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Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms

Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms 1144 1322 Soilmentor

Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms

Since 2001, FAI have farmed 1650 acres of Oxford University owned land in Oxfordshire, running a ewe flock, a suckler herd, egg laying hens and forage making land as well as hosting trial facilities for on-farm research. Clare Hill is the farm manager at FAI.

After noticing cracked ground in spring on fields that had suffered flooding in winter, Clare began focusing her attention on building more resilience in their soils, and decided to transition to a regenerative system.

Clare and the team at FAI have been using Soilmentor to collect a baseline of soil health measurements and biodiversity observations, so that they can monitor their progress over time, and see the benefits of their regenerative management decisions in real time.

FAI are collecting a lot of data in Soilmentor, and are able to send their soil health data to their clients, to demonstrate the benefits of their regenerative system. They have found Soilmentor is much easier than using spreadsheets as they did before.

Soilmentor is helping us to really see what’s going on with our soils, and it’s been amazing to have that instant feedback – no labs – just getting back in touch with the land. It’s given us an insight we didn’t have before, and it’s so simple with all the information in one place.”

“The first year of data collection is all about understanding the data and the processes, then we will be able to train others to monitor the benefits of the regenerative transition, starting with soils. Since changing our grazing we are starting to see many more butterflies, bees and birds, and we’re excited to see how this builds over time with Soilmentor”

Caroline Grindrod of Wilderculture helped to advise the new grazing system at FAI, which now involves much longer rest periods, with larger herds of animals grazed rotationally, to allow the grasses to grow longer and create better root systems in the ground.

Clare’s noticed that the cattle are now browsing much more, and will eat everything in their pod – nettles, buttercups, and the herbal leys: “set stocked animals become lazy and don’t try eating anything other than grass”.

We’re excited to support FAI’s soil monitoring journey going forward, and to see how their new grazing system changes their soil health results over time.

Case study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm

Case study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm 545 565 Soilmentor

Case Study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm


Pipers Farm is a 50 acre permanent pasture family farm in Devon, with native-breed cattle and sheep herds. Peter and Henri Greig are the founders and farmers at Pipers Farm, and they also work to support an additional 25 family farms, to connect their customers with healthy produce that has been farmed with a focus on traditional, sustainable values.

Peter and Henri began mob-grazing three years ago to improve their soil health and increase the productivity of their grassland. When they first started mob grazing they noticed they were grazing the pasture too hard, so they’re now in the process of learning to optimise their grazing technique to leave more forage and allow a better root structure to develop.


Recording photos at specific sample sites on Soilmentor helps Peter and Henri to keep track of changes to their soil over time.

Soilmentor has given Peter and Henri a toolkit to stay in touch with their management journey, allowing them to monitor their soil health progress as they go:
 
“Soilmentor is an exciting revelation to us. It feels like we’ve opened a whole encyclopedia of wisdom, and we’re unravelling the ancient story of our land. Soilmentor has become our eyes and ears to monitor our regenerative farming journey, learning from nature as we go…
 
We got a good base line of soil health measurements last winter, and we’re excited to see how these might change after our efforts to increase resting periods in our grazing. The first holes we dug we realised our roots were very small, and we’re hoping to see our grass roots lengthen into the soil and improve our VESS scores”

The Greigs have been doing regular sward stick readings and recording their results in Soilmentor in order to optimise their mob grazing.
 
By tracking their forage with sward readings, they can monitor their DM/ha, and make sure they aren’t grazing their pasture too hard before moving their livestock on:


We can’t wait to see how the years ahead progress at Pipers Farm. Hopefully we’ll see the soils gain an improved structure and resilience as Peter and Henri perfect their grazing technique! 

The value of biodiversity in agriculture

The value of biodiversity in agriculture 1024 512 Soilmentor

Farmland across the world has potential to host a fantastically complex network of plants and animals, and this complexity provides many ecosystem services that we humans rely on: decomposing our waste, cleaning our water, and purifying our air – not small concerns! Invertebrates such as hoverflies, bees, moths and butterflies pollinate our crops, and others such as beetles, spiders, harvestmen, wasps and nematodes provide natural pest control.  

