SPRING is an ideal time to assess soils for structural and health issues, but only do so when there is sufficient moisture for an accurate result, said technical manager of Hutchinsons Healthy Soil Dick Neale.

“Problems such as compaction can sometimes be misdiagnosed in dry soil, which may appear “tight” or compacted when it actually just needs more moisture,” Dick said.

“Many growers check soils for compaction straight after harvest before autumn cultivations begin, but when ground is baked dry in July or August, it can appear compacted when it’s not. This often results in unnecessary use of the subsoiler or other deep cultivations which destroy natural structuring.”

Spring is generally a much better time to inspect soils and identify areas where remedial work may be required later in the season, Dick said, for three key reasons.

The first is moisture. A much more accurate assessment of soil texture and porosity can be made when soil is moist, but not saturated.

Moist soils will look and feel very different to those that are very dry or saturated. Earthworms also need a moist habitat, so testing moist soils makes it easier to accurately estimate the number and species present

Then there is growing crops. Assessing soils when there is a growing crop in the ground allows rooting to be examined and makes it easier to identify potential issues, such as a compacted layer preventing root penetration. It may also be easier to see which areas of the field need closer inspection if there are visual differences in crop growth that could be due to soil factors.

Lastly there is rising temperatures. Soil temperature has a significant impact on many biological and chemical processes, such as the decomposition of biological material and the rate at which nutrients are made available. As soils warm in the spring, these processes will increase to give a better indication of overall soil health.

“Accurately benchmarking the soil’s current status was essential to formulating a plan to improve soil health,” said Dick.

Hutchinsons Healthy Soils service uses in-field and laboratory techniques to analyse the three core components of soil.

These are physical properties (texture, bulk density, compaction, biological (organic matter, carbon content, earthworms and other “soil life”); chemical (pH, minerals, nutrients and availability to plants).

“All components are heavily interlinked, so a “healthy” soil must balance everything,” Dick said. “And not concentrate on any area in isolation - getting one aspect out of balance can have serious knock-on implications elsewhere.”