Regenerative Farming

The new science behind biodiversity, cover crops and building the soil sociobiome: learnings from Dr. Christine Jones

The new science behind biodiversity, cover crops and building the soil sociobiome: learnings from Dr. Christine Jones 1120 770 Soilmentor

The new science behind biodiversity, cover crops and building the soil sociobiome: learnings from Dr. Christine Jones

US-based cover crop supplier Green Cover Seed have recently hosted a fascinating 4-part webinar series with Dr. Christine Jones. We definitely encourage you to watch them, but to get you started we’ve pulled together some of the key insights from these videos, with a focus on what these teachings mean for farmers on a regenerative journey.

Our main takeaway is that growing a diversity of living plants is the most important focus on any farm aiming to build healthy soil. This is a topic that has been discussed in the regenerative farming community for a while, but Christine shares how soil science is beginning to explain the mechanisms occurring between diverse living roots and the soil microbiome (the makeup of fungi and bacteria). 

It is clear that diversity aboveground is directly linked to diversity belowground, and diversity belowground is linked to the health and carbon storage capability of the soil as well as pest and disease resistance of any plants communing with that soil – there’s no doubt that these outcomes are of real significance for any farmer! 

So how does this all work, and what are the key messages for growers learning to regenerate their piece of earth? We’ve pulled out three main areas that Christine shared about:

  1. The fungal energy pathway and the microbiome

Christine cites some of the papers presented at the Wageningen Soil Conference we wrote about here, emphasising that the early model of the soil food web is beginning to be replaced by a new, more dynamic model. Previous models of the soil carbon pathway were fairly linear, with carbon entering the soil through breakdown of above ground matter and detritus by larger organisms and fungi, propelled by a chain of soil organisms eating another. It is now understood that this ‘decomposer’ food web pathway is only responsible for small amounts of carbon entering soils. We are beginning to replace this conventional soil food web diagram with a new model, with fungi at the forefront. 

It is now understood that the vast majority of carbon entering soils does so through the ‘fungal energy channel’, which Christine also refers to as the liquid carbon pathway. Essentially, living plants use sunlight and atmospheric CO2 to photosynthesise, creating sugars (carbon) which are channelled down into the roots and released in the form of root exudates to the surrounding soil. These exudates are consumed by a multitude of fungal and bacterial communities, which transport carbon compounds around the soil. 

A healthy microbiome (dominated by saprotrophic and symbiotic fungi) will stabilise the majority of this carbon within the soil. It is this process of moving carbon from the air into stable soil compounds which is referred to as the fungal energy channel (1). This fungal network is also responsible for supplying energy to bacterial communities producing plant-available phosphorus and fixing nitrogen into the soil. 

The health of your soil is a key determinant of how well the fungal energy channel works, and a simple way to observe this pathway in action is by looking for rhizosheaths, as evidence of fungal hyphae feeding off sugars exuded from plant roots (and fixing nitrogen). You can keep a record of your farm’s score for rhizosheaths at set sample locations in your Soilmentor app – this test is one of our Regen Indicators

The diversity of plants growing in the soil is core to improving your fungal pathway. This is true for a number of different reasons:

  1. Structure: A variety of different leaf structures increases opportunity for photosynthesis with more light interception, increasing the rate at which root exudates draw down carbon through the fungal pathway.
  2. Microbe sharing: Plants from different functional groups cooperate with each other, and are able to recruit microbes from each other’s microbiome, as long as the roots are able to mingle near each other. E.g. If you grow a grass alongside a drought-tolerant herb in a low rainfall scenario, the grass can signal to microbes alongside the roots of neighbouring plants that have drought-tolerant characteristics. The grass may then ingest these microbes as endophytes (so they become part of the plants internal microbiome), which ‘switch on’ certain genes in the plant to thicken cell walls for water retention, making the grass more drought tolerant. When drought pressure subsides, the grass can then expel the endophyte and the genes are switched off again (2).
  3. Fungi thrive: The microbial makeup of your soil more or less determines the likelihood that carbon levels will build up in the soil rather than being respired away. A higher proportion of carbon is stored in a stable form in fungally dominated soils, which allows for high activity in the fungal energy pathway. The fungi community thrive when there is greater diversity of plant functional groups present!

