Know Your Soils

Know your Soils #12: The Soil Health Principles

5184 3456 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the twelfth, and final, instalment of our Know your Soils series sharing practical tips for monitoring the soil health on your land.

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


7 Soil health mantras to follow on your farm

Insights from Niels Corfield, Soil Health Advisor

How do you build soil health? Below we share the six soil health principles to follow on your farm. Implementing farming practises and any new ideas which encompass as many of these principles as possible will get you firmly on the path of regenerative farming. With every decision you can use these principles as a checklist to guide you to the best tool to move forward to build a regenerative farming system.

 

 

1. Living Root

Living plants have living roots, they photosynthesise and transmit energy into the soil. This energy is feed for the beneficial soil organisms at work, creating aggregation in the soil.

2. Covered Soil

It’s best to have living plants in the soil, as then you have living roots. But the next best thing is to ensure you cover ground with plant residue, e.g. with a terminated cover crop

3. Minimise Disturbance

Ploughing disturbs the soil organism population, preventing them from doing their necessary work to maintain healthy soil. Reducing cultivation or going no till keeps them happy!

4. Diversity

A diverse range of plants in the soil means a diverse range of roots and a diverse diet for the soil organisms the roots are feeding. Roots have unique functions e.g tap roots bring nutrients up from deep in the sub soils and legume roots fix nitrogen directly in the soil.

5. Feed soils

Feeding the soil with compost, manure or compost tea will directly increase soil organic matter levels and provide plenty of food for worms!

6. Incorporate Animals

Grazing livestock in a rotation is beneficial for increasing soil organic matter, terminating cover crops and decreasing weeds in your fields. Why not try mob grazing?

7. Minimise Chemicals & Synthetics

Adding chemicals can undo the good work you put in for the principles above — pesticides kill soil organisms, fertilisers make plants dependent and herbicides kill living roots.

 

 

Microbial activity in the soil will lead to good soil structure; if generally improving soil health is your first objective then fostering microbial activity is a good place to start. Feeding microbes directly with manure or compost is one way to do this, or encouraging grass plants to grow bigger faster is another. Different grazing practises offer ways to achieve this too.

What management practises have you found useful for building soil health? We’d love to hear from you – send us an email to info@vidacycle.com

 


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 #11: The VESS Test

765 428 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the eleventh 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 to visually assess your soil structure

Short video created by the Sectormentor For Soils Team

Assess the quality of your soil structure for yourself with a spade, tray, ruler and smartphone. Soil structure shows how much biological activity is happening, how well water can infiltrate downwards and how well plants are being nourished. It is core to soil health!

It takes some practise! This short video will show you what to expect:

 

Scoring your soil sample with the VESS chart

Once you have measured the top and bottom depths of your sample, you need to score each one using the VESS chart.

When scoring your sample the VESS guidelines encourage you to ask yourself: Are the clumps angular? Do they have roots running through them? How easy is it to break them down? How porous are they? With gentle pressure breaking them down what size are most of the clumps?

We found many farmers find these questions quite difficult. In the video we simplify the process: it is easiest to observe what soil looks like when you break it apart during the test. If the pieces are mainly angular then give a score of 3-5 and if they are mainly ‘bobbly’ or crumb-like give a of score 1-2. Don’t understand what we mean by ‘bobbly’? Watch the video and you will see! The app helps you with the scoring when you are out in the field too.

 

What does a healthy soil look like?

Well aggregated soil gets first prize in the VESS test! This means that the soil particles are in a crumb structure: there are smaller particles holding together around plant roots.

Soil is aggregated by biological activity; microbes and soil organisms digest organic matter and glue the soil particles together.

Aggregated soil is good because it allows air and water to percolate and store between the particles, which fosters plant growth and supports all soil flora and fauna to thrive.

Soil may lose it’s aggregation structure due to compaction or a lack of biological activity. If you work on improving your soil with the 6 soil health principles you can regenerate it, restoring it’s life and aggregation.

 


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 #10: Soil Test Calendar

1754 1240 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the tenth 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.


When and how often should you do soil tests?

