Soil Health

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Nutrient Analyses

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Nutrient Analyses 784 1090 Soilmentor

Soil Lab Test Series #2: Soil Nutrient Analyses

This is the second post in the Soilmentor Soil Lab Test Blog Series exploring soil lab analyses, what we can learn from them, and where to get them done. In this blog we look at soil nutrient analyses, and we’ll be exploring leaf and tissue analysis, and SOM / SOC tests in future posts. We explored soil biodiversity tests in the first post in this series, you can read it here.

We’re often asked for lab test recommendations, and although we don’t offer them directly with Soilmentor, we want to support you in choosing which tests you can learn from, and to keep building your soil health.

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily see these tests as essential for understanding your soil health – every system is different and many people get great results by simply observing their soil with in-field tests. It’s important to consider soil sample testing as a snapshot of your soils at one moment in time. Soils are dynamic, so we keep testing and monitoring over time to understand the full soil health picture.

There are many parameters to consider when looking at soil nutrients, and there will always be variability in what comes up in different areas of the farm. Nutrients need to be in an available form to be taken up by plant roots, and this can be hard to accurately measure. In some cases, soil nutrient tests have shown severe deficiencies, while plants growing from the same soil show optimum nutrient levels! Nutrient interactions in the soil are complex, so it’s important to look at your soil more holistically, and look for signals of soil biology and good structure, too. We find simple tests like VESS and the slake test are just as important when indicating your overall soil health, and should always be done alongside lab tests.

If you want to add your lab tests to be viewed alongside other tests in Soilmentor, this is possible for key results in the Soilmentor lab tests category. We also work with some fantastic soil advisors who help you to understand your soils and soil test results. If you’d like us to put you in touch with an advisor, let us know.

Soil Nutrient Analyses

Soil nutrient analyses quantify the nutrients in your soil, suggesting which minerals and nutrients your soil may be deficient in, to inform future inputs and management. This information can help locate problem areas on your farm, and allow for more efficient fertiliser or mineral application, or cover crop plantation.

Most soil nutrient analyses will also include a pH test of your soil, as this is likely to affect the solubility of minerals and nutrients, and the activity of microorganisms. Generally speaking, a pH of 6-7 is thought to promote ready availability of plant nutrients. CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) tests are also normally included in nutrient testing. CEC tests tell you the negative charge of your soil, which is another measure of the extent to which soil particles can attract and hold onto dissolved nutrients. Simply put, soils with a higher CEC are able to hold onto more nutrients needed for growing, although this varies depending on which nutrients you’re hoping to retain, and what proportion of nutrients your soil has in the first place!

Where to get your soil nutrient analysis measured

  • Albion Laboratory provide comprehensive soil mineral, pH and CEC analysis with a range of package options – see more here.
  • Lancrop offer a wide range of soil analysis options for pH and available nutrients.

We have never personally sent soil samples to any of these companies, so we are really keen to hear people’s feedback! This list is also by no means exhaustive – if you have any good suggestions for us to add or any other feedback, please let us know at info@vidacycle.com.

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Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing

Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing 1654 984 Soilmentor

Soil Lab Test Series #1: Soil Biodiversity Testing

This is the first post in the Soilmentor Soil Lab Test Blog Series exploring soil lab analyses, what we can learn from them, and where to get them done. In this blog we look at soil biodiversity tests, and we’ll be exploring nutrient analysis, leaf and tissue analysis, and SOM / SOC tests in future posts.

We’re often asked for lab test recommendations, and although we don’t offer them directly with Soilmentor, we want to support you in choosing which tests you can learn from, and to keep building your soil health.

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily see these tests as essential for understanding your soil health – every system is different and many people get great results by simply observing their soil with in-field tests. It’s important to consider soil sample testing as a snapshot of your soils at one moment in time. Soils are dynamic, so we keep testing and monitoring over time to understand the full soil health picture.

If you want to add your lab tests to be viewed alongside other tests in Soilmentor, this is possible for key results in the Soilmentor lab tests category. We work with some fantastic soil advisors who help you to understand your soils and soil test results. If you’d like us to put you in touch with an advisor, let us know.

Soil Biodiversity Testing

Soil biodiversity tests quantify your “underground herd” (as Nicole Masters puts it in her book, ‘For the Love of Soil). Understanding the proportions of different microbes living in your soil ecosystem helps to inform what kind of management techniques would support a balanced soil food web – and balance is key, as soils that are dominated by one type of microbe can lead to problems.

For example, a disrupted ratio of fungi:bacteria in your soil can be an early warning of soil health issues. Fungi and bacteria occupy different habitats within the soil, and have different roles and diets. Productive and healthy agricultural soils tend to have a fungi:bacteria ratio close to 1:1, so learning where your soil sits on this ratio can help you to manage your soils to encourage more bacteria or fungi as necessary. The proportions of bacteria and fungi also have a knock-on effect to other soil microbe communities, such as protists, viruses and nematodes. Following the Soil Health Principles is the best way to keep these soil communities in harmonious balance, and observation and testing is the best way to understand where action may need to be taken.

mycorrhizae roots

Fungal mycorrhizal associations with roots. Image source here.