Green Cover Seed webinar 4/4
Christine sharing about a diverse companion cropped field

The message from Christine is to prioritise diversity, without necessarily focusing on mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizal associations are amazing – but they represent just one part of the fungal story, and as long as you include one mycorrhizal plant in a cover crop mix, you’ll allow for a mycorrhizal network to build below ground. Other cover crop species without mycorrhizal associations may be equally important in the fungal energy channel. 

2. The importance of signalling chemicals – the language of the microbiome

You can think of soil as a complex network of microbial life. This microbial community is fed by the aboveground world through plant roots and their exudates, and these microbes send out signalling chemicals to interact with each other, and with roots in the soil (3). Christine refers to this complex network of connections as the ‘soil sociobiome’. 

One way to activate certain elements of this soil sociobiome is by adding signalling chemicals to the soil ecosystem. Christine defines a biostimulant as a substance that activates dormant microbes in the soil. We learn that the majority of soil microbes exist in a dormant state until they are activated by biochemical signalling.

Christine’s advice is that it is best to apply biostimulants to the seed before sowing (which we’ve heard re-iterated by Nicole Masters and John Kempf), as the most important feature of biostimulants is the signalling chemicals they contain. Ideally, a germinating seed should be forming a strong relationship with soil microbes from the beginning of its life, and establish a healthy endosphere – the microbiome within the plant itself. Adding biostimulants as inoculants for crop planting will maximise these associations at the beginning from crop germination.

We also learn that biostimulants produced through a fermentation method will contain many more signalling chemicals than one from aerobic production methods (e.g. vermicompost, korean natural farming, bokashi). These chemicals have been observed to persist in the soil across multiple generations of plants, so the effects on the soil microbiome can last across multiple harvests (4). 

N.B. Vermicompost is considered a fermented product due to processes in the worm’s gut causing fermentation.

Green Cover Seed webinar 1/4
Christine sharing a microscopic image of fungal hypae on roots

3. Reduced pest & disease pressure

Increased plant diversity also increases crop resistance to pests and diseases. Christine refers to expanses of monoculture as a “recipe for disaster” in terms of pest pressure. 

The buffer against pest pressure is not always about eliminating the pest or disease, but about supporting the crop to be more resilient, and equipped to fight infection and remain productive. There are more microbial cells in plants than there are plant cells, and this ‘endosphere’ of bacteria, archaea & fungi moving around among the cells of the plants are capable of supporting the plant to resist pest and disease damage. 

Plants ‘call for help’ when they are under attack from pests or diseases, and free living microbes in the soil can be ingested to support a defence against this attack (2). This call for help will go unanswered if the soil microbiome lacks sufficient health to respond. The solution is to ensure diverse cover crop species are planted alongside crops to support proper functioning of the soil microbiome, so soil microbes can be internalised by distressed crops through roots when needed. 

Green Cover Seed webinar 1/4
Figure from a paper (Gopal & Gupta) – the sociobiome

Key actions to take from these webinars

  • Keep ground covered with diverse living roots for as much of the year as possible. If your soil is left bare, your soil microbiome will deteriorate and carbon will be released from your soil. 
  • Try to include at least 4 different functional groups in cover crop mixes & maximise the opportunity for these crop mixes to interact with each other and with your main crop below ground. One case study mix that Christine mentions is of four species – radish (brassica), oats (grass family), sunflower (aster family) and phacelia (borage family). The key here is that each of these plants belong to different functional groups, allowing for maximum benefit in the soil sociobiome. Despite the fact that none of these plants are legumes, this mix still allows for nitrogen fixing and availability, and outperformed mixes of only legume species in field trials. 
  • Application of biostimulants to seeds before planting will support the fungal pathway (e.g Johnson-Su compost, vermicompost or bokashi). 
  • Fungicides are the most detrimental agrichemical to the fungal energy pathway. Experiment with reducing / removing fungicide spray rounds across your farm, alongside biostimulant application & diverse cropping. 

Farmerama #73: Nicole Masters on the Regen Platform

Farmerama #73: Nicole Masters on the Regen Platform 1000 668 Soilmentor

Nicole Masters interview on Farmerama:
The Regen Platform

Episode #73 of Farmerama Radio featured Abby interviewing Nicole Masters on the power of digging a hole, the inspiration behind the Regen Indicators, and how the Soilmentor Regen Platform can support a regenerative transition.

Tune into the full episode below (or on your preferred podcast platform):

Do you dig holes on your farm? Does the Regen Platform sound interesting to you? Get in touch with us at info@vidacycle.com – we’d love to hear from you 🙂

The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset – ORFC 2022

The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset – ORFC 2022 2796 1478 Soilmentor

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.

