Soil Health – The Pathway to Environmental and Economical Sustainability for Your Farm
Now there’s a novel idea, or, maybe it’s more like going back to a time when we didn’t have all those high priced inputs we’ve grown accustomed to using on our land.
Over the past month I’ve had the pleasure of learning from not one, but two of the top soil health scientists in the world. First was a workshop on July 16th with Dr. Jill Clapperton on how to measure soil health.
It seems that a standard soil analysis of available N, P, K, S and micro nutrients doesn’t quite cut it as most soils have every mineral needed for good soil fertility, just not in plant available forms. When there is a healthy, abundant and diverse microbial community in the soil, a variety of microbes are constantly busy converting unavailable plant nutrients into plant available nutrients.
So, instead of a standard soil test, we want to be looking at indicators of microbial activity in the soil. There are a number of relatively simple tests one can perform out in the field to get an idea of how well soil microbes are working, or not working for you.
The first test, a visual observation, is simply determining the diversity of plants you have covering the soil. You’ll want to have lots of different plants with different root structures growing together. Most microbes are specific to certain plant species, so the diversity of plants on the surface are a good indicator of the diversity of microbes in the soil.
Another test is done by digging up a plant complete with as much of its root system as possible. Look at the soil clinging to the roots. The roots should be covered with soil clumps, or aggregates. Now, we’re not talking about hard lumps of soil that breaks up in plates, or cubes, we’re talking about small, irregular clumps with lots of room for microbes, water and air in and between them. These clumps, or aggregates are held together by bacterial glues and fungal threads called “hypha, or plural “hyphae”. If you see these kinds of soil aggregates clinging to and covering the roots, you have a strong indication of a healthy microbial community working for you.
You can also do a worm test. In a shovel full of soil you should have eight or more earthworms. Below four is bad. April is usually a good time to check for earthworm populations. Typically, grey wooded soils do not have earthworms in them, but building of organic matter in these soils can improve that.
Plant tissue testing for nutrient content is a good way of measuring what nutrients are actually getting into the plants. There are simple “clip-on-leaf” nutrient testers becoming available. The very simple brix test done with a refractometer is an excellent way to see what levels of mineral sugars might be in plant tissues.
Another test of soil health we learned from Dr. Clapperton is the “Solvita Test”. This test indicates the respiration rate of the soil, which is an indicator of microbial activity in the soil, which is also an indicator of the soil’s ability to mineralize nutrients. Mineralization is quite simply the conversion of plant unavailable nutrients into plant available forms of those nutrients.
Now, to get the soil working for you, there are a few things you can start doing. Reducing, or eliminating tillage is a good place to start. Whether you’re growing annual crops or perennial forages you can eliminate tillage. Lots of work has been done in the crop sector on reducing or eliminating tillage with excellent yield results. This is a huge way to reduce costs as reducing the ownership and operating costs of tillage equipment can be a great contributor to a healthier bottom line.
Increasing plant diversity is another way to get the soil working for you. As I mentioned earlier, most microbes are specific to certain plant species. To have a well functioning soil microbial community you need lots of different microbes doing their specific jobs for you.
Reducing fertilizer inputs, especially soluble chemical fertilizers in the form of salts, will reduce damage to the microbial community. Multiple, small applications could enhance microbial activity, so totally eliminating chemical fertilizers might not be the answer for you. In any case, a significant reduction in chemical fertilizer use without reducing plant yield would certainly add to your bottom line while also reducing the environmental impacts of using these products.
Healthy plants living on healthy soils are protected by microbes from most plant diseases and are undesirable to most pests due to increased mineral sugar levels in the plants. Most pest insects can’t handle high sugar levels, so they avoid plants with high mineral sugar levels. Chemical disease and pest control use can be significantly reduced, or eliminated resulting in more dollars to the bottom line, while also reducing the impact of these chemicals on the environment. At a soil health tour/workshop with Dr. Christine Jones on July 23rd, I heard again that it’s all about biodiversity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it “As above, so below”. Lots of different plants growing on/in the soil means lots of different microbes living and working for us below the soil surface.
Ground cover is all-important! Bare soil is your enemy! Have the soil totally covered with a variety of living plant species throughout as much of the year as possible. Where our climate prevents that, make sure the soil is covered by dead and dormant plant materials. This can be accomplished in cropping systems as well as in perennial forage systems, especially on pastures.
Dr. Jones teaches that building soil is a photosynthetic process. In other words, building healthy soils with high populations of highly diverse organisms is done by increasing the photosynthesis rate and capacity – quite simply by increasing the green plant cover and diversity. Photosynthesis, as most of us learned in school, is how plants turn sunlight energy into sugars which translocate to the roots. Now here’s the part I don’t remember from my school days – these sugars seep out of plant roots and feed microbes. The microbes, in turn, access nutrients by turning plant unavailable nutrients into plant available nutrients which the plant’s roots receive from the microbes. What this comes down to is quite simply that plants feed microbes and microbes feed plants. If microbes aren’t there to feed them, plants would starve – unless fed a complete and constant diet of expensive soluble plant available nutrients. To me it’s a no-brainer – Let’s let the microbes do the work! They’re happy to work for us. Their lives depend on it!
