SOIL MONTANA: Agroecosystems health cards

pastoThe novel method will principally involve the creation of Agro-ecosystem Health Cards that will enable determining what the most appropriate agronomic practices are for the sustainable management of the pastures.

The Card will have the format of a file classifier in which detailed information will be provided on the principal indicators of the health and the biodiversity of agro-ecosystems. It will also have a template on which the user will be able to annotate the values obtained for each indicator; thus providing a primary indication of the state of the agro-system. The project is called SOIL-Montana and has been approved by the European Union within the remit of the LIFE+ programmes.

With the SOIL-Montana initiative, Neiker-Tecnalia aims, in the short term, to contribute to stemming the loss of edaphic (soil-related) and plant biodiversity on grazing pasture agro-ecosystems involving animal husbandry and droving, implementing a series of concrete agrarian measures on the land. In the medium and long term, the objective is to develop this new tool known as Agro-ecosystem Health Cards (AHC) that will enable anyone, even those without specific previous training, to evaluate the impact their actions have on the land in terms of biodiversity and functioning of agro-ecosystems, i.e. on the state of health of the land. SOIL-Montana will also enable the drawing up of a Catalogue of Good Practices, that will help those responsible for the management of the grazing pastures studied to employ more sustainable practices, not only from the socioeconomic point of view, but also from the environmental perspective. The project began in September 2011 and will continue until December 2014.
To carry out the initiative, Neiker-Tecnalia has had the support of the Basque Government, the Provincial Government of the Basque province of Bizkaia, the Lorra Agricultural Cooperative and the Livestock Herders Association of Orozko and Zeanuri. The geographical zone chosen for its development includes the mountains and valley grazing areas in the area of Gorbeia Natural Park, the part lying within Bizkaia. The zone under study includes the most representative of the different grazing habitats of the Basque Country. This variety of habitats involves ecological factors (type of vegetation, altitude, geological material and orientation, amongst others) as well as factors linked to livestock management (type of animals, breeds and the presence of livestock infrastructure). The first task will involve establishing an environmental network that encompasses this variety of habitats.
The next will be to design the AHC, especially adapted to grazing pasture agro-ecosystems and using specific indicators. Once these are drawn up, the project will develop concrete conservation actions over a surface area greater than 100 hectares (scrub clearing, lime applications, fertiliser, pasture systems, etc.). In order to carry out each concrete action, two different (alternative) techniques will be employed and the impact of which will be measured using the AHCs, the aim being to encourage the most sustainable alternatives.

A tool for soil management
The aim of Neiker-Tecnalia is for the AHCs to be employed by all players involved in the conservation of agro-ecosystems: public authorities, researchers, technical officers, animal farmers and end users, independently of previous training and experience. The first to get to familiarise themselves with these AHCs will be agricultural and animal herd technical officers from the Basque Government and the Provincial Government of the Basque province of Bizkaia, as well as the Lorra Agricultural Cooperative and the animal farmers taking part in the project. With their help, the specialists from the Basque technological centre will carry out measurements in the field and take soil samples (before and after undertaking conservation measures) and which will be analysed at Neiker-Tecnalia’s own laboratories. This information will be incorporated into the corresponding Cards and, thus, a first evaluation of the jointly-proposed agricultural practices will be obtained.
All this will act to establish what agricultural practices are the most advantageous for highland and lowland pastures, from the point of view of protection of edaphic and vegetable. biodiversiy. These alternative options will be published in the Catalogue of Good Practices to help public administration bodies and animal farmers to promote farm animal management measures that protect the service that pastoral agro-ecosystems provide for us (food production, biodiversity reservoir, purification of water and air, recreational services, etc.)