The Soilmentor Regen Platform is here!

The Soilmentor Regen Platform is here! 2665 1961 Soilmentor

🌱 The Soilmentor Regen Platform is live 🌱

The Soilmentor Regen Platform is here! We’re so excited to be launching this addition to Soilmentor, created in collaboration with Nicole Masters and the brilliant team at Integrity Soils.

The Soilmentor Regen Platform gives you access to clear benchmarking of the Regen Indicators – 10 soil metrics compiled with Nicole, which represent key aspects of soil health. Your results for each of these Regen Indicators will appear as a traffic light in the Regen Platform – either red (critical measure), amber (early warning alert), or green (great result).

From the regen scorecard you can quickly identify potential problem areas and click into the relevant Regen Indicators to explore them further. Every result you log in the Soilmentor Regen Platform comes with regenerative pointers from Nicole, providing explanations for each result, and things to consider for your future management. These considerations are bespoke to your field’s soil type, rainfall level and biome (learn more about these classifiers here). 

We are proud to include leading organisations such as Yeo Valley and their supplier network, and EIT’s Regenerative Agriculture Transition Program in Southern Europe as early adopters of the Soilmentor Regen Platform. We created this toolkit with Nicole to empower farmers to monitor and build on a variety of soil metrics that reflect the importance of taking a diverse & holistic approach to soil and farm management. We’re excited to support farmers and organisations to learn from Nicole’s insights and knowledge in the Regen Platform.

Working with Nicole on the Regen Platform was the perfect fit – her insights are deeply rooted in the importance of observation, supporting mindset shifts, and building diversity and microbiome health in soils. We couldn’t be more excited to support this approach. Nicole’s book ‘For the Love of Soil’ is a firm favourite of ours, and we can also highly recommend her online course as an excellent companion to the outcomes-based learning supported by the Soilmentor Regen Platform!

Soilmentor X The Regenerative Platform

Soilmentor X The Regenerative Platform 2330 1260 Soilmentor

Soilmentor & The Regen Platform

We’ve made a video to share a quick look at what Soilmentor currently offers, and a sneak peak of what the Regen Platform will look like as it’s implemented over the next few months. Watch below to find out more!

Explore our website to find out more about Soilmentor, and head to the Integrity Soils website to learn more about their offerings.

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform 1000 668 Soilmentor

In Collaboration with Nicole Masters: Soilmentor Regenerative Platform

We’re thrilled to announce our collaboration with world-renowned soil health specialist and author, Nicole Masters and the team at Integrity Soils. We have read Nicole’s book ‘For the Love of Soil’ and we are in the process of completing her online course – both highly recommended. Nicole shares many of her key insights around moving your mindset, microbes and SOM into a place of resilience and shares the best ways (both observational and lab-based tests) to understand how farm health is changing. Working together feels like a perfect fit to share the power of observational monitoring as farmers move to a regenerative approach – helping to build ecology, profitability and beauty on farms around the world.

Integrity Soils use Soilmentor with their clients across the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, allowing land managers to compare year-on-year how earthworm counts, slake tests, ‘weed’* pressure and much more is changing in each field. It is their key tool for monitoring farm health and providing their regenerative consultancy work on farms. Together we will take Soilmentor to the next level, making it an essential tool for organisations, consultants and farms to practically and simply “measure their soils like a pro!”.

We have joined forces to share our experience of working with farmers, ranchers and scientists, bringing together our knowledge of monitoring, management and observation. Together we are developing the Soilmentor Regenerative Platform, a new and effective method to monitor land health from a regenerative perspective. It is a bespoke dashboard designed to visualise key soil health metrics and biodiversity indicators, and encourage farmers to ask questions about how to manage their land more regeneratively; How biologically active are my soils? How healthy is a crop? Is my farm supporting wildlife? How do I compare with my neighbours?

The platform brings new functionality to our current Soilmentor offering, which already empowers farmers and advisors to easily record results of observational tests in the field. Farmers can compare year on year how earthworm counts, slake tests, pest pressure and much more is changing in each field.

With the Soilmentor Regenerative Platform, organisations will be able to create combined data sets, learning from each other using the metrics they monitor, and creating a picture of landscape level change in these metrics. The Platform will enable farmers to compare their results against scientific benchmarks and other farms in their group. Biological, chemical and physical metrics sit side by side, each playing their part in this more holistic understanding of the farm. Each metric will have a ‘traffic light’ and action, to give a sense of how the farm is performing against benchmarks and encourage farmers to ask questions and take the next steps in their transition to regenerative farming.

