Monday, 12 February 2018

Soil monitoring? It's not enough

There’s a big conversation going on at present about what farmers should be expected to do about monitoring their soil. But in this debate, which is generally focussed on what ‘metrics’ should be measured (e.g. phosphate, nitrogen, carbon), I believe that we are missing the big picture by focusing too much on the micro-scale.

Visual assessment, taking into account the
landform and farming system, and relationship
of the land in the wider landscape, rapidly
identifies there is a problem here. Soil monitoring
would not be the first step needed before identifying
risks and putting in place some mitigation measures, of which
there many, including relocating the field entrance
(and extending the hedge across the current field entrance),
establishing permanent grassland at the
bottom of the field, and undersowing arable crops. 
Soil monitoring won’t tell us enough, and will be limited by how well it’s done, whether it is honestly done, what is measured, how and where it’s measured. We probably all agree that the outcome we wish to achieve is for, on every farm, the farming system applied should keep soil in the field, and restore soil where it has become degraded. But the overarching outcome is for sustainable LAND management of which managing soil sustainably is just a part. (And, yes, I also appreciate that we need to have a situation where the farm business is also satisfying and fiscally sustainable for those involved - but that is not the focus of this blog.)

So let’s rewind the thinking and consider how we might use evaluation and monitoring as a means to achieve that. In going back to basics, the approach used by ecological site managers has been well honed - it’s called Site (or Nature Reserve) Management Planning - personally I’ve used this a lot and apply the principles in my advisory work. It’s a systematic planning approach, and, on my own farm ( if I had one*) I would be applying it plus adding in more detailed analysis of the land's physical attributes. So what’s the difference elsewhere? Nothing really! 

*I do part-own some grassland for which I will be promoting this approach.

Site Management Planning starts with an information collection process, enabling the site manager to understand what they are dealing with. Basic information, such as climate, soil and geological type, are collected. For a farm I would want good maps of the soil and would probably want to supplement published soil survey information with a more detailed survey of my own. This would include digging some soil pits so I can see what's going on deeper down in the soil profile and I might start with doing that on areas where a quick visual inspection would identify there's a problem. I would want to know the nutrient status of soils across the farm, as well as within different parts of the field - this can vary enormously. (This information would be vital for me as a farmer, as I would want to design a farming system whereby I spent as little as possible on imported nutrients).

I would want to know if there's problems such as compaction, and what levels of soil organic matter there is, initially focusing on land under temporary crops. I would also want to understand the farm
and its place in the wider landscape. I would identify all the natural and artificial features, map any designations and landform quirks, understand where all the watercourses were, record the location of field gates and vehicle access points, the current cropping system and vegetation across the farm and, if possible, understand what went on before. I would want to know where the field drains were, and what happens to rainwater falling on buildings and yards, as well as what storage and management was in place for livestock waste. I would want to know how much waste my farm was producing - and work out the total quantity of nutrients so that I could come up with a nutrient budget to suit my farming system.
I would want to know if activities on my land
were causing adverse impacts on local rivers
and streams. I would want to understand why
and then do something about it.
This information, once collected, should provide the means for an evaluation process - enabling a CURRENT STATE ASSESSMENT, part of which would be to identify and understand any risks and impacts, whether being generated from within the holding or outside it. Similarly, any impacts likely to affect land and water outside my own holding would also be identified. An example would be a field where there is a high degree of runoff that may flood a road or property, or lead to sediment entering drains and watercourses. This could end up with me in the courts, so unless corrected, would be a cost to my business (as well as to my reputation) and would therefore be a business risk.

Runoff from this field could freeze and cause 

vehicle collisions - what's happening on this field 
threatens life and property. Visual inspection and understanding
farming operations need to be modified to eradicate 
such risks and impacts, are things all farmers need to 
take in board as a priority.
monitoring is not needed as a first step.

There would be lots of MAPS. From the information gathered I would also examine POTENTIAL and evaluate CAPABILITY - what is the land capable of, given it's climate, physical and biological attributes, and use the impact assessment to help me identify any MITIGATION measures that would help to offset or eradicate adverse impacts and reduce risks. This exercise would also need to be integrated with a similar exercise in farm business planning, which would put pound signs on the farm business and its activities, including upon the impacts and risks. Armed with this process of evaluation, I might consider, for example, altering the cropping system, better management of existing nature features, buffering watercourses, planting more trees, relocating field entrances, rainwater collection off yards and buildings and so on. I’d be looking at where I might get financial assistance for some of these things. For a 100% arable farm I would certainly be considering how to introduce livestock into the rotation.

Using this systematic approach of information collection, evaluation and assessment, this would then enable me to come up with a PLAN. To plan holistically however also means I would need to consider other aspects of the farm business, and market opportunities as well as building in the human aspects - including my own values and capabilities. Some farmers already do this, and there’s increasing amounts of useful technology to help them. That’s something we all need to support, plus bringing into the mix the data that is already being collected by organisations like the Environment Agency - which is, in some areas, using drones to map locations at high risk of erosion, LIDAR and flood-risk modelling. (Better still for groups of farmers to work together at the landscape scale - more ‘cluster’ groups would be great.)

This systematic approach, with which I am partly familiar through nature reserve management planning, is an approach now termed HOLISTIC PLANNING - an admirably sensible approach that is promoted by an initiative called REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE (and by, in the UK, by RegenAG UK).

Returning to soils and the land - every farm needs to have in place all the vital information about its physical and biological attributes, information that can then be used to evaluate its state and enable mitigation measures to be put forward that will be necessary to achieve sustainable land management. This should be for the farm as a whole, and for each field, with an outcome of enabling every farmer to understand the impact of what they do on their own land and how it affects others. She or he, should also understand the place of their farm in the wider landscape and how it functions as part of the bigger picture - helping to grow food sustainably, while maintaining healthy soils, rivers, groundwater and air, and restoring nature. This outcome is vital for the benefit of all those whose lives depend on the planet’s natural resources, on and beyond the farm - isn’t that all of us?

Footnote: all the photos used in this picture are within walking distance from where I live in Frome, Somerset. There's plenty more examples I could have used, to illustrate that neither the systematic planning process I talk about here or simple visual assessment and impact mitigation are being implemented. Moreover, there's things going on which are damaging our river, as well as risking life and property. In a civilised society this begs serious questions about the ability of some farmers to embrace sustainable land management in the absence of better regulation and enforcement about what they do.


  1. You may see I've also replied to a Twitter comment of yours on cultivations to improve soil health so I saw you had a blog and read your post above.

    I really don't think your getting this, the idea is to improve soil health and soil management and in order to do this you need to look at soil functions in detail. Soil tests form the basis of what limited knowledge we have on soil functions, they are not conclusive but given how little we understand about soil biology they are the best tool we have. I do have considerable experience in soils farming 2000 ha of arable useing every method going from ploughing, through min tillage through to zero tillage and cover crops and I can assure you that the more you think you know about how soils function the more likely you are to get it is an unbelievable difficult area. It's not going to be solved by some plan based on a few forms to fill in I'm afraid.

    I could go on but I will spare you my views on how various NGOs are approaching the subject as I'm frankly horrified by their lack of knowledge. They don't even know what they don't know yet !

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