Soil Health

How do rhizosheaths tell the story of soil health?

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If a plant has a large quantity of soil clinging to its roots, where the roots appear brown and not white, this soil coating is called a rhizosheath.

Rhizosheaths beginning to take shape (photo from Niels Corfield https://twitter.com/niels_corfield/status/1070304660374855685)

Why do we love them so much? They are an indicator of life in the soil: of biological and microbial activity in the rhizosphere, which is also known as the root zone.

Micro-organisms feed on root exudates and secrete binding agents which hold soil particles together around the roots in an aggregated structure, which indicates good soil health.

Soil structure is aggregating around the roots (photo from Niels Corfield https://twitter.com/niels_corfield/status/1070304660374855685)

“A simple way to find out what healthy soil looks like in your fields is to pull up some weeds! Don’t be surprised if you find rhizosheaths on these roots; weeds are often the healthiest plants in your soil.” – Niels Corfield, Soil Health Advisor

Watch the video below to find out how to assess rhizosheaths in your soil:

Fred Price, a regenerative farmer, describes how rhizosheaths indicate good soil health: “Seven years ago I didn’t know roots could look like this (see photo below)! The biological component of our soils mediates the soil-plant interface, increasing availability of nutrients and resilience to biotic and abiotic stress. So a well developed rhizosphere, the zone of plant influence in the soil characterised by root exudates, microorganisms and indicated by a healthy rhizosheath, is a great barometer for a highly functioning soil ecosystem. This vitality reduces the need for synthetic inputs, allowing the biological component to flourish further – this positive feedback cycle underpins any regenerative farming system.”

Rhizosheaths at Fred Price’s farm

Sectormentor For Soils can be used to monitor the development of rhizosheaths by scoring them on a scale of 1-3 in the app and observing how these scores change over time.

We plan to develop this scale to be more nuanced, so if you’ve been observing rhizosheaths in your soils we’d love to hear from you about your experience – 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 #12: The Soil Health Principles

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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.

Hannah Steenbergen – 42 Acres, Somerset

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Hannah Steenbergen is the farm manager at 42 Acres Farm , a 170 acre working farm and garden which is home to the 42 Acres Somerset Retreat Centre. Until this year much of the land was untended and wild, so there is an amazing amount of wildlife. Hannah’s plan is to create a small-scale diverse regenerative farm where they use minimal inputs, foster biodiversity and increase the fertility of the land.

“After we made hay the field was a buzzard playground! Hay making revealed all these small mammals. There’s amazing wildlife at the farm, we want to keep it that way whilst also bringing the land into production.” – Hannah, 42 Acres

On the farm she has introduced a small beef herd of Shetland cattle, which are 100% grass-fed and managed with ‘mob-grazing’.The garden, greenhouse and polytunnel are filled with delicious vegetables, salads and plants grown by Head Gardener Arek. There’s also a flock of Khaki Campbell ducks waddling around the garden and laying eggs. Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in North Yorkshire and is committed to following regenerative agriculture principles as she takes the 42 Acres farm forward.

The aim is to build soil health through clever grazing management with their growing number of livestock, moving them around the pasture regularly, ensuring grass has time to regrow and organic matter is continually incorporated into the soil. The farm is in a very wet area, so increasing the soil’s capacity to hold water is very important, that way they can prevent run-off and keep topsoil and nutrients on the land.

The Sectormentor For Soils app allows Hannah to monitor how the soil is changing, and if she is in fact moving towards her goals to build soil health at the farm. Her first soil tests clearly show where she started, and with testing every 6 months, she will quickly get an idea for how the soil is changing with each new farm decision and management practise put in place. Plus it can be fun! Hannah said “I particularly enjoy the earthworm tests, identifying the different types of earthworms is very interesting. The infiltration rate is also very interesting, it was completely different in our pasture vs roto-tilled veg plots. I feel like I’m understanding more about soils all the time.”

For Hannah it’s very important to become a financially viable small scale and diverse farm, with a social impact. As the farm is in its first year, Hannah and the team are figuring out what the land would be best used for, and the soil tests will give a good indication of things to try out. By monitoring and understanding the soil health now, she has taken important first steps to ensure healthy soils on the farm.

 

What are Hannah’s management objectives?

  • Increase soil health on the farm
  • Understand best grazing techniques and optimise grass growth
  • Maintain and increase biodiversity above and below ground

 

What is Hannah measuring?

  • % of undesirables % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • VESS (1-5)
  • Earthworms
  • Infiltration
  • Plate meter

 

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. You can try walking a W in the field and doing your tests at points 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!

 

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.

The Soil Test Challenge

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Take action to conserve your most precious resource: your soil. Do you accept the Soil Test Challenge?

We are challenging you to do 3 easy soil tests on your fields . It takes one day in total and will be the most important thing you do for your soil.

Getting to know your soil is integral to being a farmer, so taking the time to do these tests will improve your understanding of how your soil is doing, and help you to develop the right approach to manage it.

Click here to tweet that you’ve accepted our 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 the results of each test, using the Sectormentor for Soils app. 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 contents. 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. Take a photo, count the number of worms and record the number in the app.

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, 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 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 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.

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), 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. 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 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.

 

If you haven’t already, all that’s left to do is…

 

Buy Sectormentor For Soils app

 

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 and we’ll include them in our blog roundup next month. Excited to see how you get on. 🙂

Repeat the tests twice a year, in April and October when the weather should be warm and the soil moist, to get an idea of how your soil is changing. 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.

Soil Health – what’s it all about?

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This is the first in a series of blog posts from Jenni Dungait, our resident Soil Health Expert, on the scientific basis for soil tests.

 

Soil health is different from soil quality because it recognises the key role of soil biology as well as soil chemistry and soil physics. Getting soil health right can help farmers to produce food and look after the environment.

Farmers all over the world are starting to pay attention to what is going on beneath their feet. Knowledge of the value of ‘farming soil biology’ belowground is just as important as caring for the crops and livestock aboveground.

You can use the Sectormentor for Soils app to record changes in a range of soil health indicators.

If you start monitoring now, this could help get you set up and ready to meet the requirements of the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme in the new Agriculture Bill.

 

What are the signs that a soil is unhealthy?

We all know the symptoms of unhealthy soil:

  • erosion
  • compaction
  • sealing
  • waterlogging
  • contamination
  • acidification
  • loss of soil biodiversity
  • soil organic carbon loss
  • nutrient imbalance
  • salinization

The map on the right shows Relative Soil Health for the UK and Europe. The scale at the bottom shows the relative soil health score. You can see that much of the UK scores medium to poor. These soils will be showing one or more of the symptoms of unhealthy soil.

Fixing unhealthy soils is costly in terms of time and money, and may cause problems beyond the field boundaries, for example, by contaminating local waterways or emitting greenhouse gases and increasing the carbon footprint of your farm.

 

How healthy could my soil be?

Soils change from place to place, so don’t compare your soil between fields or with other farms.

Start by using a simple ‘Under the Hedge’ test (or Relative Soil Health) to see how healthy your soil could be.

Dig a spade of soil from your field and then another from nearby natural vegetation and compare them using the soil tests on the Sectormentor for Soils app.

 

I am very pleased to be working as an independent Soil Health Expert with Vidacycle to develop the Sectormentor for Soils app using my knowledge. Watch out for a series of blogs from me on the Vidacycle website in the coming months introducing the scientific basis for the individual soil health tests chosen for the Sectormentor for Soils app. If you have any questions you can email me directly at jenni@soilhealthexpert.com

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.

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.