The prototype of this new technology was initially developed by Vidacycle working with Elizabeth Stockdale at NIAB, and the Great Soils project in the UK, thanks to SARIC funding. It was a great success, wow-ing farmers, consultants and scientists with its easy interface and clear pathway for understanding soil health monitoring. Collaborating with Integrity Soils builds on the prototype and takes it in a groundbreaking direction by focusing on the mindset and thinking required to farm regeneratively.

The features of the Regenerative Platform will be available over the course of this year to all organisational Soilmentor customers – many of the tools are suited to enabling farmers to learn together and so we are making it available to organisations first. If you are already a Soilmentor, Soilmentor+ or Soilmentor for Groups customer then you will see relevant aspects of the Regenerative Platform becoming available to you over the course of this year. By working together with Integrity Soils every single one of our customers will benefit as their knowledge helps inform how our Soilmentor offering develops.

This is a very exciting step forward and we’d love to hear what you think – get in touch at info@vidacycle.com

*An important distinction in the shift to a regenerative mindset is rethinking what we mean by a weed, and what plants might be telling us when they grow in undesirable places.

Soil learnings from ORFC Global

Soil learnings from ORFC Global 960 1280 Soilmentor

Soil Health Learnings from ORFC Global

Our team had a great time attending ORFC Global last month – it was a real honour to be involved in a truly global event on such a scale, and the diversity of insight and knowledge was so inspiring. We expect it will take quite some time (and several re-watches) to digest all that went on.

We wanted to pull together some of our favourite soil-related moments and learnings from the conference. This is by no means an exhaustive list – the quantity of inspiring sessions from the conference could never be condensed into one blog!


‘Life in the soil under pasture’ – Fidelity Weston, Andrew Neal, Felicity Crotty

This session is full of interesting soil science. Fidelity Weston kicked things off sharing her experience of recently discovering the importance of soil biology on her farm, with the learning that over 95% of life on her livestock farm exists under the soil! We’re really proud to be supporting Fidelity’s soil monitoring with Soilmentor at her farm.

Professor Andrew Neal is a microbiologist at Rothamsted Research, and shared his fascinating soil research. We loved Andrew’s explanation of soil as an “extended composite phenotype of the microbial metagenome” – the concept that soil is nothing without the expression of the collective microbial genome that exists within it is a great expression of why soil health matters. It was so encouraging to witness such elaborate discussion of the importance of soil biology – Andrew talked at fascinating length about the importance of understanding soil as a process with biology at the heart of it. He also shared an amazing video of how a soil aggregate would look if you were a microbe – worth a watch!

We also learnt from Dr. Felicity Crotty, soil science and ecology lecturer at the RAU, about the function of larger soil organisms – the meso & macro fauna. Felicity discussed the stability of soil carbon, sharing that half of UK soil carbon is in the top 30cm of the soil. Felicity reiterated that working with the biology in soil is the best way to keep this carbon locked up. It was great to hear soil health reframed by Felicity as soil life in this way, and to learn more about larger soil organisms, such as mites, springtails and earthworms, that we know play a hugely important role in the soil food web.


‘Species-rich Grassland Restoration’ –  Honor May Eldridge, Precious Phiri, Emma Rothoro, Diana Donlon

This panel discussion chaired by Honor May Eldridge from Plantlife brought together insights from a range of different grasslands around the world. All of the panellists spoke to the importance of grassland habitats for plant and animal diversity, and how human interaction is an important part of stewarding these landscapes for the benefit of the ecosystems they support.

Precious Phiri, of Regeneration International, is a holistic management educator and specialist in regenerative agriculture in Zimbabwe. She shared her learnings from managing and regenerating African arid rangeland, showing some amazing before & after photos of the restoration of desertified land using rotational holistic grazing. Precious also spoke to the positive impacts that grassland regeneration has had on surrounding pastoral communities.

Diana Donlon is co-founder of Soil-Centric, a Californian non-profit created to increase engagement in regenerative agriculture. She explained the impact that recent wildfires have had on the public feeling around a need for regeneration, and how grasslands are a more reliable store of carbon than forest in areas that are prone to fire.