To put it in financial terms: insect pollination is estimated to be worth £400 million to the UK economy, and predatory insects providing natural pest control is estimated to be worth $13.6 billion to the US economy! Biodiversity is also linked to productivity: increased farmland biodiversity is linked to increased plant growth above and below ground, suggesting higher productivity. 

Despite all of these advantages, farmland biodiversity is suffering huge decline – new European data suggests 76% of species and 70% of habitats related to agriculture now have poor conservation status. 

 

How to build biodiversity on your farm

Generally speaking, the best way to farm in tune with biodiversity is to imagine a mosaic of habitats across your farm – the more you variation you can create, the more you are mimicking nature’s natural state. This might mean field margins, wildflower borders, hedgerows, cover crops, multi-species herbal leys, woodland and grassland! Field margins and hedges are more appealing to wildlife when left a bit messy – if you can bear it, let your grasses become tussocky over summer and try to avoid cutting back your hedges more than once every three years to allow wildlife to establish itself amongst the branches. Land managed with varied pockets like this means your farm can become a wildlife corridor; a network of linking habitats for animals to migrate across as they move across the country!

Watching wildlife in a biodiverse field border at Eastbrook Farm

 As an example – farmland is home to over three quarters of British butterfly species – and many of these species have suffered real decline in recent years. Butterflies and moths have a complex life cycle, involving different life stages: from egg, to caterpillar, to pupa, to adult. Each of these stages require slightly different environments, and different species of butterfly and moth have different preferences on where to lay their eggs or feed on pollen. It’s easy to imagine how a monoculture doesn’t appeal to butterflies – they just don’t have the environment they need to get through their different life stages in these systems. So, the best way to reverse this is to create (where you can) a mosaic-esque range of habitats for the species on your farm.

In terms of management, your use of pesticides, insecticides and soil cultivation will also affect your farm’s biodiversity. We know that the use of insecticides and pesticides reduce plant and invertebrate biodiversity, which then has a knock on effect to the birds and mammals that rely on these species. Where there is low invertebrate diversity, there is limited potential for a natural buffer of beneficial insects to control pests, increasing reliance on a chemical system, and so it goes on… Reducing (or eliminating) usage of these chemicals can feel like a bit of a leap of faith, but building a resilient, biodiverse system is likely to reward you in the long term. If you currently spray insecticides across your whole cropping area, you can start by limiting usage to targeted areas, or choose to stop spraying during spring and summer, when beneficial invertebrates are most likely to be affected.

Plenty of homes for wildlife at this agroforestry site at Eastbrook!


This quote from John Kempf’s blog on our human-centric view of what defines a pest perfectly explains our sentiment on this:

If we are to be stewards of these ecosystems, we must acknowledge that it is our management of the environment that determines whether these organisms express themselves as a benign participant or as a pest…

Neither the wolf nor the rabbit is a pest. They are symbionts in the environment and are dependent on the greater ecosystems they are a part of to sustain themselves…

If we desire them to not be present to the point of causing economic damage, we only need to manage the ecosystem differently.

It is possible to manage pest problems by healing the ecosystem to all it’s resilient glory – and all this depends on biodiversity. (Read the full John Kempf blog here.)

Minimising cultivation of your soil will protect species living below the ground, who are also incredibly important members of your farm’s food web (see our Earthworm Engineers series for more info on this!) The standing crop residue left in no-till systems is an important habitat for farmland mammals, birds and insects – keeping permanent cover in this way (and with over winter cover crops) greatly benefits your farm’s biodiversity, as well as your soil health.

How the soil web links together! (Source: USDA Conservation Service)

We hope that our using our new Soilmentor biodiversity tool can empower you to think about how best to boost your biodiversity! Getting into the swing of monitoring which species are present on your farm is an important step in realising what might be missing, and what you might need to improve. Read how to use the tool on the biodiversity protocol page and get started recording on your farm now! 

