Groundswell Agriculture Conference 2017

“In another recent post, Tom Storr reflects on his experiences from the recent Groundswell Agriculture Conference with fellow Cranfield PhD students.”

Groundswell Agriculture is a soil health, zero till and mob grazing orientated conference aimed at farmers interested in these practices. Cranfield University’s involvement in this years’ show (only the second time it has run) came about following a chance conversation on Twitter!

Last year I retweeted Groundswell Agriculture’s post advertising their show for a chance to win some Cereals tickets. I was one of 10 lucky retweeters to win a pair of tickets to Cereals 2016 – the other ticket I treated my supervisor Dr Jack Hannam too!

I also attended Groundswell Agriculture as it would be a useful show to gather information and make contacts relevant to my PhD. Attending with me was Iain Dummett who has an interest in the biological effect of strip tillage. Both of us were very impressed with the wide range of speakers covering soil health and mob grazing, and demonstrations of working machinery linked with cover crops. We both highly recommended the show to our supervisors at Cranfield University and suggested that we should attend in 2017 to showcase our research in soils.

On 29th June Dr Lynda Deeks, Alex Cooke, Iain Dummett and I went to Groundswell Agriculture to present some of our recent PhD work to attendees at the soil health orientated conference. In typical style we had also asked the organisers if they would mind us digging a soil profile as a way of engaging visitors with the soil beneath their feet. Helpfully they agreed to dig the profile for us and once Lynda, Alex and Iain had bailed out the overnight rainfall and prepared the profile face, people were soon drawn towards us! We also took along various bits of equipment to show people how we (and they) can keep an eye on soil  compaction using a penetrometer, shear vane and infiltration rings. We also had many opportunities to discuss with farmers the challenges and knowledge gaps around zero till farming and aspects of managing soil health.

Figure 1: Alex (grey coat), Lynda and Iain in the soil pit talking soil profiles, compaction and strip till

Given an early morning slot in the aptly named soil tent, Dr Lynda Deeks introduced Cranfield University’s soil facilities and research interests. I followed with an overview of results from my sustainable soil management survey results which Groundswell Agriculture very kindly donated a participation prize of two tickets. Following my talk I had some very interesting follow-up conversations with Natural England and Farmers Weekly, with an article appearing online last week

Iain Dummett enlightened listeners with his work on strip tillage and the spatial recovery of soil biology following strip tillage, asking if the undisturbed (non tilled) strips act as reservoirs of soil biology that recolonise the tilled soil? His work is on-going and throwing up some interesting results.

Figure 2: Old drainage pipe – the unfortunate victim of the digger used to create the soil pit. Top soil was a clay loam progressing to a clay sub soil with zones of sand. Soil series: Hornbeam 3 due to high stone content.

Finally, Alex Cooke spoke about the freezing point depression method she helped develop in the early stages of her research career as a potential method of monitoring soil health. The method produces a moisture release curve between permanent wilting point and the lower boundary of readily available water to a plant. This method can be conducted using inexpensive or commonly available materials, including a domestic freezer and oven in addition to data loggers and temperature sensors. The moisture release curve can be used to monitor soil health indicators, such as pore size distribution, and is specific to the soil type of the user. Alex received interest from catchment sensitive farming representatives who are keen to engage farmers in the grower science method to improve and monitor soil health and management.

Overall it was a fantastic day speaking to farmers, advisors and other researchers, all of whom have a great interest in soil health. We hope that Cranfield University can be present again next year to share the new research findings from the upcoming year ahead!

Author: Tom Storr

Twitter: @tstorr1