World Soil Day, (5th December) is the one day in the year that the United Nations asks us all to think about the role of soil in our daily lives. Farmers already know the central importance of the soil to their business and its future. However, current crop production levels are often maintained by increased inputs, such as fertilisers, pesticides and technology which can mask losses in production due to reduced soil quality.
A new project, SoilCare, is investigating ways in which soil quality can be improved through cropping systems and techniques, benefiting both the profitability of farms and the environment. Such soil improvement is necessary to break the negative spiral of soil degradation, increased inputs, increased costs and damage to the environment.
The project brings scientists from 16 countries across Europe together to work on trial plots where cropping systems will be tested to find out how improving the soil can boost and sustain productivity. Working on 16 trials across Europe that represent not only different climatic conditions but soil types and crop types, the project is looking to solutions that can be easily adopted by farmers. All of the test sites have been chosen because they have access to significant bodies of historical experimental data which can supplement the trial data. This approach, together with consulting stakeholders throughout, ensures that any promising systems or techniques can be quickly made available to the farming community.
The University of Gloucestershire, Newcastle University and the Allerton Project (Game and Wildlife Conversation Trust) are all involved from the UK.
The Allerton Project (GWCT) Leicestershire was chosen as the UK’s representative study site, we are a 333 hectare arable research, education and demonstration farm, established in 1992. The Allerton Project’s aims have always been to research the effects of different farming methods on wildlife and the environment, and to share the results of this research through educational activities. Soil health can be defined as a soil's ability to function and sustain plants, animals and humans as part of the ecosystem. Correct soil and nutrient management is vital for crop establishment and production. As crop profit margins are squeezed, there is a greater need for informed and sustainable management of the soil. At the Allerton project, Dr Felicity Crotty has set up several experiments, looking at how soil biology (earthworms, mesofauna, microbes), physics (structure) and chemistry (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and carbon) are effected by agricultural management and will continue to do this as part of SoilCare.
Dr Julie Ingram, from the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire, said, "One of the products of this project will be an interactive tool to allow decision-makers to select cropping systems that will benefit the soil, and so guard one of our most valuable assets. In the past, the scientific community assumed that just doing the research was enough. Through SoilCare we are working with farmers, but also leading machinery manufacturers and policy-makers to make sure they are aware of the findings. One of our most important goals is to ensure that farmers and the agricultural industry know about the results of these trials, so there can be a shift to soil improving cropping systems across Europe."
Project co-ordinator Dr Hessel based at Wageningen Environmental Research said; "Farmers have known for years that the secret to their success lies in the soil, and we as scientists are actively working with them to find answers that both benefit the soil but also improve profitability. Through this project, we can consider problems such as compaction, weed management, water availability on sites that we have decades of data about. As we have a range of locations, we can consider a diversity of crops such as olives in warm, dry areas through to rye in colder climes as well as pulses and oilseeds. "
For more details on the project see http://www.soilcare-project.eu/. This project is supported by the EU H2020 programme. The Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) is a unique partnership between the University of Gloucestershire, the Royal Agricultural University and Hartpury College. It is the largest specialist rural research centre in the UK, having expertise in all aspects of research in policy and planning for the countryside and the environment of the UK, Europe and further afield. See http://www.ccri.ac.uk/ for more information.
Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which carries out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 40 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
The GWCT’s Allerton Project: The GWCT’s Allerton Project is an 800 acre commercial farm business attached to a Research and Educational charitable trust. The Project was established in 1992 with the objective of demonstrating how modern efficient farming and environmental conservation can co-exist. The development of the education objectives of the Trust has expanded substantially to several thousand visitors a year including school groups, politicians and farmers, thus necessitating the construction of a larger visitor centre. The challenge of converting a disused brick cowshed into a sustainable building was given to architect Sylvester Cheung from Melton Mowbray. 60 per cent of construction costs were obtained as a grant from the Rural Development Programme for England.