Soil Science Latest: How Can We Sequester More Carbon and Build Soil Health?

Soil Science Latest: How Can We Sequester More Carbon and Build Soil Health? 3024 2257 Soilmentor

A few weeks ago we presented at Wageningen Soils Conference with Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming, NIAB. We shared about the work we had done together converting the AHDB soils scorecard into an interactive Soil Quality UK Dashboard, with the main focus being “How can we get farmers talking about their soil health, based on soil health tests?”. We had lots of brilliant feedback about the dashboard we built and everyone at the conference was very positive as we talked about the benefits of a very different, more thoughtful, type of user research.

Whilst we were there we also listened to many brilliant talks sharing the latest soil science, some of which were incredibly relevant to the farming community, so we want to share the insights with you.

Building short-term vs long-term Carbon – it’s all down to the microorganisms!

We have all heard of words like humus, humic acid etc in terms of soils and carbon stored in soils. Well it turns out in the words of Johannes Lehman, soil scientist at Cornell University “humus is dead”.

He was very clear that it’s false to think there is such a thing as a long term carbon store that is locked up forever.

The idea that stored organic carbon can be neatly separated into 3 different types (Rapid, labile, stable), which has been the model for many years, is not reflected in the research any longer.

We shouldn’t worry about the idea of building long term carbon vs short term carbon, essentially all carbon that is sucked into the soil via photosynthesis or decaying organisms has the potential to become long-term carbon. What actually matters is which microorganisms are present and what they do with it.

There is no clear silver-bullet pathway to locking up carbon for good, instead we can think of soil organic carbon as an ongoing cycle of carbon gains and losses which we need to constantly manage. To many farmers this may not come as a surprise – that is exactly what we have seen happening in the field. As we practice more regenerative approaches (living roots in the soil, ensuring plenty of plant residues etc) we are quickly seeing the advantages of healthier soils which is so often synonymous with higher soil organic carbon and a more alive soil system (i.e more microorganisms).

Read more in this paper: Microbial models with minimal mineral protection can explain long-term soil organic carbon persistence
Dominic Woolf & Johannes Lehmann  Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 6522 (2019)

Johannes showed that soil management techniques on farm to improve food security can have large beneficial effects on soil organic carbon. He drew from an example of changing agricultural practices in Ethiopia where they have been implementing agroforestry, diversified cropping systems, terracing, and many other agroecological practices — first and foremost as a measure to decrease poverty and prevent future drought scenarios. The project was undertaken on 600,000 Ha and had many benefits to the community, food security as well as environmental rehabilitation. However Johannes pointed out that it also had an unintended positive effect of sequestering significant amounts of carbon helping Ethiopia to meet their climate targets.

Read more in this paper: Land restoration in food security programmes: synergies with climate change mitigation
, & Climate Policy Journal Pages 1260-1270 | Received 24 May 2017, Accepted 05 Jan 2018, Published online: 26 Jan 2018

Carbon Current Account and Interest Rates

We discussed these findings with Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming at NIAB, and she gave the analogy that this implies we need to think of our soils like a current account – you are constantly making deposits and withdrawals of carbon, and that will be reflected in your carbon balance. From a farming perspective, what I wanted to know is what is the interest rate on this current account? That essentially would reflect how effective we will be in the long run at sequestering carbon in soils and building up our SOC. The banking analogy also makes a lot of sense, as it reflects the fragility of soil carbon in the face of larger scale disasters and fluxes in the market, as everything can be ‘lost’ at any time.

In summary Johannes Lehmann’s work showed that the focus of building soil organic carbon should be on farm ‘short-term’ carbon cycling interventions (e.g cover cropping, leaving plant residues, agroforestry, composting applications, rotational grazing) and the microorganisms will do the work to build longer term carbon deposits from there! Unfortunately this new understanding of soil organic carbon and the value of microorganisms has not been incorporated into IPCC models yet, so the value of these practices aren’t fully taken into account in global carbon targets…but Johannes said it will all change quickly.

