Soils research underlying land management

By Chris Stoate, Head of Research, Allerton Project

Both the farming and scientific communities understand that soil physical properties influence our ability to produce food and make money from the land. There is also an increasing acceptance that soil biology plays a role. But how are soil physical and biological properties related?

This is the question posed by Leicester University PhD student Falah Hamad. He is currently in his second year of data collection. At Loddington and another site in Cambridgeshire, he is collecting data across a range of land uses and soil conditions, from compacted arable land, through better structured arable soils and pasture, to established woodland.

Falah HamadFalah Hamad measures CO2 emissions from pasture

As well as soil physical properties and organic matter, he is carrying out repeated surveys of earthworms and measuring CO2 efflux as an indicator of soil microbial activity at each of the sites. His results are already revealing how earthworm numbers respond to reduced soil disturbance, and how compaction and soil organic carbon differ across land uses.

These data also provide a valuable baseline for our continuing research at Loddington, and provide new data for pasture and woodland to help us build on our existing knowledge of arable land use. They will help us understand some of the biological process underlying (literally) our management of the land.

This is useful to us, and helps us provide guidance to farmers and advisors through our ongoing knowledge exchange programme, but is it what farmers want to hear? The knowledge and interests of scientists and farmers are not always perfectly aligned!

This is the subject of another PhD project being carried out by Stephen Jones from Nottingham University. He is taking an interdisciplinary approach, combining social and natural sciences to compare the attributes attached to soils by scientists and farmers.

Farmers And SoilAre farmers and scientists looking for the same thing in soil?

In his research, Stephen will be interviewing arable farmers from a range of backgrounds to find out what they want soils to deliver for them. He will also be gathering data on the soils themselves to apply scientific physical, chemical and biological attributes to those soils.

Such properties are relevant to the whole range of 'services' that soils deliver for society and to the policy objectives of government. But how well matched are these societal and scientific objectives with those of the people actually managing the land?

Combining social and natural sciences within one study will help us find out and guide our future knowledge exchange activities.

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