 

 

Information Sources

Introducing the biodiversity tool!

Introducing the biodiversity tool! 2560 1707 Soilmentor

With the launch of Soilmentor comes the biodiversity tool – helping you to farm in tune with nature!

We’re so excited to be launching the new biodiversity monitoring tool on Soilmentor, which will help you to record the range of different species present on your farm. Our vision of a resilient farm of the future is one with thriving biodiversity – so this tool is at the core of the Vidacycle values of promoting beauty, ecology, and profitability on farms! 

The tool is designed to let you record a wildlife sighting from a list of UK farmland species – you can choose from lists of birds, mammals, butterflies & moths and other invertebrates. Once you’ve spotted some wildlife, you can view your farm’s biodiversity from the comfort of your home or office. The tool will allow you to view sightings over time, differences between fields, and see which species you spot the most and least often.

You may notice the app doesn’t have a built in count setting – this is because the tool is focused on displaying the range of different species you can find, rather than the abundances of a few species. If you are interested in recording the numbers of certain species on your farm, soon you’ll be able create a bespoke list for this purpose with a Soilmentor+ subscription! Watch this space for updates on this feature…

 

The list of birds in the app includes all 19 birds on the RSPB Farmland Bird Indicator (FBI) – birds that are dependent on farmland and unable to thrive elsewhere, many of which have red list conservation status in the UK. If you spot red listed birds, we’ll let you know you when you log in to the web app to view your biodiversity trends!

When monitoring biodiversity on your farm, you begin to notice patterns of diversity on different fields, and learn how best to create an environment that attracts wildlife. Taking the time to stop and notice the wildlife can become a beneficial part of your farming routine, and we’ve found it really helps us to farm more in tune with nature, which is a key part of farming more regeneratively. We’d love to hear how you get on with your biodiversity recording – and what you’ve managed to spot on your farm! Keep us in the loop with a mention on Twitter or Instagram 🙂

How to store water in your soil and prevent erosion

How to store water in your soil and prevent erosion 4032 3024 Soilmentor

As the weather in the Northern Hemisphere gets rainier going into the Autumn months, the question of our soils’ relationship with water springs to mind. We know that healthy soils absorb much more water than unhealthy soils, and that healthy soil is less likely to degrade into runoff, but what’s the science behind this?

We’ve done some reading around the literature on this subject, to learn how to keep our soils in top shape with regenerative agriculture, and to build a greater resilience to climate extremes like flooding and droughts. 

First, leaving soils uncultivated has been shown to increase the structure of macroaggregates within the soil – many studies show an improved macroaggregate stability in soils under no-till compared with ploughed soil (1,2). This is because the net of undisturbed roots and mycorrhizal hyphae entangle smaller aggregates together, reducing the likelihood of soil runoff during heavy rain, and increasing porosity. You can easily assess the macroaggregate stability of your soil with the VESS test or the Slake test (and the results can then be recorded within our Soilmentor app!). Hopefully, having an awareness of how your soil scores on these tests will help you to understand how to improve your soil health! 

A long-term study found that conservation agriculture plots retained ⅓ more water under both wind and water erosion compared with conventionally tilled plots (3). Reducing wind and water runoff is significant – we know for example that the devastating US ‘Dust Bowl’ in the 1930s was caused by intensive cultivation, and hugely impacted food security at the time – it’s estimated that 300 million tonnes of topsoil was swept up by the wind, destroying crops and killing livestock (4). With extreme weather events increasing due to climate change, building soil resilience is of utmost importance.

In the same vein, agricultural runoff causes massive ecological damage, and is a major source of nonpoint source pollution in water systems – with runoff likely containing fertilisers, pesticides, nutrients and topsoil. A study comparing four streams with catchments from land under different management, found streams feeding from land under conservation agriculture had a higher diversity of invertebrates and more ‘clean water’ species than streams under tilled land, which was attributed to improved soil structure reducing agricultural runoff (5). The reduced topsoil runoff into nearby rivers and streams also reduces sedimentation, which increases the river’s capacity, as well as the clarity of the water – allowing sunlight to benefit the wildlife and photosynthesis in aquatic plants. Rivers with high sedimentation also absorb more heat from the sun, causing local warming which potentially causes further damage (6). 

