Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership
About this project
Soil physics, chemistry and biology are interlinked and all play a role in maintaining productive agricultural and horticultural systems. While physical and chemical properties of soil are relatively well understood, the same is not necessarily true for soil biology. In recent years, interest in soil health has increased and a range of indicators for soil biology has been developed. These indicators, however, often have not been produced in parallel with the necessary guidance and tools to allow them to be exploited on farm.
Funded by AHDB and BBRO, this five-year Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership is a cross-sector programme of research and knowledge exchange. The programme is designed to help farmers and growers maintain and improve the productivity of UK agricultural and horticultural systems, through better understanding of soil biology and soil health.
The Partnership comprises eight scientific partners and six industry partners. This breadth of expertise provides a robust practical and scientific foundation to the Partnership and puts it in a strong position to exploit complementary research – past and present – as well as understand the practical challenges growers have around soil health.
Farmers and growers have taken the initiative to understand the health of their own soils and a great deal of work is being done on-farm to experiment with ways to optimise soil biology. The Partnership will work closely with farmers, growers and advisers to draw together and build on knowledge and experience to create accessible guidance and tools to help farmers improve soil health. Crucially, the Partnership will involve key players in the agri-food sectors to direct the work and maximise the practical relevance of its findings in modern farming rotations.
The programme comprises a series of interlinked projects within three main work packages.
Work Package 1: Benchmarking and baselining activities
Key aims are:
- Update scientific reviews of soil biology and soil health, especially as applicable in temperate UK cropping systems and develop a descriptive model that summarises the drivers of soil biology and soil health, and links to crop health and yield
- Develop a visual tool that provides an easily understood summary of the effects of soil management on soil biology and soil health
- Identify and recommend a complementary minimum set of existing methods to measure soil health on-farm and an interpretation framework, which can be used to support practical decision-making, within an integrated soil health scorecard (to be tested further in research and KE projects)
- Review molecular approaches that can be applied to assess soil biological function in cropping soils
- Recommend a toolkit of appropriate molecular diagnostics for detection of specific indicators of soil biological communities (occurrence, activity and interaction)
Work Package 2: Measuring and optimising long-term impacts of soil management
Key aims are:
- Quantify the effects of contrasting management practices on soil biology and health, in relation to crop yield and quality, and evaluate the use of simple tools for assessing soil health (integrated soil health scorecard)
- Utilise existing long-term experimental sites to explore the key drivers of soil biological functioning – i.e. soil organic matter, drainage status and pH – and how they can be managed
- Further develop and stimulate the use of molecular tools for the detection and quantification of soil-borne pathogens and demonstrate the value of regular and standardised assessments of propagule densities in soils
- Demonstrate the value of next generation sequencing methods (metabarcoding of the entire soil microbiome and metatranscriptomics) to aid understanding of complex interactions between soil management practices, biodiversity and the suppression of soil-borne pathogens
- Evaluate the use of DNA-based analyses to replace individual tests in an appraisal of overall soil health
- Quantify the changes brought about by the use of soil amendments for selected horticultural crops, utilising a combination of qPCR of pathogens, at least one biocontrol fungus and metabarcoding of the wider soil microbe population, together with other physical, chemical, visual and biological health measures of soil
Work Package 3: Knowledge exchange
***This component underpins the whole partnership programme***
Key aims are:
- Work with the agri-food sector, including farmers, growers, advisors, researchers and the wider agri-business sector, to confirm the key priority issues for the sector with regard to soil biology and the management of soil health
- Measure the impacts of the broad range of innovations in management of soil health already present on commercial farms by working with farmer/grower groups to collate data on impacts of crop yield/ quality and measurements of soil health, using paired field comparisons/ split field treatments
- Develop and disseminate KE outputs
The Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership will work with the agricultural industry to increase our understanding of soil biology and develop a toolkit to measure and manage soil health. All the outputs will be designed to be accessed, understood and implemented easily by farmers to aid them in the improved management of soil health.
This work forms part of the AHDB GREATSoils programme.