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Good turns of the humble worm

Good turns of the humble worm

by Bala Tikkisetty
February 14, 2014

The humble earthworm is worth its weight in gold when it comes to on farm soil productivity and protecting waterways from the impacts of farming.

Common earthworms introduced from Europe by pakeha settlers in the 1800s improve the general condition of farming soils, reduce surface runoff of contaminants from pasture and prevent soil erosion generally.

These introduced earthworms are, in fact, essential to the development of fertile productive soil. They act as biological aerators and physical conditioners of the soil, improve soil porosity, structure, aggregate stability and water retention.

Earthworms also increase the population, activity and diversity of soil microbes, such as actinomycetes and mycorrhizal fungi. These microbes play a vital role in the supply of nutrients to pasture, digesting soil and fertiliser and unlocking nutrients such as phosphorus that are fixed by the soil.

Soils without enough of the right type of earthworms are usually poorly structured and tend to develop a turf mat or thatch of slowly decomposing peat-like material at the surface. Old dung and dead plant material lie about the surface. These factors can naturally inhibit pasture and crop production.

Lower producing grasses are often more evident than ryegrass on these types of soils as well. Pasture growth is slow to start in spring and stops early in autumn.

Plant nutrients tend to remain locked in the organic layer and there is poor absorption of applied fertiliser.

Plants roots in such soils are relatively shallow and pastures are therefore susceptible to drought.

And, as indicated earlier, water runs off this type of pasture more easily rather than being absorbed into the soil, increasing water quality problems.

To help avoid these types of problems, soils should have a good diversity of relevant earthworm species.

The most common introduced earthworm in New Zealand is Aporrectodea calignosa, a topsoil dweller. This earthworm grows up to 90 millimetres long and may vary in colour from grey to pink or cream. Another very common introduced earthworm is Lumbricus rubellus, a surface dweller. Often found under cow pats, this earthworm will grow up to 150 mm long. It is reddish-brown or reddish-purple colouring with a pale underside and flattened tail. Aporrectodea longa live in burrows as deep as 2-3 metres below the surface.

Undertaking an earthworm count will let farmers know if they have enough of the right type. Counts should preferably be done late winter to early spring when soil moisture and temperature conditions are ideal. Counts can be done by taking out a 20 centimetre cube of soil with a spade. Aim to have an earthworm number of between 30 and 35 in that cube.

If soils are scoring way below that there is a range of ways to increase their populations:
• Ensure soil calcium levels are near 7 as calcium promotes earthworm reproduction.
• Maintain soil pH between 5.8 – 6.3.
• Limit use of fumigants and other pesticides.
• Reduce ammonium-based fertilisers as they make soils acidic.

Also, moist soils promote earthworm spread and activity and more will remain active in topsoil during summer under irrigation. Direct drilling and no tillage cultivation methods is another way to promote help earthworm numbers. Use a mould board or disc plough rather than a rotary hoe. Cropping farms should include a phase of pasture in their cropping rotation to increase organic matter returns.

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Bala Tikkisetty is a sustainable agriculture coordinator at Waikato Regional Council.

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