Monthly Archives :

September 2018

You’ve just got to moo-ve them! Greg Judy on mob grazing livestock

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A Farmerama short podcast sharing insights on building soil health with grazing livestock

How do we manage grazing animals in a way that is most efficient for building soil health, growing grass and feeding livestock? Mob grazing is the answer according to Greg Judy (and many others).

Listen to this short podcast sharing the voice of Greg Judy, a cow-pat lover, full time mob grazer and regenerative agriculture enthusiast in Missouri:

 

“It takes 27 years to cover an entire farm with manure piles with continuous grazing. With mob grazing, where your mobbing animals up into a small area and moving them frequently it takes 1.5 years.”

Moving cattle around smaller areas of pasture on your farm ensures that a higher density of manure reaches the ground. This stimulates the microbial community below which speeds up grass growth. More grass means more food for animals!

The shorter the supply chain of manure from animal to ground the better. Keeping animals inside and collecting manure from barns lengthens this process, taking longer to return the goodness to the ground and losing some of it on the way.

Mob grazing makes a lot of sense, as using this method you could extend your grazing season significantly, perhaps to all year round. This is particularly helpful in a pasture fed system.

Want to know how mob grazing is affecting your soil? Use the Sectormentor for Soils app to help you track how your land is changing above and below ground, as well as track how much grass you have in each field. Get the app here.

Know your soils #8: The most important thing you can do for your soil

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Welcome to the eighth instalment of our Know your Soils series sharing practical tips for monitoring the soil health on your land. Keep an eye out for our bitesize videos and fact sheets on simple tests you can do yourself on farm.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.


Try 3 easy soil tests to understand your soil health

After almost a year of supporting farmers with soil testing, the Sectormentor For Soils team share insights on empowering farmers to monitor and build soil health for themselves.

It’s clear that we need to build more resilient soils, both for the future of our farms and for the long-term health of the land. Satellite images of muddy waters spilling out of brown rivers after heavy rainfall are hair-raising. Soil health advisors are certain this scenario is avoidable, it’s all down to how land is managed.

If this is the case then building soil health should be one of the top priorities on every farm, but how do farmers do this? It starts with soil testing and monitoring, going out into the fields and seeing for yourself how your soil is doing.

Monitoring how your land is changing with different management practices and what works to build healthy soils and crops is the core of successful farming. This is why dedicating just one day to do a few simple soil tests on your land is the most important thing you can do for your soil this year.

Spring and Autumn are the best times to do soil tests.
Here’s the 3 most important AND EASY tests you can do now using equipment already on your farm.

Do the Soil Test Challenge!

 

1. Slake Test (Wet Aggregate Stability)

The Slake test allows you to really see how well your soil structure holds up in water. It is also an indicator of biological activity. Well structured soil is composed of aggregates, so in the slake test you put a few small pieces of soil in a sieve, submerge them in water and then shake them around quite vigorously. If the small pieces survive without breaking down at all they are true aggregates. The water around them will also remain totally clear. So after heavy rainfall, your soil would retain its structure and even keep little droplets of water in the nooks and crannies of the irregularly shaped aggregates. For non-aggregates there is considerable break down of the pieces and the water can become murky. This implies that the pieces of soil are only held together because of compaction, and as soon as there is a heavy rainfall the soil structure just falls apart and then what’s left re-settles and compacts further – no air gaps anywhere.

You score the breakdown on a scale of zero to eight, eight indicates a soil full of microbes and made up almost exclusively of aggregates. You can then easily record your observations and results using the Sectormentor for Soils app – including notes and photos all automatically assigned to the field you are in. Here is a step-by-step guide of how to the test and the simple equipment you need.

We are working with Soil Health Expert Jenni Dungait and have adopted the method she used in her research with farmers on multiple farms in Cornwall and Cotswolds regions. An additional benefit of this test was highlighted by Jenni’s research (soon to be published) which shows that the slake test is an excellent proxy for Soil Organic Carbon.

 

2. Earthworm count

All growers inherently understand the value of earthworms as we see them physically move nutrients around the soil profile. Earthworms are one of the larger organisms in the soil food web, so lots of earthworms is a good indicator of plenty of life in your soil. In the UK, an average of 15-20 worms in a 20x20cm soil pit is considered good. Taking a spade, digging a pit and counting earthworms is a very easy and valuable test and if you are using the app, it will automatically record which field the count was in and give you an average for each field at the end of the day. It’s also easy to look back and compare when you do the count again next year. Here is a step-by-step guide of how to do the test and the basic equipment you need.

