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GREATsoils: Twin partnerships to address soil health

Publication Date: 
15 March 2018
Author/Contact :
Author/Contact: 
Dr Mike Storey, Alice Sin

Soils are fundamental to almost all forms of crop production, so adopting a rotational approach to soil health makes sense. That’s why AHDB has funded a five-year programme of research and knowledge exchange into key aspects of soil health as part of the GREATsoils programme. With the first information gathering reports published, the work is now moving into the next phase - Experiments and on-farm trials designed to answer key questions raised by farmers and growers about how they can practically improve soil health in their own fields.

Most people now accept that agricultural soils in the UK have experienced some form of degradation over the last century or so; whether that’s due to erosion, a loss of organic matter, reduced fertility, poorer drainage, or other factors. Speaking at the AHDB Agronomists’ Conference in December 2017, Marc Allison of NIAB CUF explained why many researchers now believe there is a problem with current rotations which may lead to limited, or even reduced, yields and income. Yield data from Defra statistics shows that wheat yields increased by an average of 0.11 t/ha/yr between 1960 and 1999, but that there has been no significant increase since 1999. A similar graph for potatoes using AHDB data shows yield increases of 0.65 t/ha/yr from 1960 to 1996, but no evidence of any significant yield increase after 1996.

“There is a general perception that the loss of organic matter from our soils, coupled with other factors [such as variety choice, inappropriate cultivations, etc.], may be starting to limit how our rotations perform agronomically and economically,” explained Marc. “The point of this project is to look at some of these factors that may be limiting production and ways of how they could be alleviated.”

The importance of soils and the way most are farmed means that adopting a rotational approach to soil management, which takes in the effects of different crops and cultivations, is likely to provide the best long term results. Consequently cross-sector partnerships and two-way knowledge exchange are at the very core of the AHDB-BBRO Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership and AHDB Rotations Partnership. Established in May 2016, with funding from AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds, AHDB Horticulture, and AHDB Potatoes, the Rotations Partnership is a five-year programme of research which includes four distinct projects which aim to quantify the links between rotational management and soil physical condition, assess the role and potential of existing precision farming technologies in managing soil health and enhancing rotations, address the potentially negative effects of root crop production, and gain a better overall understanding of how changes in soil conditions affect water uptake and plant growth and development.

​Soil Biology

Running alongside the Rotations Partnership is the Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership, funded by five AHDB sectors and BBRO. This aims to bring the same level of understanding to soil biology as already exists for soil chemical and physical properties through 10 funded projects in three work packages. By using a fundamental science approach together with recently developed indicators for soil health, the Partnership aims to produce the necessary guidance and tools to allow soil biology to be assessed and managed on farm in the same way as other soil properties. Like the Rotations Partnership, this is also split into distinct work packages: in this case benchmarking and base-lining current knowledge and practice will be followed by measuring and optimising the long-term impacts of soil management and then sharing this knowledge.

Knowledge Exchange underpins both partnership programmes and in order to ensure that both partnerships deliver useful results which can be implemented by farmers and growers, AHDB held interactive workshops in November 2017. These events, which were led by Dr Elizabeth Stockdale of NIAB (who is leading the Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership), attracted around 100 attendees from across the supply chain; providing a good level of input from various sectors. Attendees included including farmers, growers, advisors and other industry partners, representing a range of business sizes.

There is no doubt that farmers and growers have an appetite to improve soil health. “Over the last 30 years we’ve seen a decline in organic matter which I’m actively seeking to redress now and it’s about finding the best and fastest way of doing that and the fastest way of restoring soil health without losing too much yield,” says Christopher Stephenson, who farms at Bradley Burn near Bishop Auckland in County Durham. He attended the workshop in Northumberland on 15th November, and welcomed the approach taken.

