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Abby Rose

Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*A few soil words:

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

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm 2000 2667 Soilmentor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What are Ian’s management objectives?

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

What is Ian measuring?

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

Find Ian’s Farm on twitter @CotswoldBeef

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

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Tim Williams – English Farm

Tim Williams – English Farm 2000 1500 Soilmentor

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

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

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

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

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


What are Tim’s management objectives?

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

How will Tim judge those?

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

What is Tim measuring?

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

Find Tim on instagram @EnglishFarm_

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

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Fidelity Weston – Romshed Farm

Fidelity Weston – Romshed Farm 2000 1333 Soilmentor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What are Fidelity’s management objectives?

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

What is Fidelity measuring?

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

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

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter