Case study: KUHproKLIMA group in Germanyhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/DSCN5628-scaled.jpeg25601920SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
Case study: Francisco Telles Varela & the KUHproKLIMA Germany group
We’re really proud to have supported the KUHproKLIMA group in Germany with their farming research project over the last couple of years.
We recently caught up with Francisco Telles Varela about how their research is going, and how soil monitoring and observation supports their project aims.
Could you give us a summary of the KUHproKLIMA project and what you’re hoping to achieve?
The KUHproKLIMA (or Cow for the Climate) project is an on-farm practice-oriented research project, created by farmers for farmers in the pre-alpine region of Allgäu in South Germany, where seven dairy / meat farms dared to take new steps in the direction of environmentally friendly and regenerative farming.
Christine Bajohr, one of the seven farmers, has created the project that is funded by the EU program EIP-AGRI, in which science and practice jointly research how nature-based grassland management can improve ecosystem processes and services, which will contribute to climate and resource protection. Our goal is to treat the results in such a way that they can be implemented in everyday practice and are comparable with other studies.
For this, in the KUHproKLIMA project, the use of cows is of central importance, as their co-evolutionary development with grasslands makes them suitable for improving the synergies between soil, plants and animals.
The knowledge and experience obtained during the project have been shared through workshops and field days. An online platform for ongoing documentation as well as exchange between farmers was also created, and the outcomes, jointly developed by scientists and the farmers, will be presented in a practical guideline available as a free download on our website at the end of the project.
Could you also give us an explanation of how you have designed the project to test the effects of different grazing techniques?
The aim of the project lies in holistic grazing management adapted to the location as well as the precise promotion of active soil life. That includes initial analyses of each site, herd, type of vegetation (biodiversity), carbon and infrastructure. After these initial baseline assessments, the “Holistic Planned Grazing” pasture management (following the methods of Allan Savory) combined with improvement of soil life (liquid compost extract applications) were introduced during the project on all farms. Based on the inventory of the participating farms, individual land planning concepts were developed to improve the pasture areas mainly by planting hedges and trees.
Workshops were hosted in order to introduce the concepts of Holistic Management and Holistic Planned Grazing multi-paddock system to all seven farmers. Also, an app was provided to each farmer where the initial grazing paddocks were designed and inserted, and data regarding pasture dry matter before and after grazing has been recorded. This monitoring tool provides useful data to inform farmers to better adapt their management regarding pasture productivity, grazing times/periods, number of animals, paddock design, etc.
What have been the biggest challenges to you as a group?
Perhaps the most challenging but also the most rewarding and valuable, has been to try to match scientifically sound research with the daily-life activities of the farm and farmer. The conventional scientific method wants dozens of replicates with very controlled conditions. This is not possible in an on-farm research environment and we had to take this into consideration in the design, and adapt along the way. Things change all the time on a farm, but we know this is the sort of complementary science we also need; science that studies complexity.
Embracing the complexity of nature and research directly into the ecosystem is more difficult, adding to the social unpredictability of farming daily operations, but we believe this is a type of work and research that should be done more to find urgent solutions for our current challenges.
The on-farm experimentation & research approach that we are taking, and already looking for new coming projects, is fundamental to bridging the gap between fundamental scientific research and farming practical challenges, and we aim to develop these concepts to help others create similar projects in different contexts.
How has using Soilmentor supported you to achieve your project goals? Could you give an example of a way that Soilmentor has benefited you?
In order to measure the progress and effects on plant and soil health by the grazing methods and the microbial inoculations, twice a year (Spring & Fall), more than 15 different measurements are carried out on the test areas of all seven farms, which allow statements to be made about various developments, such as soil structure, erosion and compaction, water infiltration, the development of plant species, Brix values and biodiversity levels in flora and fauna. This monitoring work has been fundamental in understanding the immense complexity of these ecosystems and for this, using the Soilmentor app has been key.
Soilmentor makes our fieldwork very efficient and quick, recording all the data points directly in the field and smoothly transferring all the data to the online platform automatically where we can work later on treating the data for research purposes. We can not really imagine doing the field work without Soilmentor anymore, as using paper forms and pens in the very wet Allgäu region would be a disaster besides the immense time we would have to be introducing data later on spreadsheets.
What do you feel have been the biggest successes so far as a project, & are you able to share any early outcomes?
We are still collecting and treating our data points for the project until March 2023, and we are now planning the extension of the project for a further 3 years in order to obtain more long-term data, therefore there are not many relevant numbers to share so far. But one success we can highlight already is the farmers’ quality of life.
Several of the project farmers’ that started adopting the Holistic Management framework expressed that they have reduced their work-load and have more free time, leading to a more balanced and happier life. This makes us already quite happy as a team, knowing that just by changing management it is possible to improve farmers’ quality of life, in a profession with the highest rate of suicide globally.
How important is observation to you to support the KUHproKLIMA project?
Our project supports a more agro-ecological and regenerative way of farming, and we know that if we want to improve our lands in a regenerative trend there are no recipes, every farm context is different. We heard this before many times but actually, we proved it during the project, based on our monitoring results where very similar practices applied in the seven farms produce very different results. So, observing, measuring and reading each context well over time is absolutely key for good management decision making on the land.
Case Study: Philip Fernandez & EIT Foodhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/EIT21652315917129.jpeg1600900SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
Case study – Soilmentor organisations:
Philip Fernandez at EIT Food (part 1)
EIT (European Institute of Innovation & Technology) is a body of the EU, working to drive innovation in business, education and research across Europe. We’re proud to be supporting EIT Food with Soilmentor, on one of their projects monitoring the impact of regenerative farming on soil health.
EIT Food has created the Regenerative Agriculture Revolution project, aiming to support farmers to learn how to transition to more sustainable methods of farming. This began with a focus on the Mediterranean, as farmers in this region have been disproportionately affected by climate change, and conventional agriculture practices have exacerbated soil degradation and erosion, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and low yields in these areas. These environmental issues, as well as high input costs, have left many farmers struggling for financial survival. Aiming to revert these trends, EIT Food is supporting Southern European farmers to introduce regenerative methods, while measuring ecosystem improvements and spreading public awareness about the benefits of these methods.
We are proud to have worked with the EIT Food team over the last year to create a bespoke soil monitoring protocol that is currently used across 75 farms in Spain and Portugal.
We recently caught up with Philip Fernandez, Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food, for the first part of a case study to learn more about EIT, and how they use Soilmentor.
EIT soil testing under ovine observation
Could you describe the project you are using Soilmentor to support?
Soilmentor is key to the project we’ve been developing at EIT, which is looking at how regenerative agriculture practices impact soil health. We’re advising and supporting 75 farmers currently, all of whom are being advised by regenerative agriculture experts. We need Soilmentor as a tool to allow us to monitor and record environmental and soil health improvements on these farms.
Soilmentor is key to us for three reasons:
First and foremost, it’s a tool that helps farmers appreciate the importance of the soil in regenerative agriculture. This is a big mindset change – instead of focusing solely on crops and what goes on above the ground, it helps them to realise and appreciate what is going on below our feet, and to focus on what they can do to improve soil health.
It’s also key for agronomists advising the farmers – another tool (in addition to physical, chemical and soil lab analysis) that they have to monitor progress. As it’s cheaper to use, and farmers can use it themselves, it gives a broader picture of the farm. Our EIT Food budget allows us to send one soil sample to the lab per year, per farm. Obviously these are diversified farms with different plots, so Soilmentor helps us to track progress on different plots on the same farm. This is especially important because by definition regenerative agriculture involves diversity – so we can’t treat a farm as just one soil sample.
Third, at the level of EIT Food, Soilmentor helps to see if we are meeting our objective to make Europe’s food systems healthier and more sustainable. The tool also helps us to monitor whether what we are doing makes sense – whether the practice fits the theory, and to prove to EU tax payers that this is money well spent.
Soil testing with the EIT team
How does your project fit into the wider space that you’re seeing out there – and how are people responding to it?
In Southern Europe it’s a unique project. There are similar projects in other parts of the world, but it feels like we’re doing something that is pioneering and unique in Southern and Eastern Europe where we operate.
I know there have been scientific studies done with a similar focus, and we do not claim to be carrying out a scientific study, but we know this project will be valuable. We’re trying to connect regenerative practices to improvements in soil health on many different sizes and types of farmland and ecosystems. It will be interesting to see if we can draw some valid conclusions – we’re not comparing side by side test plots, but if we can see across 75 farms, that in 60 there’s been a significant improvement in soil health and soil organic matter, I think that’s really valuable! We’re aiming to build a community this year – there’s an enormous desire in these farmers who are transitioning to reach out and understand what other farmers are doing. Often regenerative farmers are viewed by their peers as ‘the crazy person in the village’, with messy fields and weeds everywhere. So they come to our training courses, and meet other farmers doing the same thing in different places. Emotionally this can be very supportive, and we’re keen on creating this community. Soilmentor also links to this with the new benchmarking function – even though it’s anonymous, it gives a sense that they are not alone, and it’s useful to be able to compare and look at how others are doing.
Who has been using the app so far, and why, and what did they think about it?
The main users have been the agronomists and soil experts so far. We’ve had a soil advisor travelling round to visit 65 farms across Spain and Portugal, conducting tests and using the same methodology and criteria for each, and adding all of this information to the Soilmentor app.
There’s a lot of data on the individual farm accounts already, and as soon as we fully launch we’ll have farmers using it with their own logins. We’re about to release videos to be available on Youtube, which we filmed to show how to do each of the tests. We’re going to translate these into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Polish.
EIT soil advisor Iris taking baseline measurements
What are you most excited about with this project right now?
We’re excited to see the potential of this tool. There have been two important milestones for us recently.
The first was when we finished collecting our baseline measurements across all of the farms, and our soil health expert had inputted this information into each of the Soilmentor accounts.
The second was when we started to look at all of this information, combining it with physical and chemical data from soil samples sent to the lab, and economic information we had for each of the farms, alongside visual soil assessments. Seeing all of these metrics in one place was really exciting for us.
EIT baseline soil tests – root legume nodules & rhizosheaths
What are the next steps? Is there anything else you would like to share?
The next step for us is getting these videos published, as well as collating information on each of the farm’s biomes and rainfall metrics so we can get started with using the Regen Platform benchmarking.
We’re also excited to plan a webinar for all the farmers, to explain how Soilmentor works, alongside learnings from physical and chemical analysis provided by a member of our team.
We’re really proud to be supporting this inspiring project, with such wide-reaching aims and impacts. We admire EIT’s genuine focus on supporting the farmers on the ground with this project. The individual farmers are, as Philip put it, EIT’s “key stakeholders”.
We’re excited to continue our collaboration with EIT, and to see how the farmers get on with using Soilmentor after the official launch. Watch this space… we’re planning on publishing a second part to this case study as the project develops further!
The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset – ORFC 2022https://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Screenshot-2022-02-25-at-15.10.09.png27961478SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset
At ORFC 2022, we hosted a session digging into the mindset shift required to transition to regenerative farming. What changes are required as we shift our relationship to the land and landscapes and what does that feel like? What are the uncomfortable bits?
Inevitably in farming so many questions arise, how do you navigate this day to day? The regenerative journey takes many forms. It’s one of experimentation, adaptation, and openness to making mistakes. It is important to build frameworks that support feelings, to find freedom in uncertainty and learn how this change in mindset can lead to further thinking, such as on land justice, economic decisions, and societal equity.
