Healthy soil

Building natural fertility

The foundation for all sustainable farming

Soil is the foundation for all sustainable farming systems and we do our best to farm in a way that regenerates soil health. Fir Farm has a range of soils, from Cotswold brash on the higher ground to heavy clays down by the River Dikler.

Grassland and grazing livestock play a critical role when it comes to building soil organic matter and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, which helps to mitigate climate change.

Our pastures are a mixture of permanent grassland and multi-species grass leys. These diverse, deep rooting plants improve soil structure, retain moisture and build carbon. We also grow forage legumes, such as clover, in order to fix nitrogen in the soil, building natural soil fertility which means we do not use any artificial fertilisers. Nitrogen fertiliser contributes to soil degradation, as well as to air and water pollution. In our efforts to farm in a closed loop system, we also recycle composted farmyard manure back into the land as a natural soil conditioner.

Since 2013 we have used Soil Quest to map the differences in soil types and nutrient levels across the farm, enabling us to tailor our manure applications and seed rates based on the exact requirements of different parts of the fields.

Soil Facts

Over 95%
of our food

comes from the soil. This means it is vital to our survival and that of almost all land animals.

Soil contains 25% of global biodiversity

and supports an intricate ecosystem of microorganisms, invertebrates, insects and small mammals.

3 million tonnes of topsoil is lost per year

in the UK. Globally, 24 billion tonnes are washed away every year. Our way of farming minimises topsoil loss.

Soil is lost at 10x its creation rate

because of poor land management practices, seriously threatening our future food production capacity.

Soil stores 2,500 billion metric tonnes

of carbon, around twice as much as in the atmosphere and four times the level in plants and animals.

We’ve lost 50% of
organic carbon

in cropland to the atmosphere. Restoring soil reduces atmospheric CO2 and dramatically improves water retention.

To reverse rapid soil degradation, real systemic change is required in the way land is managed.

A return to mixed farming – integrating crop production with grassland and grazing livestock, along with deeper rooting plants and returning organic waste to farmland, ideally through compost – is essential to rebuild soil fertility and organic carbon levels.

Rearing livestock in rotation using a mob grazing system has significant benefits for the soil. Through natural trampling by the livestock, broken plant stems decompose, building organic matter and feeding the soil microbiology. Longer rooting plants draw moisture up from the ground and also keep soil covered and protected, preventing erosion and drought.

Soil testing

We are working with Niels Corfield and the Sectormentor App to collect information about our soils. Sectormentor for Soils is a beautiful simple app that enables farmers to monitor and assess soil health on their farm. Monitoring soils and learning from those observations is a vital part of a more regenerative approach to farming. The app uses a series of tests that the farmer carries out to see how well aggregated the soil is. Well aggrgeated soil can only occur as a result of good soil biology and biological action. Having a well aggregated soil is vital as it means the soils are able to easily let water percolate, and not have soils disappearing in heavy rains, but also retain more moisture, providing resilience in drought! Active soils also allow plants to more easily access nutrients in the soil, not requiring external inputs. A healthy soil is an incredibly complex ecosystem that provides amazing resilience to a farm whatever the climate may bring and can also help in the sequestration of carbon.

Further Resources

Linking Soil, Plant and Animal Health

This expert panel discuss which methods of production have the potential to rebuild lost soil fertility, promote integrated nature conservation and create viable and profitable business models for producers in the future, as well as considering how government incentives could help accelerate this change.

Soils for Food Security and Climate

The 4 per 1000 Initiative promotes an innovative model for mitigating climate change, through the annual increase in soil organic carbon by 0.4 per cent in the top 30-40 cm of agricultural soils.

Soil Testing

This simple test by Sectormentor assesses soil structure based on the appearance and feel of soil dug out with a spade. Here, structure is a shorthand for soil health based on how aggregated (the crumb structure that healthy soil naturally has) the soil is. Aggregation is a product of biological action, normally the result of microbes gluing soil particles together into larger clumps (or aggregates). That is why true biological aggregates will have a rounded (or crumb-like) appearance, sort of like cottage cheese but on a much smaller scale.

Soil Degradation: A Major Threat to Humanity

This report by the Sustainable Food Trust explains why soil degradation is increasing and calls for it to be recognised alongside climate change, as one of the most pressing problems facing humanity.

The report says soil degradation costs up to £7 trillion a year and poses a grave long-term threat to food security and the environment. More than 95% of the food we eat depends on soil, but half of all farmland soils worldwide are already degraded, largely due to inappropriate farming methods.