Emma Rothoro is outreach coordinator for the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. Emma discussed the importance of restoring and maintaining ancient floodplain meadow habitats, which make up around 7% of European land (although many are degraded). Emma explained how haycutting is an important part of floodplain meadow management, and how cutting does not interfere with the abundance of diverse perennial herbs, which efficiently share space above and below ground. We learnt that floodplain meadow plants have roots that grow up to several metres deep, which allows for even carbon distribution in these habitats.


The Healing Role of Farming in Rebuilding Rural Lives After Conflict – Mambud Samai, John Meadley

This session, led by John Meadley of the PFLA, told the inspiring stories of farming ventures in Liberia and Sierra Leone. These projects show the power of farming in addressing trauma after conflict, to build hope and dignity in communities that have been affected by war. John spoke about his work to save seeds from deforested areas, facilitating tree nurseries and providing saplings to thousands of farmers in war torn areas.

Mambud Samai is the founder of a 10 acre amputee football permaculture garden (SLASA) that is regenerating soil, producing nutritious food, and creating employment in rural Sierra Leone. We are honoured to be supporting this SLASA project with Soilmentor as they build their soil health with crop rotation and compost application. It was inspiring hearing about Mambud’s seed saving projects, and to see photos of the SLASA garden’s education and outreach, spreading knowledge and learnings to surrounding farmers and families.


Entangled Lives: Fungal Networks, Ecology, and Us – Merlin Sheldrake, Charles Foster

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and author of ‘Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.’ This session was a deep dive into the hugely diverse and ubiquitous kingdom of fungi: from their evolution, to how they influence the world we live in. This talk again reinforced the importance of soil biology in building resilience in an ecosystem – Merlin referred to fungi as the immune system of the plants they support, building disease resistance, and ensuring roots are nourished.

One theme that seemed to regularly emerge during ORFC Global was the importance of indigenous wisdom in farming. This was a real reminder of the role of humans in regeneration, and the importance of considering farmers a member of the ecosystem they are farming, rather than seeing ourselves as outsiders. In Rebecca Hosking’s talk, ‘Sharing the Land with All Life’, she shared that land managed by indigenous communities has been found to be consistently more biodiverse than land set aside as ‘nature reserves’ away from human stewardship.

It’s interesting to consider that the culturally ingrained sense that humans are ‘other’ from their environment may legitimise extractive land management, and that a greater sense of connectedness to fellow animals and the environment is perhaps needed to heal our relationship with land, and bring about regeneration. The interconnectedness of soil life also came up in several sessions during ORFC Global. We are excited to keep learning from the beautiful complexity of life in the soil, and continue to support farmers to steward the soil, nourish plants and animals, and build resilience on the land with Soilmentor.

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Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm

Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm 1600 1200 Soilmentor

Case Study: Sam and Claire Beaumont, Gowbarrow Hall Farm

Gowbarrow Hall Farm is an upland farm in the Lake District, run by Sam and Claire Beaumont and their family. They returned to the farm three years ago, which had been managed intensively by a local sheep grazier since the 1990s. Nitrogen was regularly used to improve the pasture, increasing grass growth which was cut and taken off the farm. Continuous fertiliser inputs and overgrazing disrupted the natural system, leading to a decline in soil biology, biodiversity and plantlife.

Sam and Claire have been working with Caroline Grindrod of Wilderculture to develop a blended regenerative and rewilding approach on the farm, to naturally regenerate the landscape. They gradually took back parts of the farm from the grazier, bringing in a small herd of Shorthorn cattle as well as a few Cumbrian Fell ponies and Kunekune pigs. They want to grow forage without inputs, using grazing and long rest periods, while restoring soil health, building biodiversity, and producing nutrient dense food.

Previously the sheep were grazing wood pasture in the parkland in summer, allowing hay to be cut on the meadows. This system was turned on it’s head with Caroline’s help; the cattle are now mob-grazed on the meadows in summer, and outwintered on standing hay in the wood pasture and woodland in the old parkland. The small number of fell ponies and pigs remain in the parkland all year round.

Claire and Sam are using Soilmentor to monitor their soil health and get instant feedback on how their management is supporting the awakening of soil organisms belowground.

Photo Credit: Anthony Cullen

“It was amazing to see the differences in the profile between the soil under hedgerows and the soil under pasture that has been over grazed for years. I saw a clear, dark topsoil layer in the hedgerow but out in the middle of the field the soil was yellow and there were no obvious layers. Doing VESS scores has been so interesting, looking closely at how the soil crumbles and even smelling it! We can already see a huge improvement in soil structure in the fields we’re mob grazing – it’s all down to rest.