There is a more detailed earthworm count you can do based on the work of soil scientist Jackie Stroud at Rothamsted. There are three main types of earthworm: the litter-feeders which break down organic matter on the surface of the soil; the top-soil worms who work on soil aggregation and nutrient mobilisation; and then the deep-burrowers that keep water flowing from the soil surface to deep pools below, as well as increasing aeration and root development. Jackie’s research shows that if you identify numbers of each type of worm, it can tell you what the worms are working on and uncover any changes you might need to make in your soil management to encourage all types – ideally you want to have all three types of worm working in harmony. Take Jackie’s Worm ID Quiz, which is a brilliant way to learn how to identify types of worm for yourself. If you are in the UK, you can also choose to be part of her #30minworms nationwide worm survey, building up a picture of the worm situation in fields all over the country. You can find out more about it here, or we can also send her your results from the app, at your request.

 

3. Infiltration rate

The Infiltration rate test clearly shows how ready your soil is to soak up water when it comes, and indicates the ability of your soil to hold water when it’s dry for long periods. Imagine if every farmer and grower around the land had a clear idea of the average infiltration rate in each of their fields. We would definitely be better equipped to prevent those muddy rivers and top-soil losses. To do this test we use a 150mm diameter pipe and hammer the pipe 75mm into the ground (We have pre-marked this on the side). Then we pour in 444ml of water and time how long it takes the water to infiltrate. If you use the app, it will automatically tell you the average infiltration rate for each field, each year, so you can easily compare between your fields as well as from year to year. Here is a step-by-step guide and list of the basic equipment you need to do this test.

Originally we used a much smaller diameter baked bean tin to do the infiltration tests but we were finding it took over 20 minutes for the water to infiltrate which made it impractical to do in the field. One thought was forcing such a small diameter cylinder into the ground was causing artificial compaction in itself, which is why we have moved to a larger diameter cylinder. We have found this size to be much more reasonable in terms of the amount of time it takes, our aim is that this method that takes a maximum of five minutes in most soils.

 

4. Bonus! Photo Diary

We are going to sneak in a 4th here because it’s not really a ‘test’. Farmers have told us that a photo diary of each field above and below ground is very helpful alongside the soil tests. You can see from the example on Fidelity’s farm below what this can look like in the Sectormentor for Soils app. And thankfully the app automatically adds a date and time to each photo and assigns it to the field you are in, plus you can add notes, so it’s all organised for you automatically when you get back home. No more scrolling through photos endlessly trying to find the right one or what exactly it was your were photographing!

The Sectormentor for Soils app makes it easy to record these observations in the field as you go, and then turn those observations into graphs and insights. Just a few taps and you have everything recorded, alongside photos showing what you saw both above and below ground. Essentially you can build up a visual diary for each field combined with numerical results from the tests. All those results are easily searchable (no more shuffling through piles of papers to try and find those scribbled notes) and quickly show how your soil health is changing over time. What do you reckon? Are you on board? What’s stopping you? If you have any questions at all just email us! We are here to help.

We believe that if we all take this on the UK can be world-leaders in healthy soils and clean waterways!

 


See our free online soils guide for soil tests you can do at home and find out how our app Sectormentor for Soils helps you record & learn how your soil is changing.

Know your Soils #7: The Respiration Test

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Welcome to the seventh instalment of our Know your Soils series sharing practical tips for monitoring the soil health on your land. Keep an eye out for our bitesize videos and fact sheets on simple tests you can do yourself on farm.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.


How much biological activity is there in your soil?

Based on an AHDB GREATsoils video created by Soil Association and Earthcare Technical

The soil respiration test is a way to measure how much biological activity is occurring in your soil. When soil respires carbon dioxide is released by microbes, plant roots and soil fauna.

Decomposition of organic matter by microbes in the soil converts organic nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and sulfur into inorganic nutrients, which plants are able to absorb. This process is also known as carbon mineralisation, feeding the plants, and the soil.

Soil respiration is indicative of the soil’s ability to support living roots and plant growth. Low respiration rates show that there is a lack of soil organic matter and microbial activity in the soil. This could be down to the soil temperature, moisture, aeration or available Nitrogen.

Solvita has created a special field CO2 probe making it easy to test how much carbon dioxide is being released by the soil. It will give you a general idea of your soil’s natural metabolism and which farm management practises are affecting your biological activity.

