19 July 2021

How’s your soil doing? Ask this Irish app


An app developed in Ireland promises to be a tool for analyzing soil health while giving suggestions for better managing it. One example of applied technology for soil protection

by Matteo Cavallito


Keeping soil healthy is a basic condition to ensure agricultural performance and ecosystem balance. But how can you check for problems in soil structure and properties in real time? Engineers at Grassland Agro, a Dublin-based company, provide the answer. According to the daily news Irish Examiner, the company has developed an app that diagnoses problems and recommends management strategies. By using three easy-to-get tools: a spade, a ruler and a phone.

The app provides you a rapid assessment

The app is based on a technique known as VESS, or Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure, and was previously developed by Teagasc, the authority responsible for research and development, training and consultancy services in the agri-food sector in Ireland. In short: you just need to collect some soil samples, identify and measure any horizontal layers of different structure and perform a number of tests. You must evaluate size, shape, porosity, strength, roots and color and apply the score that best describes the soil properties. Then, “conduct the same assessment on any other layers found within the sample block. To get an overall score, simply multiply the score for each layer by the thickness of the layer. Add these layer scores up and divide the result by the total depth of the sample block”. And the whole thing, of course, is easier than it sounds.

The goal? A soil health score

“Although the GrassVESS technique does not test for soil biology populations”, The Examiner says, “it allows for the visual assessment of the soil habitat including colour, structure, plant rooting patterns, and the abundance of larger soil organisms such as earthworms, which are all primary indicators of good soil health.” But the results provided by the app aren’t the whole story.

In fact, Grassland Agro has also developed a test to analyze the biological activity. This test generates a soil health score and an indication of the potential for nitrogen mineralization, an essential soil component but also a potential double-edged sword. Analyzing the biological health score and structure thus provides an overall figure of soil condition.

New projects in progress

The diagnosis of these problems provided by the app represents the first step in choosing the best strategies for soil protection. There are many variables at play. And they include, among others, the maintenance of an appropriate level of organic matter, the protection of biodiversity and an accurate use of nutrients. Grassland Agro, the Examiner says, is currently engaged in developing new technologies to address various aspects.

A pilot project called REAP, the newspaper says, “will aim to improve the environmental and biodiversity status of land.” This is a major problem in Ireland, where more than 60% of agricultural land is on grassland that has a limited number of living species. The company is also working to develop new solutions against the risk of nutrient overload. The idea is to create “a personalised fertiliser plan for your farm to ensure habitable conditions for all soil processes through the implementation of a liming and fertiliser program with the aim of reducing nitrogen inputs in compliance with new measures of the climate action plans 20% reduction by 2030.”