Soilmentor is a great way to monitor what’s happening with our soil as it changes – we’re excited to see how it progresses. We love looking back at photos of our soil health on Soilmentor, and it is so useful to have the exact gps locations tagged for every soil sample site.”

Below is an example from their meadows of how the soil has changed since being rested in the winter and mob grazed in the summer. The left photo was taken in September 2019, and is noticeably more blocky than the right hand photo taken in October 2020. Bobbly, crumb like soil structure is appearing as the soil biology is being fed with manure and root exudates. Long rests allow the forage to grow up tall, not only providing more feed for the cattle, but also assisting the development of extensive root networks, increasing the capacity for nutrient exchange between the plants and the soil organisms.

The farm is beginning to regenerate naturally, as the soil biology and dormant seed bank start to awaken, allowing plants that have been overgrazed and outcompeted to spring into life. “We’ve got tons of forage now and we are seeing diversity return to the meadows. There is a lot more cocksfoot grass which has dense root networks and we are even seeing docks in a new light; they are excellent at breaking through compaction layers with their deep tap roots. We were thrilled to hear the call of a curlew when we stopped cutting the meadows for hay.”

In the parkland native wildflowers like Devil’s Scabious and tree saplings are popping up in the summer. Wildlife is moving in; little burrows are littered across the rough ground, and barn owls are returning to the farm.

We recently visited Gowbarrow Hall Farm for some soil testing with Caroline Grindrod – it was fantastic to see the natural regeneration first hand, and we look forward to following their regenerative journey.

Protected: Beneficial insect focus: Look after your beneficials over winter – Ben Harrington, Edaphos

Protected: Beneficial insect focus: Look after your beneficials over winter – Ben Harrington, Edaphos 889 500 Soilmentor

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Wet on Top — Dry Underneath – Guest Post by Niels Corfield

Wet on Top — Dry Underneath – Guest Post by Niels Corfield 1500 843 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, Independent Farming Advisor and Educator. Learn about his courses here.

The winter of 2019/20 was challenging for farmers to say the least. Incessant rain meaning fields were not accessible, and winter crops were not sowed, large areas of flat or low lying country flooded (sometimes repeatedly) and otherwise generally redefining the concept of mud.

By springtime, what was the ground like out there? Wet, soft, or already hardening-up? Chances are it was the latter. So how can this be, after the wettest winter in living memory? When the ground across the farm (and the country), it seems, was saturated.

What if I said, that it’s the same root cause that produces both drought and flooding? That your farm, whether it be cropping or grazing, organic or conventional can be reworked to be both drought-proof and immune to extreme rain events. Sound too good to be true? Well read on.

If it’s not there when it’s wet, it’s not there when it’s dry

First we better rewind a few steps and show so how it is that a single causal factor is responsible for droughts and flooding.

This single causal factor means that on the one hand (in 2018) we were feeding-out first-cut silage and achieving little or no grain-fill and this winter we ended-up with maize harvests that looked like the battle of the Somme (reparable but not good optics).

Management Dictates Infiltration

Time to Infiltrate 1″ of Water: 7 seconds (field margin, at left) — 20+mins (reseeded pasture)

Above we see two spade samples of the same soil type on the same day, margin on the left and grazed pasture on the right, recently reseeded.

Simply put, the causal factor is a lack of infiltration (or low infiltration rates) in all but the lightest or stoniest of soils — and a lack of water retention in these soils. The water that falls as rain has only one of two places to go – either into (and through) the soil OR away as runoff.

If your soil is very light or naturally free draining that water will go straight through, and in heavier soils that water will run-off. In both cases that water has left and has not been retained within the soil profile.

But our soils were clearly saturated this winter, I hear you say! How can you be suggesting there’s a lack of infiltration?
Well, the experience is, that it’s the surface of these soils that was at capacity, the bulk soil was dry, often very dry. See soil pictured below for an illustration.

Soil Sample: well hydrated in top 2″, dry below. Standing water and loamy soils.

You’ve got one chance, and one chance only, to get the water into your soil and that’s when it rains, as infiltration.

Without infiltration that water will run off. It’s a simple choice – where would we prefer to have our rainfall: in the soil where it can grow crops and forage, or in the valleys where it fills up like a bathtub: damaging property, and causing travel disruption and economic impact?