Soil erosion in the UK is clearly visible from space. Credit: NEODAAS/University of Dundee

We loved seeing the rainfall simulator at Groundswell this year – it really helped us to visualise the ability of healthy soil to absorb rain! You can watch a video of a rainfall simulator in action here.

Rainfall simulator in action at the 2019 Groundswell show – the bottles on the ground show the water that filtered through the soil in each plot, while the hanging bottles show the ‘runoff’ water.

So, to wrap up, healthy soils absorb and hold more water than degraded soils, which helps to reduce flooding, aquatic pollution, and resistance to drought conditions and wind erosion! Keeping your soil optimally protected involves minimal disturbance, continuous cover with mulch and living roots, and root diversity (from crop diversity) allows for increased microbial populations which help to aggregate soil. All of these come under the soil health principles.

We developed Soilmentor as a simple solution to help farmers monitor their soil health progression – seeing your soil health improve over time helps you to understand which farming methods are working for you, and hopefully give you an incentive to stay on a regenerative journey!

Learn more about making your soil rain-ready here, and learn about monitoring the impacts of water run-off here

Paper references:

  1. Congreves, K.A., Hayes, A., Verhallen, E.A., Van Erd, L.L. 2015. Long-term impact of tillage and crop rotation on soil health at four temperate agroecosystems. Soil and Tillage Research. 152: 17–28.
  2.  Parihar, C.M. Yadav, M.R., Jat, S.L., Singh, A.K., Kumar, B., Pradhan, S., Chakraborty, D., Jat, M.L., Jat, R.K., Saharawat, Y.S., Yadav, O.P. 2016. Long term effect of conservation agriculture in maize rotations on total organic carbon, physical and biological properties of a sandy loam soil in north-western Indo-Gangetic Plains. Soil and Tillage Research. 161: 116–128 
  3. Van Pelt, R.S., Hushmurodov, S.X., Baumhardt, R.L., Chappell, A., Nearing, M.A., Polyakov, V.O., Strack, J. 2017. The reduction of partitioned wind and water erosion by conservation agriculture. CATENA. 148: 160–167
  4. Baveye, P.C., Rangel, D., Jacobsen, A. R., Laba, M., Darnault, C., Otten, W., Radulowich, R., Camargo, F.A.O. 2011. From dust bowl to dust bowl: soils still a frontier of science. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 75: 6
  5. Barton, D.R., Farmer, M.E.D. 1997. The effects of conservation tillage practices on benthic invertebrate communities in headwater streams in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Environmental Pollution. 96: 207-215
  6.  Lal, R., Reicosky, D.C. & Hanson, J.D. 2007. Evolution of the plow over 10,000 years and the rationale for no-till farming. Soil and Tillage Research. 93:1–12

Earthworm Engineers #4 – Manure & Earthworm Populations

Earthworm Engineers #4 – Manure & Earthworm Populations 1600 1067 Soilmentor

Welcome to the fourth and final post in our Earthworm Engineers series, where you can learn from some of the best science about the value of these amazing creatures. We’re so excited that Professor Jenni Dungait is now the editor of the European Journal of Soil Science – and she’s made some important earthworm papers open access for a month. We’ve picked our favourite four and summarised them in this blog series.

Access the earthworm archives in the European Journal of Soil Science, to learn more about the science behind on-farm worms!


#4: Quantifying dung carbon incorporation by earthworms in pasture soils

This study looks at the effect of different earthworm communities on the amount of soil carbon (within dung applications) shifted into the soil. They tracked this process by labelling the carbon with isotope tracing, which is a clever technique that gives a really specific picture of where exactly the carbon is moving to. The three main earthworm types were tested in different treatments: surface-dwelling worms (epigeic), deep-burrowing worms (anecic), and network-creating worms (endogeic).

