Three components of soil health must be equally managed for in farming operations
For Caitlyn Youngquist of University of Wyoming Extension in Washakie County, rather than assess strict criteria on a yes-or-no basis, analyzing soil of a spectrum is more effective.
“We can have soil that is healthier or soil that is less healthy, not unlike people and animals,” she says. “Soil that is less healthy will typically have low nutrient availability, slow decomposition, wind and water erosion, plant disease, compaction and temperature extremes.”
However, healthier soils will result in healthier plants, higher water holding capacity, lower input costs, better till and higher stability, as well as reduced disease pressure.
“Wherever we are on this spectrum, the idea is to change our production practices in such a way to move closer towards healthier soils,” Youngquist explains.
Improving soil health is often not a quantitative process as a result of inherent differences in soils and landscapes.
She says, “It is hard to compare soils from different areas, but what is more useful is comparing how soil changes over time in a particular location.”
The inherent characteristics of soil – which Youngquist likens to genetics of cattle– includes the type of soil that’s been formed over time in one place. The type of soil is a result of the type of rocks in the landscapes, its geographic locations and the plants present on that landscape, among other factors.
“As land managers, we are managing the living system the best we can within the constraints of the inherent system we can’t control,” she says. “We have some restrictions based on what our system will allow.”
Youngquist emphasizes, “Understanding what soil we’re standing on is going to be important in understanding how to maximize the healthy system of soil.”
The dynamic characteristics of soil change within season, year or the lifetime of soil, she says.
“Another way to think about soil is through the biology, chemistry and physics of the soil system,” Youngquist says.
Farmers have long focused on chemistry of soil through soil testing and analyzing their soils.
“This is very useful information, but it’s only a small piece of the puzzle,” she continues. “We also know a lot about the physics of the soil, and particularly, folks who have been farming for a long time understand what pieces of equipment needs to be used in a field to get a particular result.”
Managing erosion, compaction and water infiltration using equipment within the field describes the physics and how soil is physically manipulated.
“We’ve also been doing soil chemistry for a while, and we’re good at understanding that,” she says. “The piece that’s often missing and the piece we’re been learning more about is the soil biology.”
Soil biology is more difficult to understand and test for, but Youngquist says, “Soil biology has a huge impact on nutrient availability, crop condition, disease pressure and organic carbon level. The biology is under-appreciated and poorly understood until more recently.”
Often, farmers get stuck when looking at soil biology because it is new and less understood.
“If we want soil that is healthy and productive, we have to be able to understand the biology piece,” she comments. “That’s the sweet spot when it comes to a healthy system.”
Overall, Youngquist contends, “Managing soil health is not that different than managing livestock health. We have physical health, the chemistry and nutrition and the biological health.”
“We need to manage all three of these pieces. If we only manage for two, we’re really missing a big piece,” she adds.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.