Soil testing: The experience is as valuable as the results

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This blog post was written by Annie Landless, after an eye opening afternoon of soil testing with Charles, her Dad.

My Dad and I had been talking about soil testing at home on our 375 acre farm since January, but it took until May to get outside and do the tests. While I live in London full time, I visit the family farm in North Oxfordshire regularly where we have 100 South Devon cross beef cattle, an arable rotations of wheat, oilseed rape, barley, oats & grass and 20 acres of solar panels.. I help out with marketing and community at Sectormentor For Soils so trying out recording soil test results with the app on my home turf is a top priority.

We had much discussion about which fields to test; this turned out to be a complex decision since the field boundaries have evolved considerably for one reason or another. Thames water have been working on a pipeline through three fields, taking productive land out of play and changing the field layout. We wanted a good spread of different fields being used for different purposes, for different numbers of years. We had this conversation back in February, but for the period I was at home, the ground was frozen solid, and digging out soil samples wasn’t an option.

The weeks turned by, and I was back at the farm again in late March – it rained every day for a week and the ground was utterly waterlogged, so we delayed our field trip together once again.

Fast forward to mid-May, and this time, I was determined we would make the tests happen. We agreed Saturday would be the day and I gathered the equipment: bags, a tray, spade etc. As I stepped out of the door in the afternoon, the heavens opened. It was decided a drive round in the Landy to look at the cows and the environmental strips was preferable to soil testing in the rain. Now, I know the weather seems a good excuse not to, but that doesn’t often stop a farmer! I couldn’t help but sense a hesitancy in the air.

The next day, thankfully, the weather was on our side. Dad came in for lunch and we were prepped and ready to go. Dad was rather angling for a sleepy afternoon reading the newspaper and wondering if it was really preferable for him to dig holes and look at soil. He did say normally he would pay someone else to do soil analysis, but my mum persuaded him it would be good ‘father-daughter’ bonding. It was a good enough motivation in the end, luckily!

We clambered into the Landy, phone complete with Sectormentor app in one hand, soil health kit in the other, dogs in back and front, and headed to our first destination: the Oak Tree Field. We picked a spot on the first section of the field and hopped out. Dad wanted to dig the holes, despite being due for a hip replacement the following week! It was a bit tough getting the spade in, but he managed. After digging out the top depth of the soil profile he was keen to get the rest, to exactly a spades depth.

Before I could pull out the VESS scorecard and phone he was already up close with the soil sample, running it between his fingers, exclaiming how beautiful the soil is and that he believed we had been kind to it over the years. The field is a grass ley established in 2017, and despite compaction in the top layers, it looked good, and there were no weeds at all. They say ‘the best fertiliser is a farmers boot’, which Dad quoted to me as he announced this is what farmers should be doing, looking at their soils, seeing what is going on for themselves.

Spurred on by the success of the first test, Dad wanted to do another, and another, and another. We continue on to do two more on the Oak Tree Field, each time examining the soil up close, both fascinated by the aggregation, decomposing farmyard manure and earthworms wiggling around in our soil. Once you’ve done the first field, it motivates you to compare the results with another field of a different use, and it very much helps to get your eye in. We also tested a field of wheat after rape and two permanent pasture fields, one which has been grass since the 1970s and the other since time immemorial.

The results we got were interesting; for example there were clear differences between the soil structure of permanent pasture and arable fields. However what I did find was, at first Dad was very much on the optimistic side when scoring our samples, particularly for the VESS test. It was only after 3-4 tests on different fields that I started to understand what was an appropriate score. Dad always wanted to rate it number 1 of course, so I had to be a harsher critic! It was a learning curve for both of us.

Luckily you can go back and edit results on the Sectormentor For Soils app, so I was able to update our first scores to be more realistic. We also took photos of the soil samples we used for each test with the app, and found it very helpful to look at them on the computer when we got home, to compare different soil samples in order to reassess scoring.  My advice would be, if scoring your samples feels a bit confusing at first, it gets easier with every test. Once you’ve looked at a few different soil samples you will start to understand better.

By the end of our testing session, Dad was saying he could easily go out and do them himself, and was getting quite excited at the prospect. He was surprised at how much he had enjoyed the experience and thanked me for the encouragement. We beetled home to do slake tests, and I left him with bags of earth and bowls of water as I prepared to head back to London.  We both found the tests were simple and easy and got the hang of using the app quickly. Dad has it downloaded on his iPad as it’s easier to see! It was a great pleasure to be able to work alongside him, both learning and enjoying the process, taking the time to see the earth for ourselves.

It can take some galvanisation to get out there and do the tests, but really at a basic level you only need to do them once or twice a year, in Autumn and/ or Spring. There is a lot of value to be found in spending an afternoon sitting amongst the grasses and crops, digging out samples, and looking closely at the life within them. The experience is just as important as the results.

 


Try soil testing on your farm using our free online soils guide and find out how our app Sectormentor for Soils helps you record & learn how your soil is changing.