Why some of our protocols are changing

Why some of our protocols are changing 792 498 Soilmentor

Why we’re changing some of our protocols

We’re making some small changes to some of our scoring and protocols alongside the launch of the Regen Platform. Each of these changes have been made alongside Nicole Masters and the team at Integrity Soils, to ensure collecting soil health data on your farm feels clear and repeatable over time. We’ve detailed each of these changes below for your reference.

The Slake Test

Previously, our slake test protocol had a scoring of 8 options, with a method involving moving a sieve to disturb soil and evaluate its resilience across several steps.

We’ve decided to simplify this scoring, so you now rate your soil lumps as one of five options, after five minutes submerged underwater. We think this method will make your results easier to repeat over time, and will make the test easier to carry out. See the new scoring explained further here.

If you have recorded your soil previously from 1-8 in the slake test, your historical results will be moved into the new 5 option scoring, and your old 1-8 score will be kept as a note in Soilmentor, so you can still refer back to it. You’ll be able to see how your soil results score on the Regen Platform right away in the new scoring.

Basal Ground Cover Transect (% Bare Earth)

We’re changing the way we think about ground cover, from previous ‘% Bare Earth’ monitoring using a quadrat to estimate the proportion of foliar cover, to basal cover, which examines the total area of the earth covered by plants extending into the soil, rather than only covered by leaves or foliage (see image below).

Our new ‘Basal ground cover transect’ metric in Soilmentor will feed into the Regen Platform as one of our Regen Indicators. This new ground cover testing protocol involves moving away from a sample site in a transect line, sticking a fence post or stick into the ground as you go, and recording what the base of your post touches as it goes into the soil (read more on this method here). Basal cover is a more reliable measure year to year, and is a better indication of your soil’s resilience to erosion than foliar cover.

If you’ve already recorded ‘% Bare Earth’ in Soilmentor with a quadrat, we’ll display your previous percentage cover scores in the Regen Platform for your reference in the meantime, and we encourage you to update them with a basal ground cover transect when you get the time!

Image from University of Idaho page explaining different types of cover – read more here.

Infiltration Rate

We’ve pulled out the infiltration rate test into two different tests to record in the Soilmentor app, called ‘Infiltration rate – 1st inch‘, and ‘Infiltration rate – 2nd inch‘.

This is a small change we’ve made to ensure that the Regen Platform can benchmark your results accurately. The ‘2nd inch’ infiltration rate is one of our Regen Indicators, as research shows that a second infiltration rate done immediately after the first is a much more accurate representation of your soil’s infiltration. The Regen Platform will only display a result from this second infiltration rate activity recorded in the app.

If you don’t intend on using the Regen Platform, you can continue doing your infiltration rates normally – your historical data will all be saved in the ‘1st inch’ test.

The Brix Barometer

We’ve split out brix testing in Soilmentor into ‘Brix of grass or crops’ and ‘Brix of weeds’, to allow for the calculation of one of our new Regen Indicators – the ‘Brix Barometer’. This new combined metric looks at the difference between brix readings of a weed or undesirable plant, and brix readings of your grass in a pasture, or your crop. 

Brix measures the light refracting through dissolved sugars with a refractometer, showing the nutrient density levels of a plant, based on the presence of a diversity of simple and complex sugars. If the brix of the weeds on your farm is higher than the brix of your grasses or crops, this indicates that your soil is a better environment for weeds than for crops – probably due to compaction or a microbial imbalance. If the brix of your crops is higher than the brix of weeds, you likely don’t need to take any action to manage ‘weed’ species. 

Nodulation of Legumes

We’ve split out the scoring of the ‘Nodulation of legumes’ test into more categories. Our new scoring allows for more precise results, and will feed into the Regen Platform as one of our Regen Indicators. Historic data will be moved into the new scoring in Soilmentor. 

Read our new scoring for legume nodulation here

Rooting depth (80%)

We’ve added a new rooting depth test, ‘Rooting depth (80%)’, which measures the depth at which the majority (approximately 80%) of plant roots are penetrating, and is one of our Regen Indicators. 

This new test takes into account that there may be a few ‘outlier’ roots which have managed to grow deeper, but do not necessarily indicate the soil’s condition for root growth. Conditions which limit root growth include compaction, changes in salinity / pH, low oxygen levels, or nutrient deficiencies.

