Today is World Soil Day – look after it

December 5 marks World Soil Day. Organised by the United Nations, the theme of this year’s World Soil Day is: ‘Be the solution to soil pollution’.

Some reports suggest that there will be a peak in agricultural land-use between 2040 and 2060, while it is a well-known fact that the world’s soils are degrading at a rate faster than they can be regenerated

A total of 33% of soils are moderately to highly degraded and, according to the United Nations, there are only 60 years of viable top soil left in the world.

In recent times soil has become a hot topic in this country. Tillage farmers in particular are becoming more and more proactive in minding their soils.

Minimum-tillage practices, as well as cover cropping and the use of organic manures, have all increased in use in the past number of years. However, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Livestock farmers

Livestock farmers have been shown to have poor soil fertility levels.

According to soil samples taken by Teagasc in 2017:
  • Only 15% of dairy farms had optimal soil fertility levels;
  • 88% of all grassland farms sampled had sub-optimal soil fertility;
  • 47% of grassland farms had below target soil pH levels.

Cover cropping

Speaking at a Drummonds’ Open Day in September, John Geraghty – a lecturer in Land Management in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) – stated that payments under the Green, Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) have helped to increase the area of these cover crops that are planted.

Cover crops have many benefits, some of which are listed below:
  • They maintain a green cover on soil over the winter;
  • This allows these crops to take up nutrients from the soil that will be incorporated back in;
  • It protects the soil from erosion and weather damage;
  • The roots of these crops help to develop and improve soil structure.

“There were never more than 90 farmers that participated in the REPS or AEOS schemes that selected the cover crop option.

“Today, instead of 90 farmers growing cover crops, we have over 1,700 farmers growing cover crops. The total area is just short of 24,000ha; that’s 60,000ac.

It’s the fourth largest area of crops being grown in the country.

“It shows you the impact that GLAS one, two and three had in terms of getting farmers to adopt; part of the reason is that the payment is now €155/ha,” John added.

Look after your soil

Soil is an amazing resource and should be looked after.

At the recent Biological Farming Conference held by the National Organic Skillnet Fiona Brennan of Teagasc told the attendance: “About 95% of all food comes from soil, but this is actually just one of a whole range of functions that soil provides for agriculture and also to the broader society.”

Other functions of soil:
  • It sequesters carbon;
  • Filters and purifies our water;
  • It is a major driver of global nutrient cycling;
  • It’s a huge store of biodiversity.

Fiona described the diverse range of biology in soil and the different jobs it has. She explained that the microbes in the soil range from the very microscopic – that can only be seen under a microscope – up to nematodes and protozoa; and then to visible organisms like earthworms, ants and wood lice.

There are more organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on the planet.

Fiona added that only about 1% of soil microbes have been identified.

“These microbes vary between soil types, textures, pH and soil organic matter. However, there are a few facts that ring through across these soils and soil microbes.”

In one handful of soil there is approximately:
  • 50km of microbial networks;
  • 100 million bacteria;
  • 100,000 protozoa;
  • 10,000 nematodes;
  • Up to 5,000 insects, worms, etc.