It seems counter-intuitive to say we want more water in our soils, given the experiences of winter we’ve just had. Surely, all that mud and saturation wants to be mitigated, by drainage or other means?

Well, no, in a word.

What we are looking for is deep penetration into – and through the soil profile.

Structure

So what does this mean? What is this indicative of?

Simply that these soils lack pore space. They often are blocky and consolidated and largely just structured in their “native”, mineral state (where all the soil particles are bonded to each other, in a tight crystalline state). These bonds are strong, but brittle, so when they fail, they may well “cleave” along fault lines, revealing: cracks, jagged edges and angular shapes.

At the landscape scale what features do we associate with these terms (and shapes)?

Generally: cliffs, rock faces, and mountains. And what is the study of these materials and these types of features? It’s geology.
Simply put, if your soil looks and behaves like geology: it shatters, cracks or cleaves, has the appearance of rocks or stone, it is geology.

Which makes sense because the sand, silt and clay is basically just ground up rock. However, when we refer to soil that’s just sand, silt and clay, it’s subsoil (in old money). Fundamentally, the difference between subsoil and topsoil is that topsoil is subsoil that has been acted upon by biology.

And what is biology’s influence on the soil structure? Primarily the creation of pore space. Converting the soil from its native, homogeneous state where the soil particles “pack” readily, into to a heterogeneous state, binding together disparate soil particles into crumbs or “aggregates” with a network of internal voids running between them.

Just as a biscuit maker converts base ingredients, flour and sugar, into crumbs with the addition of a binding agent, like butter. Where the flour and sugar particles are effectively the same size as one another, but once the binding agent is added those crumbs that result now have a large variation in size, from something like a bowling ball down to a golf ball.

In the case of the soil, our sugar is analogous to sand (coarse, granular), while the clay is analogous to flour (since if you purchase dried clay it comes bagged, as a powder). In soil, the aggregates are bound together by sticky substances like polysaccharides (carbohydrates) that are secreted by organisms like bacteria. In the same way that if you’ve ever got slug trail on your clothing it goes on sticky, cannot easily be washed off and sets hard, in other words these compounds are glue-like in nature.

So, we can say that soil aggregates are literally glued together by the secretions of biology.

This is what gives soil it’s friable crumbly and easily workable texture.

Fundamentally it’s this crumb structure and the pore space that facilitates infiltration. Over and above what the native soil does alone.

Moreover, with light soils these crumbs increase the surface area and with-it water holding capacity making them more moisture retentive. Since these surfaces of the aggregates are places where water films form. And it’s these billions of tiny water films throughout the soil volume that gives it its water holding capacity.
In heavy soils the opposite is the case, it serves to make the soil more free-draining. By opening up the dense structure and introducing pore spaces. Spaces that are interconnected, through which rainfall can easily percolate whilst also collecting around the aggregates as water films.
In both cases this forms a water reserve that can be drawn upon by crops and forages in the sunny, warm periods that are optimal for growth and grain fill.

So, with the exception of a small number of self-aggregating soils, crumb structure is entirely a product of biological activity and an expression of the carbon cycle in action, as these are carbon-based compounds, derived from plants, often root exudates (sugars).

It’s these processes at play in the above example comparing margin with reseeded pasture

Management Determines Infiltration Rates

So, what can you do, how can you achieve this friable structure without necessarily going to grass? Simply put, apply the soil health principles at every stage of your cropping and management practices.

Pasture vs Covered Arable vs Bare Arable (Photo: LSU AgCenter)

Simply put here in the UK we are not victims of either too much or too little rainfall, just inadequate infiltration or retention. In a cropping situation it’s not only the lack of pore space but also surface capping (from rainsplash etc)

As Yoda might say:
“Hmm, not how much it rains that matters, how much we retain, it does.”

So in one fell swoop by fixing infiltration we not only do ourselves a favour: eliminating muddy conditions and poor field access options early and late season, we also optimise production through seasons like 2018.

Learn all about soil health and regenerative farming! Upcoming courses and workshops by Niels Corfield: Specialist Training courses for farmers, growers & land managers.

Courses focus on soil health and include specific courses for pasture, arable and horticulture. As well as regenerative grazing and whole farm planning.

All courses are now online.
Find out more HERE

Soilmentor makes it easy to monitor infiltration rates over time – discover how well your land is soaking up water now, and see how changes in management impact/improve infiltration rates (and other metrics!).