Johannes also posited that the traditional models for understanding soil, based on adsorption and aggregation, although helpful in their way, are not necessary to explain soil organic matter and soil functioning. His work has shown that soil organic carbon and soil function can all be explained by the makeup of microorganisms and the action of microorganisms in the soil. It’s early days for fully understanding this as we still only understand around 5% of all the microorganisms in our soils!

 

The Soil Microbial Carbon Pump – how do microorganisms affect carbon storage in soils?

One model put forward for understanding the effect of microorganisms in sequestering carbon in soils was the Microbial Carbon Pump, explained by Chao Liang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Soil Microbial Carbon Pump is a model for understanding how microbes are an active player in soil carbon storage. Chao showed how it could be applied at many different scales from the rhizosphere (plant root-soil interactions) to the field and landscape scale, which could have implications for understanding the responses of ecosystem carbon processes to global environmental changes.

My interpretation of what he was saying is that there are two types of carbon sequestration pathways through soil microorganisms:

  1. Biomass: The living biomass of the soil i.e living microorganisms taking carbohydrates being offered by plant roots and using it for food, excreting it in the form of slimes, building fungal hyphae etc. This is what Dr Christine Jones refers to as the liquid carbon pathway. (Catabolic pathway)
  2. Necromass: All the dead material, whether plant residues or compost materials etc being broken down and processed by microorganisms. Increasingly scientists are recognising the important role this plays in building soil organic matter. (Anabolic pathway)

Read more in this paper: The Importance of Anabolism in Microbial Control over Carbon Storage
Chao Liang, Joshua P. Schimel, Julie D. Jastrow Nature Microbiology volume2, Article number: 17105 (2017)

Chao showed how this model allowed them to investigate the effects of plant covers on microbial communities and what that meant in terms of the magnitude and composition of the soil carbon pool. He outlined that once the Microbial Carbon Pump processes carbon, it will either be released back to the atmosphere as CO2 – known as the priming effect (i.e decreasing the storage life of the carbon) or further increase the storage life of the carbon – known as the entombing effect. Their results showed that as the fungal proportion in the microorganism community increases the amount of carbon that goes through the entombing effect and becomes longer term carbon significantly increases after a certain time and then remains constantly high, whilst the priming effect although initially peaks, it then decreases and falls significantly below the entombing effect (you can see this in the photos below, where the high fungal content soil sample is the middle graph, highlighted in red)

Essentially what that means is that in soils with a higher proportion of fungi, the carbon is more likely to be turned into longer-life carbon deposits.

What does this mean for farmers?

The scientists are saying that yes it’s all about building microbial communities if you want to increase soil organic carbon.

There is no silver bullet, but it will take new management strategies based on careful monitoring of carbon gains and losses and making sure you are building more carbon on a field than you are taking away.

We can very much see ourselves as key actors when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon at a global scale and that employing methodologies that improve soil health and soil microbial communities are the best way to do this. Of course, we already know this is what regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, permaculture and so many other farmer-led practices are all about! But it’s good to know the scientists are behind it all, and we hope this will enter the minds of the policy makers sooner rather than later!

We learned a lot from the conference and you will see some changes to Soilmentor in the coming months as we reflect some of our learnings to bring you some new tools to help you understand what your soil monitoring results mean.

Use maps to save your sample locations

Use maps to save your sample locations 4032 3024 Soilmentor

We’re excited that you can now use the GPS mapping feature in both our iPhone and Android apps, to save the exact locations of where you are doing your soil tests in each field. That way you can very easily come back year after year to the same spot and monitor changes in soil health. We have spoken to many different soil scientists and advisors and we feel that the best way to monitor soil health on your farm is to select specific sample sites and observe trends/changes in soil over time at each site.

As all farmers know, there can be huge amounts of variability, even within a field, so the idea of finding an ‘average’ soil health for the field is difficult, and requires you to have many, many sample sites. So our advice is to just pick 1-3 sample sites in a field, and monitor how things change at each site as you change your management practices. To do this you need to go back to more or less the same spot, which is where being able to mark your sample sites on the map makes things easier!

