Winger: The principles of soil health are universal
Casper – “The health of our soil is not dependent on the type of soil or location, but instead the management of the soil we have available to us,” said United States Department of Agriculture Soil Health Specialist Marlon Winger.
“No matter where we are or what kind of soil we have, we can improve the health using principles that are universal to any type of soil,” said Winger.
Winger was a keynote speaker at the “For the Love of Your Land” workshop, sponsored by Natrona County Conservation District on April 8.
Winger explained his own upbringing in agriculture encompassed the idea that a highly tilled and uniform field was a marker for soil health.
“When we go in and bulldoze the house every few months, it never has time to fully recover,” Winger explained. “When we physically disturb the soil, we are knocking down the intricate structure that is a soil system.”
He explained soils that are highly cultivated or disturbed have decreased water infiltration and storage, lower biological activity and diversity, stunted nutrient cycling and aggregation.
“Aside from physical disturbances brought on by excess tillage, soil can be disturbed chemically via overuse of fertilizer and pesticides as well as biologically disturbed in the form of overgrazing and fallow systems,” said Winger.
He explained any combination of these disturbances could destroy the habitat for vital soil organisms and destroy the structure of the soil.
Principles of high
“There are four main principles of maintaining high-functioning soil systems,” Winger said. “We want to maximize living roots, biodiversity and soil cover while minimizing disturbances.”
He explained this comes down to feeding and protecting the soil. We want to fuel soil biology and improve overall soil resilience. When we protect the soil we improve soil aggregates and organism habitat.
“By feeding the soil, we maximize living roots and biodiversity,” said Winger. “This stimulates belowground diversity, improves nutrient cycling, enhances plant growth, break pest cycles and increases predator and pollinator populations,” Winger noted.
“To maximize living roots, we can grow crops in the off-season,” said Winger. “This will allow us to avoid fallow and decrease the re-cropping interval.”
“In connection with growing off-season crops, we can increase biodiversity by planting a diverse group of crops and legumes,” Winger stated. “Some practices that help with this are introducing cover crops and prescribed grazing.”
He explained when we do these things we can also maximize our soil cover. “Soil cover decreases erosion and evaporation while increasing infiltration, soil organism habitat and food for biota,” Winger said. “Covered soil is also better equipped to regulate temperatures when exposed to extreme cold or heat.”
Importance of soil
“There are three functional groups of soil organisms,” said Winger. “Ecosystem engineers, biological regulators and biochemical engineers, all of whom contribute to biodiversity and the overall health of soil systems.”
Winger explained these organisms play a major role in key ecosystems functions such as nutrient cycling, plant productivity and decomposition.
“Ecosystem engineers are represented by plant roots, earthworms and other large invertebrates such as centipedes and beetles,” Winger explained. “These organisms build pore networks throughout the soil and improve aggregates.”
“Chemical processors work to regular up to 90 percent of the energy flow in the soil and build organic matter and aggregates,” said Winger. “Chemical processors include microbes such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa.”
The last group he explained were the biological regulators whose job is to regulate populations of other soil organisms. He explained these organisms to be the top of the food chain, eating many of the smaller organisms in the soil and regulating their population. These species include protozoa, nematodes, springtails and mites.
“Soil organisms physically stabilize soil aggregates,” Winger explained. “Plant roots enmesh soil particles and fungal and bacterial filaments do the same.”
“These organisms also chemically stabilize the soil as bacteria bind particles and release polysaccharides,” he said. “Soil proteins and other biochemicals bind soil particles.”
“The soil microbiome can be manipulated by selecting different plant species and varieties or by controlling various plant stages through crop rotation, cover selection and timing and termination,” Winger noted.
“The fact of the matter is Mother Nature does not exist in monocultures,” said Winger. “We have to incorporate diversity in some way to be effective.”
He explained working with nature and not against it is key in mending previously disturbed soils.
“When we fight nature we end up paying more for inputs that are already there or could be more effectively utilized through better practice,” Winger said.
As a part of his presentation, Winger conducted a rain stimulator on four soil samples and showed the soil with the least disturbances was better able to utilize the water it received.
“Sometimes water might be limited due to drought condition or just the cost of irrigation system usage,” said Winger. “We want our soil to work for us and use those resources the best it can.”
“We have millions upon millions of particles of nitrogen in the atmosphere, yet we write massive checks for fertilizer to mend the shortcomings we caused in the soil system,” he stressed.
He explained that producers, however, cannot just pick one area of disturbance to minimize. It has to be a full systems approach to be effective.
Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.