Support healthy soil organic matter

14 January 2019

Soil cross section in sandy woodland

Without organic matter, soil would just be a mixture of sand, silt and clay with limited ability to hold nutrients.

Soil organic matter is made up of plant and animal matter which releases nutrients into the soil as it decomposes. This improves the porosity, workability, fertility and biota of soils, as well as helping to maintain good structure.

Where there are good levels of soil organic matter, the risk of capping, slumping and erosion can be reduced.

Levels of soil organic matter can be maintained or improved by:

  • Retaining crop residues
  • Growing green manures or cover crops
  • Applying organic materials (e.g. livestock manures, biosolids or composts)
  • Introducing grass leys into an arable rotation
  • Extending the length of time grass is managed in an existing rotation

In an arable rotation, reduced cultivation techniques can also be a good practice to help maintain soil organic matter, especially in the soil surface tilth.

Devon Autumn landscape_48145

In grassland, sensitive management of permanent pasture is key.

Cows grazing, the Chilterns_7506

Biota describes all the animal and plant life in the soil. A diverse biota is required to maximise soil health and crop potential, reduce reliance on artificial inputs and achieve better disease resistance in crops.

A diverse soil biota is required to:

  • Maximise soil health and crop potential
  • Reduce reliance on artificial inputs
  • Achieve better disease resistance in crops
  • Improve food supplies for farmland wildlife

Earthworms – a farmer’s friend

The burrowing, feeding and casting of earthworms plays a major role in decomposing and cycling organic matter and in releasing nutrients. They can also improve soil porosity and aeration, water infiltration and conductivity, aggregate size and stability, reduce surface crusting and increase root growth and subsequent yields.


Detailed guidance on a wide range of soil management techniques to increase levels of soil organic matter and biota can be found on the GREATsoils project webpages managed by CFE supporter AHDB.

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