Whenever you’re out and about on the farm; crop walking, moving animals, drilling seed, or walking the dog – Soilmentor is there as a support to record your observations. A patch of bare soil, a plant you’ve never noticed before, your clover understory coming through – all useful information to record, so you can keep track of what’s happening on the land.
While some soil testing is seasonal, there are useful insights to be gleaned all year round, so we’ve written this article as a guide on some of the tests you can consider in each season, as you learn what works and what doesn’t in your context.
It can often be too cold to get a spade into the soil during the winter months, so this is a great time of year to get observing above ground. Measuring your basal ground cover involves a walking test (along a line transect), which gives you a quick, visual indication of your field’s ground cover percentages.
The new Soilmentor Ground Cover Report displays these ground cover results in a table, so you can see each field’s results at a glance, and identify problem areas with more bare soil or undesirables or even areas you are improving the diversity of plants present.
Measuring ground cover is a great way to make sure your winter covers are doing their job of protecting the soil against wind and water erosion. You may notice a higher proportion of undesirable plants than you’d like, and this is also often a sign that you need to look closely at your management. The ‘Brix Barometer’ is a great way to explore this further… Taking a Brix reading of your undesirables, as well as a reading of your crop or grass, will tell you whether your soil is catering to your crops or your weeds (undesirables). If the weeds are thriving with higher Brix scores, it’s an indicator to stop and think about why they’re doing well – and the answer will likely be found in the soil!
It’s also useful to keep on top of your biodiversity monitoring over winter. A great way to start with wildlife monitoring is to go out on a recording session in one of your fields of interest – put a timer on for 15 minutes, and keep a note of everything you spot in that time. You can do separate timers for birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants (more info on this method here). If you have children, this is a great challenge to recruit your kids for! Making this a recurring activity during a certain week each season is a great way to monitor how your management may be affecting your farm’s biodiversity.
If you’re overwintering your animals on pasture, you can also keep up with grazing tests – like counting dung beetles & monitoring dung quality.
Winter testing checklist
When the weather begins to warm up in spring, it’s soil testing season! This is the time of year to take a spade out with you on farm walks and get digging. If you’ve already recorded results at set soil sample locations and mapped them with GPS on Soilmentor, you’ll want to return to these same sample locations to continue your soil monitoring journey. If this is your first time going out soil testing, you can follow these instructions to choose sample sites, and map the location for future recording…
Five simple soil tests to start with on a field of interest are – counting earthworms / soil insect pests, looking for rhizosheaths, measuring rooting depth and testing your infiltration rate. These are all on our ‘Regen Indicators’ list – which means they can be benchmarked on the Regen Platform, with useful inbuilt pointers and tips from our collaboration with Nicole Masters!
The Regen Dashboard showing soil test results at various sample sites benchmarked with traffic light colours
Digging deeper into a specific result – against scientific benchmarks (graph on left), and how the result compares against other farmers in the same biome & soil type (graph on right)
Once you’ve made the most of the perfect conditions for spade testing, and you’re hungry for more monitoring on your fields, you can keep up with your above ground monitoring – with more grazing tests, basal ground cover transect-ing, Brix reading and biodiversity monitoring!
Spring testing checklist
In the driest and hottest months of summer, you will likely struggle to dig holes for soil testing. In this way, the best tests to work on at this time of year are similar to our winter recommendations…
In the run up to harvest, be sure to record any general observations you make while out doing crop walks, like an area with low growth, a crop developing well, an area with good diversity of plants. Summer is the best time of year to observe butterflies and moths on the wing – the presence of a diversity of butterfly species can be a great indicator of wildlife friendly farm management!
The Biodiversity Tool – showing the range of species spotted by field and by season
The Biodiversity Tool – showing five most frequently spotted species on a farm
The Brix Barometer will also be of particular interest again in Summer, as problem areas with thriving undesirable plants like black-grass tend to be much more visible – so make sure you are keeping on top of this practice. For example, when black-grass has a higher Brix than your cereal crop, this can indicate an overuse of nitrogen fertilisers, or soil without enough abundance of fungi microorganisms. These are the kinds of considerations that Nicole has built into the Regen Platform… if you’re interested in benchmarking your results and discovering insights from Nicole about your soils, you can subscribe to a Soilmentor Regen subscription.
Summer testing checklist
When Autumn arrives, it’s time to dust off your spade again!
Many of the observational soil tests included on Soilmentor don’t take much time at all, but can give you an enormous insight into the health of your soils, so you can infer what management is working well for your soil, and what’s not!
For example, Sam and Claire at Gowbarrow Hall Farm were able to use Soilmentor to demonstrate how their transition to mob grazing with long rest periods has benefited their soil, with photo evidence of how their soil has changed (read their full story here).
Keeping a photo diary of how your soil sample sites are changing on Soilmentor is a hugely valuable way to monitor your soils. Photos can be logged in Soilmentor alongside all of the Regen Indicators, which we recommend working through in Autumn and Spring.
You might notice your rhizosheath and legume nodule scores are consistently low in a particular site, which could be a sign to think about bringing in more plant diversity to deal with low fungal diversity and abundance in your soil. Our article summarising a series of talks by Christine Jones should clarify the importance of incorporating functional diversity into your rotations!
Autumn testing checklist
Do you have any favourite seasonal soil activities to do on the farm? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you.