water, stop watch, plastic bags x9 (can be old shopping bags), pen and paper for labelling soil samples

Method: Take some of the soil from the sample dug up for the earthworm count or dig up a new sample. Select 3 pieces (aggregates) which are roughly 1 cm in diameter. Put them in a plastic bag, write the name of the field on the paper, tear it off and put it in the bag. Take care not to squash the soil. Repeat this process for all the soil samples you take. Take all bags of soil home and take the soil out and allow it to air dry overnight in a warm place being careful not to mix up the different samples. The next day, for each sample, arrange the soil aggregates in the sieve and fully immerse in water up the lip of the sieve. Observe the aggregates under water for 1 minute and lift them out then score them using the scale on this webpage. If they score 0-2 the test is over and you can record the score in the Soilmentor app. If they score higher than 2, move onto the second part of the test: gently raise the sieve up and down five times, so that the surface of the water just touches the top of the aggregate. Score using the scale and record in the Soilmentor app. We only give a soil a score of 8 if the water is crystal clear (i.e. the aggregate has not broken down at all) after the test. Take photos of each slake test using the Soilmentor app.

Well-structured soil is composed of rounded aggregates which will not break down easily in water. This means soil will retain its structure after heavy rainfall, and allow water and nutrients to move between the aggregates into deeper layers of the soil for your crops to use later.

Aggregates that often have sharp edges and that break down easily in water may suggest that they are only held together because of compaction. As soon as there is a heavy rainfall the soil structure falls apart and blocks the soil surface increasing the likelihood of surface run-off and erosion.

 

TEST 3 – Infiltration rate

Infiltration rates clearly show how ready your soil is to soak up water. If the soil structure is open with plenty of air spaces the water will easily move down into the soil profile until the air spaces are full with water. Nutrients also move with water into the soil profile.

Equipment: 150 mm x 150 mm metal/plastic tubes with 85 mm depth marked (find out how to make this), water bottle with 450 ml marked on it, water (4L or so per field), stopwatch (on phone), mallet (for driving tube into soil) & wood block (to protect the top of the pipe from damage when hammering in)

Method: Clear plant growth from the soil surface by trimming back. If sward is very thick try cutting through with a knife to help get the tube through. Insert tube into the ground to a depth of 85 mm. Use the app to take a photo of the location showing the tube and groundcover. Fill your pre-marked water bottle with exactly 450 ml of water. Pour water steadily into the top of the pipe and start stopwatch. Stop timing when all the water has disappeared but the ground is still glistening and record the time in the app. Measure out another 450 ml of water in the bottle and repeat the remaining steps, recording the time in the Soilmentor app.

Infiltration rates for each field help you to understand how easily water and nutrients can move into your soil. Very slow rates may indicate waterlogging, soil sealing and compaction, whilst very rapid rates may reveal an increased risk of nutrient leaching.

Recording soil test results

Make soil monitoring easy by using Soilmentor; record soil test results at the touch of a button and upload the data in seconds for analysis on your online account via an internet browser on your phone, tablet or laptop.

We want to see your soil test photos from the #SoilTestChallenge! Either tweet them to us mentioning #SoilTestChallenge @soilmentor, or send us an email to info@vidacycle.com.

 


 

To get the most out of soil monitoring repeat soil tests twice a year and more, around April and October when the weather should be warm and the soil is moist. Different farm management practises will influence the results of these tests, so if you’re trying anything from conventional arable to cover crops to mob grazing, it is essential to monitor your soil.