Soil health in the Northern Netherlands

Working together on soil health of the future

In 2017, at the initiative of and together with the provinces of Drenthe, Groningen and Friesland, we started the project "Soil health in the Northern Netherlands." The aim of this project is: to gain insight into the effects of different methods of soil management on soil biology and therefore soil health. If we know what the effects are, we can start to define what is good for soil health and what is not, because a healthy soil is a future-proof soil.

What are the characteristics of a healthy soil?

A healthy soil is a soil that is able to absorb and retain water, contains nutrients and includes a large biodiversity of soil life, such as bacteria, fungi but also worms etc. This biodiversity ensures the resilience and fertility of the soil. We are continually discovering the important facilitating role that the microbial life plays in the soil and we are becoming more and more aware that we have to cherish these unpaid employees.

Zooming in on soil life with DNA technology

Research into soil biology in relation to soil health is still a very new area. The soil contains a treasure-trove of information that we would like to decode. Bioclear earth looks at the soil with the help of DNA technology. DNA technology delivers huge amounts of data. To be able to process and interpret this data, we are further developing a data processing tool. Thanks to this tool, the information we extract from soil samples has become much larger. Now we can zoom in on the soil: first on species and then on functions.

In addition to software analyses, we study the data manually: we compare samples for the occurrence of certain types of bacteria or fungi. These trends are linked to what is already scientifically known. In this way we get more insight in which functions specific bacteria have, for example stimulating root growth or protecting against diseases, but we can also determine which microorganisms cause problems.

The research cases

In the past year we have looked at different methods of soil management:

  • Injecting slurry <-> the use of solid manure
  • Ripping of grassland <-> not ripping
  • Organic agriculture <-> conventional agriculture

We will give you a sneak preview of the results: we discovered major differences between the grassland where manure had been spread and the land where slurry had been injected. In the grassland where solid manure was used, we found about 50% more bacteria species. After zooming in on function, we saw more diversity of bacteria that are good for plant health (the so-called Plant Growth Promoting Bacteria) when using solid manure. The other cases also provided much useful information.

Working toward a healthy soil in the future

This project is a first important step towards the healthy soil of the future. To develop more knowledge, we will need to collect more data in the coming years. The number of themes that will be investigated will also be further expanded (for example soil compaction). Furthermore, we want to investigate how we can make our data processing tool suitable for zooming in on fungi and their functions. Everything we discover will be shared and discussed with farmers and other stakeholders, in order to ensure that together we can make the best use of this knowledge.

Do you want to work with us on the healthy soil of the future or do you want more information about this project? Please contact Eline Keuning.

Eline Keuning
Lead soil health