Where to get your soil biodiversity measured

  • MicroBIOMETER is a global company that offers microbial biomass tests that can be done with a starter kit in the field – no need to send your samples off for soil analysis. Their ‘lab grade’ tests also indicate the fungi:bacteria ratio in your soils, and results can be returned in as little as 20 minutes, removing the risk of your sample degrading on its way to the lab. In the UK, you can order a microbiometer testing kit by contacting Jack Ingle here. If you’re not in the UK, get in contact with the MicroBIOMETER team on their website to find out how best to get a kit!
  • Lancrop offer microbial mass tests for identifying fungal:bacterial ratios of your soil in the UK. You can enquire about Lancrop’s services on their website here.
  • Yara offer soil biology ratio tests as part of their UK soil health testing package – you can enquire for more information on their website here.

We have never personally sent soil samples to any of these companies, so we are really keen to hear people’s feedback! This list is also by no means exhaustive – if you have any good suggestions for us to add or any other feedback, please let us know at info@vidacycle.com

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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.

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!).

After the rain — How to get more forage from your pasture – Guest post by Niels Corfield

After the rain — How to get more forage from your pasture – Guest post by Niels Corfield 2592 1936 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, soil health, agroforestry and whole farm planning advisor, researcher and advocate.

What can we do to capitalise on rain when it comes; so we can get more forage and improve the health of our pasture and animals? I’m going to present some observations from pastures around the UK. Along with what I feel are the key opportunities available to graziers (in the West at least).

Key Observations
Below are 2 pics of the same spot in a permanent pasture. What is a fairly typical situation. What can we glean from them?

Firstly, and most importantly, there are clear bare patches. There could be as much as 50% bare soil, in this case.

These images are following a grazing event (in this case rotational grazing). This type of situation may well be similar to what is revealed after a hay cut, although in this case a low “sward density” maybe a more representative way to quantify the amount of bare soil, since much of the soil after a hay cut will be covered with residues (which is good but is only short term) and otherwise covered by leaves, though still open at the base — leaving space (bare soil) between the plants.

Bare patches in the pasture (as in all soils) are a weakness since it’s a place where water and carbon are lost, and soil health is declining. But they may also be an opportunity.

Ideally, there is no bare soil in pasture, it being covered by living plants, a tight/dense sward, with a closed canopy.

See here for details on recording bare soil in pasture.

Ideally these areas are covered with residues (litter or mulch). In a grazing situation, this would be the product of high stock density grazing management, where low utilisation rates leave residuals that are trampled on to the soil surface, see brief discussion on this topic in earlier article here.

A more ideal solution to this is to have a dense sward with leaves and turf tight enough that it forms a closed canopy that covers the soil surface.

We’ll focus on this second approach and see about turning this problem into a solution.

Selecting Options

Establishing seed into existing leys or pasture is notoriously tricky. In this piece I will not focus on the nuance of this process. Except to say that when selecting methods available to you, whether through contract work or doing it your selves, those options that score higher on the soil health principles should be preferred, see above. With obviously the plough down reseeding scoring pretty low.

A few of the standard methods are outlined below:

Ensuring Good Establishment

Broadcast Overseeding
In this case, where we have a high degree of bare soil, broadcasting is an option that is highly indicated. Basically, spinning-on a mixture of seed. Though slot seeding is still a good option, see below. Where considering broadcasting, there are a few things to bear in mind to get a good take:

1.Improve seed-to-soil contact by rolling or trampling
Cambridge rollers, cultipackers etc are suitable for this purpose as well as, grazing livestock at high stock densities — 100,000+kg live weight/ha, for a day or less (aka mob grazing) after broadcasting. Both these practices could be combined with mulching, or bale grazing, see below.

2.Retain soil moisture by covering soil
Even when there has been a lot of rain, it’s still a good idea to maintain that soil moisture, to improve the take.
Do this by spreading loose materials like straw, woodchip etc. To mulch the soil and keep the soil surface damp.
See pics below for illustration. And further discussion in mob grazing section at foot of earlier piece here.

3.Offer fodders in the field (while still moving the animals)
There’s a few different ways to cut this. But basically keeping the animals in the field and keeping them moving, ideally in tight groups, will aid the process of seed establishment. Different options include: bale grazing and green hay strewing.

Both methods mean being able to keep the animals in the field (when there’s insufficient forage left) and, particularly when combined with high stock density grazing they are ways to:

– tread-in seed — see point 1, above
– dung and urine densely — seeds will grow under pats
– provide some residues to cover seeds and retain moisture
– introduce perennial pasture seeds back into the pasture

In fact these solutions provide most of the functions required to achieve good take: seed contact, covered soil, seeds.
While also keeping animals out in the field, removing the need for muck handling in the yard. And providing better conditions for animals, than indoors.

