So much has been said and written about soil biology, organic matter and how soil is an ecosystem in its own right. So how can we learn what is going on underneath our feet? The thin layer of topsoil that supports so much life, holds nutrients, decomposes waste and on what we base our farming businesses, needs to be better understood.
I have been out and about trying to learn more about my soil over the past few years, off the back of the AHDB Monitor Farm programme, spending dark, wet, cold winter days in our local village hall discussing how we can improve our soil: are we over-working it with cultivations? Can cover crops help? Do we need to look at drainage? Is organic matter the key? Can controlled traffic systems be worthwhile? A plethora of conundrums going round and round in my head on how I could test, compare and learn about what my soil needed, or if it needed anything at all.
Twitter has opened my mind to new contacts, thoughts and opportunities that a few years ago I would never have thought possible. A simple tweet can spark off a string of conversation snippets with farmers, agri-advisors and enthusiasts, which feed an ever increasing thirst for knowledge.
This happened recently with the discovery of #soilmyundies, a hash tag that could have gone one of two ways! It was a link to a video on YouTube of a Canadian farmer who was in the process of digging up two pairs of cotton underpants that he had buried eight weeks earlier in a field of maize stubble and a field of cover crop. The maize stubble pants were wearable and those from the cover crop were just a loop of elastic waistband, nothing else. This intrigued me on a fun-filled day of puttering up and down, rolling my wheat seeds into their nicely prepared seed beds. A few sea gulls were hanging about trying to find the last of the soil warriors that had been turned out by the drill. Were those worms being gobbled up, my only soil biology, or a basic sign of good soil biology now eaten? Or was there more to it? Well, this is where the underpants come into it. I got home and started to do some research, learning about this simple experiment that hopefully will lay down a marker about how my soil biology fares in differing situations.
So the #soilmyundies or cotton test is a very simple one: take a pair of 100% cotton pants, bury them into the soil and leave them to the elements and the biology in the soil to see what happens to the cotton. A very basic and hopefully a very visual test of how the ecosystem of the soil is working, with the prize going to how decomposed, broken down and eaten the pants are when they are brought up after eight weeks.
So, on the last day of September, I buried five pairs of pants: one under my first wheat – established by strip-till; one under my second wheat – established in a ‘min-till’ situation; one under my over-winter plough; one under my over-winter cover crop, established in August and the final pair was placed in a old established grass ley where we would expect high soil biology activity. All the pants were buried to the same depth of a spade in the topsoil and laid flat, then marked with a post and (almost) forgotten about for eight weeks. I then tweeted a video of my madness (follow @the_barker_boys) and stirred up a few other farmers to do a similar test and spread the word about what we had done. This triggered the world of twitter to a few jokes about the size, style and cleanliness of my underpants but it got people thinking about soil biology!
The big unveiling will coincide with the Stowmarket Monitor Farm meeting on December 2nd 2016, when the subject of discussion will be: ‘Soil Biology – the Dark Science’. At the meeting, with the unearthed underpants, we will have soil scientists, soil enthusiasts and loads of farmers in the room to discuss what is going on under our feet.
I am keeping records on what the soil temperature, soil moisture, soil pH and weather does while the pants are in the ground. Having discussed the test with my soil scientist, he said these four elements will go hand in hand with the soil biology working on my pants. Our soil biology needs moisture, air and nutrients, mixed with the right pH, to set to decomposing my cotton undies. If the soil is too dry the worms curl up and the fungi and bacteria slow down; if the soil becomes too wet, again a similar scenario happens. As winter sets in the temperature reduces in our soil and when it lowers to around 7 or 8 degrees, the biology starts to hibernate until the warmth of spring.
So that is it, a simple experiment that might see me dig up 5 pairs of untouched cotton pants, stained with embarrassment, or I will have a few ‘Holy’ pairs, as the magic of soil starts to aid my thirst for knowledge. Time will tell and I will be repeating the experiment in the spring and in following years to try and get a measure of how I can bring the subject out of the darkness and into the light!