Soil health: Five ways to improve your soil conditions

Good soil health is vital for nutrient use efficiency, plant growth and overall yield.

Restricting the movement of air, water and nutrients within the soil profile can have many adverse effects, including impeded drainage, reduced crop yields and increased emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), both of which are greenhouse gases implicated in climate change.

So how can you ensure that your soil is in the best possible condition?

In this blog, we’ve outlined five key factors towards improving and maintaining good soil health.

1. pH

At MSP, we regularly stress the importance of frequent and accurate soil sampling for soil pH.

When the soil pH is 6.0, the efficiency of phosphate is almost halved to 52% – significantly more affected than both nitrogen (89%) and potash (100%) – meaning 48% of the investment in phosphate is not utilised in the growth of the crop.

If the soil pH drops further to 5.0, then the efficiency of nitrogen (53%), phosphate (34%) and potash (42%) are all significantly impacted.

Variable applications of lime help to condition soils to the optimum pH for all areas of the field, not just a whole-field average, maximising the return from your fertiliser investment. Read more about this in our blog HERE.

At MSP, our team of BASIS & FACTS qualified agronomists will work with you to produce precision pH sampling, variable lime application recommendations and mapping, as well as nutrient and soil management plans.

2. Drainage

Poor drainage can be easily spotted through saturated topsoils, standing water or even soil erosion.

It can lead to many issues, including poor crop health and yields, high surface run-off rates, soil erosion and the presence of wet-loving plant species.

The first step in troubleshooting drainage issues is, firstly, to analyse your soil structure (more of that in the next section…).

You should also determine whether that specific area of land has drainage in place. If not, the solution is simple: install new drains.

It may be that existing mole drains need replacing, or the whole system has reached the end of its operational life. In flatter fields, be sure to check that outfalls are not blocked.

Regenerating ancient land drainage systems that are now unfit for purpose has been proven to deliver a yield increase of up to 35%, with the added benefit of improved soil health and weed control.

3. Soil structure

Even with a significant investment in on-farm drainage, if your soil structure is poor, it will lead to poor drainage – regardless of whether that is via pipes or natural means.

A well-developed soil structure is highlighted by the ease of cultivation and if the soil readily breaks down into small units. By contrast, soils with poor structure break down into large blocks, are difficult to create a fine tilth and aren’t very permeable.

Compaction occurs where soil has been squashed into a solid, impermeable layer, either at the surface or within the topsoil. The compacted layer restricts the movement of air, water, nutrients down through the soil profile.

This leads to poor root growth, which results in the stressing of the plant and reduces its response to nitrogen and other nutrients.

So, it is advised that where drainage problems are suspected, a thorough examination of the soils should be the first port of call. At MSP, our team of qualified agronomists can also offer soil management guidance, soil sampling and analysis as part of our advisory service.

4. Soil organic matter

Soil with higher levels of organic matter provides numerous benefits to the physical and chemical properties of soil and is especially critical for soil functions and quality.

Soil with more organic matter has greater water holding capacity. This can improve crop productivity due to a reduction in tillage, waterlogging, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and structural damage to soils. There is also a decreased potential for slug activity.

Again, soil sampling is the best way of measuring organic matter levels.

If it’s determined that an area requires organic matter to be added to the soil, this can be achieved in a number of ways, including additions of organic manures, incorporating crop residues, cover cropping, below, or growing a grass ley within an arable rotation.

5. Soil biology

Soil management that supports a healthy and diverse soil biological community will give more effective and resilient regulation of soil function.

The physical structure of soils (air/water balance) and the chemical properties (pH, nutrients) provide the environment for roots, plant nutrients and soil organisms to interact.

To achieve that diverse soil biological community, you are encouraged to feed the soil regularly with organic additions, increase the diversity in cropping rotations and grass leys, and to reduce tillage where possible.

If you think you’re in need of a thorough soil analysis at your farm, get in touch with your MSP farm representative today or contact 01289 330022. Find out more about our advisory service here.