Breaking the Barriers to Soil Testing on Pastures (Breaking-STEP)

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Natural Sciences


THE SARIC CHALLENGE: This translation project was directly formulated in response to a major industry challenge presented by Duncan Rose (Cawood Scientific) at the recent SARIC Sandpit Event. The challenge is to "understand why there is a poor uptake of soil analysis across the UK livestock sector and to design novel recommendation and interpretation systems for livestock farming systems". To address this, Bangor University and Rothamsted Research have teamed up with five influential industrial partner organisations (Cawood Scientific, British Grassland Society, RSK ADAS, Charlie Morgan GrassMaster Ltd & AHDB) alongside a range of associate partners (e.g. NIAB, Welsh Government, Yara-Lancrop, Farming Connect, Eurofins, SoilCares etc.). Their commitment to the project is highlighted in the numerous letters of support.

NATURE OF THE PROBLEM: Soils represents a vital resource within UK livestock production systems and it is important that they are well managed to ensure the long-term economic survival of the industry. Fundamental to this is the regular testing of the soil to make sure that there are no chemical, physical or biological imbalances that either constrain production or cause environmental damage. While uptake of standard soil testing by farmers within the arable sector is high, there is compelling evidence that the opposite is true for the livestock sector. Consequently, despite encouragement from policymakers, regulators and farming organisations, numerous studies have shown that soils under livestock production in the UK are frequently sub-optimal in terms of their P and K status and soil pH, as well as soil structure. Ultimately, this lack of testing causes reductions in yields due to excess acidity, under-fertilisation and compaction, while in some cases, over-fertilisation results in wasting money on fertiliser and increasing the risk of environmental losses. This is resulting in underperforming farms and economic losses across the livestock sector. In the current era of sustainable intensification, it is essential that nutrients are used efficiently, and yield gaps are closed through simply 'getting the basics right', resulting in improved resource utilisation and farm incomes. This suggests that current strategies to promote soil testing are not working well and that new approaches are required. Looking to the future, it is also clear that the livestock sector will probably have to embrace soil-based agri-tech to retain its competitive advantage. Based on current evidence, it is likely that the adoption of these new methods of soil testing may also be very slow. A critical assessment of the barriers to adopting (i) basic soil testing, (ii) more comprehensive soil testing, and (iii) emerging technologies is therefore required.

TACKLING THE ISSUE AND OUTCOMES: In response to this challenge, and together with our industrial partners, we have designed six interlinked work-packages (WP) to tackle the problem from multiple angles. Firstly, we will map the spatial and temporal trends in soil testing within the UK (WP1). Secondly, we will identify the major barriers which prevent farmers from undertaking soil testing (WP2). Thirdly, we will set up on-farm demonstrations to illustrate the benefits of soil testing in areas where adoption is poor (WP3). Looking to the future, we will also evaluate what soil-based agri-tech solutions are on the horizon and evaluate the likelihood that farmers will adopt these technologies (WP4). This information will provide the foundation for a series of participatory workshops and dissemination events with the stakeholder community to demonstrate the benefits of soil testing to grassland farmers (WP5). Lastly, we will synthesise all the information in WP1-5 to produce an industry-focused road map for promoting life-long adoption of soil testing within the livestock industry (WP6). We expect to see tangible benefits to the industry within 5 years of this project commencing.

Planned Impact

1. Livestock farmers: Ultimately, livestock farmers and the 4.6 million hectares of land they manage will gain most from this project. If they embrace more routine and comprehensive soil testing they will achieve better targeting of fertilisers and manures, reduce soil-based constraints to production, improve yields and product quality, leading to improved economic returns, less uncertainty and better environmental compliance. There is also strong evidence that this will improve farmer well-being[1].

2. Next generation of livestock farmers: It is important that we reach out to the next generation of land stewards. Considering the uncertainties of Brexit, it is important that they embrace the importance of soil testing to optimise resource use efficiency and maximise farm returns when they enter farming. We will capitalize on our strong links with the agricultural colleges to maximise influence (by visits and provision of video lectures and information packs). There will also be opportunity to visit some of the demonstration farms.

3. Agronomists/consultants: Farmers often receive advice from independent consultants and it is vital that we influence this part of the knowledge exchange chain. By involving them in the formulation of questionnaires (e.g. ADAS) and our workshops (e.g. ADAS, KITE Consulting, Charlie Morgan GrassMaster Ltd, Grasstec, P&L AgriConsulting, Precision Grazing Ltd.) we can ensure they receive the latest information on soil testing from which they can promote their businesses.

4. Agri-Tech industry: The information gained in this translation project will allow companies to better understand where the barriers lie preventing adoption of soil-based agri-tech (e.g. new field-based soil sensors). This will facilitate faster technology adoption and raise awareness of the future direction for soil quality assessments.

5. Soil testing companies: There are currently 32 main soil testing companies in the UK, however, the market is dominated by Cawood Scientific/NRM. Ultimately, these companies will all benefit from increased demand for soil testing. They will also be able to evaluate farmer responses to new technology innovations allowing new products to be developed.

6. Fertiliser/lime industry: The fertiliser industry is continually evolving new ways to improve the spatial/temporal targeting and formulations of fertilisers to suit the needs of the farming industry. Better soil testing should allow greater sales targeted to the right place at the right time. It will also help them demonstrate their commitment to educating and advising farmers on responsible nutrient use.

7. Policymakers: As highlighted in the recent UK Parliament Soil Health inquiry, the success of UK agriculture depends upon healthy soils. Currently, soil degradation in the UK costs an estimated £1.5bn per year. Better adoption of soil testing will help meet the Defra Codes of Good Agricultural Practice. It will also support initiatives to promote farm sustainability (e.g. Farming Connect), sustainable intensification (Defra) and reduce nutrient losses to water (e.g. N & P) and air (e.g. N2O). The enhanced adoption of soil testing and innovative on-farm technologies offers an important strategy to incentivise the required step-change in soil management. It will also facilitate and enhance the work of government agencies who seek to protect the environment (e.g. EA, NRW, SEPA, Scotland's Farm Advisory Service).

8. Farming organisations: The findings from this translation project will directly support key initiatives promoting soil testing such as the Soil Association, AHDB's GREATsoils, LEAF's integrated farm management initiative, the NFUs Tried and Tested extension programme, Farming Connect's soil testing programme in Wales, The Sustainable Soils Alliance, and AHDB's cross sector 'soil biology and health' partnership, Better Returns Programme and strategic farm network.

[1]Burgess & Morris (2009) Land Use Policy 26,222-9


10 25 50
Description examined national soil testing database to identify areas of the UK which are not soil testing and why.
Exploitation Route Used by industry to target areas not soil testing
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description used by the soil testing industry to target areas for promotion. testing agri-tech and demonstrating to farmers
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Description Radio interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Radio interview on soils on Radio Wales
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description soil security conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Soil Security fnal workshop meeting
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description talks with industry 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We have held talks with many industries involved in soil testing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description working with industry 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact knowldege transfer
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020