Farmer-led research on boosting deeper rooting earthworms

Farmers are researching whether sustainable soil management practices – like minimum tillage and organic matter application – can boost deeper rooting earthworm populations to improve soil health and crop yields in an Innovative Farmer’s field lab.

Farmers have teamed up with researchers at ADAS to test how different levels of cultivation and organic matter in arable farming impact populations of these vital soil invertebrates.

With support from the Innovative Farmers programme, farmers will dig soil pits in different treatment areas as part of the on-farm research, to count and observe the burrows, which will provide an indication of how many deeper burrowing worms are present in the soil.

Find out more including updates and the methodology of this research on our field lab portal.

Rory Lay is one of 4 farmers involved in the field lab

Triallist Rory Lay at Park Farm, Shropshire, runs a mixed farming system with beef, lamb & arable crops. He said:

“Soil is at the front of everyone’s mind now so I’m trying to work out the best way to protect it. We’ve been thinking about the effects of farmyard manure on yield for years so I jumped at the chance to join the trial and test it properly. I really want to quantify the effects that bringing more farmyard manure and broiler litter onto the farm has on earthworms – and on crop yields. We’re trying to build organic matter and support soil health by not disturbing the soil, which we hope will help both the environment and our business. Testing on real working farms means you can work with larger areas and in realistic farm conditions, with variations in fields that are naturally there – and we’re utilising the manure and resources we already have on the farm. I’m really looking forward to getting live scientific results on what we’re doing.”

Improving yields without chemical inputs

It is hoped the field lab may help farmers improve their yields without the need for chemical inputs, as research has shown deeper rooting earthworms can provide multiple benefits to crops. For example, they can aid water infiltration, help prevent waterlogging, and break up soil below the level that everyday machinery can access, which allows crop roots to take hold and access previously unavailable nutrients and moisture.

Limited rooting depth is thought to be a major limitation to cereal crop yields as many crops have shallow roots that cannot fully access water below 40cm depth. Additionally, cereal and oilseed roots struggle to penetrate strong soils, so need cracks, fissures and channels to reach greater depths – which can be created by deep burrowing earthworms.

Current numbers of deeper burrowing earthworms in many arable soils are suspected to be below historic levels. This is thought to be due to intensive cultivation, use of artificial fertilisers, lower applications of organic matter and a reduction in crop rotations including extensive grazing livestock, which have traditionally added organic matter to soil. The farmers leading this trial hope to add to previous research on earthworms and plug the data gap on the impacts of organic matter and cultivations on earth worm numbers and rooting depth.

Led by farmers and carried out on real farms

Kate Pressland, Innovative Farmers Programme Manager said:

“Encouraging deeper rooted crops is vital for farmers and growers to make sure their farms are resilient to drought and can make the most of the nutrients available in the soil. By testing how sustainable soil management techniques can affect deeper rooting earthworm populations in arable systems the group are hoping to learn more about how to promote healthy crops and soils and improve yields. This field lab is a good example of how biological systems could help farmers use less inputs by essentially doing the work for them. This type of research, led by farmers and carried out on real farms, is critical to understanding the tangible benefits of sustainable soil management for farm businesses and the environment.”

The results from this field lab will be available in November 2020. 

Methodology, updates and results from this trial and others happening around the country are shared open source on the field lab portal.

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