Soil test calendar created by the Sectormentor For Soils team

Taking the first steps on your soil monitoring journey involves some essential decision making! Firstly, which soil tests are right for your farm as well as when and where you are going to do them?

Certain tests are best done at certain times of year, and like most things in farming, this is due to the weather. On the calendar you can see the key soil tests, when and how often to do them. Choose a minimum of 3 of the key tests and ideally do them all on the same day.

Deciding when and how often to do the tests

Deciding which fields to test

If you want to get an overview of how your soil is doing choose fields which are managed differently, for example, one arable field, one permanent pasture, one herbal ley and so on.

A few farmers have wanted to better understand how soil changes across their rotation, or under cumulative years of a herbal ley. In both these cases, choose one field from each part of the cycle to look at how the soil changes over time.

If you are concerned about the performance of different fields choose to test a couple of your worst fields and a couple of your best and then try different management practices to improve the worst ones so they look more like the best.

Choose fields where you can experiment with different management practices and make changes, so that the results from your soil tests can inform what to do next. If you found poor soil on a field under a restrictive stewardship scheme it could be frustrating that you can’t do anything about it.

Most importantly, only choose as many fields as are manageable and which are easily accessible, ideally not too far from each other. Planning to test 3 fields and doing it is better than planning to test 6, feeling overwhelmed, and not doing any!

Where to do the tests on the field

As a basic rule you want to do each test a minimum of 3 times on each field to get a representative sample. It’s important to not do them too close to the edge of the field too. Certain tests such as the plate meter are better conducted more randomly – for these you can also try walking a W in the field and testing along it. 

If you want to get the most accurate representative sample do 1 test every 8 acres in a field, but sticking to the rule of 3s is easier and will give you good results too!

Once you’ve decided on the location of your sample sites within each field, you can add the exact GPS location of the sites into the Sectormentor for Soils app, so you can make sure to return to the same sites for a more accurate comparison next time you go out testing! Read more about this feature here.

To remind yourself of the different soil tests you can choose from, and how to do them, see the full list here.

 

Here is a PDF of the Soil Test Calendar which you can print

 


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 #9: The plate meter

470 351 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the ninth 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 to maintain productive grassland

Insights from Alex Heffron, Welsh farmer and regenerative agriculture enthusiast

Plate meters allow farmers to measure and monitor the volume of forage they have across their fields and farm. This is a very important tool for understanding how to maintain productive grassland and extend the grazing season.

We travel to Wales, to meet Alex Heffron, from Mountain Hall Farm, who produces Jersey raw milk and beef. He’s a first generation farmer, managing 13.5 acres of grazing and 100% pasture fed livestock. So you could say grass is his bread and butter!

Calculating forage volume is an essential tool for Alex to manage food supply for his animals while maintaining and improving grass and soil health. He regularly moves his cattle to new pasture using a Holistic Planned Grazing framework and mob grazing.

It’s time for you to meet Alex’s good friend, the plate meter:

Every time Alex moves animals to new pasture he takes a plate meter reading for that field so he can calculate how much grass is there, and when he should move them again to ensure optimum regrowth of the grass.

Plate meters measure the height and density of the sward. It takes the average height in compressed centimetres and converts it to kilos of dry matter per hectare using this equation: [average sward height] x 125 + 640 = [forage volume] kg DM/ha.

For example: if there’s 4000 kg DM/ha in Alex’s field and he aims to leave 2500 kg DM/ha to ensure grass regrowth, then there’s 1500 kg DM/ha to graze. If the field is 1 ha and there are 10 steers each weighing 400 kg which need to graze 80 kg DM/ha per day, they will last 5 days in that field.

How to take a plate meter reading

The same calculation could be worked out with a sward stick (a sort of paper ruler), but Alex finds using a plate meter less time consuming and more accurate. Manual and electronic plate meters go by a many names: PLATE meters, pasture meters, rising plate meters, falling plate meters. They are all in fact measuring pretty much the same thing.

By plate metering and moving his livestock around different grazing areas Alex maintains a good supply of grass, giving it time to regrow. He uses the Sectormentor For Soils app to record plate meter readings and observations, tracking how his forage and fields change and develop with different farm management practises.

