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What is soil health and why does it matter?

Digging soil_53297

Healthy soil is fundamental to Britain’s farming system and to producing the food we eat. It provides the means for plants to grow, which also helps to create the oxygen we breathe and clean the water we drink.

Soil can also increase our resilience to climate change, by storing carbon, locking in greenhouse gases that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, and helping to prevent flooding.

DID YOU KNOW...

  • The UK has more than 700 different soil types.
  • 74% of farmers know the soil type for each of the fields on their farm.

Soil biodiversity

Soil biodiversity is related to the range of living organisms within the soil, including earthworms and the roots of plants, which contribute towards the ecosystem in the soil. Nowhere in nature are species so densely packed as in soil communities. A teaspoon of soil can contain more living organisms than there are people living on earth.

A typical ecosystem in a healthy soil might contain:

  • Several species of vertebrates (animals with a backbone)
  • Several species of earthworm
  • 20-30 species of mites
  • 50-100 species of insects
  • Tens of species of nematodes (roundworms)
  • Hundreds of species of fungi
  • Thousands of species of bacteria and actinomycetes (fungi-like bacteria).

Soil is home to a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity. It is one of nature’s most complex ecosystems and one of the most diverse habitats on earth. The wellbeing of all plants and land-based animals depends on the complex processes that take place in soil. It contains a myriad of different organisms, which interact and contribute to the cycles that make all life possible. Soils also play a vital role in storing and purifying water and in mitigating climate change.

Farming and soil - through the seasons

soil health spring_52067soil health summer_52073soil health autumn_52066soil health winter_52074

What do farmers do to protect soil quality?

British farmers work hard to protect and maintain healthy soils. Without fertile soils, farmers would not be able to grow crops productively, or support their livestock effectively.

There are more than 700 different types of soil in the UK. The more farmers know about the soils they have on their farm, the better they can make decisions to improve the health of those soils. A 2018 government survey into English farm practices showed that 74% of farmers knew the soil type for each of the fields on their farm and 35% actively tracked the organic matter contained in those soils.

In recent years, new technologies and techniques have been developed that help farmers to look after their soils. Low impact machinery helps to reduce soil compaction, something which can restrict the growth of plant roots and make it more difficult for water to penetrate the soil.  Farmers are also using new technology and practices to reduce the amount that soil is disturbed through jobs such as ploughing and planting new seeds.

Video: See how potato farmer Walter Simon looks after his soils to maintain the complex ecosystem and put back nutrients to ensure he can grow the best possible crop

What methods do farmers use to improve soil health?

Throughout the year, farmers do various things to help maintain and improve soil health. This includes practical things such as housing livestock indoors in the winter, or creating multiple gateways into a field, so that the ground is not compacted underfoot or by farm vehicles. Spreading slurry and manure onto fields increases the amount of organic matter returned to the soil and reduces the need to use manufactured fertilisers. Farmers also use more scientific methods, such as sampling soil to monitor the nutrients it contains and adjusting the fertiliser they add to accurately supply the nutrients that are missing.

Key practices used by farmers to improve soil health include:

Cover cropping and crop rotation

Oil Radish Cover Crop_26619Pictured above: oil radish cover crop

A cover crop is a crop planted primarily to help prevent soil erosion from the weather, improve the structure of the soil, recapture nutrients and increase biodiversity. They tend to be planted in the autumn to protect the soil over the winter months after the main crop has been harvested. Examples of cover crops include brassicas such as mustard, broadleaves such as radish, and legumes (plants with seed pods that split in half) such as clover and vetch which can convert, or ‘fix’, nitrogen from the air into mineral nutrients that will benefit the next crop.

Crop rotation is when different types of crops are grown in succession on the same piece of land so that the soil is not exhausted of any particular set of nutrients. Crops such as legumes are strategically chosen to replenish nutrients that the previous crop may have reduced. Crop rotation also helps to control weeds and reduce crop-specific pest and disease problems.

Voluntary measures

Field margins supporting pollinators_51284Pictured above: field margins

Farming-industry projects, such as Championing the Farmed Environment (CFE), Tried & Tested and the Voluntary Initiative, have helped farmers to manage their efforts to protect and improve soil health. For example, statistics from 2014 showed that 72,000 hectares of land were put into voluntary soil protection through CFE measures. These include planting buffer strips of grass or other permanent vegetation along the edges of fields to protect against the erosion of topsoil by the natural forces of wind and rain.

Find out more:

AnchorSee how British farmers invest time in maintaining healthy soil

Meet the farmer - Poul Hovesen

United by our environment, food, future Farmed Environment Conference December 2018_58937Poul Hovesen manages an arable farm in East Anglia, where cereals, sugar beet, spring beans and oilseed rape are grown using a traditional seven-year crop rotation cycle.

“Healthy soils produce a healthy crop and healthy food,” Poul says. “You have to invest in your soil if you are going to have a sustainable business and this means putting back what the crop takes out in terms of nutrients and organic matter, and only operating when conditions are right to avoid soil compaction or erosion.

“We prefer to get something growing straight after harvest, instead of leaving the ground bare. Growing a cover crop between our cash crops helps absorb the energy from the sun and stores it in the soil. We help stimulate this growth with organic manure. Then, as the cover crop dies off, the organic matter and nutrients are absorbed into the soil.”


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Related categories: Environment Soil

Last edited:03 October 2019 at 09:57