Building resilience and profitability from the ground up

Capturing the value of soil

Good soil health is the heart of a resilient farm, leading to increased farm productivity and environmental stewardship. Here’s how to gain more from your soil.

Improving soil health:

  • Increases fertility
  • Reduces input costs
  • Supports climate resilience
  • Builds soil carbon

 

What are the 5 principles of soil health? 

 

 

Farming principles aimed at delivering positive outcomes for soil health and climate resilience alongside farm productivity are essential for sustained business growth.

It is now generally understood this means using farming practices to actively regenerate the land – leaving it in a better, and hopefully more productive, condition.

Soil is the cornerstone of these ‘regenerative’ systems and developing better soil health through good soil management is what makes them successful. If soil ecosystems can be allowed to thrive, organic matter levels boosted and soil quality improved, the productive potential of that soil increases dramatically.

With a focus on optimising, rather than maximising production and minimising the reliance of external inputs, regenerative systems resonate positively with livestock and arable farmers across the UK. 

There is a variety of ways in which farmers can regenerate their land and work to improve soil health, but what’s common to all these are five principles:

  1. Minimise soil disturbance

Soils are home to a complex below-ground ecosystem, comprising fungi, soil aggregates, worms and bacteria. When left undisturbed, these elements work harmoniously to improve soil structure and biological activity, which in turn creates healthy, functional soils.

Disturbing the soil can damage its beneficial ecosystem. The more soil is disturbed, the greater the level of damage causing the overall health and resilience of soils to decline.

Regenerative farmers aim to keep soil disturbance to an absolute minimum and try to embrace farming methods that decrease reliance on tillage and chemical inputs. Long-term improved soil condition makes the adoption of reduced tillage techniques easier.

  • Assess the condition of your soil before deciding on your method of cultivation
  • Remedy any structural issues such as compaction
  • Adopt an on-going approach to soil management to secure long-term soil health
  1. Protect/armour the soil

Bare soils are highly susceptible to damage caused by erosion, rainfall and extreme temperatures – both hot and cold. In these circumstances it’s difficult to develop better soil quality as the soil ecosystem is constantly bombarded with external challenges and disruption.

Soil able to withstand more extreme weather patterns protects grass/crop yields and mitigates the negative impact of rainfall and fluctuating temperatures on microbial activity. It also helps minimise erosion risk.

A particularly vulnerable time for bare soil is after the harvest of combinable crops.

  • Maintain a ‘barrier’ of pasture, through cover crops or stubble residue to provide soil with a protective armour and a useful source of organic matter which is incorporated into the soil, further improving soil quality
  • Consider undersowing crops such as maize to protect the soil surface and increase soil stability immediately post harvest
  1. Maintain living roots in the soil

Living roots provide beneficial soil microbes with the food they require to survive and thrive. And these microbes play a vital role in the soil ecosystem and are key to maintaining healthy, functional soils.

Having growing crops in the soil throughout as much of the year as possible is important, although this can pose a challenge for some arable rotations.

  • Use cover crops and perennial grasses as another option in the rotation ‘toolbox’
  • Find a crop to match your farming system’s needs - it could provide additional fodder for livestock
  1. Build and encourage plant diversity

Planting a diverse range of crops and plants helps to feed and support a highly functioning, thriving soil ecosystem. Monocultures rarely occur naturally. The large range of microbes and bacteria found in soil benefit from interacting with and feeding off a diverse range of plants with varying root depths.

Plant diversity also benefits carbon sequestration and enhances nutrient availability for growing crops.

  • Consider a multi-species mixture when reseeding grassland
  • Choose a mixture containing different types of grasses, legumes, such as clovers, and herbs, including plantain and chicory
  1. Integrate livestock into a farming system

Livestock play an important role in helping develop good soil health. Not only does their dung provide a much-needed source of nutrients, but livestock also help reverse soil compaction, aid nutrient recycling and minimise weed burdens.

Adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) and mob grazing are often used in regenerative systems because they replicate ‘natural grazing’.

  • Graze a high density of animals in a small area of land, for short periods
  • Move livestock regularly, leaving a relatively high percentage of organic matter (non-grazed grass) behind to protect and feed the soil

Regenerative practices cornerstone of Cornish Farm; p.9 Livestock diversity helping to boost soil health; Mark Brooking article)

 

What funding is available for farmers to support soil health?

 With the impressive list of benefits gained from improving soil health now well recognised, particularly those supporting environmental gains, Government support is moving farmers towards practices with a focus on soil.

The Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) are aiming to pay farmers for sustainable food production. The first of three schemes, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), opened in June 2022 and is open to all farmers eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

The SFI marries environmental sustainability with productivity, its payments for ‘public goods’ began by encouraging actions to improve the health of farmland soils. It offers standards agreements comprising a package of required actions at different levels.

