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Published: 2003-10-15 00:00:00

Scientists at Environment Waikato and Landcare Research are winning international recognition for break-through work on the quality of soils.

They have been working together on methods of assessing soil quality under different land uses as part of their “500 Soils” project for the past five years – a project that will make it simple for farmers, foresters and horticulturalists to determine what’s happening in the soils their livelihood depends on.

Environment Waikato soil scientist Dr Reece Hill says the original ‘500 Soils’ project finished in 2001 but in the Waikato they continued to work on 15 sites a year and built the number to 100 sites used for different kinds of uses. They examined the soils for biology, physical and chemical properties to find out where soil quality issues were beginning to arise.

“The results are proving to be a powerful tool for farmers, regularly monitoring and giving an early warning about soil quality problems, which can then be used to take action to improve land management.”

Landcare Research scientist Dr Graham Sparling said the collaboration between the Crown Research Institute and Environment Waikato had proved an effective way to get research findings out to the wider public, as well as the scientific community.

"It also made us think very hard about the most cost-effective ways the Regional Councils could collect and use soil quality data."

So far, the major issues arising from intensifying land use in the Waikato are soil compaction under intense dairying, decreasing biological activity and carbon loss under cropping and excess use of fertiliser leading to contamination of ground water in both dairying and cropping land.

The results are published as ‘indicators’ on Environment Waikato’s website,, and will be publicly available for landowners to use.

The work on the national programme is a world first in the field of soil science, and the scientists’ work has been published in an international journal as well as in scientific papers which have already received high praise at soil conferences in New Zealand and overseas. That has sparked interest from other countries interested in replicating the work.

“It’s a first in getting this type of programme off the ground. The national sampling to date is already providing useful soil quality information.”

The scientists are now revisiting the sites set up five years ago and checking on any changes, and are looking at a 20 year study of long term trends which will help land users make the most of their soils.