Science Underground: Soil specialists express importance of soil health and regenerative ag
Most farmers and ranchers realize how vital soil health is to their operations but it’s often difficult putting into perspective what is happening beneath their feet – farmers and ranchers depend upon soil to make a living.
On March 29, Ward Laboratories, Inc. hosts a webinar to inform farmers on regenerative ag and soil health. Willie Pretorius and Patrick Freeze of Ward Laboratories and Zach Wright of Living Soil Compost Lab, LLC discuss the science behind it all.
Regenerative ag is a conservation approach focused on improving water and air quality, enhancing ecosystem biodiversity, storing carbon and more.
Pretorius mentions regenerative ag is based on the concept of mimicking nature.
“We must gain some understanding of how nature functions and what a stable environment looks like,” he says. “When a stable ecosystem is functioning properly, the soil, water cycle, carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle are working at an optimal level. By understanding these functions and cycles we can design tests and methods to measure these efficiencies.”
Freeze notes regenerative ag is all about getting more out of the soil while putting in less.
“Nature has done millions of years of work optimizing exchanges with the lowest energy possible,” he says. “Understanding what promotes these services will drastically minimize the inputs required for agricultural practices, which is just one of the benefits of regenerative ag.”
“Soil health addresses the ability for soil to perform certain functions,” says Pretorius. “Soil functions include: the ability to infiltrate water; the ability to retain water; the ability to resist erosion; the ability to sequester carbon into stable compounds; the ability to house soil microbiota; the ability to protect from disease; and the ability to provide and cycle nutrients for the microbial communities.”
There’s a lot more action occurring within soil than meets the eye. The multiple functions of soil work together to provide an environment for plant life, notes Freeze.
“We can’t define soil health as one thing, we have to look at how each part of the system works as a whole,” he says.
Wright agrees, saying, “I view soil as a micro habitat. All of the different parts of the habitat in soil working together makes for a resilient system.”
Freeze notes soil creates a “rich, interactive environment” supporting plant life, which supports the animal kingdom.
“Ultimately, this all goes back into the soil, so it’s kind of amazing how our lives revolve around this living material,” Freeze says.
Each plant species has different root configurations and microbial fingerprints maintained by a unique combination of sugars and other root signaling exudates, says Pretorius. He encourages farmers to incorporate different types of crops into their fields, diversifying the root configurations and microbial fingerprints.
“Each species has a specific fingerprint requirement for these microbial communities. Therefore, we need to increase species diversification to maintain microbial diversity to perform all of the soil functions,” says Pretorius. “Nature survives only in diverse communities.”
“Diversity holistically makes the system more robust because the networks and roots all benefit from the exudates other plants will exude,” he continues. “Diversity helps quite a bit in regenerative ag.”
Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.