For soil health, the current standards are as follows:

  • Arable and horticultural soils (introductory and intermediate levels)
  • Improved grassland soils (introductory and intermediate levels)
  • Moorland (introductory level)

New standards will be introduced each year, with the full set expected by 2025.

SFI agreements currently run for three years with the opportunity to add more standards on an annual basis. Applications are open-ended without a deadline and made through the Rural Payments Service. Land eligibility can be checked before making an application.

SFI payments differ according to the standard and the level, with an additional ‘SFI Management Payment’ recognising the costs involved in being part of the scheme.

To find out the latest information on the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) visit these websites:

www.gov.uk

www.ahdb.org.uk

Other sources of information and advice:

  • Business Information Point ( businessinfopoint.co.uk): free Future Farming Resilience workshops, webinars and tailored advice available across the South West
  • FWAG SouthWest (fwagsw.org.uk): also offering Future Farming Resilience workshops as above. A full list of events from all partner organisations is available on Eventbrite (www.eventbrite.co.uk)
  • The Royal Countryside Fund: ‘Farm for the Future’, a free business and environment programme. Contacts in the South West are: Edward Richardson, Farm Cornwall, edward@farmcornwall.co.uk; Hazel Kendall, Dartmoor Hill Farm Project, hkendall@dartmoor.gov.uk; Katherine Williams, Exmoor Hill Farming Network, katherine@ehfn.org.uk; For all other areas, Christina Hutchings group@outlook.com. These groups are open to any farmers currently claiming BPS but not already involved with a Defra-funded resilience project.

SFI bolsters South West farming business; Tom Lewis article

 

How do you test soil health?

Knowing more about the soils on your farm opens the door to increased farm productivity, environmental stewardship and long-term resilience. Understanding its physical, chemical and biological condition is critical to unlocking its full potential.

We describe the common soil monitoring techniques you can do on the farm or require laboratory-based testing once samples have been collected.

Many feed and seed suppliers offer soil testing for free and it’s also worth discussing with your agronomist.

To find out more about soil testing, email soil@cornishmutual.co.uk

Soil Organic Matter

Soil organic matter is a good measure of soil health and fertility, comprising plant material, microbes and soil carbon. It benefits all aspects of soil.

The average soil organic matter content in the UK is 1-7%, with the South West boasting an encouraging 4-12%. While dependent on soil type, soil organic carbon is expected to be 55-60% of the total organic matter.

Soil organic matter is most accurately measured through laboratory analysis to give a tangible starting point from which to build. Increasing soil organic matter is the most effective way of helping soil support farm productivity.

Testing your soils to measure soil organic matter levels is recommended every five years although evaluating your soil regularly between laboratory tests keeps you updated on what’s happening below the ground. This includes looking at your soil structure, biology and water infiltration rates.

Box: Soil Sampling for measuring soil organic matter

It is important to take representative soil samples from each field being tested. This is done by following a ‘W’ or grid pattern across the field, avoiding headlands and areas of heavy traffic such as gateways or water troughs. Aim for 10-20 samples per field. Take samples, ideally with a soil auger, to a depth of 30cm. Take samples in spring or autumn, choosing one or the other for consistency, and avoid sampling within six months of ploughing.

Soil Structure

A good structure is central to plant performance and productivity, allowing roots to access available nutrients.

Organic matter helps give soil a better structure, making it more friable. Water movement through the soil is also easier, with better infiltration and a greater water-holding capacity improving its ability to cope with very wet or dry conditions.

The easiest way to assess your soil structure is to break it apart and assess it visually. Compaction is the primary soil issue on most farms so it’s important to understand where it is and at what depth so it can be alleviated effectively.

By looking at your soil profile, you’ll see how easily plant roots are able to penetrate down into the soil. Well-spread roots reaching down vertically indicate a good structure and when studied closely, soil sticking to roots indicates healthy microbial activity. A well-structured soil also smells ‘earthy’. An unpleasant odour suggests poor drainage or lack of oxygen often due to compaction. Similarly rust or grey mottled patches can be a sign of waterlogging, another common consequence of compaction issues.

Soil structure can be measured using the VESS (Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure) technique. Further information about assessing and improving soil structure can be found in the AHDB Healthy grassland soils pocket book.

Soil Biology

The biological life of a healthy soil is staggering but often under-recognised and underused. Just a handful of soil holds millions of organisms from the visible such as earthworms and beetles to the less obvious bacteria and fungi.

By breaking down soil organic matter, these organisms encourage quicker nutrient cycling, promoting grass and crop growth.

Earthworms are a particularly good indicator of soil biology being found throughout the soil profile; the more, the better.

Similarly, on a livestock farm, dung beetles are vital and can be easily identified from the holes they leave in dung pats created as they breakdown organic matter.

Fungi and bacteria are equally important and a great basis for all soil life, interacting between plant roots and the soil.