Historical rooting depths will remain in the ‘Rooting depth (Total)’ test in Soilmentor, so if you want to analyse your rooting depths on the Regen Platform, you’ll need to go out and record some new 80% rooting depths, by following these instructions

The Regen Platform will be launching in January 2022. For the full list of Regen Indicators, head to our soil test page here. If you’re already a Soilmentor customer, you will be able to upgrade your subscription to access the Regen Platform once we launch.  Stay tuned for more info!

Soilmentor support for DEFRA Soil Management Plan

Soilmentor support for DEFRA Soil Management Plan 1080 1080 Soilmentor

Soilmentor support for DEFRA
Soil Management Plan

Farming in the UK and planning to create a DEFRA soil management plan in future?

Soilmentor can support you to monitor your soil health and structure, detail how an area is managed, and report problem areas.

In order to align with the UK government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme (currently in its pilot phase), DEFRA requires that participating farmers and landowners submit a runoff and soil erosion risk assessment, to be updated every 2 years. This assessment can then be used in your government soil management plan. 

Among other details, the assessment requires in-field monitoring of:

  • Soil structure
  • Earthworm numbers
  • Soil compaction
  • Steepness and length of slopes
  • Visible signs and risk of runoff and erosion

The assessment also requires recording of problem areas where there is existing runoff or erosion, soil compaction, poor crop growth, capping, or low earthworm activity. 

If you are currently part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot scheme, please get in touch with us to learn more about how Soilmentor can support your audit!

In January 2022, we are launching the Regen Platform – a significant update to Soilmentor. The Regen Platform will have 10 key ‘Regen Indicators’ to monitor, with access to benchmarking and comparison to other farms. These Regen Indicators will allow you to accurately gauge the health of your soils, and their resilience against runoff and erosion. We’ll also be adding more soil tests to our standard list of tests for monitoring. 

If you have any questions about Soilmentor, or any ideas about reports we could develop to support you in future – please also get in touch! We’re always interested to hear from you.

We’re already in the process of developing a clearer framework on how Soilmentor can support UK farmers to conduct their soil risk assessment – and we’re always interested to hear from you. 

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Nutrient Analyses

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Nutrient Analyses 784 1090 Soilmentor

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Soil Nutrient Analyses

This is the second post in the Soilmentor Soil Lab Test Blog Series exploring soil lab analyses, what we can learn from them, and where to get them done. In this blog we look at soil nutrient analyses, and we’ll be exploring leaf and tissue analysis, and SOM / SOC tests in future posts. We explored soil biodiversity tests in the first post in this series, you can read it here.

We’re often asked for lab test recommendations, and although we don’t offer them directly with Soilmentor, we want to support you in choosing which tests you can learn from, and to keep building your soil health.

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily see these tests as essential for understanding your soil health – every system is different and many people get great results by simply observing their soil with in-field tests. It’s important to consider soil sample testing as a snapshot of your soils at one moment in time. Soils are dynamic, so we keep testing and monitoring over time to understand the full soil health picture.

There are many parameters to consider when looking at soil nutrients, and there will always be variability in what comes up in different areas of the farm. Nutrients need to be in an available form to be taken up by plant roots, and this can be hard to accurately measure. In some cases, soil nutrient tests have shown severe deficiencies, while plants growing from the same soil show optimum nutrient levels! Nutrient interactions in the soil are complex, so it’s important to look at your soil more holistically, and look for signals of soil biology and good structure, too. We find simple tests like VESS and the slake test are just as important when indicating your overall soil health, and should always be done alongside lab tests.

If you want to add your lab tests to be viewed alongside other tests in Soilmentor, this is possible for key results in the Soilmentor lab tests category. We also work with some fantastic soil advisors who help you to understand your soils and soil test results. If you’d like us to put you in touch with an advisor, let us know.

Soil Nutrient Analyses

Soil nutrient analyses quantify the nutrients in your soil, suggesting which minerals and nutrients your soil may be deficient in, to inform future inputs and management. This information can help locate problem areas on your farm, and allow for more efficient fertiliser or mineral application, or cover crop plantation.

