Soil health starts with understanding landscapes and functionality of the land
In the early days of farming, producers thought and worried about soil fertility, explained Henry Janzen of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, quoting William Saunders, who said “Among the conditions influenced by the farmer, none is more important than the maintenance of the soil” in 1873.
“Indeed, their worries were justified,” Janzen said. “It wasn’t long before they observed a very heavy destruction of humus material very early on after the conversion of lands to farmland.”
At the time, Canadian farmers looked toward more perennial crops, shifting away from grain farming towards alfalfas and clovers.
“Today, again we have a renewed focus on soil fertility, not so much from a crisis or calamity perspective but more from a standpoint of stewardship,” Janzen explained, also noting producers refer to soil health today, rather than soil fertility. “This quest for soil health is driven by a sense of stewardship.”
Janzen looked at soil health during a recent webinar sponsored by the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Understanding soil health
The term soil health is widely used in popular science, but Janzen emphasized that it is not a scientific term.
“Rather, soil health is a literary term. That’s what makes it to compelling and powerful, because it conjures up imagery in our own minds of our own human illness and well-being,” he explained. “What makes this phrase so evocative and powerful also leaves it imprecise.”
“If we cannot say exactly what it is that soil health is, how do we know when health is preserved?” Janzen continued.
Janzen offered a definition, combining definitions offered by numerous scientists in the field, saying, “Soil health can be defined as the vitality of a soil in sustaining the social and the economical functions of its enfolding land.”
He further emphasized soil health as the conditions in which the organism or organisms provides its vital functions normally or properly, citing Webster’s definition of health.
“So when we look at soil health, it’s not so much how soil looks, feels or smells but really how it performs,” Janzen explained. “It’s not so much the composition but its dynamic catalysis of life-giving processes.”
An additional critical point in soil health is that the critical functions are not those of the soil itself but the functions of the ecosystems of which the soil is a part.
“We’re not talking about just the soil, but the sky above, the water flowing through, the trees beside, all plants, all biota and the myriad of interactions with each other and their setting,” he said, which also includes people.
Because soil health depends on the ecosystem around it, Janzen emphasized soil health cannot be assessed independent of its setting and the goals for that piece of land. For example, a particular soil may be assessed as unhealthy if the primary goal is growing potatoes or a row crop, but that same soil may be optimal for growing wildflowers or native prairie grasses.
“When we take analyses, we filter them and view through the lens of the functions and services we expect of that land and then further through the values that we impose on the area,” Janzen said. “The criteria for soil health will vary from place to place and from time to time.”
“To know if a soil is healthy, we always start with land – not with soil,” he summarized, noting managers must ask who is present on the land, what is expected of the land and what will nature allow on the land before making conclusions about soil health.
For farming specifically, the foremost function is producing yield, Janzen explained.
“Producing yield still is the preeminent function of farmland,” he continued, “but we’re looking more at other functions in farmland, as well.”
As time has progressed and soil health viewpoints have changed, he said, the function of a piece of land continues to get more complex.
“Today, we talk about regulating climate, filtering water, adding biodiversity and more with soil today,” Janzen said. “Once we looked at land as a resource. Increasingly now we see it as an ecosystem, and we’re on the verge of seeing land as home.”
Considering all the functions of land simultaneously make defining soil health more complex.
“As we look at all these, we need a unifying principle,” he said. “One option is to begin by looking back at the sun. Daly and Cobb, in 1989, said, ‘The ultimate use of land is to capture solar energy to support life – human and non-human.’”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.