App features

Use maps to save your sample locations

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We’re excited that you can now use the GPS mapping feature in both our iPhone and Android apps, to save the exact locations of where you are doing your soil tests in each field. That way you can very easily come back year after year to the same spot and monitor changes in soil health. We have spoken to many different soil scientists and advisors and we feel that the best way to monitor soil health on your farm is to select specific sample sites and observe trends/changes in soil over time at each site.

As all farmers know, there can be huge amounts of variability, even within a field, so the idea of finding an ‘average’ soil health for the field is difficult, and requires you to have many, many sample sites. So our advice is to just pick 1-3 sample sites in a field, and monitor how things change at each site as you change your management practices. To do this you need to go back to more or less the same spot, which is where being able to mark your sample sites on the map makes things easier!

What does this mean?

With our GPS feature, you can save the location of each of your sample sites within each field, so they appear as pins on the map. This means you can view the location of each sample on the map, and the next time you go out soil testing you have a precise point to go back to, to repeat the tests – just follow the map on your phone to find the same spot in the field.

Why does this matter?

Coming back to the same sample sites when monitoring information on your soils is important. It saves lots of time, as you can sample fewer locations in the field but still have a good idea of how your management is affecting soil health! That’s all because by going back to the same location, you reduce most of the variables, so you can be pretty certain that any changes in what you see and record are due to a change in management (or extreme weather conditions!). 

So, now you’ll really know if that cover crop helped improve your rooting depth and VESS score or not! With GPS you can locate your samples sites more accurately, you can view them on a map, and ensure you return to the same spot each time.

Got any questions about GPS and using Sectormentor for Soils to monitor soil health? Contact us!

Soil Test Challenge

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Try something new this year, start monitoring your soil health. Do you accept the Soil Test Challenge?

We challenge you to do 3 easy soil tests on your fields. It takes one day in total and will give you valuable insight into how healthy your soil is and how well it will support healthy plants and livestock.

Knowing your soil is the key to successful farming, so take the time to do these simple tests and improve your understanding of your soil health. It will help you to develop the right approach to manage it.

Sectormentor for Soils makes physical soil analysis easy and informative. It works with a handy smartphone app to record soil test results & photos in the field and an online account to review & analyse a range of soil health indicators.

 


How to participate in the Soil Test Challenge:

 

Before you start:

  1. Pick 3 fields to test, repeat the tests 3 times in different locations on each field.
  2. On the day you do your tests, take a note of the weather over the last 24 hours because the temperature and amount of rainfall will affect the outcome of the tests.
  3. Take photos of each place that you test and record the results of each test (do this easily with Sectormentor for Soils). This helps you to monitor change over time and is important if you want to get advice further down the line.

 

TEST 1 – Earthworm Count

Earthworms are a key indicator that your soil is alive and has good soil organic matter content. They move nutrients around the soil profile, playing a vital role in feeding your plants, and open up the soil structure allowing water and air into the soil. Their sticky mucus also helps to build good soil structure.

Equipment: spade and tray or plastic bag

Method: Dig a 20 x 20 x 20 cm hole with your spade. Place the dug up soil on the tray/ plastic bag. Using the app, take a photo of the soil profile then gently break it apart with your hands. Count the number of worms and record it using the Sectormentor for Soils app. Take a photo in the app too!

In the UK, an average of 15-20 worms in a 20 x 20 x 20 cm soil pit is considered good, but it will also depend on the time of year and your soil type, and any recent field management. Using Sectormentor For Soils makes it easy to look back and compare when you do the count again next year.

 

TEST 2 – Slake Test

How well your soil structure holds together in water shows you how it withstands heavy rainfall, and what its capacity for storing water and nutrients is like. Good soil structure is an indicator that you have adequate soil organic matter that supports the life in your soil.

Equipment: spade, sieve with small mesh (>2mm), bowl of cold water, stop watch, plastic bags x9 (can be old shopping bags), pen and paper for labelling soil samples

Method: Take some of the soil from the sample dug up for the earthworm count or dig up a new sample. Select 3 pieces (aggregates) which are roughly 1 cm in diameter. Put them in a plastic bag, write the name of the field on the paper, tear it off and put it in the bag. Take care not to squash the soil. Repeat this process for all the soil samples you take. Take all bags of soil home and take the soil out and allow it to air dry overnight in a warm place being careful not to mix up the different samples. The next day, for each sample, arrange the soil aggregates in the sieve and fully immerse in water up the lip of the sieve. Observe the aggregates under water for 1 minute and lift them out then score them using the scale on this webpage. If they score 0-2 the test is over and you can record the score in the Sectormentor for Soils app. If they score higher than 2, move onto the second part of the test: gently raise the sieve up and down five times, so that the surface of the water just touches the top of the aggregate. Score using the scale and record in the Sectormentor for Soils app. We only give a soil a score of 8 if the water is crystal clear (i.e. the aggregate has not broken down at all) after the test. Take photos of each slake test using the Sectormentor for Soils app.

