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!).

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! 

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

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 🙂

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.