Soil health at crop establishment

A variety of approaches to enhance the soil–plant interaction at drilling are being tested to see if early crop growth can be improved.

Soil health at crop establishment - trial summary

  • Start: September 2021
  • End: Ongoing

Objective

To assess the impact of soil amendments (targeting biological enhancement) on early stage crop growth in winter wheat.

Why test soil health at crop establishment?

The Strategic Cereal Farm South wants to know more about how the soil functions and benchmarks for healthy soil, particularly investigating the optimum ratio of carbon and nitrogen. For autumn 2021, the farm will host a trial using a variety of approaches to enhance the soil–plant interaction at drilling. This will include different treatments placed with the seed and will measure the impact on the plants including their roots. Before the amendments are applied, they will be analysed to understand more about their content. 

How is the trial run?

This tramline trial will take place in Fish Ponds in a crop of winter wheat. All treatments will be applied at drilling:

1) Untreated control

2) L-CBF BOOST™

3) Ecoworm

4) Ecoworm + L-CBF BOOST™

 How are we assessing soil health at crop establishment?

Root assessments

  • Root length
  • Root dry matter
  • Root weight (length, diameter and surface area)
  • Rooting depth

Soil assessments

  • Soil health scorecards for each field ( including soil organic matter, pH, VESS, earthworm numbers)

Crop assessments

  • Crop emergence
  • Ground cover (NDVI)
  • Crop development

 The Farm Economics team will calculate the economic cost of production of the crop in each trial field. Using Farmbench, they will produce costs per hectare and per tonne. The calculations will use:

  • Seed, fertiliser and crop protection
  • Farm labour, machinery and equipment
  • The regional average for property, energy and administration

What results has the project delivered so far?

Soil structure (November assessment)

Overall, the soil appears to be well structured – the aggregates are generally small and easily break apart in the hand. Roots can grow beyond the soil surface unimpeded and consolidate the soil well around them. There were no visible regions or greyish discolouration and plenty of evidence of organic material and bio-pores.

Soil Health Scorecard

Key take-aways:

  • The results of the laboratory analyses detected few differences between the treatments.
  • These data reinforce the results of the SMN and soil microbial analyses which had suggested there were no significant differences between treatments.

Plant Counts (November assessment)

The plant counts, undertaken in three locations of each tramline at 4, 6 and 8 weeks post-drilling, indicated that there was no significant difference in emergence between the treatments.

Pitfall Traps (October assessment)

Pitfall traps were placed into each tramline and left in-situ for one week (19/10/21 - 26/10/21), retrieved and the number of individuals of each type counted. The pitfall traps from the ‘no treatment’ control regions contained notably more carabidae beetles than other areas. These pitfall trap assessments will be repeated to investigate this further. However, no other trends are visible between treatments.

Predators:

  • Carabid
  • Staphylinidae
  • Harvestman Spider

Beneficials:

  • Millipede

Pests:

  • Slug

Disease assessments

Leaf-layer disease assessments will be undertaken between BBCH growth stages 31-37, 39-45 and 59-65. As of GS33, disease levels are low with leaves 3 and 4 displaying next to no Septoria prevalence. There is no significant difference between fields.

Soil mineral nitrogen & soil microbe analysis

Soil samples were collected from sampling sites along a tramline of each treatment in November 2021 and more recently in March 2022.

Back in November, the soil mineral nitrogen (SMN) results indicated that SMN was greatest in the tramline to which both Ecoworm and L-CBF Boost were applied. As of March 2022, this treatment has the second highest SMN, being surpassed by the tramline with just Ecoworm.

In addition to the soil mineral nitrogen analysis, soil samples were also taken for microbial population analysis (SoilBioLab, UK).

Analysis of soil microbial populations in March 2022 for each of the treatments.

The results from November 2021 showed no clear trends between treatments and microbial populations, any differences between treatments in November were most likely the result of intra-field variation.

In March 2022, the concentration of total bacteria and total fungi were lowest in the untreated tramline. However, treatment 3, to which L-CBF Boost was applied, had the lowest concentration of both active bacteria and active fungi.

Plant biomass & root metrics

The above and below ground biomass was recorded for a 1m2 area across each treatment area.

There were no substantial differences in above or below ground biomass between the various treatment areas.

This was also the case when various root metrics (average longest root length, average total root length) were recorded across the treatment areas with no significant differences observed.

Update from February crop walk

The crop in all four treatments appeared to be progressing well although there seems to be no discernible visual differences between treatments.

Our Strategic Farms are an opportunity to see how to use our research on a commercial farm. Find out more about our Strategic Cereal Farm South Programme

Image of staff member Fiona Geary

Fiona Geary

Knowledge Transfer Manager - Cereals and Oilseeds

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