What does this mean?

With our GPS feature, you can save the location of each of your sample sites within each field, so they appear as pins on the map. This means you can view the location of each sample on the map, and the next time you go out soil testing you have a precise point to go back to, to repeat the tests – just follow the map on your phone to find the same spot in the field.

 

Why does this matter?

Coming back to the same sample sites when monitoring information on your soils is important. It saves lots of time, as you can sample fewer locations in the field but still have a good idea of how your management is affecting soil health! That’s all because by going back to the same location, you reduce most of the variables, so you can be pretty certain that any changes in what you see and record are due to a change in management (or extreme weather conditions!). 

So, now you’ll really know if that cover crop helped improve your rooting depth and VESS score or not! With GPS you can locate your samples sites more accurately, you can view them on a map, and ensure you return to the same spot each time.

Got any questions about GPS and using Soilmentor to monitor soil health? Contact us!

Defragmenting UK soils policy – the journey so far…

Defragmenting UK soils policy – the journey so far… 4896 3268 Soilmentor

Much of what we do is about empowering farmers in the field to build soil health, but of course we realise that we are all part of a bigger system and government policy can have a massive impact on the way land is farmed.

We have always admired the work of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), bringing an independent and holistic voice to UK soils policy. Here Ursula Billington from the SSA gives us an update on the work they have been doing, what’s next for their policy work and how you can get involved if you are interested…

By Ursula Billington, Sustainable Soil Alliance, June 2019

At the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance in 2017, the UK Department for Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Secretary of State Michael Gove charged us to hold the UK government to account on soil health and we’ve been doing this to the best of our abilities ever since. The principle aim of the SSA since inception has been to improve political and public understanding and appreciation of soil in the UK – and to identify the policy mechanisms needed to begin the reversal of land degradation and restore soil health within one generation.

We knew we’d have our work cut out and have spent the last two years ricocheting between positive, fruitful conversations with government, and leaps in appreciation of the frustrating complexity of the soils issue and policies it is embedded within. We’re delighted with the success we’ve had so far, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure the sustainability of our soils for generations to come.

The SSA was born from a knowledge of the crisis affecting soils across the UK, and the globe, and a sense that the time was right, with the dreaded Brexit allowing for a significant reshaping of policy, particularly around the agricultural sector. More recently the focus on climate and ecological breakdown has proved effective in inspiring a wider audience to adopt soils as a solution to the key challenges of our times, and to push even harder for farming, land and environment policy reform.

So the need was identified and the SSA formed a partnership of high profile government, environment, farming and NGO allies to give weight to the cause and generate urgent, immediate action. Two years later, we have established close working relationships with DEFRA, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Environment Agency and the emerging Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) team. We have also inputted in to the new Agriculture and Environment Bills, the 25 Year Plan for the Environment, the new regulatory framework for farmers, the consultation on the future of Welsh farming and more. Success has been based on a slow but steady and reliable ongoing dialogue, a persistent chipping away at the rock-face of government, an endless search for the killer questions necessary to achieve our goals and, above all, – a non-partisan, relationship-based approach.

One of the first lessons we learnt – and a key one inspiring us to form a membership organisation representing all soil stakeholders across farming, land management, science, business and environment – was the siloed nature of thinking around soils. This may not come as a surprise and is certainly not unique to soils within government, but an issue we found to be both highly pertinent and damaging given the critical nature of soils to so many of our fundamental systems. Soil is the foundation of basic ecosystem function, intrinsic to food production, biodiversity and our natural environment, to water and air quality, to public health. It supplies medicines, stores carbon, prevents floods, helps regulate the earth’s temperature. It provides countless services which, if wearing a natural capital hat, have direct consequences for government spending and the Treasury. Its security is relevant to Defra, Natural England, the Environment Agency, BEIS, the Treasury, the Natural Capital Committee and more. Soil has been referred to by government as ‘the golden thread that runs through everything’ and features significantly in countless reports published by a multitude of agencies and departments. And yet the decision-making that encompasses it is fragmented. Building a joined-up strategy with soil health at its heart has therefore been a Herculean task, and we believe partnership working has been key to clarifying and supporting the flow of interdepartmental thinking. We’ve tackled this particular challenge by building ever stronger non-denominational relationships across the alliance, simultaneously working within departments to identify where their unique problems lie and help to deliver their own goals – whilst keeping in mind and working towards the wider context of interlocking aims and solutions.