Legume seedlings germinating in manure pile

Slot Seeding
Another option for establishing seed into pasture, perhaps where bare soil is less prevalent, and the appropriate kit is available, is slot seeding.
Drilling, rather than broadcasting means the seed will have the better seed-to-soil contact. It will also be placed below the surface where the soil moisture will be higher, at least nominally.
It is certainly more frugal with seed.
Perhaps the main drawback with this option, is that in these very dry conditions it may be difficult to penetrate the soil surface.
Either way, where the kit is available, this method is perhaps the most robust and economic — when it comes to seed, at least.

What Seeds to Sow

Making Initial Selections
We’ve talked about establishment options. So what’s the best seed to actually sow in the pasture? Given that we have run out of forage (due to a lack of regrowth) and we have a degree of dormancy in our pastures.
What might our selection criteria be for selecting plant species:

  1. Fast growth — forage available this season
  2. Bulk — lot’s of dry matter to make up for the short-fall
  3. Nutritious — ensuring sufficient animal performance

So, what type of plants meet these criteria?
Annuals, diverse mixes of them.

Why Annuals, What’s Wrong with Pasture Grasses etc?
Well in a word growth rate — annuals need to complete their lifecycle in a year or less (so it’s a sprint race for them), in that time they can grow tall and produce a lot of bulk and their seed is cheap. You might even have some in the shed right now.
In this case particularly, as a way to get an early bite, and to beat the season, they are highly indicated.
Coupled with that the option to use warm season species (those adapted for hot dry conditions) they’re doubly indicated.

How to get the best return on investment? Sow mixes of annuals.

Compared to this pasture species are perennials, they are: generally slower growing, slower to establish and typically much smaller plants (adapted for multiple grazing events in one season). This is all related to their life cycle of multiple year.
It’s not to say that they can’t be included in a seed mix for sowing now, but with annuals. There’s also the small consideration of seed cost. And grass seeds are on the upper end, needing to be purchased from specialists seed merchants. Another indication for hay strewing or bale grazing.

Principles of Diversity & Soil Health
One of the most important of the soil health principles is diversity. The key insight being that a diversity of plants feeds a diversity of organisms. This diversity is regarded as the key to soil organic matter formation and to a balanced diet for plants, as each organism has it’s own nutrient mineralising specialisms. Ensuring a better diet for animals.
Diversity is also correlated with increased yield.
This is where cover crops and pasture species, being mixes, really excel, compared to crops which have their own restrictions, tending to monocrops.
Once you add-in annuals into the mix, alongside perennials, you really can push the diversity lever up to 11!
Experience has also shown pasture cropping examples, like this, that have resulted in step-changes in soil aggregation, with all those extra living roots pumping-out exudates into the pasture.

Diversity in Action
When it comes to diversity, how much is enough? And what should you choose? Given there’s so much choice.
Thankfully there’s some simple rules, we have been offered from US practitioners, that we can follow:

  1. 8x species (or more) is a sweet spot, for soil health benefits, from
  2. 3 out of 4 functional groups

Functional Groups
What are these functional groups, and why are they important?
Well they give us some pointers as well as narrowing-down the options somewhat. They are:

  • Warm season grasses
  • Cool season grasses
  • Warm season broadleaves
  • Cool season broadleaves

Perhaps this seems like an odd list. And why choose warm season plants for instance?
Well, the first reason is they can actually grow really fast. Due to the fact they photosynthesise using different frequencies of light, more prevalent in strong sun situations. This is why maize is such a high yielding crop, growing to 7′ in a season. These plants are also known as C4 plants.
The other reason we’d select them, in this particular case is due to the fact that we are actually in a warm season, right now. And our pastures (which are all cool season species) have gone dormant or “burned off” because of the extended dry spell. Warm season plants are adapted for these conditions, and have the ability to grow through the “summer slump”. Though establishment is certainly still an issue.

The Specifics
Below is a table of the main species of cover crops.
Remember select 8 or more species from 3 or more of the functional groups.

There’s nothing to stop you using farm-saved seed: peas, oats, wheats etc.
The other option is to source bird seed mixes and feed cereals locally/in bulk. This will certainly bring down the cost, compared to a seed merchant.
In fact there’s a real advantage to doing this as it will allow you to up the seeding rate. If there’s one golden rule with cover crop establishment it’s:

Don’t skimp on seed, too little is as bad as no seed at all.