Tune into our talk with Caroline Grindrod of Roots of Nature, Clare Hill of FAI Farms, and Sam and Claire Beaumont of Gowbarrow Farm below, to learn from their experiences in supporting this shift, and how this new mindset is relevant to life beyond farming.
Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farmshttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ClareSmith5.jpg11441322SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms
Since 2001, FAI have farmed 1200 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.
Photo Credit: Ben Pike
“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 cell – 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 Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Screen-Shot-2020-08-12-at-11.24.26.png545565SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
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!
Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources!https://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Screen-Shot-2020-05-12-at-20.20.13.png595596SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
New to all this? These resources are a great place to start:
(scroll down for more in-depth info)
Still not sure exactly what it means to be a regenerative farmer? This is a great Groundswell short video to get you up to speed; the key messages of regenerative farming are laid out with interviews and animations.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Will Godwin – Hampton Estatehttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/A377F7FB-6293-4021-8156-A1C0FF8F9CCC.jpg14401079SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
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:
Slake (Wet aggregate stability)
% 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?
Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farmhttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/IMG_20181207_155203-1.jpg40323024SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
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
Reduce chemical inputs
Disturb the soil less
What is Chris measuring?
Field photo diaries
Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?
Hannah Steenbergen is the farm manager at 42 Acres Farm , a 170 acre working farm and garden which is home to the 42 Acres Somerset Retreat Centre. Until this year much of the land was untended and wild, so there is an amazing amount of wildlife. Hannah’s plan is to create a small-scale diverse regenerative farm where they use minimal inputs, foster biodiversity and increase the fertility of the land.
“After we made hay the field was a buzzard playground! Hay making revealed all these small mammals. There’s amazing wildlife at the farm, we want to keep it that way whilst also bringing the land into production.” – Hannah, 42 Acres
On the farm she has introduced a small beef herd of Shetland cattle, which are 100% grass-fed and managed with ‘mob-grazing’.The garden, greenhouse and polytunnel are filled with delicious vegetables, salads and plants grown by Head Gardener Arek. There’s also a flock of Khaki Campbell ducks waddling around the garden and laying eggs. Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in North Yorkshire and is committed to following regenerative agriculture principles as she takes the 42 Acres farm forward.
The aim is to build soil health through clever grazing management with their growing number of livestock, moving them around the pasture regularly, ensuring grass has time to regrow and organic matter is continually incorporated into the soil. The farm is in a very wet area, so increasing the soil’s capacity to hold water is very important, that way they can prevent run-off and keep topsoil and nutrients on the land.
The Soilmentor app allows Hannah to monitor how the soil is changing, and if she is in fact moving towards her goals to build soil health at the farm. Her first soil tests clearly show where she started, and with testing every 6 months, she will quickly get an idea for how the soil is changing with each new farm decision and management practise put in place. Plus it can be fun! Hannah said “I particularly enjoy the earthworm tests, identifying the different types of earthworms is very interesting. The infiltration rate is also very interesting, it was completely different in our pasture vs roto-tilled veg plots. I feel like I’m understanding more about soils all the time.”
For Hannah it’s very important to become a financially viable small scale and diverse farm, with a social impact. As the farm is in its first year, Hannah and the team are figuring out what the land would be best used for, and the soil tests will give a good indication of things to try out. By monitoring and understanding the soil health now, she has taken important first steps to ensure healthy soils on the farm.
What are Hannah’s management objectives?
Increase soil health on the farm
Understand best grazing techniques and optimise grass growth
Maintain and increase biodiversity above and below ground
What is Hannah measuring?
% 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?
Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rosehttps://soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1_HKEsC3DdFD9mC8NAqwNHKQ.jpg800600SoilmentorSoilmentor//soils.vidacycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/vidacycle_sml-2.png
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.
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 (read more about them here) 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. This is why I think farmers such as Ian, Fidelity and Tim have also been so excited using the app, doing the simple soil tests themselves — we are empowering farmers to take the ‘pulse’ of their soils.
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.
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!
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.