OSMO – a collaborative network testing knowledge and tools for resource-efficient soil health management

Implication
Soil and knowledge are the most important resources for agriculture. In order to create new knowhow on managing soils, collaboration between research, advisory services, product development and farmers is necessary. OSMO –project has provided these opportunities in farmer learning groups, workshops and field trials. Based on the first year of results it is clear that soil health is a complex system, where different aspects interact. Many of the problems observed as nutrient deficiencies can be sourced to compaction from machinery or lack of drainage. On the other hand problems in soil nutritional status may be behind compaction and weed problems. The current hypothesis is that each field has its own set of problems. Soil health can be improved only by identifying the crop yield reducing factors, determining their causes and planning for effective ways to remedy them. Simplified decision support tools are needed to couple the complexity of soil systems into the needs of farm management. Identifying and remedying soil problems have a large potential for increasing the productivity of organic and conventional agriculture.

Background and objectives
Agricultural soils are under increasing pressure. During the last decades crop rotations have simplified, annual crop areas have increased and machinery has gotten heavier. At the same time the progress in crop yields has stagnated. Compared to the yield potential which is theoretically possible from sunlight and water availability, crop yields are very low, especially in organic agriculture. At the same time, variability between farms, fields and field parts is high. It is unclear why some fields have low yields while other adjacent fields have very good yields.

The concept of soil health is an emerging paradigm for looking at soil as a system. It appreciates the interconnections between components of soils and different views on problems (i.e. chemical, physical and biological).

The objective of the project is to apply new knowledge on soil quality and health and to test their applicability in practice on farms. This is done through improving knowledge on soil testing, farmer know-how on soil health management and developing tools and study materials. Methods for analyzing and repairing soil problems are tested on 8 experimental problem fields, with adjacent good fields serving as the reference. The approach has been problem oriented, analysis methods and tested techniques have been tailored to each problem field. The aim is to identify and fix all barriers to better productivity and soil health and to test how (and if) the approach works.

Key results and discussion
The project has been running since 2016 and most of the work is still ongoing. Final results for the test farms will be available in 2018. For now, five regional learning groups are running, each with ca. 20 farms. These have included a six month intensive period of soil management education and application of skills to on-farm work. The separate tools for soil management have been assembled into a soil management planning toolbox, which is being refined based on user experience.

Several problems have been identified in the test farms and trials have been run to test for potential solutions. Soil structure has been improved through vetch based cover crop mixes and subsoiling. Gypsum applications have been targeted to remedy Ca:Mg ratio problems and manganese, potassium and boron fertilizers have been tested to remedy common nutrient deficiencies. In 2017, new methods for identifying and solving drainage and compaction issues are being tested.

The interaction between research and farmers has been valuable. In the intensive six month courses, researchers have applied new scientific information and converted it into calculators for farm use. Receiving rapid feedback on their applicability and being able to redevelop them into tools has provided useful tools for soil management.

How work was carried out?
The core of the project was five learning groups with ca. 20 farms in each. Each group held regular meetings and online lectures on the main aspects of soil health (chemical, physical and biological). The participants also had access and guidance on using tools for managing soil fertility, compaction, drainage and crop rotations. The participants filled an online soil management plan for their farm during the course and reported on their own trials and tested solutions for managing soil health. In addition several indepth workshops were arranged on special topics.

The scientific work focused on the 8 test fields. Their status was quantified through different soil tests (ammonium acetate extraction, Mehlich 3, Soil Health Tool), physical soil evaluation (visual evaluation of soil structure, soil cover, earthworm counts, water infiltration) and plant nutrient analysis.

Mattila T1, Rajala* J1, Mynttinen R1 & Väisänen H-M1
1 University of Helsinki, Ruralia Institute, Finland (*jukka.rajala@helsinki.fi)
Presentation:  http://orgprints.org/31255/

Mattila, Tuomas; Rajala, Jukka; Mynttinen, Ritva and Väisänen, Hanna-Maija (2017) OSMO – a collaborative network testing knowledge and tools for resource-efficient soil health management.
In: Aakkula, Jyrki; Hakala, Kaija; Huhta, Harri; Iivonen, Sari; Jurvanen, Ulla; Kreismane, Dzidra; Land, Anita; Lähdesmäki, Merja; Malingen, Matti; Mikkola, Minna; Nordlund-Othen, Janne; Nuutila, Jaakko; Peetsmann, Elen; Piskonen, Sirpa; Rasmussen, Ilse A.; Skulskis, Virgilijus; Tahvonen, Raija; Taskinen, Sirpa; Ullvén, Karin; Wibe, Atle and Wivstad, Maria (Eds.) NJF Seminar 495 – 4th organic Conference: Organics for tomorrow’s food systems, 19 – 21 June 2017, Mikkeli, Finland, 13 (1), NJF Report, pp. 70-72.