Most soil nutrient analyses will also include a pH test of your soil, as this is likely to affect the solubility of minerals and nutrients, and the activity of microorganisms. Generally speaking, a pH of 6-7 is thought to promote ready availability of plant nutrients. CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) tests are also normally included in nutrient testing. CEC tests tell you the negative charge of your soil, which is another measure of the extent to which soil particles can attract and hold onto dissolved nutrients. Simply put, soils with a higher CEC are able to hold onto more nutrients needed for growing, although this varies depending on which nutrients you’re hoping to retain, and what proportion of nutrients your soil has in the first place!

Where to get your soil nutrient analysis measured

  • Albion Laboratory provide comprehensive soil mineral, pH and CEC analysis with a range of package options – see more here.
  • Lancrop offer a wide range of soil analysis options for pH and available nutrients.

We have never personally sent soil samples to any of these companies, so we are really keen to hear people’s feedback! This list is also by no means exhaustive – if you have any good suggestions for us to add or any other feedback, please let us know at info@vidacycle.com.

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Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing

Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing 1654 984 Soilmentor

Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing

This is the first post in the Soilmentor Soil Lab Test Blog Series exploring soil lab analyses, what we can learn from them, and where to get them done. In this blog we look at soil biodiversity tests, and we’ll be exploring nutrient analysis, leaf and tissue analysis, and SOM / SOC tests in future posts.

We’re often asked for lab test recommendations, and although we don’t offer them directly with Soilmentor, we want to support you in choosing which tests you can learn from, and to keep building your soil health.

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily see these tests as essential for understanding your soil health – every system is different and many people get great results by simply observing their soil with in-field tests. It’s important to consider soil sample testing as a snapshot of your soils at one moment in time. Soils are dynamic, so we keep testing and monitoring over time to understand the full soil health picture.

If you want to add your lab tests to be viewed alongside other tests in Soilmentor, this is possible for key results in the Soilmentor lab tests category. We work with some fantastic soil advisors who help you to understand your soils and soil test results. If you’d like us to put you in touch with an advisor, let us know.

Soil Biodiversity Testing

Soil biodiversity tests quantify your “underground herd” (as Nicole Masters puts it in her book, ‘For the Love of Soil). Understanding the proportions of different microbes living in your soil ecosystem helps to inform what kind of management techniques would support a balanced soil food web – and balance is key, as soils that are dominated by one type of microbe can lead to problems.

For example, a disrupted ratio of fungi:bacteria in your soil can be an early warning of soil health issues. Fungi and bacteria occupy different habitats within the soil, and have different roles and diets. Productive and healthy agricultural soils tend to have a fungi:bacteria ratio close to 1:1, so learning where your soil sits on this ratio can help you to manage your soils to encourage more bacteria or fungi as necessary. The proportions of bacteria and fungi also have a knock-on effect to other soil microbe communities, such as protists, viruses and nematodes. Following the Soil Health Principles is the best way to keep these soil communities in harmonious balance, and observation and testing is the best way to understand where action may need to be taken.

mycorrhizae roots

Fungal mycorrhizal associations with roots. Image source here.

Where to get your soil biodiversity measured

  • MicroBIOMETER is a global company that offers microbial biomass tests that can be done with a starter kit in the field – no need to send your samples off for soil analysis. Their ‘lab grade’ tests also indicate the fungi:bacteria ratio in your soils, and results can be returned in as little as 20 minutes, removing the risk of your sample degrading on its way to the lab. In the UK, you can order a microbiometer testing kit by contacting Jack Ingle here. If you’re not in the UK, get in contact with the MicroBIOMETER team on their website to find out how best to get a kit!
  • Lancrop offer microbial mass tests for identifying fungal:bacterial ratios of your soil in the UK. You can enquire about Lancrop’s services on their website here.
  • Yara offer soil biology ratio tests as part of their UK soil health testing package – you can enquire for more information on their website here.

We have never personally sent soil samples to any of these companies, so we are really keen to hear people’s feedback! This list is also by no means exhaustive – if you have any good suggestions for us to add or any other feedback, please let us know at info@vidacycle.com

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Soilmentor X The Regenerative Platform

Soilmentor X The Regenerative Platform 2330 1260 Soilmentor

Soilmentor & The Regen Platform

We’ve made a video to share a quick look at what Soilmentor currently offers, and a sneak peak of what the Regen Platform will look like as it’s implemented over the next few months. Watch below to find out more!