As SSA Director Matt Orman recently put it:
“We have before us an opportunity almost unique to an industrialised nation to build from scratch a joined-up, fit-for-purpose national soil policy. This should reflect the scale of the problem and the political intent. We should seize it while harnessing the potential of technology and the groundswell of commitment in soil health among farmers, land managers and policy makers.

But what kind of policy is needed? All environmental governance depends upon the careful interweaving of key policy levers: regulations, education, incentivisation, monitoring and enforcement. The unique characteristics of soil such as its variety, ownership, timeframe and constituents represent a very particular challenge requiring careful consideration.”

The problem of fragmentation does not lie only within government. The SSA were not the first to identify or begin working to resolve the national soils crisis – there are a myriad of individuals, organisations and practical projects out there on a local and regional scale attempting to do just that. Breaking down silos, building relationships and attempting to unite with common leadership and purpose therefore quickly became a core approach of the SSA, in order to amplify the work of positive soils initiatives on the ground and present a united front to government. This partnership working also enabled us to fully understand the complexity of the challenge and the unique issues of the different stakeholders, as we engaged in conversations with as broad a representative of the soils community as possible. Critically listening, collating opinion and feeding back to government has become a key task of the SSA. We have convened meetings to include the widest possible spectrum of stakeholders, in part to help identify where conflicts lie and how to resolve these, building bridges and brokering to establish a level of basic agreement from which we can push forward to sustainable soils. We have not shied away from allowing like-minded and conflicting agendas to share the same space, and interesting outcomes have emerged as a result.

So where are we now? Under Gove, soil is at least now a part of government policy-making, which it hasn’t been before. There are encouraging references in the Agriculture and Environment Bills, and the 25 Year Environment Plan. But of course ministers are experts at saying the right thing, and we have yet to see concrete action on the issue. Soil has still not gained equivalent recognition and commitment as our other natural assets, water and air. We’re mindful of the need to pin down legislation, particularly at this time of tumultuous change and policy development within UK government. The temporary nature of ministerial positions and short lifespan of government can undermine progress and momentum at the best of times, so we’re working hard to firm up government commitments and ensure these are enshrined in new policy.

And we’re not afraid of change. Our fundamental aims remain the same, but within this framework we are constantly evolving, re-evaluating, responding to news, events, policies and ministerial attitudes, capitalising on new information and relationships that come our way. We aim to be agile, and we’re all too aware we may need to regroup around the change of leadership. These are interesting times, and there isn’t a blueprint for what we are attempting to achieve. But this makes it all the more important. We’re confident that strides can be made and we have hope for a step-change in soil health that will render our land, and all that stems from it, sustainable within one generation.

If you’d like to support our work please consider making a donation to help us grow.
For more on soils, Sustainable Soils Alliance projects and activities, visit our website.

Find more on our work with government here. Connect with us via twitter. If you’re interested in working with us please email ursula@sustainablesoils.org

Earthworm Engineers #4 – Manure & Earthworm Populations

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Earthworm Engineers #3 – Organic vs Conventional Systems

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Earthworm Engineers #2 – Arable Farming & Earthworm Populations

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Earthworm Engineers #1 – Ecosystem Services

Earthworm Engineers #1 – Ecosystem Services 5184 3456 Soilmentor

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate 1440 1079 Soilmentor

The beautiful family run Hampton Estate is nestled in the sandy soils of Seale, near Farnham in Surrey. Most of the farmland is in woodland or grass and twenty years ago Guernsey dairy cattle grazed the estate. The family have since switched to a Sussex cattle herd and started producing grass fed beef to sell direct to their local customer base. Their cattle are raised on tasty grass and lovely Surrey sunshine! Hampton Estate are members of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and in the process of having their beef pasture for life certified. Pasture fed systems with good grazing management can be very regenerative for soil health. Hampton have started using Soilmentor to monitor and understand how soil health is changing across their farmland.