Well-structured soil is composed of rounded aggregates which will not break down easily in water. This means soil will retain its structure after heavy rainfall, and allow water and nutrients to move between the aggregates into deeper layers of the soil for your crops to use later.

Aggregates that often have sharp edges and that break down easily in water may suggest that they are only held together because of compaction. As soon as there is a heavy rainfall the soil structure falls apart and blocks the soil surface increasing the likelihood of surface run-off and erosion.

 

TEST 3 – Infiltration rate

Infiltration rates clearly show how ready your soil is to soak up water. If the soil structure is open with plenty of air spaces the water will easily move down into the soil profile until the air spaces are full with water. Nutrients also move with water into the soil profile.

Equipment: 150 mm x 150 mm metal/plastic tubes with 85 mm depth marked (find out how to make this), water bottle with 450 ml marked on it, water (4L or so per field), stopwatch (on phone), mallet (for driving tube into soil) & wood block (to protect the top of the pipe from damage when hammering in)

Method: Clear plant growth from the soil surface by trimming back. If sward is very thick try cutting through with a knife to help get the tube through. Insert tube into the ground to a depth of 85 mm. Use the app to take a photo of the location showing the tube and groundcover. Fill your pre-marked water bottle with exactly 450 ml of water. Pour water steadily into the top of the pipe and start stopwatch. Stop timing when all the water has disappeared but the ground is still glistening and record the time in the app. Measure out another 450 ml of water in the bottle and repeat the remaining steps, recording the time in the Sectormentor for Soils app.

Infiltration rates for each field help you to understand how easily water and nutrients can move into your soil. Very slow rates may indicate waterlogging, soil sealing and compaction, whilst very rapid rates may reveal an increased risk of nutrient leaching.

Recording soil test results

Make soil monitoring easy by using Sectormentor for Soils; record soil test results at the touch of a button and upload the data in seconds for analysis on your online account via an internet browser on your phone, tablet or laptop.

We want to see your soil test photos from the #SoilTestChallenge! Either tweet them to us mentioning #SoilTestChallenge @sectormentor, or send us an email to info@vidacycle.com.

 


 

To get the most out of soil monitoring repeat soil tests twice a year and more, around April and October when the weather should be warm and the soil is moist. Different farm management practises will influence the results of these tests, so if you’re trying anything from conventional arable to cover crops to mob grazing, it is essential to monitor your soil.

Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farm

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Chris Leach is part of the Forestry Team at Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire. Around 500 tonnes of wood is produced from managing the 450 acres of the estate’s woodland, half of which is used as fuel for the biomass boiler. Chris was keen to find an environmentally sound way to use the waste wood and saw the perfect opportunity to work with the Estate’s farming operation to combine the waste wood and farm waste to create compost. He will add bokashi to the compost which he hopes will encourage mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria in the soil. Chris is now working with all departments on the Estate, (Gardens, Stud, Forestry, Farm), to improve and sustain soil health.

By recording information on soil tests with Sectormentor For Soils, Waddesdon created a baseline starting point as well as a future goal for what the estate team want to achieve. Chris finds testing water infiltration rates most interesting as one of the estate’s aims is to increase the soils capacity to store water and make it more resilient to drought. Doing the VESS test has highlighted how much topsoil they really have and the difference between arable fields and permanent pasture.

Chris said “Generally the lack of earthworms across the whole estate was a surprise, we would love to see an increase. Sectormentor is so simple – it’s an amazing tool. I find the app extremely easy, I record soil test results on my phone and when I get back to office it’s all there in one place on the computer. It makes you look at things a bit differently, giving a wider picture, something to reference and understand how to improve. All Heads of Department can access the data online too so that now everyone is working together to improve soil health across the estate. We are always learning and want to share our knowledge for the present and the future. I spout regenerative agriculture at every opportunity, even when I’m talking to other parents at my son’s football matches!”

Chris’s management goals

  • Improve soil health and build regenerative farming system
  • Improve profitability
  • Reduce chemical inputs
  • Disturb the soil less

What is Chris measuring?

  • Infiltration rate
  • Earthworms
  • Slake test
  • VESS
  • Rhizosheaths
  • Field photo diaries

Interested in using Sectormentor for Soils to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter

Video series: How to monitor your own soils

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To help you get started with soil monitoring watch our videos on how to do key soil tests, use the Sectormentor For Soils app and look at results on the website.

