‘Soil Health’ is a relatively new term that is being discussed more and more by farmers, growers, agronomists and researchers.
A key question is what constitutes a healthy soil? Clearly this will vary depending on location, land-use and intensity of the production system.
In NI agricultural systems, the primary soil functions include biomass production (grass and grain), regulation of nutrients and water in soils and maintenance and enhancement of soil carbon stocks.
The SALMS Report (2016) states that 98% of NI soils are inadequately analysed every year and that 82% of soils are below optimum fertility. In terms of soil health, the real challenge is defining the concept and to determine what are the key characteristics. Soil testing generally uses chemical and physical parameters but the importance of generating information on soil biology is now being acknowledged.
In Northern Ireland, AFBI are conducting a four-year DAERA-funded project on Soil Health that is measuring key soil chemical, physical and biological characteristics in soils from experimental plots in long-term experiments and on-farm across NI.
On-farm sampling will commence in 2018 when a range of grassland and arable fields will be sampled. Some of the biological characteristics being measured include microbial biomass, relative numbers of soil fungi to bacteria, soil enzyme levels, soil functionality and earthworm numbers.
The project aligns with similar work being carried out by the AHDB Soil Biology Soil Health project and both will contribute to the a new initiative for Soil Health that is bringing together scientists, academics, industry farm advisers and farming bodies to take a long-term approach to understanding and improving the health of soils across UK farmland for generations to come.
The AFBI project aims to develop guidelines for policy makers, farmers and growers on how to achieve sustainable soil health in Northern Ireland.
Further information on this project will be available at the Farm Family Key Skills (FFKS) Sustainable Soil Management events at CAFRE’s Greenmount Campus on Tuesday 31 July and at Enniskillen Campus on Thursday 2 August.
Farm Family Key Skills (FFKS) is a scheme under the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) which is part of the Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020 and receives co-financing from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).
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