​Workshops

“I thought the workshop was good and I think the aims of the project are essential,” he adds. “I would particularly like to see more knowledge transfer on improving soil structure. There are things I need to learn, in particular about earthworms and organic matter, and the best ways of improving soil. There’s a lot more to soil biology than I currently understand so I’d like to see some more information available for farmers, such as practical advice on how to improve soil health. It’s about having the right information presented to us as farmers. I’d also like to know more about promoting mycorrhizal fungi and promoting more worms to help improve my soil structure.”

Getting such feedback means that as the Partnerships move into the next phase of trialling and research, the most useful (and potentially beneficial) areas of activity will be investigated. A literature review has been conducted as part of the initial benchmarking and this identified more 40,000 references for the key words ‘soil quality’ and ‘soil health,’ indicating not only what a large and active area of research this is globally, but also the challenges of making sense of some of this work at a practical farm level.

“We’ve just finished the first year which was focused on benchmarking and base-lining to find out what is currently known in the areas of soil biology and soil health, and those final reports are available online now,” explains Dr Amanda Bennett, AHDB Resource Management Scientist – Soils. “Now we want to take that information that’s already out there and start putting it into more levy-payer-friendly language. There can be quite a discrepancy between what’s going on in academia and what’s going on on-farm.”

The final report Translating existing knowledge of management effects on soil biology and soil health for practitioners points out that in general terms scientists have an incomplete understanding of the impacts of soil management on soil health at a farm scale, but also that there is evidence that increased organic matter and reduced tillage act together to promote increased biological activity, and that the resilience of soils to extreme events may be increased as a result. This is something that the practical work will seek to take further.

In order to improve soil health, it is first necessary to know the soils in question and then adopt management practices which promote desirable biological, chemical and physical properties. “A third project looked at establishing the scope of molecular approaches for routine monitoring of soil health, because there is a lot in the literature and academia about molecular techniques to better understand soil biology and soil microbial activity,” adds Amanda. “A review was carried out to find out what techniques are being used now, how useful they are and what sort of information they can give us. At the moment molecular approaches have not necessarily been translated into something levy-payers can use, but the final report will be online shortly.”

Keeping score

Another key area of work for the project is the development of a Soil Health Scorecard for farmers and agronomists. This will provide an initial assessment and practical benchmark for various aspects of soil health, together with highlighting the key areas and techniques to focus on to improve things.

A prototype of the scorecard was presented at the workshops in November and the majority of attendees polled (96%) felt that this would be a useful approach to checking soil health, although it was pointed out that it needs to measure the right things and present the results in a way which creates engagement with farmers and growers.

“The idea is that the Soil Health Scorecard is like a school report with different indicators for physical, chemical and biological soil properties. For example, they might be colour coded to indicate which issues need attention and which are within expected thresholds,” says Amanda. “That project is currently looking at a range of different indicators and developing some of the thresholds for such a traffic light system. At the workshops levy payers were invited to feed back their own information: what measures they used on farm themselves, what their interests were, where they think the gaps are. That information has been collated into a report so the project team can incorporate that into the research going forward. It’s very much about two-way exchange of information to make sure that what we end up with at the end of the programme has been developed all the way through with levy payer input as well.”

As the Partnerships enter the next practical phase, Marc Allison emphasises that the collaborative approach will continue, with the project using both small, highly controlled researcher experiments and larger on-farm crop trials. “To take the results from these small experiments and say we are going to do this commercially sometimes takes a leap of faith,” he says. “It’s also difficult to get economic data from small experiments: for example you may be able to show that a treatment makes a difference but it can be hard to show if it is economically viable. The other approach is using field trials that are set up by growers themselves. The advantage of using growers is that we can have a huge range of soil types and that we can look at current practices. By having many growers and many different soil types over many years we can actually get the replication we need.”

​Further content

AHDB GREATsoils

Sign-up for our GREATsoils webinar 27 March

AHDB Research Partnership - Management of Rotations, Soil Structure and Water Duration: 01/04/2016 to 31/03/2021

 

 

 

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