Soil research for cereals and oilseeds

With soil health at the heart of the new environmental land management (ELM) scheme, it is increasingly important to measure and manage it. AHDB is investing in evidence-based tools and information to guide soil-management decisions.

The soil management challenge

Soil health is at the heart of productive crop-based systems. It is also at the centre of government schemes that reward environmental land management. A major challenge for soil management is the production of guidance that can be tailored to fit all farming situations.

Soils form over thousands of years through local interactions of climate, geology, hydrology, and management. Physical and chemical alteration (weathering) break down parent materials (solid rocks and drift deposits). Finally, biological cycles of growth and decay produce the extra critical ingredient: organic matter. As a result, each field has unique soils.

AHDB research focuses on:

  • Improving understanding of the biological, chemical and physical components of soil health
  • Production of practical ways to measure and monitor soil health
  • Delivery of guidance on how to maintain and improve soil health

Current soil research activity*

Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership

While physical and chemical properties of soil are relatively well understood, the same is not necessarily true for soil biology. Our five-year AHDB and BBRO research and knowledge exchange partnership aims to research soil biology and develop a toolkit to measure and manage soil health.

The partnership has developed and validated thresholds for measuring and monitoring physical, chemical and biological indicators of soil health. These indicators have been grouped within a soil health ‘scorecard’.

At the heart of the scorecard is a traffic-light system that shows whether results fall within the expected range for UK soils and climatic regions. Results are flagged as red, amber or green to indicate where values are outside of, close to, or within established threshold values, respectively. A red flag requires immediate investigation, an amber flag warrants closer monitoring.

The results, combined with field-level knowledge, can help identify soil-health management priorities. The project page features links to project reports and case studies to illustrate how the scorecard has been tested in research trials and commercial situations.

Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership

Use of chitinous biowaste streams as soil health amendments

Some biowaste streams – including shellfish waste, mushroom waste (spent compost and mushrooms) and black soldier fly waste – have similar characteristics. Such biowaste contains biopolymers, such as chitin, as well as major crop nutrients, organic matter and calcium carbonate (lime). When applied to soil, they also have the potential to alter the environmental conditions in the rhizosphere. If managed appropriately, this could help shift the soil’s microbial balance in favour of beneficial organisms – increasing natural suppression of plant pathogens and pests. Transforming chitin-containing biowaste into high-value products, such as a soil health amendment, will aid in the reduction of carbon emissions and bring economic and environmental benefits to the end user.

Use of chitinous biowaste streams as soil health amendments

Regenerative agriculture in challenging environments

The north of England is characterised by cold, wet winters and summers with lower temperatures than other regions of England. In many areas, soils are heavy (formed from boulder clay) and poorly drained. These conditions make it challenging to implement many of the key practices associated with regenerative agriculture, including direct drilling and integration of cover crops. This project is working with farmers to identify the challenges and successes associated with regenerative agriculture in northern England.

Regenerative agriculture in challenging environments

Reducing crop disease risk through residue management

With pressure to adopt less-intensive tillage systems increasing, it is important that appropriate disease management guidance is available. Anecic (deep burrowing) earthworms are known to influence some crop diseases – both directly, by modifying host defence metabolism, and indirectly, via preferential consumption of pathogen-infected residues. In reduced tillage systems, retained and infected crop residues on the soil surface make a significant contribution to the survival and dispersal of some plant pathogens. An estimate of the value (fuel and pesticide savings) of anecic earthworms as biocontrol method for disease reduction is potentially worth around £59 per hectare. This project aims to improve disease management in reduced cultivation systems.

Reducing crop disease risk through residue management

Other current projects

AHDB Rotations Research Partnership

With an emphasis on potato production systems, this partnership also featured several outputs relevant to arable rotations. For example, an online compaction-risk tool (Terranimo UK) indicates potential stresses in the soil profile. Using soil texture and moisture information, the tool can quantify the impact of various management practices, including tyre choice (type and pressure), axle loads, and use of tracked machines and multiple wheelings. The project has also validated a model to determine the benefit of organic matter across the rotation and identified innovative ways to measure soil organic matter (quantity and quality) in the field.

Rotations Research Partnership

Available soil phosphate test kit field trials

Fostering populations of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) through cover crop choices and soil management (PhD 2018)

Predicting crop disease from molecular assessment of the distribution and quantification of soilborne pathogens (PhD 2018)

*A report is submitted at the end of each project. After review (which can take several weeks), the final project report is published on the corresponding project page. At this stage, the project is official complete.

All soil research projects

Information on all soil research projects is available in our research archive:

  • In the ‘Sector’ drop-down box, select ‘Cereals & Oilseeds’
  • In the ‘Topic’ drop-down box, select ‘Soil management’

Visit our research archive

Recent soil research articles

Unleashing the might in chitin for soil health

Northern farmers discuss regenerative agriculture

Earthworms: a crop disease biocontrol?

Getting the most out of muck applied to cereals and oilseeds

Plough vs direct drill: Soil health impact revealed by ‘scorecard’

Stepping forward into regenerative agriculture

Soil research in action

Our Strategic Cereal Farms put cutting-edge research and innovation into practice on commercial farms around the UK.

Our Strategic Cereal Farm in Scotland has got soil covered

Cultivation depth and system resilience explored at Strategic Cereal Farm