Just think about this – billions of tiny microscopic critters working for you for nothing but the sugars provided them by photosynthesis, or sunlight energy converted to sugars. Wow! What a concept and what a difference that would make to the bottom line.
Recap of the Advancing Soil Health Tour
In a summer that has become very hectic trying to manage grass during a fairly serious drought early on, and trying to keep pace with an active young family, I was still able to take part in the Advancing Soil Health Tour just outside Bismarck, North Dakota earlier this month. It was a wealth of information from the Gabe Brown Ranch, the Menoken Research Farm and the Blackleg Ranch.
It was remarkable to actually witness exactly what Gabe Brown had spoke about to many of us in Vulcan. As I stood in the pastures he referenced there, I was intrigued with the natural ecosystem surrounding the multispecies cropping. The sound of insects, birds and atmosphere spoke volumes as to what they were existing on and I have never heard that kind of a nature buzz in any pastures we have come across.
Interestingly enough, Brown’s theories have proven themselves very profitable in the ecosystem regeneration without costing a fortune in inputs. Utilizing nature’s resources to inhibit weed growth has eliminated pesticides since 2000 and synthetic fertilizer since 2008. He encouraged us to expand our horizons and benefit from other plant varieties that would advance soil health. Having a diverse variety of plants for fixing nitrogen, ground coverage and height variety utilizes the suns advantage fully. The dead plant material that covers the ground and forms a protective “armor” that protects soil form cold and evaporation, extending the growing season and increasing productivity. This all creates the healthy ecosystem sustaining the huge variety of wildlife we listened to throughout the tour.
One example that really stood out was the difference of a mono-cropping situation from a more diverse multi-cultural biology. The soil was black and carbon rich as opposed to a pale grayish loam and it was directly across the fence from the other. Such a close proximity really proves the advantages to no-till multispecies growth. The organic matter is what stores the moisture and increases water permeability, building resistance to erosion and increases fertility. The science behind the fungi, carbons and photosynthesis working in unison is quite in depth and more than this article likely needs to explain, but very interesting none the less.
When Louis and Clarke went through North Dakota, Brown referenced how they could see the 30,000 buffalo at any given time. And with that, they created their own ecosystem. They had high intensity grazing that they ate and moved on. They trampled armor back into the ground and left the protective barrier that encouraged healthy soils. Grazing at the Brown ranch mimics that same philosophy. Their summer range is a high diversity native grass from April 1 until late November. They rotate 350 cows every 1-2 days and the grass is at rest for 365 days. This has allowed them to grow from a capacity of 65 pairs in 1991 to 350 pairs in 2015. Along with anywhere from 400-800 stockers and grass finishers. Then they move into multi-species grazing for winter feed. Gabe, along with his son Paul, also include a grass finished beef program, as well as grazing programs for sheep, hogs and poultry—all of which is marketed locally at farmers markets across their market area.
Day 2 we visted Menoken Research Farm for a couple hours that backed up the science the Browns had shared the day before. We toured a few plots and compared soils and plant matter. Then we moved on to the Backleg Ranch tour which touched on an overview of how they graze 3000 cows in an intense operation and how they wintered 500 cows. Before they graze the multi-species winter crop, they have diversified their operation with guided wildfire hunts that come to pastures prior to the cows grazing.
I had a great time interacting with everyone that went along on the tour. People from all over the province shared their perspectives and how much they could incorporate into their own operations. As we headed back to Regina, I processed how their practices would fit in our own situations at home. Likely I will never remember everything that was explained in depth those 2 days, but I hope to grasp the concepts, implement the practices and adapt the species to suit our own operation.
Thank you to Leader Tours for organizing this very successful tour and to ACIDF for their generous support!
Steve Yule, FFGA Director
‘Women in agriculture’ is not a new concept in Alberta’s North Peace country. Nora Paulovich has followed family tradition and operates, with her husband Bob Noble, the family farm near Manning. The cow-calf, grass seed, grain and oilseed operation continues to expand as all three Noble children stay involved with the farm after pursuing degrees in Agriculture and Business.
Like her ancestors, Nora’s feet are firmly planted in the soil. Working closely with Mother Nature, often a challenging partner in the Peace Country, has piqued Nora’s keen interest in soil health. Initial experimentation at home and at the research farm has stimulated the NPARA manager to host a number of world-class experts (farmers and scientists). Nora’s passion recently initiated the establishment of a province wide Soil Health Applied Research Alliance. With support from all ARECA member associations, Nora is co-chairing the first ever Western Canada Conference on Soil Health in Edmonton on December 8 -10, 2015. The Initiative also supports several other events and extension activities focused on Soil Health.