ORC has been leading a European Innovation Partnership research project on agroecological soil management. The aim is to enhance productivity and sustainability of organic and agroecological farming by improving soil management. Dominic Amos, Anja Vieweger and Mark Measures provide an update.
Organic and agroecological farming is fundamentally based on management of soil life and ecology to optimise forage and crop productivity. The processes of solubilisation of minerals, recycling of nutrients from manures, enhancing access to minerals through living systems and improved soil structure and N fixation by free living organisms are all dependant on a wide range of soil organisms, including fungi, bacteria, insects and earthworms. This dependence on soil life distinguishes organic and agroecological farming from conventional, where plant nutrient supply is largely focused on provision of soluble nutrients in the form of fertilisers that can be readily absorbed by the plant.
There is a critically important role for soil analysis in determining the correct management and use of any brought-in inputs in order to ensure that the soil supplies the necessary nutrients to the plant to optimise crop performance and quality.
Various commercial soil analysis techniques and associated soil management recommendations are available to organic and agro-ecological farmers as well as the Standard Analysis including pH, P, K, Mg analysis used by conventional farmers. None of these techniques have been systematically assessed for their suitability to provide sound recommendations for soil management and nutrient availability in organic and agroecological farming.
Recently organic farmers have been advised to use Standard Analysis techniques and to aim for a target index of one point lower than recommended for conventional farming. This target is based on anecdotal experience and knowledge of crop offtakes, but has never been validated.
The Base Cation Saturation Ratio (Albrecht) Analysis offered by some laboratories provides the potential for taking a more comprehensive soil management strategy. Others have tried to assess soil biological activity using soil respiration analysis. The validity of both these techniques has been questioned by soil specialists in the UK but they have been more widely used by organic and agroecological farms in the USA and elsewhere and significant claims are made in terms of soil health and fertility and forage and crop production, in turn linked to animal health.
Mark Measures has undertaken a review of all relevant soil analysis and management methods in his Winston Churchill Fellowship which provides background information for the project.
The research project run by ORC in partnership with the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, now in its second year, is monitoring three different soil analysis and management methods in field trials on each of three farms. It is too early to see results from the different treatments but we have completed a technical leaflet on the different soil analysis services available.
This project has received funding from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
Measures M (2019) Soil analysis in organic farming and growing. EIP Soils Technical Guide No.1
An event is planned, in conjunction with OMSCo, for June 2020 on agroecological soil management, with a focus on dairy farming. Details to follow!
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