 

VESS TEST

Learn what to look for when you visually analyse your soil structure:

 

EARTHWORM COUNT

The best technique for counting earthworms in your soil sample:

 

SLAKE TEST

Watch how to collect a soil sample in the field and see how well your soil structure withstands water:

 

HOW TO ANALYSE YOUR RESULTS

How to log in to your Sectormentor For Soils account and analyse your results:

 

RHIZOSHEATHS

This is an additional test to assess biological activity, although not considered a key test. Find out what to look out for:

 

INFILTRATION RATE VIDEO COMING SOON..!


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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Soil testing: How to measure infiltration rate effectively

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When the rains come, have your tubes at the ready, because a day or two after is the perfect time to test your infiltration rate. Measuring the infiltration rate in Winter or early Spring can be challenging because the ground is saturated with seasonal rainfall, so it can take quite a long time! The main thing to consider when doing this measurement is you want to take the reading at about the same time/and in approx the same conditions each year to be able to compare year on year and see how it’s changing.

Awareness of how well water infiltrates down into your soil is at the core of knowing your soil health and structure. A good infiltration rate indicates that the top soil has a ‘crumb structure’ and it is well aggregated. Essentially this means that each clump of soil is stuck together with glues and slimes from soil organisms and they are not broken down by water. Therefore the clumps (or aggregates) retain their structure when the water flows around them, also allowing water to quickly flow down into the soil depths. At the same time the clumps provide lots of nooks and crannies for droplets of the water to be stored in. So the water percolates easily, and some of it is stored along the way. This is what we want!

The infiltration rate is the speed at which water enters the soil, and is measured by monitoring the time it takes for a set amount of water to ‘infiltrate’ into the ground. Read the details in our infiltration rate guide here. Understanding how land works with water is highly beneficial for a farmer or any type of grower. It gives an idea of how much rainfall is soaking deep into the ground and how much could be running off and taking the soil with it. Soil washing off the land is like throwing money out of the window, our prime resource going down the drain. The image below of the UK clearly shows the seas brown with soil runoff after a heavy period of rain. Leaking away resources like this does not contribute to a profitable farming plan or an ecological farming system.

The extent of soil erosion in the UK is visible from space. Credit: NEODAAS/University of Dundee

To get a good sample of infiltration rate, you need to measure it at the same time each year, for each field. Do at least two tests per field, maybe one in the ‘best part’ and one in the ‘worst part’. Compare rates between your different fields. Why is the infiltration rate much quicker in one field than the next? Do you manage things differently in one field than the other? Where your infiltration rate is slower, could you look to the Soil Health Principles (cover soil, minimise disturbance, diversity in rotation or plantings, minimal chemical usage, living root in the ground as often as possible) to guide you in a new direction for your management strategy?

The equipment for this test is key to getting a reliable result, finding the right tube is essential! If it’s too narrow it will compact the soil inside it as you drive it into the ground and heavily impact your result (unfortunately we have found that baked bean tins don’t work). When the soil is compacted the infiltration rate will be a lot slower, as it’s harder for water to enter the ground. This will not give you a true reading for your infiltration rate. To avoid this happening we recommend finding some 150 mm diameter (6 inch) tubing or pipe; a flue pipe can work quite well. Cut it to about 15cm depth and make one of the circular edges sharp, so it’s easily pushed into the ground. Read more here for the full instructions.

There are impressive stats to show that even when we think the ground is saturated, there could be even more capacity for the ground to hold water. Healthy soil can hold up to twenty times its own weight in water and increasing soil organic matter by 1% increases the soil’s water holding capacity by 3.7%. So it’s worthwhile putting some elbow grease into improving your soil crumb structure and soil organic matter, because in times of heavy rain you’ll reduce flooding and soil erosion and in times of drought there will be more water available to your thirsty crops. Keeping an eye on your infiltration rate helps to understand how well you’re doing at this. Good luck!

For more information on how to do this test head over to our soil testing page. And if you want to easily record your infiltration rates and other soil tests as you go then our app is your perfect helping hand you can buy the app here or get in touch with us.

Building soil health: 5 Key Soil Tests to get you started

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First thing to decide is where to do these tests. You might pick a few sample sites in 4 key fields and test them every 6 months. Most of these tests require a decent spade so you can dig 10-20cm depth into the soil profile in order to analyse it.

This tool is made for farmers, we want to enable farmers to understand the ‘pulse’ of the soils on their farm so this is not a precise science — it’s about what is workable on your farm in order to monitor your soil health, better meet your management goals and ultimately have a thriving farm. So the key to all these tests is to be as consistent as possible with what works for you on your farm. We try and keep this as simple as possible to do, so for example, use a spades width and depth to ensure you dig up the same amount of soil each time you do your earthworm count, and use the same spade! Repeat the tests in the same field, at the same time of year (the app tracks this for you). Working with this simple principle you will build up an amazing picture of how your soil is changing, and hopefully even improving!

We have more advice to help you make these decisions here.