Explore our website to find out more about Soilmentor, and head to the Integrity Soils website to learn more about their offerings.

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform 1000 668 Soilmentor

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform

We’re thrilled to announce our collaboration with world-renowned soil health specialist and author, Nicole Masters and the team at Integrity Soils. We have read Nicole’s book ‘For the Love of Soil’ and we are in the process of completing her online course – both highly recommended. Nicole shares many of her key insights around moving your mindset, microbes and SOM into a place of resilience and shares the best ways (both observational and lab-based tests) to understand how farm health is changing. Working together feels like a perfect fit to share the power of observational monitoring as farmers move to a regenerative approach – helping to build ecology, profitability and beauty on farms around the world.

Integrity Soils use Soilmentor with their clients across the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, allowing land managers to compare year-on-year how earthworm counts, slake tests, ‘weed’* pressure and much more is changing in each field. It is their key tool for monitoring farm health and providing their regenerative consultancy work on farms. Together we will take Soilmentor to the next level, making it an essential tool for organisations, consultants and farms to practically and simply “measure their soils like a pro!”.

We have joined forces to share our experience of working with farmers, ranchers and scientists, bringing together our knowledge of monitoring, management and observation. Together we are developing the Soilmentor Regenerative Platform, a new and effective method to monitor land health from a regenerative perspective. It is a bespoke dashboard designed to visualise key soil health metrics and biodiversity indicators, and encourage farmers to ask questions about how to manage their land more regeneratively; How biologically active are my soils? How healthy is a crop? Is my farm supporting wildlife? How do I compare with my neighbours?

The platform brings new functionality to our current Soilmentor offering, which already empowers farmers and advisors to easily record results of observational tests in the field. Farmers can compare year on year how earthworm counts, slake tests, pest pressure and much more is changing in each field.

With the Soilmentor Regenerative Platform, organisations will be able to create combined data sets, learning from each other using the metrics they monitor, and creating a picture of landscape level change in these metrics. The Platform will enable farmers to compare their results against scientific benchmarks and other farms in their group. Biological, chemical and physical metrics sit side by side, each playing their part in this more holistic understanding of the farm. Each metric will have a ‘traffic light’ and action, to give a sense of how the farm is performing against benchmarks and encourage farmers to ask questions and take the next steps in their transition to regenerative farming.

The prototype of this new technology was initially developed by Vidacycle working with Elizabeth Stockdale at NIAB, and the Great Soils project in the UK, thanks to SARIC funding. It was a great success, wow-ing farmers, consultants and scientists with its easy interface and clear pathway for understanding soil health monitoring. Collaborating with Integrity Soils builds on the prototype and takes it in a groundbreaking direction by focusing on the mindset and thinking required to farm regeneratively.

The features of the Regenerative Platform will be available over the course of this year to all organisational Soilmentor customers – many of the tools are suited to enabling farmers to learn together and so we are making it available to organisations first. If you are already a Soilmentor, Soilmentor+ or Soilmentor for Groups customer then you will see relevant aspects of the Regenerative Platform becoming available to you over the course of this year. By working together with Integrity Soils every single one of our customers will benefit as their knowledge helps inform how our Soilmentor offering develops.

This is a very exciting step forward and we’d love to hear what you think – get in touch at info@vidacycle.com

*An important distinction in the shift to a regenerative mindset is rethinking what we mean by a weed, and what plants might be telling us when they grow in undesirable places.

Soil learnings from ORFC Global

Soil learnings from ORFC Global 960 1280 Soilmentor

Soil Health Learnings from ORFC Global

Our team had a great time attending ORFC Global last month – it was a real honour to be involved in a truly global event on such a scale, and the diversity of insight and knowledge was so inspiring. We expect it will take quite some time (and several re-watches) to digest all that went on.

We wanted to pull together some of our favourite soil-related moments and learnings from the conference. This is by no means an exhaustive list – the quantity of inspiring sessions from the conference could never be condensed into one blog!


‘Life in the soil under pasture’ – Fidelity Weston, Andrew Neal, Felicity Crotty

This session is full of interesting soil science. Fidelity Weston kicked things off sharing her experience of recently discovering the importance of soil biology on her farm, with the learning that over 95% of life on her livestock farm exists under the soil! We’re really proud to be supporting Fidelity’s soil monitoring with Soilmentor at her farm.