Putting It All Together

So what might a successful oversowing of annual-based forage mixes look like?
Some examples below. And a few new bits of jargon, all of which are relevant to this situation. Although the text mostly refers to a cropping situation, they are equally suited to pasture, when due diligence is followed around establishment. It’s clear to see that these mixes have the potential to produce large volumes of diverse (quality) forage in a short space of time.
Pasture stitching is the name given to drilling forage crops into pasture.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this piece offers some practical suggestions of what to do in droughted, burnt-off pasture or more generally in tired pasture, when you want to get a forage boost, or provide forage in the off-season, while improving soil health, and with it animal health — through better quality (diverse) forage.

Take Home Messages

  1. Use the soil health principles to inform your decisions and to direct your observations in pasture
  2. Cover bare soil by litter and living plants
  3. Choose rapid growing annual species for instant results
  4. Diverse plantings are preferred, where planting date is appropriate
  5. Keep costs down by: using your own seed/creative sourcing
  6. Experiment, try some different: mixes, seed rates, establishment methods

And for those that want to find out more, or discuss this in more detail please get in touch or consider joining me on one of my soils courses. If you have any thoughts or questions, get in touch: info@nielscorfield.com

Soil health courses & info
https://www.facebook.com/pg/nielscorfieldland/events/

Further Reading
Part 2 — Realising the Promise of Soil Health in Organic Horticulture
https://medium.com/@nielscorfield_90202/no-till-for-growers-realising-the-promise-of-soil-health-in-organic-horticulture-646fd553257

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently!

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently! 559 397 Soilmentor

What does the future hold for farming? Well, the truth is, we don’t have a crystal hoof! But, there is one way to make our farming enterprises resilient, through the wettest of winters and driest of summers. A way of reducing inputs, increasing biodiversity and building a healthy planet. Farming with a focus on regenerating our soils.

We all need to start somewhere on this journey. What does your soil structure look like? Is it compacted? Is your soil at risk of erosion? Is it alive with worms, microbes and fungi? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves as farmers today, and they can be answered by getting out into your fields and observing for yourself.

Whatever type of farm you are, whatever your location, you can benefit from soil monitoring. It is the basis for knowing if your soil is healthy or not and if it supports healthy crops and animals. Without knowing how healthy your soil is, how can you improve it?

Lab tests are only part of the picture, numbers on a page. Soil health analysis is visual, connecting you to your land, monitoring it’s pulse. It is your guide.

But what will you get from soil monitoring? (Apart from muddy fingernails!)

From your first set of tests you create a baseline of your soil health. Straight away you can draw insights from comparing soil test results on fields under different land use. But really the magic happens when you come back to the same sample spots and do these tests again, and again, and again.

Record observations, photograph what you find and save the GPS locations of your sample sites using the Soilmentor app. Next time you can return to the exact same spot on the map and compare it with the last time you were there. Worms love the camera!

Then you will learn if your cover crop roots are improving soil structure, or if your new grazing system is stimulating microbial life and so on. All this information is available to you through simple, low cost tests, and acts as your guide for how to improve your soil health.

Don’t think you’ve got time to go out and dig holes? Think differently!

To be successful at soil monitoring you need to build it into your routine. The first time is always the hardest and perhaps you have another more pressing task (like tidying the farm office!) BUT once you get going, you’ll be hooked.

Day-to-day farming activities you can do when you’re soil monitoring:

Checking livestock
Once you’ve made sure they are all there, no one has jumped the fence and the water trough isn’t overflowing why not fetch your spade, dig a hole and count earthworms? Manure from the beastys feeds dung beetles and worms, so you should find lots of activity.

Crop walking
Heading out to see what growth stage you’re at? This is the time to assess how well your soil is supporting your crops. Is there an area that doesn’t look so good? Perhaps there is a compaction issue, you’ll only know once you get the spade in and do a visual evaluation of soil structure.

Fencing
Need some light relief from moving electric wires or post bashing? It’s likely you’re in fields grazed by our furry and/or feathery friends. Check out the diversity of their forage by throwing a quadrat around and see how what’s growing affects soil biology by doing a slake score.

Taking the dog(s) for a W-A-L-K
We have it on good authority that dogs love to go soil testing, we’ve seen it with our own eyes. They will get a good leg stretch and tail wag as you tour the fields with your spade. They might even carry your quadrat for you.

..and remember, digging one hole is better than digging none. Just dig it!

 

Ready to get started soil monitoring? Check out Soilmentor – a handy smartphone app to record soil test results and photos in field and online account to analyse your observations.

How to store water in your soil and prevent erosion

How to store water in your soil and prevent erosion 4032 3024 Soilmentor

As the weather in the Northern Hemisphere gets rainier going into the Autumn months, the question of our soils’ relationship with water springs to mind. We know that healthy soils absorb much more water than unhealthy soils, and that healthy soil is less likely to degrade into runoff, but what’s the science behind this?

We’ve done some reading around the literature on this subject, to learn how to keep our soils in top shape with regenerative agriculture, and to build a greater resilience to climate extremes like flooding and droughts. 

