Know what you've got and make it work for you
Making the most of it can seem daunting, especially when there is a wealth of scientific information about it. Honestly, it’s about getting the basics right. Understanding your soil means looking at its mineral, structural and biological health - a problem with any of these factors can cause major issues for you and your farm. Knowing what soil you have and what state it’s in can give you the knowledge to make good decisions for your business.
The GREATsoils team have reviewed the different ways you can assess your soil health. Some are very simple while others involve expensive testing under laboratory conditions. All of them can tell you something about your soil, but you have to make best use of that information to ensure the test was worthwhile. What you choose depends on your situation, inclination and budget. If you haven’t tested your soil for a while, do the basics first. Get a simple soil analysis, then get out and dig some holes – they’re both cheap to do and you can learn so much.
The most valuable tool on your farm is your spade. Digging holes, or soil pits, is a great way to see your soil’s physical appearance. There are easy indicators: look for signs of compaction, worm numbers, colour and size. Notice how your soil smells, how well it breaks up, its rooting depth and its colour. Making a visual and hands on evaluation of your soil at a number of points across a field will help you discover where your compaction is and its depth, helping you to target any remedial work. Best of all, digging costs nothing but time.
At a basic chemical level, you’ll want to know your pH, P (phosphorus), K (potassium) and Mg (Magnesium) balance. For this you’ll need to get your soil analysed. It doesn’t need to be the whole farm at once. Look at the fields that aren’t performing, or any that you’re planning to reseed. If you test 20% of your land every year, in 5 years, you’ll have tested it all. It is worth remembering that soils in arable rotation require routine testing more frequently than soils under permanent grassland and typically should be checked every three to five years.
Soil biology explains the complex web of soil ecology that turns dead plant and animal material into available nutrients. While a lot can be learnt from looking at soil physically, to understand the fungi, the bacteria, and the nematodes that lead to the physical breakdown of organic matter, you’ll need to dig a little deeper. The most common method of starting to measure soil biology is to focus on soil organic matter (SOM). A typical test will differentiate between the labile, stable and inert fractions of the SOM. Most businesses offering soil analysis services will also offer a SOM measurement. Often SOM levels are slow in responding to management changes, suggesting measurement every five years rather than more frequently. There are some new and interesting ways to assess microbial activity in your soil or Bait lamina sticks – where the amount of bait eaten measures biological activity.
Farming and Land Use Manager, Soil Association Scotland
Lyn joined Soil Association Scotland in 2002 and has been involved in farming throughout her career. She is part of the farming team in Scotland that delivers the Future Farming Scotland programme of practical, informative and topical events. The events are for farmers, growers, crofters and land managers who are looking to explore low-input and sustainable approaches to farming. Lyn also provides support for organic farmers and represents Soil Association Scotland at policy meetings.
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