While many soil fungi and bacteria classified by Fera’s Big Soil Community project in its first year have never been studied, differences between soils are being picked up.
And with a greater number of samples, this could lead to development of a measure of soil health and decision-making support relating to farm management practices to improve it.
Last year, 231 soil samples were submitted from 120 farms in the autumn sampling window. For this year, samples are currently being submitted and the closing date is November 30. Each analysis costs £250. Some farmers choose to submit samples from the same field each year, others may opt to sample fields on a five-year rotation while others submit samples from a soil performing poorly and one performing well, says Guy Thallon, strategic business development manager at Fera.
“They each have validity. At the moment with relatively few samples we cannot advise and leave it to the farmer to decide.”
Last year, soil was tested to determine the biodiversity of bacteria and fungi, says Mr Thallon. “Ultimately we hope to develop a measure of soil health. At the moment this is biodiversity – how diverse the bacteria and fungi are. A more diverse community is healthier and more resilient.
“This year we will also include nematodes as their functional activity is better understood than bacteria and fungi. In the 2018 samples, 65 per cent of bacteria and 29 per cent of fungi were unidentified at the genus [classification] level.”
Although much remains to be discovered about soil microbial communities, so far the sampling has revealed that microbial diversity is greater in soils farmed organically than conventionally farmed soils and also where there is no fungicide use, says Mr Thallon.
Soils can be benchmarked alongside soils from other farms to see whether a particular soil is higher or lower than the average in terms of biodiversity or whether it has a microbial species that is different from other farms, for example.
“We are focusing developing a decision tree to support decision making and inform strategy around soils,” adds Mr Thallon.
For more information visit: fera.co.uk/big-soil-community