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The Soil is Alive & Willing to Help

Cathal Somers, ASSAP Advisor, Waterford

"To be a successful farmer one must first know the nature of the soil.” (Xenophon, 430 – 354 BC).

Farming has come a long way in the last fifty years, with huge improvements in how we grow our crops and rear our animals. These days farmers are constantly finding ways to become more efficient and have become very aware of environmental challenges.

I was up at the Teagasc Beef 2022 event recently in Grange where I met lots of farmers from around the country. It was great to see so many travel up from the Waterford/Kilkenny region where I work, mad for chat and hungry for information on new technologies. My stand consisted of a hole dug in the ground and a table with soil cubes to discuss soil health and show farmers how to assess the health of the soil on their farm.

‘It’s in our DNA’

Farmers are always drawn to soil, I think it’s in our DNA. I had great chats about compaction, soil type and farmers looking to solve specific problems in relation to production or ponding on land.  But what really interested people was hearing about the life in soil and all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes underneath our feet 24 hours a day, 365 days a year carried out by the soil microbiome.

‘There are more organisms in one tablespoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth’

A microbiome is all of the microorganisms within or associated with a particular environment, you would often hear of the human microbiome in relation to products you can buy to improve digestion and health. The soil microbiome is much more complex and it does vital work for farmers in helping to produce food.

The soil microbiome consists of a diverse community of micro-organisms such as bacteria, archaea and fungi. Each group consist of millions of different species that carry out different functions in our soils such as releasing nutrients, cleaning water, storing carbon and a home for biodiversity. Lots of farmers know earth worms are a great sign in land but we also need to be aware of the huge amount of microbes doing other vital jobs for us such as rhizobia bacteria for example who work with white clover to produce free nitrogen for us to grow grass. In order for us to ensure our soil is resilient enough to deal with the pressures our management puts on it we must look after it to the best of our ability.

Top tips for safeguarding your soil biology

  • Avoid physical damage (compaction) to soil as much as possible
  • Return organic matter to soils (dung & slurry), in particular to arable land and silage ground
  • Optimise fertility and pH
  • Diversify your crops and crop rotation (mixed species swards/cover crops/green cover)
  • Reduction in chemical fertilizers & agri chemicals, only use what the crop needs
  • Check your soil health, take out the spade and have a look for yourself