First, the researchers found that with increasing inputs of dung, the abundance of earthworms tested also increased, presumably because the worms had a more consistent food source in these pots and could flourish!

Most of the tracked carbon was found in the soils top layer (0-75mm), although when the earthworm population included deep burrowing (anecic) earthworms, carbon from dung was often found at depths of up to 300mm, which shows just how effective these worms are at burrowing materials from the soil surface into its lower levels. The most successful treatments (with the greatest flow of dung shifted into soil organic carbon (SOC)) were those with all three types of earthworms present (epigeic, anecic and endogeic). So, a diverse population of worms is necessary for optimal dung break down into soils!

In pasture soils, dung left by livestock can therefore contribute to increased earthworm populations, as well as increasing soil organic carbon. This is important for the soils nutrient supply, and also helps to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which has potential to reduce the effects of climate change. In conventionally grazed systems, the quantity of dung deposited per hectare are less than the amounts used in this study, but it’s interesting to think about how this research adds to the evidence supporting mob-grazing systems, where livestock graze fields more intensively, and more manure is deposited per hectare as the stock moves through!


Earthworms are one of the best indicators of soil health – find out how to monitor earthworms on your farm.

Earthworm Engineers #3 – Organic vs Conventional Systems

Earthworm Engineers #3 – Organic vs Conventional Systems 5184 3456 Soilmentor

Welcome to the third instalment in our Earthworm Engineers series where you can learn from some of the best science about the value of these amazing creatures. We’re so excited that Professor Jenni Dungait is now the editor of the European Journal of Soil Science – and she’s made some important earthworm papers open access for a month. We’ve picked our favourite four and summarised them in this blog series.

Access the earthworm archives in the European Journal of Soil Science, to learn more about the science behind on-farm worms!


#3: The impact of soil carbon management on soil macropore structure: a comparison of two apple orchard systems in New Zealand

This study compares two sites of the same soil type under apple orchards on one farm. One site had been under organic treatment, with regular compost application and grass cover, while the other was under ‘conventional’ treatment, with regular irrigation, fertilisation and herbicide applications.

When testing for earthworm populations, the researchers consistently found more earthworms in the organic soil compared with the conventional soil. They also reconstructed the 3D ‘macroporosity’ structure of both soils using X-rays, and again found greater macroporosity within the organic soil compared to the conventional soil. This isn’t a coincidence! Macroporosity is defined as the network of pores with a diameter of over 0.3 mm in the soil, and earthworms are known to create these kinds of channels.

This increased macroporosity is important for several reasons. First, it is known to increase the rate that CO2 in the atmosphere is locked up as soil organic carbon (SOC), which both increases soil fertility and also has potential to reduce the rate of climate change. As expected, this study then found that the organic orchard had a 32% greater SOC content than the conventional soils! Increased macroporosity also improves the soil structure, as the stability of soil aggregates is increased, which allows more microbes to live in the soil.  

Denitrification rates are known to increase in anoxic, water-logged soils, which leads to increased emissions of N20, a gas that contributes to climate change. As a result, increased macroporosity reduces denitrification in the soil, by allowing oxygen to penetrate into the topsoil, and reducing the chances of water logging.

It’s amazing to see evidence of how organic techniques allow our earthworm friends to flourish, and how positive their presence is in orchard soils!

Read the fourth and final instalment of our Earthworm Engineers series here!


Earthworms are one of the best indicators of soil health – find out how to monitor earthworms on your farm.

Earthworm Engineers #2 – Arable Farming & Earthworm Populations

Earthworm Engineers #2 – Arable Farming & Earthworm Populations 5184 3456 Soilmentor

Welcome to the second in our Earthworm Engineers series where you can learn from some of the best science about the value of these amazing creatures. We’re so excited that Professor Jenni Dungait is now the editor of the European Journal of Soil Science – and she’s made some important earthworm papers open access for a short time. We’ve picked our favourite four and summarised them in this blog series.

Access the earthworm archives in the European Journal of Soil Science, to learn more about the science behind on-farm worms!


