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The Basics To A Healthy Soil

19 April 2023

Our soils are the core of farming businesses and life in general and a greater awareness of how we manage soils can assist us with improving productivity, reducing costs and being more environmentally sustainable.  When assessing our soils there are 3 elements to consider, each should be assessed separately but for a soil to be working effectively every element must be functioning.

Chemical Properties

Soil sampling should be carried out in advance of sowing any new seeds to ensure the pH, phosphate and potash levels are sufficient for that crop, poor nutrition is the number 1 cause of crop failure and where we are restricted with the use of herbicides to control weeds we must rely on a fast growing, healthy crop to compete with weeds or tolerate insect damage and climatic challenges.  Lab analysis will help identify the amount of plant available nutrients in the soil for a range of nutrients enabling a suitable manure and fertiliser plan to be prepared.

Physical Attributes

The physical attributes of a soil will influence how you manage that soil and ultimately contribute to the success of that new crop.  Identifying whether it is a sand silt or clay soil will help decision making on how and when to cultivate, which crops which are suited to that soil type and what nutrition that crop will require.  Digging a hole and assessing the soil structure will help to identify whether issues with compaction will be a limiting factor for a new crop.  Compaction not only restricts the roots penetrating through the soil, but it also restricts water movement through soil, affecting uptake of water by plants.  An increased soil bulk density limits the porosity of the soil leading to an anaerobic soil which impacts on the bacteria and funghi activity in the soil.

Biological Activity

The largest workforce in our soils are earthworms, breaking down organic matter and recycling nutrients to help them become plant available and burrowing through layers in the soil to provide stability in soil aggregates and essentially ensure there is enough pore space for the soil to hold oxygen and water.  Observing the number of worms within a spade full of soil can give a good indication to the health of your soil.  Whilst earthworms are the largest of the soil biota the microfauna which we cannot see are also critical to soil health, bacteria are essential in chemical processes such as nitrification and the breakdown of nitrogen into plant available forms will be reduced in compacted, anaerobic soils.

Fuel, machinery, seed, and fertiliser are also expensive parts of any farming business but a £30 soil analysis and an hour with a spade can make the difference between an expensive crop failure and a successful crop which achieves its desired outcome.

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