“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

Ancient Sanskrit Scripture (1500BC)

With extreme weather events taking their toll and policy poised to better reward farmers for delivering public goods, the muddy waters of soil management are stirring.

With opinion often divided on the right track to tread, AHDB has released two fact-based publications, as well as a new tool, to guide decisions in the field.

Principles of soil management guide

Developed as part of the AHDB/BBRO Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership, this guide lays down management foundations for soil-based systems. It digs deep into the origins of soils and their classification.

Did you know that the smallest classification units are the soil series? Soils in any given series have similar texture, depth and mineralogy. On many farms, there are about three to four soil series, but the number can be far higher than this.

With soil health at its heart, this publication explores the intricate web of relationships between biological (eg earthworms, microbes and plant roots), chemical (pH, nutrients and contaminants) and physical (soil structure and water balance) soil components.

Armed with a solid understanding of these components, a targeted effort to optimise them can begin. Whether soil is light, medium or heavy, the guide outlines the most important things to consider and provides management actions.

Despite the variation in the earth we till (the Scottish Soils Database features around 600 rural soils), the following fundamental principles apply in all situations:


Fed the soil regularly, through plants and organic inputs

Move soil only when necessary

Diversify plants in space and time


Maintain optimum pH

Apply nutrients (right amounts, in the right place, at the right time)

Know soil textures and mineral make up (buffer capacity)


Know soil textures and understand limits to workability and trafficability

Optimise water balance, through drainage (if necessary)

Minimise compaction and improve soil structure

The guide also delves into common soil-related problems, outlining risk factors, symptoms and solutions. Finally, the guidance covers soil assessment methods.

Arable soil management guide

Cultivation, any mechanical act to prepare the soil to raise crops, is a feature of many crop production systems. In some situations, ploughing is essential; in others, virtually no soil movement delivers the desired result.

Most frequently, a careful combination of biology and metal is the most efficient way to nurture soil structure and remove any barriers to the movement of water, air and roots.

The ‘Arable soil management: Cultivation and crop establishment guide’ shines a light on the factors that influence the need to cultivate or restructure soils.

Produced by machinery expert, Andy Newbold, and cultivation specialist, Philip Wright, with contribution from NIAB CUF’s Mark Stalham, the guide covers all forms of tillage, from soil restructuring, to ploughing, to no-till.

Establishment approach assessment tool

Ten key factors influence the cultivation decision – rainfall, soil type, management (requirements/capabilities), drainage, residues, cover and catch crops, trafficking, irrigation, weeds and pests. The new ‘establishment approach assessment’ tool asks users to score (1-10 scale) the influence of each of these factors within their fields.

The scoring process helps identify areas of improvements. In the first instance, this includes changing management to achieve higher scores.

However, it can also show where a change in cultivation approach is worth considering. With this in mind, the guide also details tillage equipment options and associated pros and cons.

Harry Henderson, knowledge exchange technical manager for AHDB, said: “When it comes to cultivation, there is no silver bullet. However, these resources will trigger thoughts, spark conversations, show ways to increase soil resilience and identify where a reduction in tillage could potentially be beneficial.”

To access the new guides, as well as information on all of our soil-related activity, visit ahdb.org.uk/greatsoils