#2: Effects of different methods of cultivation and direct drilling, and disposal of straw residues, on populations of earthworms

This paper was written in 1979, and uses some pretty intense soil sampling methods (dousing the sample sites with formaldehyde to isolate worms) – we think they probably could have done with Soilmentor to count earthworm populations at each site!

The paper makes some interesting conclusions about the effects of cultivation on earthworms in topsoil. They tested the number of earthworms over four years on direct-drilled fields that were sprayed with herbicide before planting, and ploughed fields (of varying soil types). They found earthworm populations were consistently greater in the direct-drilled soils compared with ploughed soils, although deep-burrowing species were affected similarly in both treatments.

They also test the effect of spreading mulch on the fields compared to burning straw residue, and find (unsurprisingly) that earthworm populations were greater in fields where straw residue was spread rather than burned, particularly in surface feeding species. This surface debris becomes an important food source for the worms, and makes their diet more stable.

The paper also suggests that the extra earthworm channels created under no-till soils may help to reduce any compaction in the soil, as well as distributing organic matter and increasing drainage. The presence of worm channels may also allow plant roots to penetrate more deeply, which can also reduce compaction.

It’s nice to know that regenerative farming approaches have such a positive influence on the earthworm community. We’re really excited to speak at Groundswell this year on how to become a soil expert on your farm, and to learn more about the benefits of no-till systems.

Ready for to learn even more about the wonder of worms? Read part 3 of Earthworm Engineers here.


Earthworms are one of the best indicators of soil health – find out how to monitor earthworms on your farm.

Earthworm Engineers #1 – Ecosystem Services

Earthworm Engineers #1 – Ecosystem Services 5184 3456 Soilmentor

Welcome to the first post in our Earthworm Engineers series where you can learn from some of the best science about the value of these amazing creatures. We’re so excited that Professor Jenni Dungait is now the editor of the European Journal of Soil Science – and she’s made some important earthworm papers open access for a month. We’ve picked our favourite four and summarised them in this blog series.

Access the earthworm archives in the European Journal of Soil Science, to learn more about the science behind on-farm worms!


#1: A review of earthworm impact on soil function and ecosystem services 

This paper reminds us of the many reasons why earthworms are farmers’ best friends. We can separate earthworm species into three categories: surface-dwelling worms (epigeic), deep-burrowing worms (anecic), and network-creating worms (endogeic). All three of these worm types play an important role. In their soils, earthworms are considered ‘ecosystem engineers’, and they earn this title for several reasons…

First, earthworms actually create soil! Worms feed on leaf litter on the soil surface then bury the organic matter into the soil, allowing it to be mixed and decomposed, and eventually incorporated as soil organic carbon within soil aggregates. This same process also allows for nutrient cycling in the soil, which is helped by the soils’ increased surface area due to the networks of earthworm channels. In eating soil and moving it around, worms have even been shown to heal soils that are polluted, by breaking down the contamination.

The presence of earthworms improves the soil structure, as the pore network created allows for a higher ‘bulk density’ of stable aggregates. This pore network can also improve plant root penetration, and the water infiltration ability of the soil, by creating space for the water. The increased drainage and the creation of water-stable soil aggregates can also reduce runoff on farms, as well as soil erosion by up to 50%.

Photo from Jackie Stroud’s Earthworm Quiz on wormscience.org

As earthworms burrow into the soil and bury organic carbon, they also help the process of carbon sequestration – the locking up of of CO2 from the air into the soil. But this soil carbon can be re-released again as greenhouse gases, especially when the soil is disturbed during ploughing. The process of building up carbon in the soil is complex, and varies depending on how much organic matter is available to the worms on the soil surface.

Considering all of these earthworm endeavours going on beneath our feet, it’s unsurprising that this paper finishes by reporting that the presence of earthworms has been widely shown to improve the growth of plants above ground – they really are the engineers of their ecosystem! 

If you’re not all wormed out – read part 2 of our Earthworm Engineers series here.


Earthworms are one of the best indicators of soil health – find out how to monitor earthworms on your farm.