National agronomy services company Hutchinsons has launched a new Healthy Soils service designed to assess and quantify the state of a farm’s soils and prescribe actions to bring it up to a healthy soil status.
The company’s Andy Hoyles says soil health has been rising up the farming agenda for some time, as the industry moves to a more holistic approach to agronomy. But it is also now a live political issue with Defra minister Michael Gove’s “Green Brexit” vision. A number of environmental bodies through the Sustainable Soils Alliance are pushing for soil health measures in the post-Brexit British agricultural policy. As future support payments could be linked to “natural capital” factors such as soil health, farmers and growers should be preparing for it now.
The Hutchinsons assessment is a detailed, hands-on appraisal of a soil, best undertaken in March to April of a normal year. Too many soil appraisals are based on the rapid scan of a wide area post harvest when soils are at their driest point, notes Hutchinsons soils expert Dick Neale.
The Hutchinsons approach is to dig holes and take cores to assess compaction, infiltration, soil pH and worm activity. After a preliminary desk survey of geological data, a sample is dug in situ and assessed using the industry standard VESS test to quantify aggregate sizes and organic matter incorporation. The pH is tested, followed by an Elderman augur sample from up to a metre deep. The core is assessed for worm holes, root penetration, colour, smell and signs of compaction. Water infiltration is measured on a scale from very rapid to impermeable; and a CO2 burst test is used to check the carbon cycle in the soil – the efficiency of organic matter breakdown. Lastly, worms are counted and weighed.
A soil sample is sent to NRM Laboratories for a soil health report on the total and available plant nutrient content.
Mr Hoyles concedes that at £250 a test, the Hutchinsons service is not the cheapest on the market. But he says its comprehensive coverage will help growers understand their soils better; allow them to benchmark their current status and work to improve the key indicators towards a healthier soil.
It is the basis of an ongoing conversation over approaches to soil management, concludes Mr Hoyles. As well as improving fertility, weed control and reducing costs, farmers with better knowledge of their soils will be well placed to adapt to farm policy changes.