The estate has some very special gardens filled with hops! This speciality crop has been grown in the local area for hundreds of years, despite a lot of production being wiped out by a fungal disease called verticillium wilt. Many other farms gave up their hop gardens, but Hampton has maintained growing this traditional crop with high biosecurity measures. Their hops are used in three major breweries across the country. The infrastructure required to grow hops is extensive and to fit in with the natural landscape Hampton uses tall poles made of chestnut from their own woodland.

Hampton are developing their farm strategy around building soil health and improving their sward. Using Soilmentor they can create a baseline for where their soil health is at now and give them an idea of where they want to go. Growing good grass is essential for their pasture fed cattle and so one approach they will take is to increase species diversity and deeper rooting plants in the sward. This will increase their resilience in times of drought as deep roots can reach water and nutrients further down in their sandy free draining soil. A more diverse range of broadleaf plants and root systems will increase the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the ground. Hampton is monitoring the % of different plant species and their density to see how this changes over time in their pasture fields. As they collect more information about their pasture with Soilmentor they will be able to compare plant species readings with soil structure and earthworm readings to see if there are any trends and links in their improvement.

“I’d been looking for a tool to monitor soil health just like this, I’d tried other tests but they were always so complex and involved lab testing. It’s great to have a set of simple tests that I can do easily myself.” – Will Godwin, Hampton Estate

We spent the day soil monitoring pasture fields under different management approaches with Will Godwin. Will is part of the estate management team and works very closely with Bridget and Bill Biddell who own and manage the Estate on behalf of the wider family. Heading out to the field with Will and Bridget was great fun and the excitement about digging holes and hunting for worms was palpable! Will had expertly crafted an infiltration rate pipe from a piece of drainpipe, sharpening one end to make it easier to get into the ground. He used an old water bottle with 444ml of water marked on it to ensure the exact same amount of water was used each time. An old dustbin lid made an excellent examination tray for the soil block and Bridgett didn’t seem to mind us using her freezer bags to collect samples for the slake test!

We started on a very sandy permanent pasture field grazed throughout winter by their steers and very poached up in places. On this field we found no worms at all! This meant Will recorded an earthworm count of 0 in Soilmentor and we all agreed this is definitely an opportunity to improve how the soil on this field is managed to increase earthworms for the next time it is monitored. Next we headed to a permanent pasture field being rested after grazing last year which had an abundance of wigglers, seventeen in one soil pit, and even a dung beetle popped its antlers up. At the time we didn’t realise it was a dung beetle, but took a photo of it using Soilmentor so Will could look back at a later date to identify the beetle. This field had a dense thatch of grass on the surface which slowed the infiltration rate down considerably. The third field we tested was a grass field cut every year for hay which had a few worms but an exceptionally fast infiltration rate. In addition to these fields Will plans to monitor two more pasture fields and one hop garden.

Going forward Hampton plans to start a new grazing system, to improve sward quality and soil health across the estate. Changes in the way the herd is managed and trying mob grazing to encourage tall grass and deep root growth are central to the strategy. Over in the hop gardens, although they cannot return the biomass from the hop plants back to the soil due to the verticillium wilt disease risk, there are plans afoot with Rob, their Agronomist, to plant green manure cover crops in between the rows of hop plants. Verticillium wilt only affects broadleaved plants and to avoid attracting it to the garden the cover needs to be a cereal to mitigate this risk, so rye and oats are good options. The cover crop will anchor the soil, protecting it from erosion, photosynthesising and putting nutrients into the soil.

Soilmentor will help Hampton monitor how their soil is changing as they experiment with new farm management approaches to improve soil health. For example, with a new approach to grazing the fields over winter, such as mob grazing, Hampton will hope to see an improvement in earthworms, sward density and soil structure. All of these are what we call ‘soil health indicators’ and are easily monitored using soil tests with Soilmentor. All the information Hampton collects using the Soilmentor app is visually displayed on their online account making it easy to look back at their soil health records and analyse how things have changed over time.