“The advantage of using Sectormentor is that it’s an easy and convenient way to record and keep that information handy. It will be interesting to analyse each year the levels of growth and speed of re-growth. It’s another way that I can assess if our management is improving our grazing.”

Even better, taking a plate meter out is another good reason to walk around the fields and visually assess grassland. Alex observes forage diversity, grass condition, trampling, manure quality (indication of rumen health), and how wet or dry the ground is. This observational library is central to continued learning and the evolution of Alex’s farming practises.

Plate metering can be used in different pasture management contexts other than 100% grass fed too. Taking readings across a whole farm gives an overall picture of forage volumes and if there is any grassland underperforming. It’s important not to let the volume drop too much as winter approaches, otherwise grass growth rates will be low in the spring.

 

Resources

Using a plate meter – AHDB Dairy

Expert Guidance on using a plate meter – Farmers Weekly


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

1600 900 Sectormentor for Soils

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

1358 772 Sectormentor for Soils

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

551 406 Sectormentor for Soils

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.

Know your Soils #5: How well can your soil can hold onto nutrients?

5184 3456 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the fifth 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.


Can your soil hold nutrients effectively?

A video from the ‘Learning from the Land’ series created by Catchment Sensitive Farming &Innovation for Agriculture

Earlier in the series, we discussed how rainwater can wash away all the precious nutrients in your soil, literally leaking money and resources down the field drains. Try this test at home to discover how good your soil is at holding onto different types of nutrients, specifically positively and negatively charged nutrients:

 

Making sure your soil has a stable structure and a high organic matter content is helpful for reducing nutrient loss. There are six basic soil health principles to follow to ensure your nutrients will not be lost with the next rainy day:

Living Root

Living plants have living roots, they photosynthesise and transmit energy into the soil. This energy is feed for the beneficial soil organisms at work, creating aggregation in the soil.

Covered Soil

It’s best to have living plants in the soil, as then you have living roots. But the next best thing is to ensure you cover ground with plant residue, e.g. with a terminated cover crop

Minimise Disturbance

Ploughing disturbs the soil organism population, preventing them from doing their necessary work to maintain healthy soil. Reducing cultivation or going no till keeps them happy!

Diversity

A diverse range of plants in the soil means a diverse range of roots and a diverse diet for the soil organisms the roots are feeding. Roots have unique functions e.g tap roots bring nutrients up from deep in the sub soils and legume roots fix nitrogen directly in the soil.

Feed soils

Feeding the soil with compost, manure or compost tea will directly increase soil organic matter levels and provide plenty of food for worms!

Incorporate Animals

Grazing livestock in a rotation is beneficial for increasing soil organic matter, terminating cover crops and decreasing weeds in your fields. Why not try mob grazing?

Minimise Chemicals & Synthetics

Adding chemicals can undo the good work you put in for the principles above — pesticides kill soil organisms, fertilisers make plants dependent and herbicides kill living roots.

 

 

There are a few bits of equipment you need to get together for this test, like ordering the dyes. How about doing it together with other local farmers so you can learn together which fields you are losing nutrients from?

Equipment


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 #4: How to capture carbon in your soil

659 353 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the fourth 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.


“If you want to capture carbon, you have to think like carbon!”

A special short episode of Farmerama Radio, a podcast sharing the voices of smaller scale farmers

Charles Schembre is a Soil Conservationist at the Napa County Resource Conservation District, working primarily in Vineyard Agriculture. He has received grant funding to set up his carbon farm plan project from California’s Healthy Soils Program, a scheme to support farmers with increasing soil health, sequestering carbon and improving water retention.

Sequestering or increasing soil organic carbon is the process of plants absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and transforming it into carbon in the soil through photosynthesis. This is beneficial for reducing greenhouse gases, in addition to increasing soil fertility.

Charles is working with farms and vineyards to create holistic ‘Carbon Farm Plans’, which assist them to increase their agricultural resilience and productivity, and mitigate the impact of our rapidly changing climate with sustainable farm management practises.

In this short episode of Farmerama, he explains how ‘Carbon Farming’ works, what a carbon farm plan is and how you can monitor this on your farm:

You can see an example carbon farm plan from the USDA Napa County vineyard here.