Professor Andrew Neal is a microbiologist at Rothamsted Research, and shared his fascinating soil research. We loved Andrew’s explanation of soil as an “extended composite phenotype of the microbial metagenome” – the concept that soil is nothing without the expression of the collective microbial genome that exists within it is a great expression of why soil health matters. It was so encouraging to witness such elaborate discussion of the importance of soil biology – Andrew talked at fascinating length about the importance of understanding soil as a process with biology at the heart of it. He also shared an amazing video of how a soil aggregate would look if you were a microbe – worth a watch!

We also learnt from Dr. Felicity Crotty, soil science and ecology lecturer at the RAU, about the function of larger soil organisms – the meso & macro fauna. Felicity discussed the stability of soil carbon, sharing that half of UK soil carbon is in the top 30cm of the soil. Felicity reiterated that working with the biology in soil is the best way to keep this carbon locked up. It was great to hear soil health reframed by Felicity as soil life in this way, and to learn more about larger soil organisms, such as mites, springtails and earthworms, that we know play a hugely important role in the soil food web.


‘Species-rich Grassland Restoration’ –  Honor May Eldridge, Precious Phiri, Emma Rothoro, Diana Donlon

This panel discussion chaired by Honor May Eldridge from Plantlife brought together insights from a range of different grasslands around the world. All of the panellists spoke to the importance of grassland habitats for plant and animal diversity, and how human interaction is an important part of stewarding these landscapes for the benefit of the ecosystems they support.

Precious Phiri, of Regeneration International, is a holistic management educator and specialist in regenerative agriculture in Zimbabwe. She shared her learnings from managing and regenerating African arid rangeland, showing some amazing before & after photos of the restoration of desertified land using rotational holistic grazing. Precious also spoke to the positive impacts that grassland regeneration has had on surrounding pastoral communities.

Diana Donlon is co-founder of Soil-Centric, a Californian non-profit created to increase engagement in regenerative agriculture. She explained the impact that recent wildfires have had on the public feeling around a need for regeneration, and how grasslands are a more reliable store of carbon than forest in areas that are prone to fire.

Emma Rothoro is outreach coordinator for the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. Emma discussed the importance of restoring and maintaining ancient floodplain meadow habitats, which make up around 7% of European land (although many are degraded). Emma explained how haycutting is an important part of floodplain meadow management, and how cutting does not interfere with the abundance of diverse perennial herbs, which efficiently share space above and below ground. We learnt that floodplain meadow plants have roots that grow up to several metres deep, which allows for even carbon distribution in these habitats.


The Healing Role of Farming in Rebuilding Rural Lives After Conflict – Mambud Samai, John Meadley

This session, led by John Meadley of the PFLA, told the inspiring stories of farming ventures in Liberia and Sierra Leone. These projects show the power of farming in addressing trauma after conflict, to build hope and dignity in communities that have been affected by war. John spoke about his work to save seeds from deforested areas, facilitating tree nurseries and providing saplings to thousands of farmers in war torn areas.

Mambud Samai is the founder of a 10 acre amputee football permaculture garden (SLASA) that is regenerating soil, producing nutritious food, and creating employment in rural Sierra Leone. We are honoured to be supporting this SLASA project with Soilmentor as they build their soil health with crop rotation and compost application. It was inspiring hearing about Mambud’s seed saving projects, and to see photos of the SLASA garden’s education and outreach, spreading knowledge and learnings to surrounding farmers and families.


Entangled Lives: Fungal Networks, Ecology, and Us – Merlin Sheldrake, Charles Foster

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and author of ‘Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.’ This session was a deep dive into the hugely diverse and ubiquitous kingdom of fungi: from their evolution, to how they influence the world we live in. This talk again reinforced the importance of soil biology in building resilience in an ecosystem – Merlin referred to fungi as the immune system of the plants they support, building disease resistance, and ensuring roots are nourished.

One theme that seemed to regularly emerge during ORFC Global was the importance of indigenous wisdom in farming. This was a real reminder of the role of humans in regeneration, and the importance of considering farmers a member of the ecosystem they are farming, rather than seeing ourselves as outsiders. In Rebecca Hosking’s talk, ‘Sharing the Land with All Life’, she shared that land managed by indigenous communities has been found to be consistently more biodiverse than land set aside as ‘nature reserves’ away from human stewardship.