What are Will’s management objectives:

  • Improve soil health across the estate
  • Increase grass and broadleaf species
  • Understand best grazing technique to optimise grass growth

What is Will monitoring:

  • Earthworms
  • Infiltration
  • Slake (Wet aggregate stability)
  • VESS (1-5)
  • % of undesirables % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each

 

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

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Soil Test Challenge

Soil Test Challenge 559 397 Soilmentor

Try something new this year, start monitoring your soil health. Do you accept the Soil Test Challenge?

We challenge you to do 3 easy soil tests on your fields. It takes one day in total and will give you valuable insight into how healthy your soil is and how well it will support healthy plants and livestock.

Knowing your soil is the key to successful farming, so take the time to do these simple tests and improve your understanding of your soil health. It will help you to develop the right approach to manage it.

Soilmentor makes physical soil analysis easy and informative. It works with a handy smartphone app to record soil test results & photos in the field and an online account to review & analyse a range of soil health indicators.

 


How to participate in the Soil Test Challenge:

Before you start:

  1. Pick 3 fields to test, repeat the tests 3 times in different locations on each field.
  2. On the day you do your tests, take a note of the weather over the last 24 hours because the temperature and amount of rainfall will affect the outcome of the tests.
  3. Take photos of each place that you test and record the results of each test (do this easily with Soilmentor). This helps you to monitor change over time and is important if you want to get advice further down the line.

 

TEST 1 – Earthworm Count

Earthworms are a key indicator that your soil is alive and has good soil organic matter content. They move nutrients around the soil profile, playing a vital role in feeding your plants, and open up the soil structure allowing water and air into the soil. Their sticky mucus also helps to build good soil structure.

Equipment: spade and tray or plastic bag

Method: Dig a 20 x 20 x 20 cm hole with your spade. Place the dug up soil on the tray/ plastic bag. Using the app, take a photo of the soil profile then gently break it apart with your hands. Count the number of worms and record it using the Soilmentor app. Take a photo in the app too!

In the UK, an average of 15-20 worms in a 20 x 20 x 20 cm soil pit is considered good, but it will also depend on the time of year and your soil type, and any recent field management. Using Soilmentor makes it easy to look back and compare when you do the count again next year.

 

TEST 2 – Slake Test

How well your soil structure holds together in water shows you how it withstands heavy rainfall, and what its capacity for storing water and nutrients is like. Good soil structure is an indicator that you have adequate soil organic matter that supports the life in your soil.

Equipment: spade, sieve with small mesh (>2mm), bowl of cold water, stop watch, plastic bags x9 (can be old shopping bags), pen and paper for labelling soil samples

Method: Take some of the soil from the sample dug up for the earthworm count or dig up a new sample. Select 3 pieces (aggregates) which are roughly 1 cm in diameter. Put them in a plastic bag, write the name of the field on the paper, tear it off and put it in the bag. Take care not to squash the soil. Repeat this process for all the soil samples you take. Take all bags of soil home and take the soil out and allow it to air dry overnight in a warm place being careful not to mix up the different samples. The next day, for each sample, arrange the soil aggregates in the sieve and fully immerse in water up the lip of the sieve. Observe the aggregates under water for 1 minute and lift them out then score them using the scale on this webpage. If they score 0-2 the test is over and you can record the score in the Soilmentor app. If they score higher than 2, move onto the second part of the test: gently raise the sieve up and down five times, so that the surface of the water just touches the top of the aggregate. Score using the scale and record in the Soilmentor app. We only give a soil a score of 8 if the water is crystal clear (i.e. the aggregate has not broken down at all) after the test. Take photos of each slake test using the Soilmentor app.

Well-structured soil is composed of rounded aggregates which will not break down easily in water. This means soil will retain its structure after heavy rainfall, and allow water and nutrients to move between the aggregates into deeper layers of the soil for your crops to use later.

