Friday, December 15, 2017

Range of tests ‘key’ to realising value of healthy soils

August 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Crops

SoilPitExamination

Using a variety of assessment methods to test soil health – rather than relying on standard nutrient testing – could reward growers with higher yields and greater profitability, say experts.

Many growers will regularly test crop nutrient availability to inform fertilising programmes. But this is only one step towards a better understanding soil potential that can help improve farm management decisions.

A wider range of soil evaluation methods – including investigations into soil structure, soil organic matter and biology – will give a better indication of soil health and therefore help improve decision-making, says Martin Wood, of nutrient specialists Earthcare Technical.

Simple tests

“Soil health is as much about biology and structure as it is about the chemical composition,” says Dr Wood. “There are lots of simple testing methods that can measure soil health and we would urge growers to have a go at these and see what works for their growing systems.

“No one test is better than another and no one test will give you all the information you need to build a clear picture of your soil health.”

Factors affecting soil health include physical parameters such as soil structure; chemical parameters such as crop nutrient indices and soil organic matter content; and biological parameters such as earthworm numbers.

Soil assessment methods vary in complexity, time input and skill. Some tests can be run by growers on farm, including earthworm counts, water infiltration and visual soil assessment using a spade.

More adventurous growers can try out simple soil respiration and aggregate stability tests.

Other assessments require laboratory testing, including soil organic matter and nutrient availability. “These can all be affected by the ways in which we manage our soils,” says Dr Wood.

Effective methods

Iain Tolhurst, from Tolhurst Organic CIC, agrees that some of the most effective methods of measuring soil health are among the simplest. Mr Tolhurst has been looking at green manures as part of the AHDB’s GREAT Soils field work trials (see panel).

“Earthworm counting is a great way to assess soil health and one that can be learnt quickly by growers. I’m particularly interested in the respiration test we’ve been doing in this trial and the measuring of soil organic matter as it brings a more academic approach to testing.”

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