Developing a soil health testing plan at AHDB Strategic Farm West

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Like many farmers around the UK, one of Rob Fox’s main challenges is to continue improving soil.

Rob farms at Squab Hall on the outskirts of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and hosts AHDB’s Strategic Farm West. His soils vary from 15 to 65 per cent clay.

When the Strategic Farm launched in June 2018, other farmers said they wanted to see on-farm evidence of the link between healthy soil and healthy crops. They also wanted more information on how to improve soil structure, the capability of soil, and the impact of soil management across the rotation.

Since then, Rob and the team have been developing plans to create a soil health testing action plan. It begins with baselining – measuring the starting point from which to look at any improvements in the future.

Anne Bhogal, Senior Soil Scientist at ADAS, said: “It is important to establish a robust baseline that captures the variability in soil properties across each field and the current condition of each soil type. The first phase of the work will determine the soil variability in each field using existing soil maps/data or soil survey to establish soil management zones. The next phase will assess the baseline soil health in each of the management zones.” 

The baselining will assess soil parameters across 11 categories, identified as part of AHDB’s Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership Project, which is working towards developing an integrated soil health scorecard and interpretation framework.

  • pH, routine nutrients
  • Bulk density
  • Penetrometer resistance
  • Visual evaluation of soil structure (VESS)
  • Soil organic matter
  • Respiration, earthworms
  • Microbial biomass C
  • Potentially mineralisable N
  • Total N
  • Nematodes

The scorecard offers a way for Rob to measure and monitor the soil on his farm over time.

The assessments will be completed when the soils are moist, either late autumn or in the spring prior to any cultivations.

To find out more information, visit the AHDB GREATsoils project page, which recently published a guide to testing soil health and covers physical, biological and chemical tests.