What is the Asset?
The Soil Health Facility offers real-time, pilot-scale environmental simulation of soil-implement, soil-human and soil-plant water interactions in controllable test conditions. This will help inform on-farm decision making and the development of more efficient and sustainable methods of food production.
Why we are taking delivery of 80 tonnes of soil.
The first experimental work has got underway in CHAP’s new Soil Health Facility at Cranfield University. These unique facilities recreate at the pilot scale (<1m2 – >20m2) the dynamic interrelationships between soil health, water use and biotic factors (pathogens, weeds and roots), whilst both controlling the environmental variables that influence them. They also allow reproducible soil management practices that are currently adopted by industry as well as testing innovative approaches.
This system generates better understanding of the role of tillage (from intensive through to no-till systems), drilling, plant establishment, crop development, harvest operations and post-harvest soil management on soil health (and thus crop quality, quantity and resilience). Uniquely the facilities allow for crop cycles to be investigated thereby capturing the longer term dynamics.
The first experiments will test the integration of all different components of the Soil Health Facility. The innovative nature of these facilities does mean that these have never been tested before. To give an idea of the scale of the operation, we have placed an order for 80 tonnes of soil which we expect to use in the coming 6 months. The first bags of this have now arrived. Twenty-four lysimeters (1.2 m3 each) will soon be filled using the new soil processor capable of delivering tillage operations ordinarily used in the field, aiming to produce soil with pre-defined deep compacted layers; compaction is one of the main challenges soils face in the UK at the moment. Each of the lysimeters will be moved into the glass house and placed on large balances capable of weighing up to 4000 kg at high precision (fig 1). These data, together with soil moisture sensors will guide the automated irrigation system and control soil physical conditions.
Crops that differ in root traits will be sown to study their response to soil compaction and their ability to improve soil health through bio-engineering. We will take more traditional measurements to assess soil health in addition to data with the new CHAP root scanner. This asset allows us to lower a camera into a transparent tube placed in the soil (either in the lysimeters or in the field), and the camera will take 360 degree images of soil and roots allowing us to monitor root development over time non-destructively. The first trials have been conducted with this new camera and this is showing some promising results with high quality data that even allow us to see root hairs (Fig 2).
We will also use the new soil erosion systems by testing the effect of rainfall intensity and soil surface sealing on seedling germination and emergence, as well as contamination on salad leaves arising from rain splash soil detachment. This will make use of the CHAP distrometer to calibrate the rainfall simulator to give representative storm events with realistic drop sizes, velocities and energy.
This promises to be an exciting and busy time at the Soil Health Facility. We expect to produce lots of video material and images in the coming months and also look forward to welcoming any of you would like to come and see it for yourself.