Guide to measuring your soil health - Cotterills

Guide to measuring your soil health

Soil health is ‘the ability of soil to function’. Soil is the foundation of any farm and it is essential for it to be healthy in order for your farming efforts to be worthwhile.

Why is soil health important in the UK?

The UK has 700 different types of soil and four million hectares are at risk of compaction and two million hectares at risk of erosion. With UK fields said to have only 100 harvests left and an estimated 2 million tonnes of topsoil lost every year, many farmers are now realising the importance of looking after their soil for generations to come, but also for them to be able to increase yields.

Why should it matter to you?

There are many benefits to keeping your soil healthy, such as:

  • Increased crop yield.
  • Healthy crops which are resistant to pests and disease, require fewer inputs and are therefore less costly.
  • More fertile, so crops take more easily.
  • Reduces risk of flooding, as it can store water – storing as much as 3,750 tonnes of water per hectare.
  • Healthy soil protects underground water supply, neutralising and filtering out pollutants.

How do I measure soil health?

Just a few of ways you can check your soil health at home:

Earthworm Counts

Earthworms are a good indicator of soil structure and health. There are 3 main types of earthworms: Epigeic, Endogeic and Anecic, each group has a unique and important function. The presence of each indicates the potential for specific benefits, such as carbon cycling, nutrient mobilisation and water infiltration. What is present in your soil can show you how healthy your soil is – a good presence of earthworms across a field likely means widespread benefits.

It can take just 60 minutes to carry out this test, as shown on the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)’s website.

Infiltration/Percolation Test

Infiltration rate is the speed water enters the soil. Measuring it helps understand how soil works with water, providing a good indicator of soil structure and highlighting any compaction.

Please see our blog on how to carry out a percolation test. 

The rate table below shows how the infiltration rate

Soil type
Infiltration rate (mm/hour)
Sand >30
Sandy loam 20-30
Loam Oct-20
Clay loam 05-Oct
Clay 01-May

Faster rates can suggest good soil structure and aggregation, whilst slower rates suggest the presence of compaction, reduced porosity (high traffic by machinery and/or livestock) and lower organic matter.

Slake Test

The slake test is a simple way of assessing soil structure – it measures aggregate stability and how well it maintains its structure when dealing with external factors such as air and water.

To carry it out:

  1. Collect a handful-size chunk of topsoil from two areas; one which has not been cultivated and one which has.
  2. Take two glass jars and some wire mesh.
  3. Mould the mesh so it can hook over the top of each jar and is large enough to hold the chunk of soil.
  4. Insert this into each jar and fill them with water, submerging the soil in the process.

Then watch to see if the soil holds together or falls apart. Soil that disintegrates has a poorer structure and lower organic matter content than one which remains intact.

You can also check your soil health through lab testing, lab testing can be more costly but gives more accurate results:

Soil Chemistry Tests

This is a medium-cost option to lab testing of soil, that is used to measure macronutrients and pH and is done regularly on most farms, to inform fertiliser strategy. It gives the soil nutrient content of P, K and Mg, as well as pH, but does not provide information on soil biology, structure and root development.

Organic Matter Test

Organic matter the term used for all living, or once-living, materials within, or added to, the soil. It helps with the biological, chemical and physical properties of soil. The more organic matter the healthier the soil. Some 70% of arable farms have soils with an organic matter content below 3%, and they may not even know it. This test can be a costly process, however the benefits that come from it in many cases outweigh the cost, as healthy soil brings in more yield.

How can you improve soil health?

Improving soil health and quality is essential for farmers and becoming more prevalent of an issue, with the Agricultural Bill having a focus on healthy soil, and soil protection.

Please see our blog on how to improve soil quality.

How can we help?

One of the ways to improve soil health is through land drainage – ensuring your soil is drained properly to allow for crops to grow and get the best out of your farm.

Our background is in farming so we understand your needs – our MD’s family have been farming for generations. We are also specialists in land drainage and supply a wide range of products at cost competitive prices, including including land drainage coiltwinwall pipe and large diameter structured pipe. Give us a call on 0121 351 3230 to speak to one of our drainage experts.

Alternatively, fill out our enquiry form:

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