Soil health field assessments

This baselining trial is set out to investigate factors that influence soil health and how this information can be used to make decisions.

Soil health field assessments - trial summary

  • Start: September 2021
  • End: August 2022

Objective

To investigate the factors controlling soil health at a farm-scale, establishing benchmarks and using soil information effectively to support management decisions.

Why test soil health?

The purpose of soil health baseline assessments is to gather data at the outset of the Strategic Farm programme.

We fund an extensive programme of research and knowledge exchange on soil management. In 2017, AHDB and BBRO funded a five-year Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership. The Partnership is a cross-sector programme of research and knowledge exchange 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.

A key area to find out more about is the benchmarks for healthy soils, especially the ratio between carbon and nitrogen.

How is the trial run?

Soil health assessments will be made on four fields:

  • Ashen Grove
    • 25-hectare field
  • Waltham Marks
    • 41-hectare field
  • Piggery
    • 7-hectare field
  • Big Grange
    • 13-hectare field

How are we assessing soil health?

Soil assessments

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

Season assessments

  • Pest, weed and disease assessments

Crop assessments

  • Crop health
  • Yield
  • Grain quality

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)

The structure of the soil was very good in all fields except for Big Grange where the soil was noticeably more compact and distinct layers were visible.

Soil Health Scorecard

  • The earthworms retrieved during the earthworm count were adequate in overall number and a good mixture of adult and juvenile earthworms.
  • Piggery was found to have considerably high P content – possibly as a result of historical livestock presence.
  • Low Mg content seen in both fields at the Folly Farm site is a characteristic true of many chalk soils.
  • Organic matter levels in Big Grange are particularly concerningly low when given the poorer visible structure observed.

Plant Counts (October assessment)

Establishment assessments were undertaken in the four fields 4, 6 and 8 weeks post-drilling. No significant differences were present for plant count between the four fields.

 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. In this initial assessment, Ashen Grove and Piggery fields captured notably more carabids than the other two fields. In addition to the on-going pest monitoring, these week-long assessments will be repeated numerous times to obtain a time-resolved dataset.

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.

Update from April crop walk

The winter wheat crops in all four fields of this trial were generally healthy and progressing well. The crops in Ashen Grove and Big Grange were particularly advanced.

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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