First, leaving soils uncultivated has been shown to increase the structure of macroaggregates within the soil – many studies show an improved macroaggregate stability in soils under no-till compared with ploughed soil (1,2). This is because the net of undisturbed roots and mycorrhizal hyphae entangle smaller aggregates together, reducing the likelihood of soil runoff during heavy rain, and increasing porosity. You can easily assess the macroaggregate stability of your soil with the VESS test or the Slake test (and the results can then be recorded within our Soilmentor app!). Hopefully, having an awareness of how your soil scores on these tests will help you to understand how to improve your soil health! 

A long-term study found that conservation agriculture plots retained ⅓ more water under both wind and water erosion compared with conventionally tilled plots (3). Reducing wind and water runoff is significant – we know for example that the devastating US ‘Dust Bowl’ in the 1930s was caused by intensive cultivation, and hugely impacted food security at the time – it’s estimated that 300 million tonnes of topsoil was swept up by the wind, destroying crops and killing livestock (4). With extreme weather events increasing due to climate change, building soil resilience is of utmost importance.

In the same vein, agricultural runoff causes massive ecological damage, and is a major source of nonpoint source pollution in water systems – with runoff likely containing fertilisers, pesticides, nutrients and topsoil. A study comparing four streams with catchments from land under different management, found streams feeding from land under conservation agriculture had a higher diversity of invertebrates and more ‘clean water’ species than streams under tilled land, which was attributed to improved soil structure reducing agricultural runoff (5). The reduced topsoil runoff into nearby rivers and streams also reduces sedimentation, which increases the river’s capacity, as well as the clarity of the water – allowing sunlight to benefit the wildlife and photosynthesis in aquatic plants. Rivers with high sedimentation also absorb more heat from the sun, causing local warming which potentially causes further damage (6). 

Soil erosion in the UK is clearly visible from space. Credit: NEODAAS/University of Dundee

We loved seeing the rainfall simulator at Groundswell this year – it really helped us to visualise the ability of healthy soil to absorb rain! You can watch a video of a rainfall simulator in action here.

Rainfall simulator in action at the 2019 Groundswell show – the bottles on the ground show the water that filtered through the soil in each plot, while the hanging bottles show the ‘runoff’ water.

So, to wrap up, healthy soils absorb and hold more water than degraded soils, which helps to reduce flooding, aquatic pollution, and resistance to drought conditions and wind erosion! Keeping your soil optimally protected involves minimal disturbance, continuous cover with mulch and living roots, and root diversity (from crop diversity) allows for increased microbial populations which help to aggregate soil. All of these come under the soil health principles.

We developed Soilmentor as a simple solution to help farmers monitor their soil health progression – seeing your soil health improve over time helps you to understand which farming methods are working for you, and hopefully give you an incentive to stay on a regenerative journey!

Learn more about making your soil rain-ready here, and learn about monitoring the impacts of water run-off here

Paper references:

  1. Congreves, K.A., Hayes, A., Verhallen, E.A., Van Erd, L.L. 2015. Long-term impact of tillage and crop rotation on soil health at four temperate agroecosystems. Soil and Tillage Research. 152: 17–28.
  2.  Parihar, C.M. Yadav, M.R., Jat, S.L., Singh, A.K., Kumar, B., Pradhan, S., Chakraborty, D., Jat, M.L., Jat, R.K., Saharawat, Y.S., Yadav, O.P. 2016. Long term effect of conservation agriculture in maize rotations on total organic carbon, physical and biological properties of a sandy loam soil in north-western Indo-Gangetic Plains. Soil and Tillage Research. 161: 116–128 
  3. Van Pelt, R.S., Hushmurodov, S.X., Baumhardt, R.L., Chappell, A., Nearing, M.A., Polyakov, V.O., Strack, J. 2017. The reduction of partitioned wind and water erosion by conservation agriculture. CATENA. 148: 160–167
  4. Baveye, P.C., Rangel, D., Jacobsen, A. R., Laba, M., Darnault, C., Otten, W., Radulowich, R., Camargo, F.A.O. 2011. From dust bowl to dust bowl: soils still a frontier of science. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 75: 6
  5. Barton, D.R., Farmer, M.E.D. 1997. The effects of conservation tillage practices on benthic invertebrate communities in headwater streams in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Environmental Pollution. 96: 207-215
  6.  Lal, R., Reicosky, D.C. & Hanson, J.D. 2007. Evolution of the plow over 10,000 years and the rationale for no-till farming. Soil and Tillage Research. 93:1–12

What is soil health and why should farmers and growers care about it? Guest post by Niels Corfield

What is soil health and why should farmers and growers care about it? Guest post by Niels Corfield 2379 1770 Soilmentor

This is a guest post by Niels Corfield, soil health, agroforestry and whole farm planning advisor, researcher and advocate.

In this article I’d like to lay out the main tenets of soil health, but before that I want to present what I feel are the main motivations for “going to all that effort”!

Why bother about soil health?