Carbon sequestration is a win-win, right?
Yes, however, making a plan and monitoring it’s success is the challenge. The idea for the plan is to put all potential options in, and then chip away to find what’s realistic. In terms of soil health there are several different tactics he suggests you can use to increase carbon in your soil and monitor how they are working:

  • No-till: This is the practise of not ploughing, leaving soil undisturbed, protecting against soil erosion and allowing microbes, fungi and worms to do their great work building soil health. This is one of the easiest practises to implement as it doesn’t involve much financial commitment, so a lot of the farms using carbon farm plans try it first.
  • Compost: Adding compost to the soil builds up it’s soil organic matter content. The benefits of this practise are much longer term. Charles recommends adding large compost applications to soil perhaps every 5 or even 10 years.
  • Ground cover: The more ground is covered in plants, the better. If you want to capture carbon, you need leafy green plants, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it into the ground. So those, ‘untidy areas’ of the farm, rife with riotous plants and weeds, might actually be doing your soil a favour. Think twice about topping them next time!

Soil monitoring
To understand how much carbon sequestration you are achieving Charles advises you start monitoring these three soil health indicators (identified by Soil Health Institute):

  • Wet aggregate stability (Slake test): this is the soil’s ability to withstand disintegration from water erosion. You can do the slake test at home! (our soil health expert Jenni Dungait will tell us more about this later in the series)
  • Bulk Density: this is the unit of dry soil & air per unit of bulk volume. It changes depending on different land management practises. The test is best done in a lab, and involves drying a soil sample in an oven at 105 degrees for 18-24 hours.
  • Soil Organic Carbon: this is a part of soil organic matter which is traditionally measured with the Loss-on-ignition test (also best done in a lab). However recent research by Soil Health Expert Jenni Dungait has shown that the wet aggregate stability test (or slake test) is a proxy for Soil Organic Carbon when following this protocol.

There has already been a proven reduction in greenhouse gases on several of the farms using carbon farm plans. Do you think you can make your own carbon farm plan? Check out Charles’ Carbon Farm Plan for their demo vineyard, Huichica Creek.


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 #3: Monitor the impact of water run-off

570 376 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the third instalment of our new 12 part 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 topsoil and nutrients do you lose with rain water run-off?

A video from the ‘Learning from the Land’ series created by Catchment Sensitive Farming & Innovation for Agriculture

This is a great test you can do at home to understand how much rain water is running off your soils and whether it’s eroding precious topsoil and nutrients. Matthew Shepherd, Soil Biodiversity Specialist for Natural England, uses the humble tetra pack to show how soil samples from bare soil, arable and permanent pasture fields differ in their water holding capacity.

Healthy soil which has a good crumb structure or ‘aggregation’ throughout the topsoil and subsoil is able to store a large amount of water. It can be stored in all the nooks and crannies, as well as percolate around the soil ‘crumbs’ or particles deep into the soil. This gives plants access to water during drier weather in the spring and summer, making them more resistant to drought.

If the soil is poorly aggregated there are no nooks and crannies for the water to be stored in or percolate down through to the lower layers of soil. Instead it will move laterally through the topsoil taking nutrients and earth with it, far away from the farm and into water courses, literally leaking money and resources away.

There are various farm management practises for improving soil health and ‘aggregation’. Mob grazing is very effective in a mixed farming system, as it adds organic matter to the soil which feeds soil organisms that create aggregation, and it allows for rapid regrowth of grasses increasing their photosynthesis power and thus soil carbon. Find out more information about making your soil ‘rain-ready’.

How about trying this test out with other local farmers growing different crops and grass leys so you have a wide variety of different soil samples? You can raid your recycling bins together for as many empty tetra pack cartons as possible!

Equipment

  • Tetrapack carton — re-use an orange juice or milk carton
  • Soil sample block
  • Collection jars
  • Bucket
  • Watering can
  • Nitrate testing strips

Regular soil testing is helpful to understand how your soil aggregation changes when a new management practise is put in place to improve it. You could also try monitoring topsoil depth, water infiltration rate, and visual analysis of soil structure in the autumn and spring.


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.