1.The VESS test

This is where you get to dig in and really get a feel for your soil. We take a photo as soon as the soil is dug up to see its profile and initial structure (and so we can share it with others later to get their thoughts). Then we look to see if there is an obvious divide between a top soil and the subsoil below. On most farms we have visited the top layer of soil is as thin as 1-10 cm. This is where the aggregation* is happening and there are lots of roots so this is the layer we want to work on building up. Then the next 18cm is relatively uniform in colour and structure. We think it’s helpful to score topsoil and subsoil separately and record the depth of each – one indicator of better soil health is when the topsoil depth begins to increase, as roots reach further and further down and aggregation begins to happen deeper and deeper.

*aggregation: Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (like roots), gums (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae. The aggregates are relatively stable and vary in size. This means that there are spaces of many different sizes in the soil and these spaces are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter.

Find full details about doing this test here.

2.Count your earthworms

It has always been explained to me that earthworms are the top of the soil food chain. So if you have lots of earthworms then the soil food web must be doing well! For this test, take the soil sample you’ve dug up and count how many earthworms are present. It’s important to note that this test is quite seasonal: on the farms we visited in the UK in November there were loads of earthworms but when we went out on the farm in Chile last week in the middle of Summer, we saw just one earthworm very deep, across 9 sample sites on 3 fields. When it  is very dry earthworms tend to be hiding somewhere! They also move around depending on heavy rains and other factors, so if you are going to do this test, then it’s best to do it across all the fields you are monitoring in one go. That way you can compare between fields.

Find full details about doing this test here.

3.The Slake test

UK Soil scientist Jenni Dunghait is the expert on this. It’s very easy to do, just put a pea-sized piece of soil in water and leave it. How much the ‘pea of soil’ breaks down indicates how much sticky stuff there is holding your soil together, thanks to the work of all those little microbes. Our three fields had soils that broke down completely differently. In one field where there was the most evidence of aggregation, the ‘pea’ did not break down at all over 24 hours. However, in another field, where the soil was very crumbly, red and easy to dig into but also not much evidence of structure, most of the samples broke down completely within 2 hours and all within 24 hours. As far as I understand this shows that the microbial activity and aggregation activity is very low in this soil. It was deep-ploughed somewhat recently which might explain the lack of compaction but it’s lack of aggregate structure means it’s not particularly alive!

Find full details about doing the test here.

4.How much ground cover and bare soil is there? What is the percentage cover of weeds (undesirables), herbs, grasses?

For many of us a key reason healthy soils is important is because we want healthy plants above ground, and importantly healthy plants that support the bottom line. For PFLA members that often means increased forage, more grass species, less buttercups. On our farm in Chile that means healthy vines and olives, and fostering warm season grasses and perennials for fire retardant ground cover in Summer.

This measure is a great way to understand the link between healthy plants and healthy soils. The 1st soil health principle is a living root, so lots of bare soil is not a good sign. What’s on the surface of our soils can tell us a lot about what is happening below, so for this test record % cover of undesirable species, herbs, grasses and bare soil. Our farm is not pasture-based but this is still helpful as a measure – one of our main tools for managing damage from fires is to shift our ‘undesirables’ to plants that remain green all Summer long.

To do this test you need to make yourself a quadrat. Full details on doing these tests here.

5.Measure the sugar content and health of your groundcover with a Brix reading

Brix is a measure of photosynthetic activity. The building block for production and plant immunity/health. Brix measures how much photosynthesis is occuring in the plant by showing the amount of sugar and dissolved solids in the sap. Higher values indicate the plant is photosynthesizing more rapidly. Thus growing faster or having a better immune response and a higher nutrient profile. Brix is already used by many fruit producers as an indicator of when their fruit is ready to harvest. Research has shown that Brix readings show the actual sugar content in pasture, as well as other plants.

I first heard about it from Australian farming advisor Graeme Saite as he explained if you take a Brix reading in the morning and then another in the afternoon, there should be a big difference in sugar content because late afternoon the plant moves all it’s sugar from its leaves (solar cells) to its roots to be in conversation with the world below. If this isn’t the case then the system connecting your plant to the soil isn’t working.

We mainly use Brix as an indicator of plant health. We compare Brix readings across fields at the same time to see which plants have more sugars. It’s then interesting to do see how the Brix value evolves over time. An increase in Brix value could be a good indicator of improvements in soil health and healthier plants. Brix is very dependent on the time of day you do it (as explained above) as well as the season, so if you want to compare across fields you need to get round and do the Brix readings all in one go and then try to do them again, on more or less the same day and time a year later. Also Brix doesn’t work in wet conditions as the rainwater dilutes the reading.

To perform a brix test you will need a refractometer and garlic crusher. Find full details on how to do this test here.

So, those are the first soil tests to get you started! Keen to learn a few more? Head over to the free soil testing guide on our website to check out the full list and learn about our Sectormentor for soils app here.