First of all, in this climate change acceptance world, all forms of agriculture, and land use must wipe their face in terms of carbon. Being at least carbon neutral, if not carbon negative (or positive, whichever way you prefer it phrased).

All land, and all production must sequester carbon and it can, it’s been done, one example has raised their soil organic matter (SOM) from 2.4% to 8–11% in 6 years. 0.5–1% per year increases are regularly achieved.

Every single cropping cycle is a growth cycle and therefore should be net cumulative, in terms of carbon — through the process of root exudation. Simply put, all plants have the potential to improve soil (fertility), it’s the simply the management and composition of those plants (in space & in the rotation) that determine this fact. However, this is very hard to achieve when regularly cultivating, for example.

If you’re serious about climate change, business as usual is not an option. The good news is if you rigorously apply the same health principles production can be carbon negative.

What’s in it for us?

Apart from saving the planet, are there any other arguments for adopting novel practices? Is it just about doing good while our livelihoods suffer? Not at all!

Adopting the soil health principles wholeheartedly is one framework that can both address global issues and bring production benefits — showing that cropping (and farming) doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

How would these benefits manifest? Everyone knows how well their crops look when the land is in good heart. And that that translates to fewer crop failures, less drought-stress, better infiltration and more yield. Moon on a stick? All of these are correlated with better soil health.

Another benefit of better crumb structure will equate to fewer passes to raise a seed bed, where cultivation is practised. That’s less diesel and better windows for field access (a window that’s fast becoming undependable). Either way there’s wins to be had once we harness the latent potential of plants.

Grass & fertility

Perhaps one of the few things that farmers (and growers) can agree on is that the land is “in best heart” the first year out of grass. So, is there something magic about grass, compared to other plants? Does it have unique “healing powers”?

Basically no, but to be clear, what is it we can say about the conditions under grass?

A living root, covered soil, undisturbed, diverse (ideally), some animal impact (potentially) and few if any chemicals.

Cropland (at left) — Grass margin (at right)

Soil fertility (health) can and should be built within the cropping phase of our operations, and can be achieved without going to grass. Not that grassing-down and fallowing aren’t efficacious practices, just that we have more tools available to us that are perhaps more appropriate in a cropping situation. We just need to closely mimic those conditions we find under grass, and that’s where the soil health principles come in — 7 ways to help you select management practices, and to make decisions on your operation that build soil: cropping or fallow, spring or fall.

One key insight — microbes matter

Perhaps the most important single insight that underpins, most, if not all of us or health principles is the understanding that microbes matter. And they matter to us the growers. But, why do they matter? What’s so good about them? And, what do they do for us? There are three parts to the answer:

Firstly they create crumb structure. Their actions bind together disparate soil particles into crumbs or “aggregates”.

Secondly, they feed plants. They digest elements out of the soil mineral matrix (as well as organic matter) and transform them into plant available nutrients. They literally eat rocks. Hitherto known as decomposition but since the process is done enzymatically it’s much more akin to digestion.

This is what’s known as the “microbial bridge”. Simply put, plants (and healthy plants in particular) are nourished by nutrients provided by organisms.

Thirdly microbes protect plants. Through a number of different mechanisms they either out compete or shield plants from disease-causing organisms and often pests as well. Perhaps the poster child of this final point is mycorrhizal fungi that snare root feeding nematodes which when caught are then digested and past up to the host plant.

So the plants are getting a pretty good deal here! They’re getting a nice loose structure to push their roots through easily, room service and their own live-in healthcare service. Are they getting all that for free? Emphatically no, this is where the soil health principles come in, read on..

The Soil Health Principles

Weed roots, rhizosheath forming (at upper left)

1 The Living Root — maintain a living roots in the soil for as long as possible and as often as possible

This is number one on the list because perhaps it is the most important. Because, simply put, roots make soil and they do this by producing root exudates, — carbon secretions that feed (and recruit) soil organisms, which in return deliver plant available compounds, right in the “root zone”.

Gothelney Farm: Rhizosheaths on oat cover crop (Photo: Fred Price)

If you want to see the effect of the living root on soil structure examine the soil around the roots of the healthiest plants on your farm (often a weed!). So the next time you’re out in the field, take a moment to carefully lift one or two plants and examine those roots. You will typically notice finally grained soil that has excellent crumb structure, potentially some of which may be actually stuck to the roots themselves, in what’s called a “rhizosheath”, this is a phenomenon seen where microbes are active and producing the glue like substances that bind together soil particles into aggregates. Where you see rhizosheaths you can infer from that that root exudation is taking place, as, without this carbon (energy) source these organisms would be inactive.

What you are seeing is soil building in action — where you are seeing crumb structure around roots and rhizosheaths. Without roots and root exudates, organisms become inactive, microbial populations become simplified and ultimately aggregates become consumed by those same organisms, since they have nothing else to eat, as these, glue-like substances, are all organic (carbon based) for example polysaccharides, hence are comestible. Literally the structure of aggregates is edible, Think Hansel and Gretel.