Box: How to count earthworms

Dig a hole 20x20 cm (the width of a spade) and about 30cm deep and sort through the removed soil, breaking it apart to reveal the worms.

Soil Nutrients

The most measured and talked about soil nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S) and magnesium (Mg) but plants need several more micronutrients for optimum yield and quality.

But first and foremost, the correct soil pH is critical to their efficient uptake benefiting crop performance. It’s the most important nutritional deficiency to correct and one of the easiest.

Like soil organic matter, nutrient levels are measured through lab analysis and an essential step before determining a nutrient management plan. Both these actions are mandatory under the Farming Rules for Water legislation, which requires every field to be soil tested at least every five years.

Once the nutrient levels within your soil are known, additional nutrients can be added as necessary. This is best done using farmyard manure (FYM) and slurry although appropriate mineral fertilisers may be required. As there can be wide variations in FYM and slurry content throughout the year, they need to be analysed before application.

Box: Soil Sampling

In a similar way to measuring soil organic matter, it is important to take representative soil samples from each field being tested. Follow the same ‘W’ or grid pattern across the field, avoiding headlands and areas of heavy traffic such as gateways or water troughs, aiming for 10- 20 samples per field. For nutrient testing, take samples to a depth of 10cm on grassland or 15cm on arable land. As previously be consistent with the time of year, sampling in either spring or autumn, and avoid taking them after applying FYM, slurry or fertiliser, or within six months of ploughing.

Soil Texture

Soil texture is one component of soil that can’t be changed but this doesn’t make it any less important as it impacts other aspects of soil health. A soil’s texture is determined by the relative amounts of clay, sand and silt it contains, thereby impacting soil structure and stability as well as potential carbon content.

While texture can be established by lab analysis, you’ll gain a good indication by rubbing some moist soil between your fingers. Sandy soil feels gritty whereas silt is smooth and silky to touch, with clay sticky and able to form a ball when wet. Loams fall somewhere in the middle comprising a good mix of sand, silt and clay.

Although soil texture can’t be changed, because it influences your overall soil management strategy as well as what and when you carry out jobs such as cultivations, it remains an important part of assessing your farm’s soil health.

(insert link to soil guide case study: p.14 Using science to reinforce instinct and nurture the land; Becky Willson article)

 How to create a soil management plan

Once the health of your soils has been assessed, creating a soil management plan is one of the first steps you can take to start improving soil health. As well as reducing the risk of problems associated with poor soil health, it can also help improve crop yields and create resilience for the future.

A soil management plan should cover each field on the farm, noting any soil-related issues and the management techniques required to mitigate them.

For more information about creating a soil management plan visit:

https://defrafarming.blog.gov.uk/create-and-use-a-soil-management-plan/

 

Soil management initiatives from Cornish Mutual

As part of Cornish Mutual’s service expansion to support farmers address the demands of climate change, our soil management initiatives form part of our focus on offering trusted advice in areas farmers are seeking answers.

Cornish Mutual Soil Guide: ‘Building a resilient farm from the ground up’

‘Building a resilient farm from the ground up’ is designed to be a starting point on all things soil. As well as outlining the foundations of good soil health and the farming practices needed to achieve it, the guide describes how farmers in the South West are managing their soil to help secure a sustainable future for their farming businesses.

It also encourages you to learn more about your own soil, describing techniques to help you understand its physical, chemical and biological condition.

If you would like to find out more about your soil health and for a copy of the guide, contact your local Field Advisor, email soil@cornishmutual.co.uk

Soil consultancy service

For farmers seeking individual advice, Cornish Mutual has invested in regenerative farming consultancy Terrafarmer. The cost-effective management solutions and soil sampling services offered to produce a tailored farm plan include:

  • Soil sampling
  • Measurement and benchmarking
  • Practical support and advice on implementation
  • Support with regulations and any changes
  • Action and management plans
  • Regular visits as required

To find out more about our soil management service, email Lossprevention@cornishmutual.co.uk or speak to your local Field Advisor.

(insert link to soil guide case study: p.10 Less is more for Blable Farm; Tom Tolputt article)

 

As most farmers know, soil is an important natural asset and good soil health crucial to all farming systems. In fact, it’s said we owe our existence to the top six inches of our soil, so knowing more about your soil can lead to increased farm productivity, environmental stewardship and long-term resilience.

A healthy soil is the foundation of sustainable food production and plays a vital role in withstanding climatic extremes while increasing carbon sequestration and storage. Containing a large diversity of species and abundance of organisms, good soil health also promotes a more efficient response to inputs, reducing the cost of production.

Did you know?
From 2022, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) aims to encourage actions that improve soil health and fertility and will pay from £22 per hectare for an introductory level and from £40 per hectare for an intermediate level across arable, horticulture and the improved grassland soils standard.