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Nick Allen – The importance of organic matter


Nick Allen, Soil Lead at Drone Ag, attended a very interesting and informative soil health conference a few weeks ago, held by Barclays Eagle Labs. 

Nick has completed his MSc in researching soil carbon storage and is currently working through his PhD, looking at the application of remote sensing in the Agri-environment. 

Below he discusses the importance of organic matter in soil. 

Of all the soil characteristics we deem important, organic matter content may be the most important. Besides being the main store of carbon in soils globally, it is a brilliant buffer when considering the extremes of climate change, and thanks to its numerous positive impacts, a good determinant of yields.

All things considered, climate change will make rain less frequent but more intense, and temperatures won’t be as mild as we are used to, getting simultaneously hotter and colder for longer. Crops will therefore face more pressure from physical elements in terms of droughts and water availability, and will likely face more pest and disease pressures as a consequence too.

Whilst on an individual level we can’t do as much as corporations promise to combat climate change, land managers can play their part for us all by storing more carbon and using less inputs. How would they do that? Put simply, they have the ability to feed and enhance their soil. I say feed, because soil is alive with micro-organisms like fungi, bacteria, insects and worms which, when given the chance, can improve the soil more than any man made chemical can. Not only does structure improve, but the resulting soil includes humic acid and other organic matter which has a far greater surface area with the right binding places for nutrients and water. So not only is any water input into the system there for longer, but plants have an easier time accessing it. Incredibly, a 1% increase in Organic Matter holds an additional 250 000 L of water per ha. Nutrients are also far more available to plants, and don’t get carried down to unreachable depths through leaching.

So the scene has been set for organic matter in soils, but how can they be incorporated? Depending on the local context and the crops being grown, many avenues are possible, but some with the caveat that the soil needs to be alive for them to be incorporated. The soil being alive is only a good thing, as increased biodiversity in the soil means beneficial organisms are there and can support the right growing medium, and suppress various pests and diseases. It also gives the plants the ability to find their own nutrients through symbiosis with mycorrhizae for example, which supports the plants own immune system. Some farmers report costs decreasing by 26% since focusing on increasing soil organic matter.

On the animal side, farmyard manures, muck and slurry, are like rocket fuel for the soil, but may be hard to come by. Digestate or compost from the community are other possibilities which will do soils lots of good. Sewage sludge, pending certain regulations, is also rich in organic matter. Crop residues and even wood chips as is, or turned to biochar, can be added, but preferably with a source of Nitrogen such as manure, to keep the soil in balance and ensure it is digested into quality soil.

Not everyone may have the ability to source these inputs, but another option to put back organic matter is cover crops. Mixes of cover crops turn sunlight into sugars which they release into soils through their roots. They can also be terminated by rolling in, or grazing off, both of which deliver more organic matter into the soil. DroneAg supplied spray drones can even help broadcast seed into standing crops before harvest to accelerate germination and establishment for autumn organic matter incorporations. 

Certain new SFI payments can contribute assuming green cover of 70% on farm, which is eligible for the lower tier payment of £22 / ha, with the medium tier eligible for £40 / ha assuming 20% of the 70% is a multispecies mix. Skippy Scout can help support your validation of these. For further, more extensive grants, Skippy can help support the creation of a Nutrient or Soil Management Plan, as well as an Integrated Pest Management Plan, with automated record keeping and analysis.

Overall, organic matter is vital to healthy soils, and a profitable farming operation. Understanding, managing and improving will only become more important. It is perhaps the greatest opportunity available today. 

Get in touch with our team to see how we can help.

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