Healthy soil Renowned international soil expert discusses healthy soils, management
Casper – “Soils link to quality food and quality forage, whether it’s for us or our animals,” said Jill Clapperton, co-founder and owner of Rhizoterra, Inc. and international soil health lecturer.
During the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Winter Roundup on Dec. 7, Clapperton discussed factors that contribute to healthy soil, as well as management practices for improving land productivity and longevity.
According to Clapperton, aboveground diversity is a mirror of below-ground diversity.
“If we only have one type of plant above ground, we know need to add some more diversity below ground,” she said.
Increasing plant and soil diversity is beneficial for both humans and livestock, she explained.
“What lives in the soil can actually be a super benefit for everybody. The more biodiversity we have below ground and the better infrastructure, the more flexibility, resilience and resistance we have,” said Clapperton.
Through the increased resiliency in healthy, thriving soil environments, plant matter is able to drain properly and hold moisture.
“It doesn’t matter what drought hits us. It doesn’t matter what floods. We’re going to be able to survive,” continued Clapperton.
One of the primary characteristics of soil health is soil structure.
As structure is a characteristic that is not easily observable, Clapperton explained that measuring water infiltration can be used to determine soil structure.
“If we’re measuring infiltration, we’re measuring how fast the water goes down and how much water the soil holds,” she said.
Another way to determine soil structure is by analyzing the diversity of organisms living in the soil.
In situations where soils are tilled, the surviving organisms will rebuild communities in the soil, which is important in building desirable soil structure, said Clapperton.
“Even the poop from these organisms provides more structure in our soil,” she explained. “They provide more surface area for more colonization by bacteria and more biological activity.”
The tunnels that organisms build in the soil increase the amount of air space and water space in the soil.
“If we foster these communities, we get infiltration and water holding capacity,” said Clapperton.
“Biology is what unites the chemical with the physical,” said Clapperton.
She noted that soils must be biologically active and establish a strong soil infrastructure in order to recycle nutrients.
Soil productivity is more than tons of forage or a crop produced, continued Clapperton.
“How good is the forage for feed? We need to ask that question. If we’re putting all of the nutrients into the food, then we don’t leak things out,” she said.
Soils that do not have a strong infrastructure may also leak sedimentation.
“When we lose the soil, we’re losing the biological activity, and we don’t want to do that,” commented Clapperton.
Biologically active soils are also beneficial for the environment, stressed Clapperton.
In a study done by a colleague, Clapperton noted that the researcher found in intensive grazing situations, bacteria that utilize methane increase in the soil.
“All of these bacteria in the soil that use methane as an energy source will start growing. By the second time we make a round, they’re already there and we’re actually using methane,” she said. “We’re not net emitters. We’re net users. That’s a really good thing for the environment.”
Numerous soil organisms create the intricate food web found in healthy soils, said Clapperton.
One of the primary organisms that holds soil structure together is mycorrhizal fungi, which require a live plant host.
Mycorrhizal fungi confer drought and disease resistance on plants by improving soil structure and shuttling nutrients to the plant.
“They’re actually moving water and nutrients to extend the range of absorption for the roots,” she said.
Amoebae are another class of organisms that are important in controlling plant diseases.
“They’re the predators that eat up the bacteria and fungi, making sure that those stay under control,” continued Clapperton, noting that nitrogen is a byproduct of amoebae that is beneficial to plants, as well.
Although not commonly seen in native range, earthworm populations are critical for soil health.
“Even though we don’t see them, we know they’re there. We can tell looking at the soil,” she said. “It’s like really coarse ground coffee.”
In addition to improving infiltration and air movement, the slime produced by earthworms is rich in calcium and ammonium nitrates, which promote plant and rhizobacteria growth.
“It’s a very growth promoting effect,” concluded Clapperton. “The more earthworms we have in our soil, the better.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.