Aggregates that often have sharp edges and that break down easily in water may suggest that they are only held together because of compaction. As soon as there is a heavy rainfall the soil structure falls apart and blocks the soil surface increasing the likelihood of surface run-off and erosion.

 

TEST 3 – Infiltration rate

Infiltration rates clearly show how ready your soil is to soak up water. If the soil structure is open with plenty of air spaces the water will easily move down into the soil profile until the air spaces are full with water. Nutrients also move with water into the soil profile.

Equipment: 150 mm x 150 mm metal/plastic tubes with 85 mm depth marked (find out how to make this), water bottle with 450 ml marked on it, water (4L or so per field), stopwatch (on phone), mallet (for driving tube into soil) & wood block (to protect the top of the pipe from damage when hammering in)

Method: Clear plant growth from the soil surface by trimming back. If sward is very thick try cutting through with a knife to help get the tube through. Insert tube into the ground to a depth of 85 mm. Use the app to take a photo of the location showing the tube and groundcover. Fill your pre-marked water bottle with exactly 450 ml of water. Pour water steadily into the top of the pipe and start stopwatch. Stop timing when all the water has disappeared but the ground is still glistening and record the time in the app. Measure out another 450 ml of water in the bottle and repeat the remaining steps, recording the time in the Soilmentor app.

Infiltration rates for each field help you to understand how easily water and nutrients can move into your soil. Very slow rates may indicate waterlogging, soil sealing and compaction, whilst very rapid rates may reveal an increased risk of nutrient leaching.

Recording soil test results

Make soil monitoring easy by using Soilmentor; record soil test results at the touch of a button and upload the data in seconds for analysis on your online account via an internet browser on your phone, tablet or laptop.

We want to see your soil test photos from the #SoilTestChallenge! Either tweet them to us mentioning #SoilTestChallenge @soilmentor, or send us an email to info@vidacycle.com.

 


 

To get the most out of soil monitoring repeat soil tests twice a year and more, around April and October when the weather should be warm and the soil is moist. Different farm management practises will influence the results of these tests, so if you’re trying anything from conventional arable to cover crops to mob grazing, it is essential to monitor your soil.

Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farm

Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farm 4032 3024 Soilmentor

Chris Leach is part of the Forestry Team at Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire. Around 500 tonnes of wood is produced from managing the 450 acres of the estate’s woodland, half of which is used as fuel for the biomass boiler. Chris was keen to find an environmentally sound way to use the waste wood and saw the perfect opportunity to work with the Estate’s farming operation to combine the waste wood and farm waste to create compost. He will add bokashi to the compost which he hopes will encourage mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria in the soil. Chris is now working with all departments on the Estate, (Gardens, Stud, Forestry, Farm), to improve and sustain soil health.

By recording information on soil tests with Soilmentor, Waddesdon created a baseline starting point as well as a future goal for what the estate team want to achieve. Chris finds testing water infiltration rates most interesting as one of the estate’s aims is to increase the soils capacity to store water and make it more resilient to drought. Doing the VESS test has highlighted how much topsoil they really have and the difference between arable fields and permanent pasture.

Chris said “Generally the lack of earthworms across the whole estate was a surprise, we would love to see an increase. Soilmentor is so simple – it’s an amazing tool. I find the app extremely easy, I record soil test results on my phone and when I get back to office it’s all there in one place on the computer. It makes you look at things a bit differently, giving a wider picture, something to reference and understand how to improve. All Heads of Department can access the data online too so that now everyone is working together to improve soil health across the estate. We are always learning and want to share our knowledge for the present and the future. I spout regenerative agriculture at every opportunity, even when I’m talking to other parents at my son’s football matches!”

Chris’s management goals

  • Improve soil health and build regenerative farming system
  • Improve profitability
  • Reduce chemical inputs
  • Disturb the soil less

What is Chris measuring?

  • Infiltration rate
  • Earthworms
  • Slake test
  • VESS
  • Rhizosheaths
  • Field photo diaries

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

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