Farmer Brian Barker on soil biology and what six pairs of buried pants can reveal
- Credit: Archant
There has been a run of earthquakes around the globe in the past couple of months as Mother Nature reminds us that there is huge energy locked up in the earth’s crust, writes Westhorpe farmer Brian Barker.
This crust surrounding our globe at time can be fragile and releases its energy in one catastrophic event as the tectonic plates move beneath us. Luckily for us, relatively safe in the middle of our crust plate, these events are minor and we can merrily go about our lives in the knowledge that the earth won’t move to dramatic effect.
However in the world of Twitter there has been a dramatic soil movement, a movement that is building energy and which is also known as #soilmyundies. I have always described the science that happens under our feet, in the very top of our earth’s crust, as a ‘Dark Science’.
Much has been written about the importance of the soil ecosystem; direct relationship between air, water, bacteria, fungi, and plant roots. This in turn creates the wonder of plant growth that sustains our life on earth to amazing effect by absorbing the free energy of the sun. Time and time again we are reminded that farmers don’t understand and appreciate this asset. Pictures of soil blowing over a field, brown water pouring of cultivated fields, brown desserts of soil left to the elements through rain, wind, sun and snow. Our management of soil has to alter if we want to nurture and look after it.
Science and research throw reams and reams of white papers at farmers about what effect cultivation has on our soil. Farmers reply that they cultivate for all the right reasons; field compaction, weed pressure, ‘trash’ management but deep down they all must have a voice in the back of their head saying “what is this doing to my soil?” but it is so hard to understand.
#soilmyundies is a really visual basic experiment that all - yes all - farmers can and should do! Take a pair of 100% cotton pants and bury them in the topsoil of your field. Leave them for eight weeks then dig them up and inspect what the soil biology has done to them. If you can wash and wear them, then start asking questions why; is it too dry, too wet, too acidic, too alkaline, over worked, lacking nutrients, low in other organic matter etc.? But if you dig them up and it is just the waist band and the biology has dissolved the 100% natural carbon of the cotton, then you know that the soil is in relatively good shape.
I have planted six pairs of pants over a range of cultivation systems on our farm. Trying to keep the soil type and rotation the same so that we can compare how our management is affecting the soil biology. My first cycle of eight weeks has passed and the results were so dramatic that I have restocked the holes with more pants to carry the experiment on for a year.
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The experiment has asked more questions than given answers but it gave such a visual and dramatic comparison that it was evident that our soil is at the mercy of our tillage equipment. The over winter plough pair of pants I could rewash and wear, compared to the Over Winter Cover Crop that shredded the boxers to a mini thong! The same with Non Inversion Tillage compared to the One Pass Strip Tillage. I am recording soil pH, soil temperature and counting worm activity throughout the eight weeks to add a bit more to the experiment.
Worm numbers again followed the same curve; more cultivation over a two year period the fewer I counted. The more the cultivations the less degraded the pants were. The more tillage means the more destruction and disturbance we do to the soil biology. The biology then goes into shock it takes a long time to recover, which means our crops don’t benefit from the two way relationship it has with nutrients being sent to and from like basic currency of the soil.
Plants roots give nutrients to the soil in the way of sugars, the bacteria and fungi feed on that sugar to get energy to dissolve matter in the soil which releases the nutrients locked in the soil so that the plant can feed on them. A magical two way relationship fuelled by the energy from the sun through photosynthesis.
The sun’s energy is the best freebie we get as farmers and this is what we basically harvest as food. Now the economics of farming are gripped by Brexit uncertainty. The country’s finances being analysed with a fine toothed comb or in some cases a blunt axe blade. Will farmers be receiving a ‘freebie’ payout based on area as we have previously, post Brexit?
This week I am attending an AHDB Monitor farm event where we are discussing business resilience heading towards 2020. The uncertainty of what level of government subsidies’ support we might receive going forward is a worry for some farmers but others think they can survive without. I believe I could survive without but I also believe that farmers will be offered government financial support but we will have to do more in return and soil protection will be the underlying bedrock to receiving that support.
Farmers have got a few years to learn, change and develop a more resilient approach to farming and business going forward without the same level of ‘area based bailout’ money and our soil needs to be where we all start. If not there could be a catastrophic earthquake sending tremors through a lot of farm businesses in the UK.
So get out in your field, dig a hole, bury your pants and start learning because the cheapest farm input you can source is your own knowledge.
Every day is a learning day! #soilmyundies