Lots or people are talking about it and one day, it may even play a role in subsidy. Healthy soil is actually a living entity with >5,000 species and more individual organisms in one handful as there have ever been humans on Earth.
But what does healthy soil mean? There is an exponential amount of research taking place because evidence is piling up that soil provides solutions to big problems of our time, namely climate change and biodiversity loss.
Livestock farming has in recent times received a bad press, unfairly in the UK in my view. Criticisms often miss out that ruminant dung is essential for healthy soil and biodiversity. There is a really strong argument that arable land could actually do with some sheep and cattle to bolster soil health, despite calls for fewer cows. Livestock farming and good soil health, has a positive part to play in combating climate change and biodiversity loss. Farming is in a good place to become a large part of the solution.
Did you know more carbon (82%) is locked up in soil than in all above ground vegetation?
Ruminant dung provides the foundation of a food web with the likes of dung beetles becoming a keystone species and supporting all sorts of creatures from bats to many bird species including Curlews, who use their ridiculously long beaks to dig up their larvae.
Permanent pastures in general enjoy far more robust, stable soils than their arable counterparts. Soil is a huge carbon sink especially if covered, rarely ploughed, and allowed to remain with established roots all year round. This allows the soil food web to establish itself and build the networks that sequester carbon.
A critical part of this symbiotic soil food web are the mycorrhizal fungi whose filaments or hyphae extend the reach of plant roots and greatly enhance plant growth. They draw down carbon from plants’ roots and secrete a beneficial, carbon rich glycoprotein called glomalin in return – the super glue of the soil. To see how well this process is working for you, the rhizosome test assesses how much soil sticks to your grass’s roots.
Impressively, as atmospheric C02 rises, mycorrhizal funghi secrete more and more glomalin, literally pumping carbon into soil. This makes them a
beautifully simple solution for climate change and is why techniques such as ‘mob grazing’ can so rapidly increase soil organic matter (carbon). This spring Rob, Claire and the team in Lancs have been conducting some simple soil tests on farm using “Soilmentor” a soil health training app which lets you geo-locate and record your own results.
- Biodiversity metrics include earthworm and dung beetle counts both critical to functioning soil
- Structure tests such as the VESS test highlight issues like compaction
- Infiltration tests show you how well the ground absorbs water or conversely how quickly rainfall will run off taking topsoil and valuable nutrients with it.
- Soil stability can be measured by the slake test but requires drying overnight of small pieces of earth inside
These tests don’t take much more than a boot and spade and compliment chemical tests like N, P & pH which are important, but only part of the story.
Also you can do all these FREE. We have a limited number of free trials of the “soilmentor” app so please ask Rob if you would like to have a go and see what you think. Alternatively, if you want a kick-start, why not ask our vet techs to show you how or begin basic measurements?