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Winger: Five principles govern soil health

Written by Heather Loraas

Buffalo − National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Agronomy Specialist Marlon Winger insists that soil health is a major issue that needs more attention.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars on conservation planning and still do not understand how soil functions,” Winger states.

Healthy soil is an important element for higher crop production and increased profitability for the everyday farmer, he adds. As soil managers, farmers face constant challenges when it comes to soil management.

According to Winger there are five principles of soil health governing nature that, if applied, can increase soil health.

The principles

The first principle is to cause the least amount of mechanical disturbance possible.

“Tillage increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere,” states Winger. “More carbon is then leaked from the ecosystem into the atmosphere.”

Winger noted that conventional tillage leaves little to no pore space in the soil, causing water runoff. It also reduces space for beneficial microorganisms, which are essential for healthy soil.

He says both high and low disturbance is detrimental to croplands.

Winger further emphasized that timing is the major factor that determines the severity of disturbance.

“Timing factors include when and how long livestock are in an area and how long before they return to the same location,” Winger stated. “Monitoring is fundamental in reducing the effects of disturbance.”

Armoring the soil

Armoring the soil is the second principle, Winger says.

To minimize erosion and disturbance, cover crops are a sound management decision, he explained.

Strip tilling is another management method that reduces the number of times a field is passed over with machinery.

“We have lost 50 percent of the organic matter in our farm soils,” Winger adds.

Utilizing strip- or no-till systems can be a step in the right direction when it comes to soil health and reducing organic matter loss, he continues.

Plant diversity

Winger’s third point is the principle of plant diversity and the need for a wider variety of root systems. A more diverse root system in a field should have not only fibrous roots but tap roots as well, he explains.

“Nature does not live in a monoculture, yet man is trying to force her that way,” Winger points out.

Using both warm and cool season grasses, as well as warm and cool season broadleaves, is one way Winger advises to maximize diversity in the field. 

He quotes Jill Clapperton, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Lethbridge Research Centre rhizosphere ecologist, saying, “The more diverse the community, the more extensive its services will be.”

Keep the living root

Winger continues with the fourth principle of soil health of keeping a living root for as long as possible. This principle uses cover crops as the main practice because there are multiple benefits they provide, he explains. Keeping the soil covered for as long as possible increases soil moisture, nutrient cycles and the number of days for grazing.

“Cover crops influence soil temperature, soil moisture and drought tolerance,” Winger says. “We need people to know more about how soil functions. Otherwise, there is no use in planting cover crops.”

The importance of the fourth principle is building soil organic matter and soil health, and the quickest way to do so is by building roots in the ground not residue on the surface, Winger says.

He also recommends trying to take evaporation out of the equation because it saves farmers money to lose soil moisture though transpiration rather than evaporation.

Integrating livestock

Finally, Winger says the fifth principle of soil health is integrating livestock on croplands, commenting that, using a two-wire electric fence and 300 cows on three acres helps crop farmers integrate the livestock. Integrating livestock into a crop rotation using rest rotation and deferred grazing increases the soil health along with plant health.

“Keeping livestock in one area only long enough to graze an individual plant once reduces overgrazing and increases the soil health,” Winger comments.

Effective crop rotations and integrating livestock can lead to healthier soil, higher plant production and reduced disturbance. Winger concludes that these principles are in place to create the most favorable habitat possible for the soil and microbes within.

Winger spoke during the 2017 Rangeland Soil Health Workshop and Tour, held on June 7 in conjunction with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Summer Cattle Industry Convention in Buffalo.

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.