3 May 2023

UK, two thirds of soils show nutrient deficit

NRM analyzes of thousands of soil samples taken from UK farmland have shown deficiencies in magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. PHOTO: Steven Weeks on Unsplash

An analysis by the independent laboratory NRM: as a result of the degradation, wheat crops show 10% less nitrogen and 25% less phosphorus. Thousands of soil samples extracted from UK farmland

by Emanuele Isonio


Thousands of soil samples taken on farmland across the UK. A painstaking job to analyze the health condition of the soils of Maestà di lei. It was carried out by NRM, the largest independent British supplier of agronomic and environmental analyzes at the service of industry. The results? Certainly worrying: two-thirds of the country’s agricultural soils show signs of degradation. And in particular a deficiency of the fundamental nutritional elements. The data is contained in the NRM annual summary report.

A thirty-year trend

“This soil summary has once again confirmed a trend that we’ve observed for the last 30 years: that most soils are deficient in the three key nutrients,” said Sajjad Awan, NRM’s chief agronomist. Obviously the situation is different from county to county: “It’s also interesting to look at trends and variations across the different regions in the UK to see how we’re doing on a more specific level” added Awan. Some examples: “while arable soils in Dorset in the South West of England are high in phosphorus and soil pH, those in Worcestershire in the West Midlands are low in phosphorus and middling in soil pH”.

Among the most interesting results, one concerns the comparison of the levels of the main nutrients between 2022 and the previous year. For example, wheat crops had about 10% less nitrogen and a quarter less phosphorus.

“We had a colder and drier spring in 2022, which prevented soil mineralisation, a necessary process that allows nutrients to be taken up by the crop” Awain explained. “The situation was made even worse by the soil moisture deficit during the hot, dry summer, which was then exacerbated by the rapid crop growth. The crops therefore could not absorb everything they needed to thrive.”

Humidity falling

Moreover, the decrease in soil moisture content is not a sporadic event. More recently, it was confirmed by the European Space Agency itself which, through the SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity) satellite, compared the situation in the first quarter of 2023 with that of 2022. The humidity rate, in the first three months of this year, decreased by an average of 4%, with peaks that however reached 8%. And among the continental areas where the impact of drought is most visible is the United Kingdom. An alarm both for the water supply of agricultural enterprises and for land yields and food security.

NRM data also underscores the importance of analyzing soil conditions throughout the year to adjust agricultural plans in near real-time. “This not only helps crop performance, but also improves nutrient use efficiency. In this way, the losses of nitrates and phosphates to the environment are reduced,” added Awan. “Sustainable agriculture and the shift to greener practices go hand in hand with increased productivity. Using innovative crop analytics to guide our management decisions is a huge part of this process.”

An interactive map for farmers

Alongside its annual report, the British NRM has also updated its interactive soil map. A tool that allows farmers and their agronomic consultants to drill down on crop type and nutrient summaries for their region and county. The data relating to phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and pH were broken down by arable land and pasture.

Un esempio della mappa interattiva NRM, in questo caso relativa ai livelli di fosforo, magnesio e potassio rilevati in diversi anni nello Yorkshire. FONTE: NRM Interactive Map.

An example of the interactive soil map., in this case showing levels of phosphorus, magnesium and potassium over several years in Yorkshire. SOURCE: NRM Interactive Map.

“The interactive soil map is a concrete and innovative solution for our customers to easily see how they compare with the rest of the UK, help them achieve their goals and move towards more sustainable and productive practices” explains Sean Stevenson, Commercial Director of Cawood Agriculture, the farm services and analytics provider of which the NRM is a part. “Being able to share insights from farms across the UK with the whole sector helps build collective knowledge and ensure widespread improvement in soil conditions.”