Soil quality and management: healthy soils as a basis

Soil forms the basis of practically all agricultural production. Soil quality is therefore a crucial part of our food security. Soil quality influences the climate, biodiversity, and water storage. The many ecological, biological, and climatic processes which rely upon healthy soil, make soil quality and soil management topics of broad social importance. For the business community, soil management is also of great importance to achieve a robust future-oriented cultivation system with strong resilience to diseases and pests, as well as to achieve a high yield potential and favourable earning model.

In this programme, the Louis Bolk Institute is developing strategies for sustainable soil management by developing and analysing existing knowledge about the effects of measures on soil services and soil quality. Our experts are also working on soil quality indicators that provide, in an integral fashion, insights into the soil and its functioning. To this end, practical and affordable solutions and techniques are utilised to monitor soil quality in the field.

Integral effects of soil measures and their applicability

The Louis Bolk Institute conducts integral analyses of the effects of soil measures on soil functions such as primary production, water regulation and purification, carbon storage, biodiversity, and nutrient cycles. We distinguish between social and functional goals. In doing so, we also take applicability, costs and benefits, and effects on yield stability into account. We are furthermore developing a step-by-step plan for selecting measures and systems that suit a certain set of desired soil functions and soil quality. Knowledge gaps are summarised in a knowledge and innovation agenda. A project where work is being carried out specifically on this subject, is the PPS Beter Bodembeheer (Public-Private Partnership Better Soil Management).

Organic matter & fertilisation

Simultaneous management of organic matter and nitrogen/phosphate fertilisation is inherent to the success of circular agriculture. System experiments offer a unique opportunity to outline the synchronous processes of nutrient retention, utilisation, and balances of nitrogen and phosphate. The results of the system experiments are explored in depth in this study, and translated into practical advice.

Research questions are: What nitrogen and phosphate utilisation rate can be realised by crops in different systems? What can be learned from this in practice, and what does this mean for the possibilities of closing nutrient cycles? There is furthermore a question of what the effects of measures to capture carbon mean for various soil functions and for concrete agricultural practice.

Mest als Kans/ Manure as an opportunity

One of our long-term, successful projects is the ‘Mest als Kans’ (‘Manure as an opportunity’) project. In this project, the long-term effects of different fertilisation strategies were investigated, particularly on soil quality, crop production and quality, the environmental effects of nitrogen and phosphate, and the potential to retain atmospheric carbon to benefit the climate. The best fertilisation strategy with organic fertilisers for agricultural crops turned out to be a combination of compost with slurry or deep stable manure. The research was set up by the Louis Bolk Institute and continued for 20 years. Click here for more information about Manure as an opportunity.

(New) soil monitoring techniques

In this research project, data is collected with which an affordable reliable monitoring network (called 'voelhoorn') is developed that can be used to monitor changes in the soil over time. With this network, a farmer can easily perform measurements on soil, water and crops by themselves. Drones and imaging techniques and new developments in sensor technology are used. Applicable instruments are continuously developed with the data. This enables farmers to calculate their potential and achievable crop yield. Examples of techniques that are being tested are: sensors that continuously measure soil moisture and temperature and report via an app on a smartphone, strip testers for nutrients with an associated app on a smartphone, drones with various types of cameras, and online map and satellite systems. For more information, see the brochure from 2020.

Development and testing of Soil Quality Indicators (BLN)

The Louis Bolk Institute is testing the BLN indicator set to investigate whether soil measures that store carbon in the soil, also have an effect on soil quality. We do this using field experiments that run for many years (Long Term Experiments or LTEs). We investigate the effects of measures such as minimum tillage, adjustments to the crop rotation plan or the use of different types of manure and compost. We also test the BLN indicator set on approximately 150 existing farms. For more information: see also Smart Land Use for Soil and Climate.