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Improvement of soil structure and crop yield by adding organic matter to soil

Project Report No. 576

Improvement of soil structure and crop yield

by adding organic matter to soil

Andrew Whitmore1, Chris Watts1, Jacqueline Stroud1, Tom Sizmur1,2, Shibu Muhammed Ebrahim1, Mark Pawlett3, Jim Harris3, Karl Ritz3,4, Phil Wallace5, Ethel White6, Ron Stobart7, Blair McKenzie8, Guy Thallon9 

1Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ

2University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AH

3Cranfield University, College Rd, Cranfield MK43 0AL

4University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington, Loughborough LE12 5NT

526 Westland, Martlesham Heath, Ipswich IP5 3SU

6Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, 18a Newforge lane, Belfast, Co. Antrim BT9 5PX

7NIAB Huntingdon Rd, Cambridge CB3 0LE

8James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee DD2 5DA

9Farmcare Trading Ltd. Unit 8a Longsides Barns, Haigh, Barnsley S75 4BS (previous address Produce World Group)

Abstract

Soil quality is intimately linked with soil biology. Recent research at Rothamsted Research (RRes) has shown that addition of Farm Yard Manure (FYM) can improve barley grain and straw yield within two years by more than 1t ha1 each. Penetrometer measurements attribute this increase to an improvement in ease of root exploration in the soil, which, in turn, may be attributed to an increase in earthworm biomass and activity. These results suggest benefits from adding the right kind of organic matter can be achieved relatively rapidly in soils by feeding the soil organisms, which then bring about desirable changes in soil condition. We hypothesised crop yields will increase quickly (within four years) as a result of improved soil physical condition that results from feeding soil organisms, especially earthworms, with relatively small amounts of suitable organic matter additions.  

To test these ideas, we set up field experiments at Rothamsted Research farm (flinty clay loam soil) in Harpenden between 2012 to 2017. The four harvest years of the project allowed three field experiments to run. These covered two tillage regimes, four arable crop rotation combinations, five nitrogen treatments and fourteen organic matter recipes at a range of concentrations. Additionally, two outdoor pot experiments, growing winter wheat under a range of earthworm amendments, seven organic matter recipes and four soil types, were studied. The influence on soil physical properties, crop yields and earthworm populations were examined on selected plots and pots. Different methods were used on selected plots to examine soil physical properties. Methods included bulk density, infiltration, penetrometer, aggregate stability, resistance to ploughing or CT scans of the pores in soil. Earthworm populations were determined on selected plots by handsorting one 20 x 20 x 20cm cube taken from a plot. Microbial biomass, fungal biomass and microbial community composition were also measured. 

Five commercial growers’ trials were held at Haines Barn, Woodbridge, Butterwick, Terrington and Spalding (England). Data from three independent trials at AFBI (Northern Ireland), three at NIAB (England) and one at JHI (Scotland) were also included. These data included some yield data on cereal or horticulture cultivations, soil physical measurements and an earthworm survey. 

Crop yields were determined on every plot, with a beneficial yield effect detected on both the Rothamsted trials after two years of amendments. Amended soils in a pot experiment testing the effect of soil type had more tillers and greater grain masses than unamended soils but there was no significant difference between soil types. Yield improvement in a European study did increase with texture in the order clay<silty clay loam<sand. 

Differences in soil physical properties were not evident after two years. This was linked to the high proportion of flint in these soils (20 % stones by volume) affecting some of the methods.  

Adding organic amendments to soil in two field experiments was found to change the yield response of four crops (spring barley, winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter oats) to N. Amendments increased yields but by a greater amount in a tilled system than a system with reduced tillage. An increasing amount of amendment increased yield but there is evidence of a maximum in this response to amendment, beyond which the yield response declines. The amendments contained nutrients which helps to explain why crops yield well at low rates of mineral N application but not why they yield more overall. The full benefits from amending soil does not appear immediately and two or three years of application may be needed. Spring crops appear to benefit more than winter crops but in years when yields are good the benefits of amending soil are less clear, both in absolute and relative terms.  Quality was either unaffected by amendment (N) or improved (TGW) and to the extent that might attract a premium (oil).  A straightforward economic analysis suggests that acquiring and spreading amendments should cost no more than £50 t1 C spread if amending is to be economic.

Several additional pieces of work were undertaken to try to understand why yields respond to organic amendments. Our initial hypothesis was that organisms rearrange the structure of soil to their own benefit while dwelling there and that this in turn improved the environment for crops.  Amendments increased microbial biomass, earthworm biomass (g m−2) and numbers (m2) on certain occasions but there was no overall statistical difference between amendments and no statistically consistent benefit to mass or numbers of organisms. Means to increase earthworm numbers, such as grinding up part of the amendment to make it more easily ingested by earthworms, staging the application four times per year or eliminating fungicide from the earthworm’s diet, all increased earthworm numbers and biomass but did not increase yields in the field. 

All wheat crops grown with non-crop residue amendments were first wheats in these experiments.  However, FYM was found to have altered N response curve of wheat in historic experiments where take-all was additionally present, such that up to 1t extra grain ha1 was obtained. 

Infiltration of water through soil was increased by amending soil, but not significantly. The plough draught forces (in kPa) were significantly reduced by amending soil and in proportion to the amount and energy content of the amendments. No significant difference, however, was found in measurements of soil mechanical impedance to a hand-operated penetrometer, nor in bulk density.  However, there was no significant relationship between draught forces in autumn with the yield the following summer except, between autumn 2014 and summer 2015. 

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, it is surmised that amendments increase yield and that the most plausible mechanism is that the soil organisms have improved the structure or the ease with which the plant can rearrange the soil structure to its own benefit.

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