In this GREATsoils video, find out how to do the test using the probe:

Soil samples need to be fresh from the field and slightly moist for this test — ideally the field will not have not been rained on for two days. It is interesting to sample fields of different uses such as pasture, arable and leys to see how the soil respiration differs.

Equipment:

For those in the UK can order kits from Solvita in the U.S. directly – please note prices are subject to change. Solvita field CO2 probes, gas tight jars and the CO2 colour chart are included in this set of 6 CO2 probes & jars for $99 (£75). You can get an idea of what the colour chart looks like in Solvita’s video. To stock up on probes you can buy 25 x field CO2 probes for $493 including shipping (£376) which is about $20 (£15) per test. The more you order the cheaper it gets: 50 is $714 (£544), so around $15 (£11) per test.

If you’re based in the U.S. you can link up with Will Brinton at Woodsend Labs to obtain advice and the Solvita equipment you need for this test.

If you’re based in the U.K. you can also get an in-depth assessment of your soil which includes the soil respiration test from NRM.

If you’re interested in trying this test at home why not club together with other farmers who would like to investigate their soil respiration.

Resources


See our free online soils guide for soil tests you can do at home and find out how our app Sectormentor for Soils helps you record & learn how your soil is changing.

Know your Soils #6: Soil Health Reading List

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Welcome to the sixth instalment of our Know your Soils series sharing practical tips for monitoring the soil health on your land. Keep an eye out for our bitesize videos and fact sheets on simple tests you can do yourself on farm.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.


The best books for learning about soil health

Book recommendations and where to buy them from a fantastic lineup of soil health experts and enthusiasts!

As the Autumn evenings begin to draw in why not stock up on a few of these soil health books to read on a cosy evening or weekend by the fire. In no particular order…

 

A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health – Jon Stika

A favourite of Gabe Brown, this book will change the way you think about and manage soil. Learn how to bring your soil back to life!

Recommended by Niels Corfield, Soil Health Expert & Advisor

 

The Soil and Water Balance – Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

Jump into the latest soil and water research with this Q & A style book, bringing together insights from the Allerton Project and numerous scientific papers.

Recommended by Jackie Stroud, Soil Scientist at Rothamsted Research & ‘The Worm Lady’

 

Teaming with Microbes: an organic gardener’s guide to the soil – Wayne Lewis & Jeff Lowenfels

Dig into the amazing underworld of microbes in your soil, what they eat, and how they nurture plants to make them strong and healthy.

Recommended by Hannah Steenbergen, 42 Acres, Somerset

 

Dirt – The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth – William Bryant Logan

This inspirational book is packed with interesting facts about ‘dirt’ and takes a philosophical view, looking at the bigger picture.

Recommended by Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming Systems Research at NIAB

 

Soil Ecology – Ken Killham

One of the best soil scientists of his generation gives an excellent overview of how soil works physically, chemically and ecologically, a page turner based on hard core science!

Recommended by Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming Systems Research at NIAB

 

Growing a Revolution – David Montgomery

Tour the world meeting innovative farmers who are ditching their ploughs, mulching cover crops and trying unique crop rotations. A blend of ancient wisdom and modern science!

Recommended by Alex Heffron, a farmer from Pembrokeshire, Wales

 

The Farm as Ecosystem – Jerry Brunetti

You’ll probably want to have your highlighter with you when you read this fascinating book taking a holistic perspective to farming and offering real-world advice.

Recommended by Alex Heffron, a farmer from Pembrokeshire, Wales

 

Fertility Farming – Newman Turner

A practical guide for farmers who want to work with nature to build fertile soil, without disruption of the natural order.

Recommended by Alex Heffron, a farmer from Pembrokeshire, Wales

 

Soil Signals & Grassland Signals – Luppo Diepenbrock

Good introduction to soils as part of a total farm management sustainable system.

Recommended by Jenni Dungait, Soil Health Expert & Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry

 

Letters to a young farmer – Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture

Although not specifically focussed on soil health, this is one of our favourites at Sectormentor HQ. Packed with inspiration and well worth a read!

Recommended by Abby, Annie & Inti, Sectormentor For Soils

 

Let us know what you think of these books and if you have anything to add!

 


See our free online soils guide for soil tests you can do at home and find out how our app Sectormentor for Soils helps you record & learn how your soil is changing.