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Soil with minimal cultivation holds more nutrients and water than fields which have been ploughed – benefiting crops and ultimately farm profitabilty, suggests a... Soil study reveals benefits of regenerative agriculture

Soil with minimal cultivation holds more nutrients and water than fields which have been ploughed – benefiting crops and ultimately farm profitabilty, suggests a study.

The study conducted by researchers at University of Leeds Farm compares soil health, crop production, greenhouse gas emissions, and profit of different farming systems across seven 12m x 40m plots.

Some plots were ploughed and power harrowed. Others underwent minimal cultivation using non-inversion, shallow cultivation. Cover crops, living mulches, manures, livestock integration and herbal leys were also assessed.

Data was collected by state-of-the-art soil stations created by Estonian ag-tech company Paul-Tech, which take real-time readings of nutrient availability, soil water levels and soil temperature at depths of 8cm and 20cm.

Designed to shed light on the economics of regenerative farming methods, each plot received three treatments of nitrogen throughout the trial. Nutrient and water availability was measured at both depths after each application.

Crop benefits

Project leader Ruth Wade said: “Results coming from this regenerative agriculture plot trial will provide important data on the impacts of different farming systems both on the environment but also for the farm business.”

The minimal cultivated plots recorded a significantly larger nutrient release after fertilisation and higher nutrient availability at a depth of 8cm compared to the ploughed plots, and nutrients were held around the rootzone for longer.

By contrast, water quickly drained through the ploughed soil, leading to a significantly smaller nutrient release at fertilisation and considerably less nutrients available to the plants at 8cm.

Soil temperature was also impacted by the cultivation method with the ploughed soil experiencing much larger temperature changes over the course of the trial.

The ploughed soil froze when air temperatures dipped below zero, whereas those sown under a minimal cultivation system maintained a much more stable temperature throughout and did not freeze.

‘Fascinating results’

The study is ongoing and will look at the impacts of other regenerative techniques on soil health over a longer period. Paul-Tech chief executive Mikk Plakk, described the study findings as fascinating.

Mr Plakk said: “The data from our soil stations clearly shows soil nutrient availability and temperature differences between plots with different cultivation methods.

“For example, the soil in the conventional ploughed plot froze at root level and showed significant temperature differences while the minimal cultivated plots didn’t freeze and temperatures were relatively consistent in the root zone.

“Also, in the minimal cultivated plots, the soil was much more effective at holding water, which meant far more nutrients were available at 8cm than was the case in the ploughed plots.

“The findings have a significant bearing on how farmers should be treating soil. They strongly suggest cultivation methods have the potential to significantly improve soil and plant health while reducing the amount of inputs they need to apply.”

Cost savings

Paul-Tech’s soil station combines real-time proprietary sensor data with weather and satellite data to produce agronomic recommendations for farmers and growers, which are reported via an online dashboard.

Already in place on commercial farms in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, the system was launched in the UK in January. It means more informed decisions about crop inputs and irrigation, leading to better soil health, plant health, yield and cost savings.

“Getting access to real-time, high frequency data from the soil station was vital for this study and will be equally valuable for farmers,” said Mr Plakk.

He added: “This level of insight would not be available without the ability to measure water and nutrient movement throughout the soil, which our system has been specifically designed to do.”