2 Covered Soil — protect soil, from wind, rain and sun, with leaves or residues

Maintaining a soil cover is essential. This is a fact that “nature intrinsically understands”, which is why bare soil is such a magnet for weeds, because without a cover, soil degrades quite rapidly, nutrients are lost, soil caps and water runs off. Ultimately that porous structure crumb structure that we all value is sacrificed. We should be taking steps to reduce the frequency of bare soil as well as the length of those periods.

Bare soil is the enemy of soil health. Don’t farm naked as some say.

3 Minimise Disturbance and Compaction — reduce tillage severity and frequency

No dig and no till are perhaps the foster children of the soil health movement but certainly it shouldn’t be reduced to this one single measure. Simply shifting to no-till and making no other changes will not bring the kind of results that we are really looking for. It will not bring health back to the soil on its own, it must be coupled with the other principles and particularly diversity. That said it’s worth expanding on the rationale for not tilling, by laying out the issues with tillage itself.

The first and most important point to make is that tillage destroys soil structure. This seems counter-intuitive because one of the primary reasons for tillage is to improve structure, or to get a tilth. While certainly there is a loosening effect post tillage, this is a short lived phenomenon, however, the structure of the soil is soon lost and it will then settle back into it’s more native, mineral-structured state, more akin to the subsoil. If all conditions are right then the crop can be established in this short phase, but this window is getting more unreliable by the day.

The reason that tillage destroys soil structure is because when we are talking about crumb structure we are talking about aggregates ultimately, and aggregates are made of small soil particles bound together with glue-like substances that have been secreted by organisms. When you till you break open these aggregates, splitting apart these crumbs, exposing them to oxygen at which point “R-strategist” organisms invade the space and rapidly decompose or digest (literally eat) the binding agents that glue together these crumbs. The process of aggregation is directly analogous to that of making biscuits in that the homogeneous flour (and sugar) particles are bound together by the butter or fat into larger non-uniform (heterogeneous) clumps or crumbs. In this analogy the sugar is analogous to sand and the flour is analogous to clay. And the fat is analogous to those binding agents, those polysaccharides that are biologically derived in the same way that a fat is.

Generally speaking if you want retain good crumb structure then reduce tillage — reduce the depth-, the frequency and minimise inversion.

That said, is there a place for tillage as a force for good? That depends much on the starting point. But there does seem to be a small number of clear cases where tillage (or mechanical interventions in general) can help to rectify the situations related to past management.

If your starting point is tired old pasture (But I thought you just said that pasture ticks all the soil health principles? Well yes it does, but management is always superior).See photo below: Old pasture (especially horse) may well be heavily consolidated and there’s only so much that your crop roots and even cover crop roots can do to undo this situation. In horticulture operation the Real Food Garden, they good results with ploughing the existing pasture and then a year of cover cropping before conversion to no dig.

Horse pasture (at right) — Fence line (at left)

4 Diversity — increase diversity in your plantings and rotations

Diversity above ground feeds diversity below ground. If you want your plant to have a balanced diet it needs to associate with a diversity of organisms that mineralize a diversity of nutrients.

It’s been shown that so that the formation of humic substances and stable aggregates is closely correlated with below ground diversity.

Below ground diversity requires a diversity of foods, from a diversity of root exudates etc.

This is one realm where cover crops can really excel. We can bring in so much diversity. And so long as we’re destroying without tilling, we can retain a significant portion of that beneficial structure. This diversity can be so much more, it can include C4 plants, which are rare and general in the UK cropping situations. Plants like maize, millet, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth, and the more common sunflower and buckwheat.

Trill Farm: High diversity (at left) — Low diversity (at right)

All these fancy seeds in a mix sounds expensive don’t they? Well it doesn’t have to be, just source your seeds from the feed merchant, rather than the seed merchant. Bird seed mixes are a great starting point and most of them already have the 8 species or more, recommended: broadleaves and grasses, warm season and cool season. And when the costs are low you can start sowing at proper seed rates which maybe 2 times or 3 times the standard advice. This overcomes the main pitfall people have when experimenting with cover crops: too little seed.

Schumacher College: Amaranth crop

That said, diversity isn’t limited to cover cropping. We can introduce diversity into our cash cropping operations. This is potentially where some of the biggest wins are actually to be had. Given that increasing species diversity from 1 to 2 represents a doubling in diversity that’s a big win. And going from 2 to 3 represents another 50% increase. So, include: catch crops, intercrops and relay crops whether practical.

There should be gains to be had in this case, so long as we doing our due diligence with the other soil health principles — especially around bare soil and the living root. Again we don’t want massive space between the plants being unfilled with roots and uncovered. This is where intercropping and catch cropping can really pay dividends.