It’s interesting to consider that the culturally ingrained sense that humans are ‘other’ from their environment may legitimise extractive land management, and that a greater sense of connectedness to fellow animals and the environment is perhaps needed to heal our relationship with land, and bring about regeneration. The interconnectedness of soil life also came up in several sessions during ORFC Global. We are excited to keep learning from the beautiful complexity of life in the soil, and continue to support farmers to steward the soil, nourish plants and animals, and build resilience on the land with Soilmentor.

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Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm

Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm 1600 1200 Soilmentor

Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm

Gowbarrow Hall Farm is an upland farm in the Lake District, run by Sam and Claire Beaumont and their family. They returned to the farm three years ago, which had been managed intensively by a local sheep grazier since the 1990s. Nitrogen was regularly used to improve the pasture, increasing grass growth which was cut and taken off the farm. Continuous fertiliser inputs and overgrazing disrupted the natural system, leading to a decline in soil biology, biodiversity and plantlife.

Sam and Claire have been working with Caroline Grindrod of Wilderculture to develop a blended regenerative and rewilding approach on the farm, to naturally regenerate the landscape. They gradually took back parts of the farm from the grazier, bringing in a small herd of Shorthorn cattle as well as a few Cumbrian Fell ponies and Kunekune pigs. They want to grow forage without inputs, using grazing and long rest periods, while restoring soil health, building biodiversity, and producing nutrient dense food.

Previously the sheep were grazing wood pasture in the parkland in summer, allowing hay to be cut on the meadows. This system was turned on it’s head with Caroline’s help; the cattle are now mob-grazed on the meadows in summer, and outwintered on standing hay in the wood pasture and woodland in the old parkland. The small number of fell ponies and pigs remain in the parkland all year round.

Claire and Sam are using Soilmentor to monitor their soil health and get instant feedback on how their management is supporting the awakening of soil organisms belowground.

Photo Credit: Anthony Cullen

“It was amazing to see the differences in the profile between the soil under hedgerows and the soil under pasture that has been over grazed for years. I saw a clear, dark topsoil layer in the hedgerow but out in the middle of the field the soil was yellow and there were no obvious layers. Doing VESS scores has been so interesting, looking closely at how the soil crumbles and even smelling it! We can already see a huge improvement in soil structure in the fields we’re mob grazing – it’s all down to rest.

Soilmentor is a great way to monitor what’s happening with our soil as it changes – we’re excited to see how it progresses. We love looking back at photos of our soil health on Soilmentor, and it is so useful to have the exact gps locations tagged for every soil sample site.”

Below is an example from their meadows of how the soil has changed since being rested in the winter and mob grazed in the summer. The left photo was taken in September 2019, and is noticeably more blocky than the right hand photo taken in October 2020. Bobbly, crumb like soil structure is appearing as the soil biology is being fed with manure and root exudates. Long rests allow the forage to grow up tall, not only providing more feed for the cattle, but also assisting the development of extensive root networks, increasing the capacity for nutrient exchange between the plants and the soil organisms.

The farm is beginning to regenerate naturally, as the soil biology and dormant seed bank start to awaken, allowing plants that have been overgrazed and outcompeted to spring into life. “We’ve got tons of forage now and we are seeing diversity return to the meadows. There is a lot more cocksfoot grass which has dense root networks and we are even seeing docks in a new light; they are excellent at breaking through compaction layers with their deep tap roots. We were thrilled to hear the call of a curlew when we stopped cutting the meadows for hay.”

In the parkland native wildflowers like Devil’s Scabious and tree saplings are popping up in the summer. Wildlife is moving in; little burrows are littered across the rough ground, and barn owls are returning to the farm.

We recently visited Gowbarrow Hall Farm for some soil testing with Caroline Grindrod – it was fantastic to see the natural regeneration first hand, and we look forward to following their regenerative journey.

Protected: Beneficial insect focus: Look after your beneficials over winter – Ben Harrington, Edaphos

Protected: Beneficial insect focus: Look after your beneficials over winter – Ben Harrington, Edaphos 889 500 Soilmentor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Management Dictates Infiltration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, no, in a word.

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Management Determines Infiltration Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All courses are now online.
Find out more HERE

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