Which soil test for my system? (SA/ORC)

Chair: Ben Raskin

First results from the GREATsoils (Growing Resilient Efficient And Thriving Soils) project and farmer/ grower views on different soil assessment options.

Session summary

This session provided an overview of the Growing Resilient Efficient and Thriving (GREAT) soils project which consists of guidelines, research on existing soil assessment methods and a network of organic and non-organic growers. From the surveys and reviews carried out to date it seems that most of the growers within the sample use spade and pH tests, in addition macronutrient tests are common although many thought this was not useful. Overall there seemed to be a preference for visual assessment methods. There was also some discussion on the Albrecht method and there seems to be a lot of contention over how useful this is, e.g. one grower used the test to identify a cation imbalance and had addressed this by adding gypsum. However he stopped using this approach due to the expense of the test.

Presentations from two growers (Paul Smith from Loddington farm and Simon Gardner from Gs) highlighted the potential practical application of soil tests in terms of identifying targeted solutions for soil fertility (e.g. variable rate compost application). The value of record keeping and historic soil maps to determine site specific solutions was also highlighted by Paul who had been able to access long-term field records and notes on soil characteristics at various locations kept by his predecessors over generations. The potential for new technology to improve site specific assessments was also highlighted (e.g. using drones to look a green area indices).

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Regular observation is key to determine soil health and field-specific treatments
  • The GREAT soils project will provide a range of valuable resources to growers. A useful guide on the range of tests currently available can be found here

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Anja Vieweger (ORC): GREATsoils – Project introduction and outcomes of four grower consultations(1.4mb pdf file)

Farmers and growers are concerned about the current health of their soils (compared to 30 or 40 years ago), and some of these concerns are supported by soil analysis data collected over the same period. Most farmers and growers understand the importance of soil health for the productivity, sustainability and profitability of their businesses, but many face significant challenges when interpreting results from laboratory analysis or when choosing suitable tools or methods for assessing the health of their soils beyond the standard pH, P, K, Mg analysis. To be of value to growers and farmers, methods for soil assessment should not only measure soil health, but should also provide information that can be used to inform decision making in relation to soil management. During a series of grower consultations in autumn 2015, regional grower groups in the UK discussed different approaches to soil assessment; what methods they find useful and reasons why others are not very commonly used. They were asked to rate a list of categorized soil assessment methods, and the first results will be discussed in this session.

Paul Smith (Loddington Farm): A fruit grower’s experience with different tools for practical soil assessment

Loddington Farm Ltd are a conventional top fruit business growing dessert and culinary apples, pears, apricots and cherries for the UK supermarkets. Production is spread across four sites, two of which are owned and two farmed under contract. The geographical spread helps mitigate the risks of frost and pest and disease. Committed to the principles of Integrated Pest Management, Loddington farm Ltd constantly reviews its practices with the ultimate aim of producing top quality food in an environmentally sustainable way. The challenges we face with regards to our crops and our soils are around a perennial crop which limits how we travel across the ground. The demands of the crop throughout the year mean that we often travel on the ground when it is too wet and therefore compaction is an issue. In common with most farms: we do not choose the soil in which to grow our crops. We have to do the best with what we have from heavy Wealden clay to stony greensand loams. Our approach to our soils stems from their inherent and dynamic properties. We may not have a choice in what we grow our crops in but we have myriad choices over our impacts on the soil over time. As a business we would like to move to a regenerative agriculture whereby measureable indices of soil heath improve rather than decline as a result of our activities.

Simon Gardner (G’s) – A veg grower’s experience with different tools for practical soil assessment in the field

Soils are the most important part of my farming business. The black peaty fen is in decline through oxidisation and soil erosion, to maintain future production it is vital that I reduce and reverse the effect of soil erosion. Understanding soils current health is the starting point to allow us to understand where we are, how we are doing, what works and where to go next. But this wasn’t as easy as I expected. I have used a range of tools over the past year from a spade, digging larger profile pits, a range of soil analysis from standard nutrient test though to the soil health reports giving detail on microbial activity, soil health index and even drones to help in the understanding and measuring of soil health within the farming business.


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