5 Feed Soils — hungry organisms need food to stay active and healthy

This is definitely one area where the organic crew got it right. But what do we mean by this? What eats stuff in soil? Well organisms, life, life eats stuff. Not the “soil” per se, as this is simply a matrix of geological degradants.

What actually eats stuff in the soil is soil organisms: the soil food web members. So the question is then, what do these soil organisms like to eat? Really we’re talking about fungi and bacteria in this case, as they make up the vase majority of soil biomass. So, what’s their preferred food? Well in this case it’s root exudates. Simple to utilise (metabolise) foods such as carbohydrates, often as straightforward as glucose. But that is what’s being supplied by the roots, no? So, that’s covered under principal number one — the living root, right?

Well yes. Except we are in a cropping situation which means there may be a break in cropping. Where there’s a break in cropping, the organisms that are present in the soil, those active communities of bacteria for example that have built up, through your good management of cropping (and potentially diverse cropping) will all go dormant, but before they do, that they will consume the most readily available food source present. And what is that in this case? It will be the binding agents that hold the aggregates together. They will literally eat their own homes because there’s nothing else to eat. Evoking that famous phrase “burning the furniture” — when you’re snowed in and it’s freezing outside and you run out of firewood, you’re only alternative to keep warm is to burn the furniture but once you’ve done that where are you going to sit?

So what are we to conclude from this observation? Simply, where a break in cropping exists, provide a subsistence ration. This would typically be over winter. But either way, this is the prime time to apply bulky organic matter. And if all goes well, when you come to plant your next crop you will have a nice surface tilth and an active population of organisms ready to immediately associate with your plants.

The last two soil health principles are perhaps the least relevant to an organic growing situation. However I include them for the purposes of being thorough.

6 Incorporate Animals

Diversify your straight cropping operation by rotating animals or integrating livestock into your system.

So what’s good about animals? What benefits can they bring to a cropping system? Firstly, their manure contains inoculants that are rare, even in good compost and they can carry out the work of distributing (or applying) that manure through their own natural behaviour.

That said the key rationale behind this particular principle is that all ecosystems contain animals as part of the web, and they add a whole new dimension of diversity to the system so perhaps they should come under principal number 4, but in this case the desire is to be explicit.

Ian Boyd’s farm Whittington Lodge

7 Minimise Use of Chemicals

Simply put, the use of chemicals and synthetics undoes all of your good work further up the list.

Firstly, use of synthetic fertiliser or soluble nutrients in general discourage, the production of root exudates. Basically root exudation is a quid-pro-quo for plants. They’re effectively paying for nutrients in a form that they can absorb with energy (or sugars) the only currency plants hold. So, when a plant is artificially nourished through soluble fertiliser applications it’s need to offer exudates is removed, though this is fine in the short term, however, the removal of foods from our friendly minions (the soil microbes) means they will at best go dormant and at worst start chowing down on the aggregates themselves because there’s nothing else to eat and then go dormant.

Fertilisers in salt form, and in very high concentrations, actually force their way into the plant structure. So the plant almost becomes over nourished or certainly has no control over the quantities and types of nutrients that enter the cell structure.

Further to this and perhaps, more obviously is the use of pesticides etc which basically have all sorts of impacts on non-target species. But it goes without saying that applications of fungicides for example have detrimental effects on mycorrhizal fungi, though that said, so does tillage.

Putting it all together

Ultimately the strengths in this approach, this framework, is that the principles can be applied individually or in consort. But ultimately the real wins are to be had where all of the soil health principles are applied both in the cropping phase and fallow periods.

I like to think of the soil health principles as different levers maybe like you might picture in an old signal box, or a graphic equaliser. With each lever representing a different principle. Ultimately, over time want to be able to push all of the levers up to full, bring all of the benefits to bare.

Furthermore, for each principle there’s obviously a range. Similar to gears on a gearbox. Ultimately where limited by equipment or tools, it’s like being unable to change up from 3rd gear for instance. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in 3rd gear on the motorway. If we can gradually increase the upper maximum we can achieve each year we will gradually be able to leverage more of the latent power of nature to grow better crops.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, the soil health principles are another iteration of nature mimicry, offered, in this case to farmers and growers as a tool for decision-making on-farm.

Simply put, where two options are considered for a particular situation, that which scores highest, in terms of the soil health principles, should be preferred, where practical, or when it becomes practical.

I hope that you will use these principles in your day-to-day practice and in your longer-term rotation planning.

And for those that want to find out more, or discuss this in more detail please get in touch or consider joining me on one of my soils courses this autumn. If you have any thoughts or questions, get in touch: info@nielscorfield.com

Soil health courses & info
https://www.facebook.com/pg/nielscorfieldland/events/

Further Reading
Part 2 — Realising the Promise of Soil Health in Organic Horticulture
https://medium.com/@nielscorfield_90202/no-till-for-growers-realising-the-promise-of-soil-health-in-organic-horticulture-646fd553257